Berlin offers a model for how cities can cope with increasingly regular extreme floods

Flooding in Texas after Hurricane Harvey grew to be one of the most damaging Atlantic hurricanes in recent years. Image: US Army Photo.

We’ve become accustomed to quasi-apocalyptic images of cities swapping streets for rivers.

Typhoon Hato led to deluges in Hong Kong and Macau, causing £757m and £1.1bn worth of damage, respectively. Hurricanes Irma, Maria, and Jose battered the Carribbean and the south-easternmost states of the United States, while Hurricane Harvey was devastating to coastal areas of Texas.

Houston, Havana, Roseau, Miami, San Juan, St John’s – the list of cities overcome by water and wind this year is a long one.

Even aside from such dramatic events, abnormal rainfalls have caused extraordinary floods in several cities across the world.

Mumbai and Dhaka were just two cities caught up in the vast flooding across India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, which killed at least 1,200 people and put one-third of Bangladesh underwater.

Cities across central and southern China – from Chongqing to Changsha, down into Duyun and Jiangxi province – saw serious flooding, with more than 18,000 homes destroyed.

Flooding in Mumbai in August 2017. Image: News Measurements Network Live.

In Quebec in Canada, nearly 2,500 homes were flooded across Montreal and Laval, while Paris, Berlin, and parts of Switzerland have all spent time partially underwater recently. Images from the French capital, where water gushed and danced down the steps into metro stations, were particularly striking.

One neighbourhood in Berlin is trying to ensure that cities can become better-adapted to the increasing likelihood of extraordinary wet weather events.

The theory rests on the logical foundation that cities are inherently unnatural. By smothering the earth in concrete and tarmac and loading it up with vast structures of brick, steel, and glass, cities interfere with the way nature regulates itself.

The concentration of buildings, people, and activity increases temperatures – while tarmac and concrete surfaces naturally absorb, retain, and emit heat, only pushing the mercury higher.

On the aquatic side of the equation, unnatural, man-built road and pavement surfaces stop any falling water absorbing into the ground and then naturally providing moisture for soil and vegetation during dryer periods, while also evaporating to provide a kind of natural air conditioning.

The area of Rummelsburg in the city’s east, was built 20 years ago and serves as an exemplary model of the ‘Sponge City’ concept – ‘Stadtschwamm’ in German.

Rummelsberg, from ground level. Image: Lotse.

Buildings are wrapped in green walls, roofs, and garden terraces, with thick tranches of soil up to 80cm deep, while roadside trenches between pavements and streets create a miniature urban wetland, which can retain water and both feed it into the water table and evaporate it to keep the city cool.

During heavy rainfall, the thick layers of greenery handle the water better than the conventional concrete-and-drainage system. There’s less likelihood of drains overflowing because they’re blocked or merely overwhelmed, and pavements are less likely to be transformed into temporary white water rafting courses.

The system is also better for water quality in lakes and rivers. During extreme weather events, the grit and grime of urban living can be swept straight into these bodies of water, where unnatural substances can harm animals and plants, and natural materials like pollen and leaves can overwhelm marine life by giving them too many nutrients in one go.

While it’s a great idea, of course, it can be hard to put into practice. While many cities – London included – are on a splurge of building new developments that often conform to higher eco-friendly standards (and could be encouraged, or mandated, to conform to ‘Sponge City’ design benchmarks), the vast bulk of prohibitive surfaces have already been built.


The cities of the UK, for example, already have their streets, pavements, tiled and concrete roofs – so retrofitting is the order of the day. This can be more expensive, more difficult, and can be tricky to incentivise. And while there could be profiteering enticements – a building with an accessible green roof is likely to be more interesting and appealing to buyers and renters, and public or commercial buildings could grow produce in these spaces – it’s unclear whether that will be a significant enough boon.

Nonetheless, as extreme weather events become less out of the ordinary, adapting our greatest centres of population to better accommodate the demands of nature seems like common sense – even if it does mean boggy pavements.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.