The Ecosystems of Water

Main Feature / 4th Quarter 2023

The Ecosystems of Water

by Hoa Nguyen; Dzung Do Nguyen

December 6, 2023


“Water is special also in that, left to itself, it will always lie level, but with the help of God, Nature and the artifice of man, it is capable of assuming an exuberance and vigour, and a symbolism difficult to achieve with any other natural element.” John Mayson Whalley1

Life begins with water—this is a fact that goes back to the beginning of human civilisation. Many urban settlements began by organising around river banks and estuaries, where the soil is fertile, fresh water is abundant, and means of subsistence are available. One of the most established and earliest forms of economic exchanges is the trading port, made possible via water-based transit. Singapore and Malacca became prosperous ports, while Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok expanded from the river bank.2

As history progresses, water began to take on more prominent roles, not just as a part of the natural environment, but also actively incorporated into our landscapes and built environment, as well as our daily and cultural life—habits and ways of living that have been shaped by our interactions with water.


Most recently, in the past century or so, climate change has turned water from an object of awe and inspiration into one of immense threat to our sustainable development. Water is now frequently associated with unpredictable rainfalls, uncontrollable floods, rising sea levels, loss of groundwater and sinking cities.

Natural disasters involving water are not modern affairs, but with urban sprawl and expansion of our built footprint, we feel these threats and the resulting damage more severely than ever. In the past year, Vietnam has seen many of its mountainous cities such as Sapa and Da Lat being hit with severe floods, a rarity in the past.3 With the increase in both frequency and intensity of climate-related calamities, issues of climate refugees and material destruction have become common news headlines.

Once threatened, humanity is quick to put up our defences. We see large investments into dykes, embankments and various measures to keep water away, to safeguard our assets and developments. However, the force of water is much larger than our efforts, and much of this has backfired, evidently seen in many cases across the world. From India4 to the United States,5 the intensive construction of levees to enclose certain regions for protection has either led to deadly flooding elsewhere, or have failed to withstand catastrophic events.

Managing water threats cannot be equated with keeping water at bay. New movements like Living with water6,7 have arisen, in which water resource management is seen as a comprehensive and context-sensitive discipline, rather than just the mitigation of threats. In this approach, resisting water is often seen as futile, while embracing water and looking towards it for solutions, often in the form of green infrastructure, water-sensitive urban design and architecture, allow for gentler forms of accommodation to water, while providing important social, economic and identity anchors for the city.

Here, we advocate the role of water in planning, design and architecture to be central at various scales and through various forms of integration into our economy and society. Illustrating with case studies across Vietnam, a country rich with water resource and river networks, the main roles of water we aim to illustrate here are:

1) water as the source of ecological abundance—the natural ecosystem;
2) water as the defining element of individual and social organisation—the cultural ecosystem
3) water as the provision of livelihoods and development opportunities—the economic ecosystem;
4) and how design and architecture follow through from our relationships with water.


In Nature, water is fundamental in sustaining all life, as well as maintaining biodiversity and wildlife, including many freshwater species such as fish and birds. According to the World Wildlife Fund, freshwater ecosystems cover less than one per cent of Earth’s surface, yet are home to at least 10 per cent of Earth’s species.8 These in turn provide ecosystem services to human societies, such as maintaining mental and physical well-being for people, providing education and recreational opportunities.9

In the city of Hue, the capital during the monarchy era of Vietnam, water typologies played an important role in the daily lives of the people. The rich biodiversity was a defining element of Hue, and bird diversity was a prominent feature. According to King Thieu Tri who reigned in the 1800s, Dong Lam forest in Hue was one of the 20 heavenly sites on Earth. The kings and queens of the past, according to historical records, frequently visited this area for leisure and recreational bird-hunting.10

However, modern day development and built-up have reduced much of this natural asset, with the loss of grasslands, waterways and mudflats, leading to a decline in local biodiversity. Development of settlements in various parts of the region have also reduced the connectivity and ecological pathways for animals, thus segregating their natural habitats.

Restoring biodiversity and revitalising ecological infrastructure

In a new township project in Hue master-planned by enCity, in conjunction with urban elements such as commercial and residential functions, original elements of the landscape that enabled biodiversity were studied and restored. A deep dive into the existing and previously abundant bird diversity laid the foundation for the extent of revitalisation necessary for the project to achieve its historical ecological heritage.

The resulting design for the site is organised around the central mangrove that provides connectivity to surrounding patches of green fields and rice paddies. New landscapes have been added to the overall green network by integrating detention ponds and bioswales into public spaces and streetscapes, allowing for continuous wildlife movement. Green belts also protect the site and its enhanced bird habitats from impending flood risks from surrounding developments, while adding another loop for ecological mobility.

Through conscious addition of wetlands and grasslands, managed landscapes that are bird-friendly, agricultural land use and water bodies, the site gained an additional 20 per cent in ecological value. In a way, the landscape strategies attempt to reverse the ecological damage done upon our natural landscapes, and revitalise the site’s biodiversity.

[This is an excerpt. Subscribe to the digital edition or hardcopy to read the complete article.]

Hoa Nguyen, Senior Associate, Planning and Policy, is an urban planner and researcher with a particular interest in community engagement, participatory planning and citizen empowerment. Hoa also leads many thought leadership projects and writings at enCity on the topic of conservation, community development and the future of planning. She wishes to be an instrument for others to realise homes and communities in the places they live in.

Dzung Do Nguyen, Co-founder and CEO of enCity, is an urban planner and designer, specialising in planning and implementation for fast-growing regions, emerging cities and urban revitalisation across Asia. He also teaches a graduate urban planning studio at the National University of Singapore. Dzung’s work explores new frontiers of urban innovation in order to provide market-responsive, context-sensitive and implementation-ready urban solutions.

Related stories:

City Profile: Hoi An

Re-generational Architecture

Read more stories from FuturArc 4Q 2023: Water!


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