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Boston Society of Architects

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Giving water
free rein

A design studio immerses itself in the Dutch vision of how to work with nature

SHARE Nov–Dec 2019

Water IMAGE 02 Renato Sophie Molly

Rivers fluctuate and change paths, coastlines expand or contract. Student work by Molly Schmidt, Renato Kasai, and Sophie Hicks reflects the notion: why should we design and build with a static mindset?

Two centuries ago, no one could have imagined what Boston would look like today. How we have grown as a society in terms of inhabiting port cities has evolved. Our collective quest for economic prosperity and the need for survival have attracted us to the urban world, especially near bodies of water. To survive, we are dependent on energy and natural materials, certainly, but also on oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers.

This past September, students and faculty from the Boston Architectural College (BAC) traveled to the Netherlands to understand how the country has dealt with living with water and designed survival strategies within its low-lying deltaic region over the past 500 years. The lesson in water-management expertise was also an opportunity to preview how the Dutch—designing and building in the face of climate change—plan to shape their landscape over the next 250 years.

The traveling course began as a parallel resilient-design studio initiative with the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture and involved an intercultural exchange of ideas for port cities and deltaic regions. Henk Ovink, the special envoy for International Water Affairs in the Netherlands, connected the studio with leading climate-adaptation professionals there, which gave students the opportunity to visit the most advanced water-focused projects in the world, from dam-barrier networks to floating neighborhoods. These projects keep citizens safe as they confront storm surges, increased precipitation, environmental degradation, and short-term sea-level rise. Most important, they illuminate how the Dutch prioritize working with nature instead of against it.

Adaptation scenarios were provocative. Students were challenged to design the future of the Netherlands with the average annual temperature rising by 4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2200, leading to about 20 feet of sea-level rise, which some climate experts believe is a distinct possibility. Should people stay and inhabit their cities with this prediction in mind, or should they retreat to higher ground?

The studio allowed students to develop long-term visions and narratives of opportunity for the Netherlands that demonstrate the challenge of climate change. For people and nature to cohabit and thrive, we created what we called “BOTH/AND” solutions—designs had to both address climate change and enhance communities in a homeostatic fashion.

Ten major deltas in the world contain some of the most biodiverse ecological habitats in the earth’s natural cycle. About 100,000 people die from storms or flooding each year as a result of how we have built our infrastructure in delta regions, and we have spent trillions of dollars on rebuilding. This shrinking ecological surface is consistently sacrificed in the name of development.

The Dutch know they can’t survive without water management because two-thirds of their country is below sea level. Boston and other cities around the world are working to build better connections to our coasts and rivers, and to clean our waterfronts for social, recreational, and environmental use. They look to countries like the Netherlands to share their best practices, which has the potential to generate an ecological and water-focused revolution that could change how we inhabit the earth’s deltas.

The Dutch approach

During the course, students were introduced to the chronological history of how the Dutch have settled into the lowland delta, creating a network of dams, dikes, and water-pumping stations, including polders (land that has been reclaimed from the sea). A few of the sites that nine students and our BAC faculty team—which included my Perkins+Will colleague Tyler Hinckley and Robert Adams of Halvorson Design Partnership—traveled to provided diverse lessons in Dutch topography and resilient design thinking:

The Dutch Waterline was used as a shield from foreign invasion from 1588–1940.
Waterline Museum
  • The Dutch Waterline, a hidden flood system within the country’s dikes used as a shield from foreign invasion from 1588–1940.
  • The Delta Works, a major network of barrier dams and an engineering wonder of the world; most of the dams were constructed in the aftermath of the North Sea flood of 1953.
  • Katwijk aan Zee’s Storm Surge Dune Protection Project, an elevated sand dune constructed about 25 feet above sea level with underground parking. This project solved both storm surge and vehicle congestion in one go.
The Sand Motor, a beach that was created from dredged sand.
Photo by Arlen Stawasz
  • De Zandmotor (the Sand Motor), a science experiment that created land from dredged sand and uses the North Sea’s natural currents to protect Netherlands’ southern coast from erosion. The resulting beach is now one of the most popular in the Netherlands.
  • Marker Wadden, a man-made island designed for “rewilding” the natural habitats of animals, such as birds, because many native species are declining or on the verge of becoming extinct.
  • Several floating neighborhoods, which prove that living on the water is possible. More than 4,000 floating structures—including housing, schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, and even jails—currently exist throughout the country.
  • The countrywide effort to “make room for the rivers,” which is essentially a form of water-managed retreat. Many Dutch farmers were asked to sacrifice their land along the river for the betterment of the country. The port city of Rotterdam, in particular, benefited from these nature-based solutions—allowing the Maas River to take its course and not overflow or flood upstream.

There is now a focus on building new extensions of land or islands to help solve a housing shortage due to population growth. But the most interesting idea the students learned about was how the Dutch are prioritizing nature’s systems to mitigate climate change. These experiences stimulated conversations that have extended beyond the classroom to our own metropolitan region.

What would Boston look like if 20 feet of sea-level rise occurs by the year 2200? Do our policy makers have enough knowledge about the long-term consequences? Would we consider withdrawal or retreat? Would we invest in our infrastructure now and consider how our investment could make an impact over the next century? The Dutch have transformed most of their landscape within the past century and will continue to explore new methods for living with water—it is in their DNA. We also need to act now.

A new responsibility

We build for growth and survival, and we will continue to do so. Since the industrial revolution, development has focused on economic growth, mining resources, and protecting the assets we have built. Recent climate-change predictions call for a new way of thinking and approaching problems and for a constructive effort to build an awareness of the issues our planet is facing. We need to develop a shift in collective consciousness and a shared economy that is stimulated primarily by our ecology rather than just based on economic gain.

We have 2 billion people on earth with too much water and another 2 billion people without enough water to survive—economic and ecological disasters on a monumental scale. Climate change will only exacerbate these unfavorable conditions. We have the resources and the technology today to start making concrete changes, but our collective mindset has to evolve.

More dire than concerns about financial resources is a shortage of ideas, and that is exactly why we must expand our design thinking as architects. Absolutely no one, and nothing, can survive without water. The more we try to control it, the more it controls us. Nothing in this earth’s natural creation is static—rivers continually fluctuate and change paths, lakes enlarge or disappear, and coastlines expand or contract. So why should we design and build with a static mindset?

We developed cities with our backs turned against our waterfronts, prioritizing the construction of highways along our coasts and industrial uses in our ports, causing pollution in our rivers and harbors. Over time, we lost track of our connection with the water, and now we are living with the consequences of our actions. We are the only species on the planet that has had the ability to alter the earth’s ecosystem, and we are the only species that has the ability to acknowledge what lies ahead. We have a new, shared responsibility—an imperative, even: to build with nature.

Follow the students’ research, design, and progress on Twitter and Instagram at #NETHERLANDSplanBAC.