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Integrated coastal flood design: changing paradigm in flood risk management


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The relation between the design of the flood protection infrastructure and the design of the urbanscape is the focus of this paper with the question on how these two types of design can consciously affect each other. The text presents the preliminary result of an interdisciplinary research conducted by a team of urban designers and hydraulic engineers on two pilot projects of coastal adaptation to extreme sea level rise on the North Sea: Vlissingen (NL) and Southend-on-Sea (UK). Spatial measures to accept the flood, land use change, waterproof housing developments and the use of nature-based solutions are described in relation to the urban fabric. The aim is to discuss models of flood risk reduction which are alternatives to the more conventional coastal flood protection strategies. A different designerly way of thinking and a great effort of description and analysis of the two cases have been enacted to enlighten the spatial qualities of the urban form and its long-term adaptability.
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From dichotomies to dialogues -
connecting discourses for a sustainable urbanism
The 14th conference of the International Forum on Urbanism
(IFoU), 25-27 November 2021
Type of the Paper: Peer-reviewed Conference Paper / Full Paper
Track title: the city is an object and a city is in transition
Integrated coastal flood design: changing paradigm in flood risk
Luca Iuorio 1, Andrea Bortolotti 2
1 TU Delft, Department of Urbanism;
2 TU Delft, Department of Urbanism;
Abstract: The relation between the design of the flood protection infrastructure and the design of
the urbanscape is the focus of this paper with the question on how these two types of design can
consciously affect each other. The text presents the preliminary result of an interdisciplinary
research conducted by a team of urban designers and hydraulic engineers on two pilot projects of
coastal adaptation to extreme sea level rise on the North Sea: Vlissingen (NL) and Southend-on-Sea
(UK). Spatial measures to accept the flood, land use change, water-proof housing developments and
the use of nature-based solutions are described in relation to the urban fabric. The aim is to discuss
models of flood risk reduction which are alternatives to the more conventional coastal flood
protection strategies. A different designerly way of thinking and a great effort of description and
analysis of the two cases have been enacted to enlighten the spatial qualities of the urban form and
its long-term adaptability.
Keywords: coastal flood; water infrastructure; integrated design; risk management; living with
1. Introduction
In the last decades, global warming is increasingly challenging hydraulic engineers and
urban designers in reshaping and adapting coastal cities to sea level rise and intensifying
storm events. (Davoudi, Crawford & Mehmood, 2009). The current flood-risk related
challenges induced by climate change place pressure on designing urban areas in which
both natural and man-made conditions can be imbalanced. Flood risk is mostly oriented
towards reducing the probability of flood events. Also due to the changing hydrological
cycle, exceptional river discharge, heavy rainfall, erosion, sedimentation and subsidence,
grey infrastructures (dikes, seawalls, dams, etc.) are constantly being built. But, the hard-
engineered approach to flood risk management does not always work: especially in
floodplain and coastal areas, these infrastructures have a significant growing impact on
the (urban) landscape (Van Loon-Steensma & Kok, 2016).
Knowledge on the design of the urban fabric of the protected areas in relation to the
overall risk reduction by the flood defense system is still limited (Nillesen & Kok, 2015)
but growing. A separation between flood management and urban planning has been
perpetuated over time by the idea that flood defence offers the primary condition for
Names of the track editors:
Birgit Hausleitner
Leo van den Burg
Akkelies van Nes
Names of the reviewers:
Journal: The Evolving Scholar
Submitted: 8 October 2021
Citation: Iuorio, L. & Bortolotti, A.
(2021). Integrated coastal flood
design: changing paradigm in flood
risk management. The Evolving
Scholar | IFoU 14th Edition.
This work is licensed under a Creative
Commons Attribution CC BY (CC
BY) license.
©2021 [Iuorio, L. & Bortolotti, A.]
published by TU Delft OPEN on behalf
of the authors.
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urban development. In the Netherlands, for example, technical interventions have made
the territory livable, and the government has a strong and coordinated responsibility for
both safety and spatial planning (Hooimeijer, 2014). Flood risk management, indeed, is
considered the “conditio sine qua non” (Van der Woud, 1987) for urban development in
the sense that without dikes there is no possible spatial order.
However, a new awareness also in the field of engineering is growing, especially in
the Dutch context. In the last decades, this has triggered several experimental programs
in which the flood infrastructures have been approaching the water-space involving in
the design large span of the urban, rural or natural lands. Examples such as the “Room
for river” program in the Netherlands, new dike concepts (e.g. double dike, wide green
dike), the use of nature-based solutions (e.g. marshlands, the Sand Engine,
reconstruction of dunes, etc.) demonstrate that water protection infrastructure may have
larger spatial footprint than the one that traditional dikes used to have in the past (Van
Loon-Steensma & Vellinga, 2019). Nevertheless, accepting water, implementing nature-
based solutions, improving emergency and evacuation plans, etc, all those measures
demand to overcome the division and practical silos between urban planning and flood
Making space for water has become the hallmark of a new generation of flood
management plans and strategies (Foster, Hudson, Bray & Nicholls, 2013; Thomas, 2014)
that address a renovated attitude in living closer with it. Living with water includes the
discipline of spatial design more than the current dominant engineering-based flood risk
management paradigm. It overturns the hydraulic design approach according to which
there is no spatial order without flood defense (Van der Woud, 1987) reclaiming the
need of thinking at water protection systems no more as a line but as a space. spatial
design is part of flood risk management and hydraulic engineering is part of spatial
design. In this perspective, urbanized areas are intended as a historized, dynamic and
transitional objects that can adapt to climate change and environmental hazards through
the means of integrated spatial and infrastructural design.
This paper discusses the preliminary result of an interdisciplinary research conducted on
two middle-sized cities on the North Sea: Vlissingen, in the Netherlands, and Southend-
on-Sea, in England. The case studies are part of the Interreg - Sustainable And Resilient
Coastal Cities (SARCC) project, which gathers a number of municipalities across 4
European countries (France, United Kingdom, Belgium, Netherlands) willing to
implement the transition of historical grey water defense infrastructure towards the
development of more sustainable seafronts projects through the implementation of pilots
(coordinated by the municipality of Southend-On-Sea in partnership with other public
agencies and institutes among which TU Delft Department of Urbanism and of Hydraulic
Engineering). The Vlissingen and Southend-on-sea pilot projects, discussed in this paper,
were developed in collaboration by a team of urban designers, hydraulic engineers, and
marine archaeologists.
Both projects reflect the broader scope of SARCC: the aim is to explore alternative models
of coastal management and planning. Accepting water overtopping, using temporary
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dikes, and implementing changes in land use and building regulation are taken as main
principles and translated into spatial actions to reduce overall flood risk in these cities.
The intent is to expand the scope of the pilot design to include whole urban areas and
establish more complex and resilient flood management in which several urban/spatial
adaptation strategies are taken into account. The proposed spatial adaptation strategies
are based on original hydrodynamic models which account for extreme storm surge and
sea-level rise projections for the year 2100.
2. Vlissingen
Vlissingen is a middle sized city (44,370 inhabitants) situated in the outlet of the Western
Scheldt River on the North Sea coast. Thanks to this strategic geographical position, it
has represented a crucial harbour since the XIV century. Its internal areas, as most of its
province, are below annual flood events. Nevertheless, the area is protected both by a
reinforced dike on top of which are built row buildings and towers (south) and sandy
dunes (west) integrated to the regional blue and green network. Internal polders are
drained by the Walcheren channel communicating with the sea through locks.
At present, Vlissingen’s primary flood defense structure is composed by the following
elements: (i) a reinforced concrete slope along the sandy coastline; (ii) a storm walls with
bullnose above which lays the waterfront boulevard; (iii) the first row of buildings made
by a mix of traditional 3-story row houses and towers of different heights with
commercial activities on the ground floors (some of which are accessible from a raised
plaza with underneath parking); (iv) a raised dike on the back of the buildings, in the
western part of the main boulevard.
In the past, due to the projection of future sea level rise (IPCC, 2019), the Municipality of
Vlissingen has promoted a strategy of urban development which integrates adaptation to
forthcoming flood risk. The so-called “Vlissings model” (Vlissingen &, 2010) aims
to create a sea-barrier with buildings themselves: foundations and first floors of new
developments must be designed to anticipate the future rising of the coastal dike.
Recently, several buildings on top of the primary defence line have already been built
according to these principles: they have higher ceilings at the ground level in order to
further incorporate the eventual raising of the dike.
Today, the Municipality is also promoting an urban renewal plan (including commercial
and residential functions) that aims to recover a former artificial basin located in a central
area of the city, behind the main dike, to serve as water reservoir in case of flooding. The
project will impact an empty but spontaneously vegetated area called “Spuikom”, once
connected with the nearby harbour that has been partially filled after the 1970sto allow
the construction of new buildings and parking lots.
These two strategies have offered the opportunity to further investigate the spatial effects
on the urban context. On the one hand, the “Vlissings model” may require, in the long
term, the entire demolition and reconstruction of the historical buildings along the
seaside. On the other hand, the reactivation of the Spuikom requires the basin and its
surrounding area (streets and buildings) to be redesigned to function as a buffer zone in
order to give adequate space to excess water.
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The TU Delft departments of Urbanism and Hydraulic Engineering have deepened the
analysis for this second option. Building on original hydrodynamic models for storm
events in the year 2100 it was possible to figure out most needed spatial adaptation
measures in the historical urbanscape. In the suggested spatial vision, the Spuikom
becomes again a basin to store water in the case of flood; the streetscape is designed with
the scope of redirecting water into the reservoir; streets are equipped with movable
barriers to divert the flood. In this “re-making space for water” approach the
developments planned by the Municipality are taken into account and also create
economic catalysts to feasibly transform the area.
Figure 1. Making space for water. Spatial vision for Vlissingen. Drawn by A. Bortolotti. The
strategy has been developed within the Sarcc project, TU Delft team: F. Hooimeijer, J. Bricker, A.
Diaz, Q. Ke, A. Bortolotti.
3. Southend-on-sea
Southend is one of the most densely populated areas (181,800 inhabitants) outside
London. It is located on the mouth of the Thames River and served by a capillary
transport network which includes multiple train stations; its waterfront has been,
historically, an important leisure and recreational area. The urban structure is ofsprawl-
type dominated by single-family houses with gardens, whereas public and commercial
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services are concentrated along several high streets and recreational grounds (e.g. sport
fields). Property development pressure is strong (Southend-on-sea, 2021), particularly
along the seafront due to its economic high value.
From a geomorphological perspective, the municipality is divided into two parts: the
town centre and western part are on high ground and not at risk from tidal flooding, while
much of the sea front and the eastern part is on lowland and at risk of flooding.
The whole sea front is protected by hard defence structures including revetments, sea
walls, and groynes to mitigate wave impact. Today, in coherence with the Thames Estuary
action plan for 2100, the Southend on Sea Borough Council is promoting rebuilding and
refurbishment works of the defences as they come to the end of their lifespan. Reinforcing
the defence line may affect the link with the sea, whereas the aim is to minimize visual
impact on the historical area as much as possible. On this point, main policy lines have
been established (i) “to integrate flood defence into developments – and ensure that the
developments are designed with a proper understanding of the flood risk they face”
(Thames Estuary 2100, 2012: 72) in the aim that (ii) “improvements to the flood risk
management system should provide amenity, recreational and environmental
enhancement, and be designed to minimize any adverse impacts on the frontage”
(Thames Estuary 2100, 2012: 214). Yet, responses for local flood risk management are
still required to be designed or assessed in detail at the local scale.
In 2020, the Southend on Sea Borough Council has appointed an engineering local firm
for developing a set of nature-based solutions to protect the coast including vertipools, a
climate garden, vegetated shingle, gabion baskets and dune stabilisation. Vertipools are
proposed for the old Leigh port and Westcliff Casino sites; installed on existing seawall,
they are meant to provide space for the recreation of micro-habitat. A climate resistant
garden which includes hard (boardwalks) and soft (pathways) standings and drought
tolerant plant species (e.g. Sea Holly, Sea Kale, Blue Fescue) is proposed for Jocelyn
Beach. Like climate gardens, vegetated shingles are meant to dissipate wave energy and
are proposed for Thorpe Bay beach. Finally, dune stabilization and 150 m long new gabion
baskets are proposed for East Beach.
Whereas these interventions are punctual and targeted at specific areas, the TU Delft -
Department of Urbanism team has proposed to develop a broader reflection on the long-
term strategy of adaptation to rising seas. TU Delft - Department of Hydraulic
Engineering and the UK Maritime Archaeology Trust contributed content-wise.
Gunners park and the contiguous Garrison development located in the south-eastern
borough of Shoeburyness are two of the main flood risk areas of the low-lying
Southend-on-Sea. For this reason, they are the object of the proposed design.
Four strategies are identified in the aim to meet some major urban challenges: (i) the
topo-strategy, which focuses on place-specific water management strategies in relation
to the inherited urban structure (density and typology) and soil type (e.g. rainwater
infiltration in the high ground’s permeable soils, seawater retention in the low-lying
impervious soils); (ii) the eco-strategy, that relies on the existing blue and green
networks to reinforce their role of landscape connections and improvement of water and
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soil quality; (iii) the accessibility-strategy that mainly focuses on giving priority to the
active mobility (pedestrian and cycle) to provide widespread access to the seafront; (iv)
the longue-durée-strategy which places greater emphasis in research, protection and
preservation of the local cultural heritage.
In line with the work for the other project study of Vlissingen (NL), it is proposed to
accept water overtopping and build a secondary defense line along the existing margin
between the open and built-up areas. In such a way, the area is adapted to function as a
retention basin for excess water in the case of extreme events, while the existing and
enhanced drainage network is used to drain the area at the end of the storm. At the basis
of this idea is the principle of building a new embankment that can serve both as
protection, leisure space and connection, while the new urban development inside the
area is designed to be flood-proofed (e.g. by being raised on piles, or by giving ground
floors to functions such as car parks).
Figure 2. Making space for water. Spatial vision for Southend-on-sea. Drawn by A. Bortolotti and
L. Iuorio. The strategy has been developed within the Sarcc project, TU Delft team: F. Hooimeijer,
D. Wuthrich, Q. Ke, A. Bortolotti, L. Iuorio.
4. Discussion
Fitting into a 2 km by 2 km frame, we have deepened the analysis and developed a vision
for these urban areas with the aim to meet the objective of better integrating flood defence
with new developments as well enhancing public spaces and recreational function.
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Instead of heightening the existing primary defense line, the resulting spatial scenarios
recombine existing landscape featuresdikes, embankments, ditches, new buildings and
roads in a way to make the pilots prone to stand a flood event in 2100 by reducing the
The two new waterfronts have many common aspects; in both cases, the dike shapes the
city as a fundamental part of it but represents only an element of the complex and broader
territorial design. In contrast, the storage areas where water, once overtopped the dike,
can be collected in are an active part of the urban environment; the seasonal controlled
floods change the configuration of the open spaces adapting urban fabric to the storm
events. The design and realization of floodable parks, moreover, give the opportunity to
implement new leisure areas, public spaces and waterproof housing developments.
Coastal water infrastructures are not detached from the urban background and they are
also the way to support the objective of making more space for water and living more
closely with it.
In the last two centuries, dealing with water has meant “protection” (Priest et al., 2016)
and so far the study concerning sea level rise has been confined to the point of view of the
engineering domains. This attitude neglected the potential role of spatial design
disciplines (architecture, landscape and urban design) and conceptualized the problem
from a single perspective. The two project cases presented in this paper combine
hydraulic, historical and spatial knowledge to support the need for a paradigm shift in
the engineering-based probability approach to flood risk management. Designing with
water comes to terms also with the spatial form of the cultural landscapes and the
technical construction of urbanized areas. Innovation is achieved not only in reducing the
probabilities but also the consequences of flood risk. Working on the consequences of the
risk means to involve the spatial dimension of territory as a palimpsest (Corboz, 1985)
and rearticulate the relation between hydraulic engineering and urban planning to better
design its transformation.
In both cases, the historized urban landscape has played a pivotal role to further design
through an interdisciplinary lens the water defense system. Indeed, the projects deal
with the big physical inheritance of the coastal built environment demonstrating how
changes in building and planning infrastructures by specialists may also impact the
attitude of perceiving and experiencing cities, landscape and places by citizens.
The Vlissingen and Southend-on-sea cases show that flood defense infrastructures can
be imagined and developed within a spatial approach, that they can be physical
manufactures integrated into landscape and they qualitatively affect urban development
also the way people interact with water through them.
5. Conclusion
This paper aims to enlighten new possible synergies between scientific domains through
the role of integrated design. Many authors have pointed out the potential role of
integrated and systemic design to explore and tackle the spatial challenge of climate
change in its complexity (Berger, 2009; Belanger, 2016; Corner, 2006 & 2014).
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Spatial design integrates social, cultural, economic, and political perspectives with
natural site conditions and man-made construction to plan for sustainable urban
development. Historically, the role of the designer has been related to the capacity of
handling multifaceted and complex problems; today, in the light of the multiple and
transcalar issues posed by climate change, there is the need to restore and reclaim this
peculiar expertise.
Urban design, water management, and hydraulic engineering are the disciplines which
perform as the main drivers to look at the coastal urbanization in relation to the sea level
rise challenges in its multilayered aspects, both technical and conceptual. In the aim to
develop an innovative systemic awareness, a shift of the way we do research and projects
on water seems to be crucial. Specific attention should be paid to the integrated design
process; integrated design is a comprehensive and holistic approach to the design which
brings together specialisms usually considered separately. New research may establish
experimental methodologies, as well as new conceptual frameworks and innovative
design approaches to find a common fertile ground and push forward the research of
spatial solutions for climate adaptation.
Contributor statement
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, L.I, A.B; methodology, L.I, A.B; software, L.I, A.B;
validation, L.I, A.B; formal analysis, L.I, A.B; investigation, L.I, A.B; resources, L.I, A.B; data
curation, L.I, A.B; writingoriginal draft preparation, L.I, A.B; writingreview and editing, L.I,
A.B; visualization, L.I, A.B; L.I, A.B. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of
the manuscript.
The Interreg SARCC project is coordinated by the municipality of Southend-On-Sea (UK) in
partnership with Marine Archaelogical Trust (UK), Municipality of Blankenberge(BE), City of
Gravelines (FR), TU Delft University (NL), Agency for Maritime and Coastal Services (BE), City of
Oostend (BE), Vives University of Applied Sciences (BE), Environmental Agency (UK),
Municipality of Vlissingen (NL), Exo Environmental Ltd (UK), Flemish Government (BE), Town of
Middelkerke (BE), HZ University of Applied Sciences (NL).
The TU Delft team: F. Hooimeijer, D. Wuthrich, J. Bricker, A. Diaz, Q. Ke, A. Bortolotti, L. Iuorio.
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Full-text available
This article describes and analyzes the reintroduction of the “wide green dike” in the Netherlands. It is a noteworthy example of implementation of an innovation in long-term strategic delta planning. The Dutch Delta Program was central herein. Pursuing its ambition to make the Netherlands climate-proof, the Delta Program invited a diverse set of actors to participate in developing a long-term adaptation plan, and also to propose innovative short-term measures to help realize that plan. The wide green dike was actively promoted by a local water board, with involvement of scientists and nature conservation organizations. A stepwise participatory process resulted in national-level recognition of the potential of the wide green dike, particularly due to its “green” and “adaptability” characteristics. Alignment of flood protection and climate adaptation goals with nature conservation objectives, as well as collaboration with new actors, were all crucial in the reintroduction of this innovation.
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Diversity in flood risk management approaches is often considered to be a strength. However, in some national settings, and especially for transboundary rivers, variability and incompatibility of approaches can reduce the effectiveness of flood risk management. Placed in the context of increasing flood risks, as well as the potential for flooding to undermine the European Union’s sustainable development goals, a desire to increase societal resilience to flooding has prompted the introduction of a common European Framework. We provide a legal and policy analysis of the implementation of the Floods Directive (2007/60/EC) in six countries: Belgium (Flemish region), England, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden. Evaluation criteria from existing legal and policy literature frame the study of the Directive and its effect on enhancing or constraining societal resilience by using an adaptive governance approach. These criteria are initially used to analyze the key components of the EU approach, before providing insight of the implementation of the Directive at a national level. Similarities and differences in the legal translation of European goals into existing flood risk management are analyzed alongside their relative influence on policy and practice. The research highlights that the effect of the Floods Directive on increasing societal resilience has been nationally variable, in part because of its focus on procedural obligations, rather than on more substantive requirements. Analysis shows that despite a focus on transboundary river basin management, existing traditions of flood risk management have overridden objectives to harmonize flood risk management in some cases. The Directive could be strengthened by requiring more stringent cooperation and providing the competent authorities in international river basin districts with more power. Despite some shortcomings in directly affecting flood risk outcomes, the Directive has positively stimulated discussion and flood risk management planning in countries that were perhaps lagging behind.
The Environment Agency is responsible for the strategic overview for flood and coastal management for England. With partner organisations, the Environment Agency has delivered over 50 managed realignment projects in the UK in the past three decades. In result, by the end of 2014, over 900 ha of intertidal habitat will have been created through managed realignment. Future strategic plans include realignment of 10 % of the country’s coastline by 2030. This chapter describes the drivers for the implementation of managed realignment as a mechanism for delivering flood risk and environmental policies, and the opportunities and challenges that exist. A description of lessons learned so far and the role of emerging ecosystems services and biodiversity offsetting approaches to support managed realignment strategies is also provided.
Climate change is changing the context of spatial planning and shaping its priorities. It has strengthened its environmental dimension and has become a new rationale for coordinating actions and integrating different policy priorities. This book sets out the economic, social and environmental challenges that climate change raises for urban and regional planners and explores current and potential responses. These are set within the context of research and scholarly works on the role of spatial planning in combating climate change. Addressing both mitigation measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation to the effects of climate change, the book provides an overview of emerging practice, with analysis of the drivers of policy change and practical implementation of measures. It scopes planning issues and opportunities at different spatial scales, drawing on international experiences and highlighting the need to link global and local responses to shared risks and opportunities.
According to a national report on brownfi elds redevelopment titled Recycling America's Land (USCM 2006), more than 400,000 sites with real or perceived environmental hazards dot the American landscape today. That legacy is estimated to be worth more than $2 trillion in devalued property. Underlying this legacy is a major network of post- war infrastructures-airports, harbours, roads, sewers, bridges, dikes, dams, power corridors, terminals, treatment plants-that is now suffering major decay from lack of repair and maintenance (ASCE 2008, Infrastructure Canada 2007-2008, Choate and Walter 1983). In revisiting a series of milestone events in the history of North America, this paper draws a cross- section through phases of industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries in order to track how the necessity for infrastructure accidentally emerged from crisis and failure. A series of patterns and shifts are identifi ed to expose the paradoxical, sometimes toxic relationship between pre- industrial landscape conditions and modern industrial systems. The underlying objective of this essay is to redefi ne the conventional meaning of modern infrastructure by amplifying the biophysical landscape that it has historically suppressed, and to reformulate landscape as a sophisticated, instrumental system of essential resources, services, and agents that generate and support urban economies. Three contemporary streams of development including urban ecologies, bio- industries, and waste economies are explored briefl y to discuss future fi elds of practice. © 2009 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
Systemic Design can Change the World
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Berger, A. (2009). Systemic Design can Change the World. New York: SUN
Il Territorio come Palinsesto, Casabella, 516. Milano: Electa
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Corboz, A. (1985). Il Territorio come Palinsesto, Casabella, 516. Milano: Electa
The Landscape Urbanism Reader
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Corner, J. (2006). Terra Fluxus. In C., Waldheim (Ed.). The Landscape Urbanism Reader, (pp. 21-33). New York: Princeton Architectural Press