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By the end of this century, sea levels in the Netherlands mayrise more than 4 feet, a troubling prospect in a country where 70percent of GNP is produced in protected areas that are below sealevel.
To cope with the prospect of fast-rising water, two schools ofthought have evolved in the nation of vulnerable delta cities: Useengineering know-how to build up dikes and improve pumpingtechnology, or open cities to the sea in such a way that naturalsystems can co-exist with human habitation.
The second course – call it a “proto-ecological intervention” -is where Harvard comes in. Over the past two years, students at theGraduate School of Design (GSD) have puzzled over what they callthe country’s “climate conundrum” in a project funded by theNetherlands.
In a daylong series of studio presentations at Gund Hall onMonday (May 3), the 14 students from the departments of LandscapeArchitecture and Urban Planning and Design presented their capstoneideas to Dutch officials. Some watched on a trans-Atlantic videolink. Others were in low-slung Room B-04, where the four walls werelined with massive poster boards on wheels.
Een superdijk voor Dordrecht
The students, part of a research project led by GSD professorsPierre Belanger and Nina-Marie Lister, focused on Dordrecht, theoldest city in Holland. The historic market city, which is boundedby five rivers, is at risk from more than rising sea levels. Itfaces sea surges from the west, river flooding from the east, anddramatic subsidence in “polders,” the tracts of land captive withindikes.
One idea already afloat in the Netherlands is to seal Dordrechtbehind a kind of super-dike. That would be the culmination of theworld-class civil engineering that the Dutch have practiced formore than 500 years. (Per capita, Dutch expenditures on flooddefense – 2 billion Euros a year – match U.S. militaryspending.)
Leven met water
But other Dutch officials are drawn to going beyond traditionaldikes and pumps. Closing the city off from any influence of therivers or the sea is a bad idea, said Ellen Kelder, Dordrecht’swater manager, who attended the presentations along with cityplanner Judit Bax.
Bring in ecology, she said, echoing some of the Harvardpresenters. It’s important to make the seacoast city a kind ofplastic entity that will flex with natural rhythms instead ofdefying them.
The city was part of a Dutch “delta commission” formed aftercatastrophic seacoast flooding in 1953, said Bax. Last year, a newdelta commission was formed to look ahead to 2100. One ideaproposed, she said, would be to open up that closed system to theforces of nature, including tides, flood surges, and rising waterlevels. The basic idea is simple, said Kelder: “living with water.”Bring in the issue of energy, she added. After all, Holland’spresent flood control structures and pumping systems require almost100,000 barrels of foreign oil a day, and fossil fuels arefinite.
Ruim baan voor de rivier
Dordrecht is one of 40 Dutch cities that are questioning theprimacy of engineering-only solutions for what they call “flooddefense.” By 2015, each city will develop a strategic plan in thenational project called “Room for the River.”
Dordrecht also helped form “Drecht cities,” a consortium ofriverside towns looking at regional solutions to flooding.The cityhas teamed with Spanish venture capitalists on the Urban FloodManagement Project, part of a bid to be in the forefront of aglobal conversation on how cities will cope with climatechange.
But Kelder still fears that any water safety discussion inHolland will stay focused only on engineering solutions. Instead,she said, “We are looking for a paradigm shift.” The GSD studentshad the same game-shifting notion. Their projects looked at afuture Dordrecht region. It could be a place where algae are farmedfor energy, and where fertilizer-intensive dry-land agriculturegives way to farming mollusks.
It could be “depopulated” as residents are drawn toflood-resilient housing outside the dikes and existing streetsalternately become public spaces and flood-controlmechanisms. Why shouldn’t there be fewer people in the city,asked one presentation. After all, in sprawling Dordrecht, 60percent of the land mass employs only 1 percent of its citizens. Orthe future Dordrecht could be a place of “gradient urbanism,” wheredikes are expanded to become places to live. Or it could be a placeof “climate capitalism,” where the adaptation to sea level rise isthe engine for new industries.
“Depoldering Dordrecht” brochure
One project noted that by the middle of this century, two-thirdsof the world’s population will live in flood-prone delta regions. Afuture Dordrecht that relied on “ecological interventions” tosupplement engineering solutions could become a coastal urbantemplate for the world.
Bax, the city planner, liked the sweep of the Harvardpresentations, and that they were created by “people from anothercontinent, with a fresh view.” To summarize and illustratetheir complex projects, the students designed and printed a”Depoldering Dordrecht” brochure, complete with faux ads thatanticipate a future in commercial concert with the sea. There wereads for estuary-cultivated pearls, “one-stop shopping” for oystersand other bivalves, and a bumper sticker that read: “We [Heart]Floods.”
Of all the ads, said Belanger, “The one for Prada hip boots ismy favorite.” But what can Harvard possibly bring to theDutch, who have so expertly been holding back the sea forcenturies?
“A fresh look,” said Tracy Metz, a Dutch urbanist, architecturewriter, and critic who originated the idea of a Harvard-Hollandpartnership. She was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard from 2006 to 2007.”The Dutch will always have to pump,” but you can’t only pump, saidMetz, especially since many of the hard-engineering solutions ofrecent decades have come with a steep ecological price. “We want tofind new ways of living with water and living with nature.”
The Harvard project might help, said Kelder, calling it acollection of ideas that are smart, innovative, and “beautifullypresented.” But the next step has to be translating these ideasinto something that politicians, businessmen, and citizens willunderstand. “Everyone has to see the benefits. Then we will gothere,” said Kelder.
Next stop: Rotterdam
Meanwhile, ideas should be supplemented with a pilot projectthat interrupts the engineering-only dialogue. “It’s very importantto break up the discussion,” she said, sitting near the brightstudent posters. “And you don’t break up a discussion with justthis.” Metz said the Harvard-Holland project could go into a thirdyear, though discussions are continuing. If it did, GSD studentsand faculty would deal with issues in Rotterdam, the largest Dutchport.
As for Dordrecht, said Kelder: Two years is a start for auniversity-government collaboration, but 10 or 20 years makes moresense. “It’s brilliant what they’ve done,” she said of the GSDstudents. “Now we need to do something with it.”
The May 4 presentations were sponsored by theHarvard-Netherlands Project on Climate Change, Water, LandDevelopment, and Adaptation, in association with the NetherlandsMinistry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management; theNetherlands Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment;and the Netherlands-based Deltares Institute. Participatinggraduate students – who spend a week in Dordrecht in March – wereCasey Elmer, Jianhang Gao, Kimberly Garza, Julia Grinkrug, EamonnHutton, Haein Lee, Jae Yoon Lee, James Moore, Abhishek Sharma,Soomin Shin, Richa Shukla, Gyoung Tak Park, Sarah Thomas, and LaciVidemsky.
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