Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Dutch on Water: Let It Flow

In the Netherlands, a man named Henk Ovink offered to be Donovan’s guide. Ovink was the director of the office of Spatial Planning and Water Management, meaning, essentially, that it was his job to keep the famously waterlogged country dry. As he learned about various Dutch innovations, Donovan was struck by the fact that Ovink looked at water as much in cultural as in engineering terms, which was a function of the centuries-old need of the Dutch to act together for protection.
Think like a community:
Beyond that, Ovink feared that politics might undermine any chance to encourage new thinking about water management. “When I mentioned climate change to one official,” he said, “she almost hit me.” He characterized some of the wishful thinking he believed he would be dealing with as: “Don’t hire a Dutchman — believe in angels.”

Dutch battles against water led his country to develop a communal society. To this day, Water Boards, which date to the Middle Ages, are a feature of every region, and they guide long-term infrastructural planning. American individualism, on the other hand, has yielded a system in which each municipality has a great deal of autonomy, making regional cooperation difficult.

Pacific Avenue in Jersey City, the day after Sandy

Room for the River:
With the increasing threat caused by climate change, Dutch engineers have developed strategies that go beyond simply trying to keep water out. The city of Rotterdam, for instance, is building floating houses and office buildings and digging craters in downtown plazas that will be basketball courts most of the year but will fill up with runoff during high-water periods, taking the strain off the surrounding streets.

The plan being put into place in Nijmegen and 38 other sites is called Room for the River. A wide trench is being cut through the city where the river bottlenecks — 50 farms and a number of residences are being relocated — and by summer 2015 an island will come into being. The island will form a new section of the city: Higher areas of it may contain apartment buildings; other, lower-lying sections will be developed into parks and beaches. During flood periods, the lower sections of the island will simply be engulfed by water. The new embankments in this lower area will be stepped, in part so that people can relax there and enjoy views of the city center, but also to encourage daily awareness of the ever-changing water level.
Resiliency rules:
The new buzzword that accompanies all of this — “resiliency” — is intended as a nonpolitically charged way of getting at issues underlying climate change: the need to rebuild in ways that take ecology, economy, infrastructure and weather uncertainty into account. Much of the credit for the change in thinking has to go to Hurricane Sandy itself, which hit in one of the richest, most populous parts of the country and also the center of American media. And it came after a series of catastrophic events — Hurricane Katrina and other storms, but also 9/11 and the banking crisis of 2008 and the subsequent global economic downturn — which, taken together, seemed to solidify the feeling of living in an age of chronic uncertainty.

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