Flow forms

A Flowform system. Photo by Flowform 

Flowforms were pioneered by John Wilkes in the 1970s, who was a sculptor and academic with a life-long interest in water’s role in nature. He was particularly interested and specialised in improving water quality through dynamic rhythmic flow (Schwuchow et al., 2010). Wilkes’ research is continued by the foundation he co-founded, The Foundation for Water. 

Water doesn’t tend to move in straight lines in nature. The flowforms method uses biomimicry, mimicking the dynamic flow of waterways to transform the health of water, and is supported by the permaculture philosophy – of working with, rather than against nature. Flowforms is a technique that uses specifically shaped vessels to influence and direct the flow of water.

The water is moved in a figure-eight flow pattern by gravity and sometimes with a simple pump system, which creates a dynamic flow similar to natural phenomena like rushing streams or waterfalls. The movement of the water naturally cleans it, increasing oxygen content and elevating pH levels. Exposure to UV sunlight for water in the shallow flowforms also acts as a water purifier.

Flowforms can be used in agricultural settings, transforming animal effluent waste into liquid fertiliser. They can be used in garden ponds to improve water quality and eliminate chemicals. The specific Flowform technology that Wilkes pioneered is now found in over 50 countries and is used in farming and agriculture, garden and landscape, and residential home contexts. The water produced by the flowform method is said to improve plant growth 30% faster than tap water, increase root surface area, and improve crop yield by up to 30%. Five metres of a flowform system can equate to 50 metres of natural dynamic river flow (Schwuchow et al., 2010).

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Name of NbS

Flowforms

Type of NbS

Engineered interventions (not using vegetation)

Location

flowforms can be used in all settings – they can be in urban or peri-urban environments in residential or public gardens, or in urban public spaces as art forms in fountains. They can be used in rural settings in agriculture.

Case Study

East Street Water Feature: Three Rivers

The Three Rivers water feature in Ashburton. Photo from Google Maps

Relationship to Indigenous knowledge

The reciprocal relationship between people and land, that is the basis of Indigenous beliefs in many parts of Te Moanana Oceania (Mihaere et al., 2024), can inform design decisions, on large and small scales. Biomimicry methods and permaculture philosophy are often related to Indigenous knowledge but not nessesarily. Flowforms themselves are not derived from Indigenous knowledge.

Climate change benefits
  • reduced freshwater availability / quality
  • urban heat island effect
  • increased temperatures

Climate change is affecting access to clean water. A third of children in Te Moanana Oceania (not including Aotearoa New Zealand or Hawai’i) do not have access to good sanitation and one in ten do not have access to safe drinking water (Unicef, 2024). Water scarcity is one of the most immediately dangerous effects of climate change and island nations are already prioritising water safety in future planning. 

Increased rainfall, increased temperatures and storm conditions create water contamination issues. Pollution and sediment gets into waterways and oceans, exacerbating the issue. Water pollution and decreased access to clean water effects humans and animals, and ecosystems and biodiversity. 

The movement of water in a flowform gives off moisture, which helps to regulate surrounding air temperatures and humidity. In urban settings, water features with flowforms can help with the urban heat island effect, by lowering temperatures. 

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Societal / socio-cultural benefits
  • fresh water security and quality

The Samoan saying vai o le ola (water is life) sums up the critical importance of this issue. Water is part of an ecological system that supports livelihoods and cultural identity for the people of Te Moanana Oceania. Water has always been an intrinsic part of cultural identity in Te Moanana Oceania. For Māori, the natural flow of wai (water) is sacred and intrinsic; the waters of birth, of rain and its flow through landscapes are natural and fundamental (Clotheir, 2022). Flowforms use the dynamic movement of water seen in nature to improve it and may be a way to tie into the cultural importance of water in the region.

Sounds from nature, like the movement of water, have been proven to be beneficial to people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Natural sounds can enhance performance, increase productivity, and reduce feelings of stress (Andrews et al., 2014). Flowforms can be turned into sculptural water features in cities or urban environments, to create spaces to pause and relax. In city settings, the sound they make can help dampen noise pollution and lower temperatures.  

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Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Freshwater quality
  • Habitat provision
  • Purification
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Healthier water has obvious benefits to biodiversity and humans alike. Managing water security and quality in Te Moanana Oceania is increasingly urgent. Flowforms offer a cost-effective method to improve the health of water in urban and rural landscapes. They can be used on large scales – in rural agricultural settings, or on smaller scales in public and private gardens. Ung et al. (2022) provide details of how to combine flowforms with constructed wetlands to improve water quality and remove nitrogen in degraded urban waster water.

Technical requirements

Flowforms are relatively simple, in that the water flows by means of gravity, and an additional pump where needed. The technical requirements will differ based on the size of the project, and the specific goals. In large, agricultural settings, it is likely that a specifically engineered system will be required. However on small scales, it is possible to build and manage a flowform yourself.

Issues and Barriers

There is a potential barrier of a lack of knowledge around flowforms that can be remedied with education and training. 

Opportunities

There is an opportunity for individuals to use flowforms to find ways to filter and manage their own water sources or to treat grey water. In gardens, people can create water that is healthier for their plants and crops, and therefore for themselves. This creates opportunities for further autonomy and less reliance on imported sources of water and food, which is beneficial as resources become more scarce. On larger scales, there is the opportunity to use flowforms to deal with agricultural waste, and improve the health of rural landscapes.

Financial case

Flowforms are typically a low-cost solution to improving water quality of it. 

Flow forms in garden settings. Photo by Bohemian Stoneworks
A flow form system used to treat effluent waste. Photo from Flowform.
References