This is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of “How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia” by Stan Cox and Paul Cox, published this month by The New Press. The book’s ten stories of unnatural disaster include post-Sandy New York and pre-inundation Miami. This passage expands on those stories.
When danger looms in the United States of America, there’s always one answer close at hand: build a wall. Since well before they came into fashion for border control, concrete and earth have been piled along almost every coast and waterway to keep floods and storms at bay. Even in the decade following Hurricane Katrina—as obvious a case of this strategy’s failure as one could ask for—official attention focused on reinforcing the levees around New Orleans and the Army Corps of Engineers’ construction of a 1.8-mile-long storm surge barrier. But after 2005, with the nation’s attention riveted on Louisiana, planners also needed to show something fresher than the same old fortifications. So they called in the Dutch.
The engineers who flocked from the Netherlands to New Orleans were soon taking calls from other American cities—notably New York and Miami. After Sandy, one Dutch team drew up a short-lived proposal for a $6.5 billion barrier across New York Harbor, and Dutch designers and consultants worked on four of the six winning entries in the federal Rebuild by Design competition. The competition itself was instigated by the energetic Henk Ovink, who became a senior adviser to the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, and now serves as the Dutch Special Envoy for International Water Affairs.
Dutch experts also began to visit Miami, the sinking city that Ovik calls “New Atlantis”, but most came away as frustrated as him by the plight of a sea-level metropolis built on porous limestone. No problem: there were plenty of other coasts around the globe needing protection. Countries as scattered as the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Mozambique, and Bangladesh have recently enlisted Dutch help. In one of the grandest projects, the Netherlands and its former colony of Indonesia commissioned a troupe of top Dutch firms to build an immense seawall in the shape of the mythical eagle Garuda, designed to protect sinking Jakarta with its outstretched wings—while doubling as a luxurious new development district. (Debate over the wisdom of this plan continues.)
For the Dutch, flood control is existential. A third of the Netherlands is already below sea level; more is at risk of flooding from the rivers that pour through the delta, which are becoming less predictable in their flows; and more than ever, given projected sea level rise, a cessation of flood control would cause most of the country to vanish. While the Netherlands traces its hydro-engineering from the first dikes and windmills (which served to pump water off the land), the country entered the modern field after its own Katrina: a 1953 North Sea storm that wrought disastrous and deadly floods. The government responded with a fifty-year program of unprecedented armoring, with higher dikes, sluices, seawalls, and moving storm surge barriers, under the collective name of the Delta Works.
The last of the Works was completed in 1997, just as climate fears bubbled to the surface elsewhere in the world. Combining its long hydro-engineering history with Euro-cool design flair and a climate innovation pitch, the Netherlands was suddenly an undisputed brand—the Apple of adaptation.
The last great linchpin in the Delta Works was the titanic Maeslantkering storm surge barrier, a pair of automatic pivoting doors that form perhaps the largest man-made moving structure on the planet. Seen from a harbor boat heading toward Rotterdam, the Maeslantkering’s open arms appear unreal, like the kind of lever Archimedes would use to move the Earth. And this is only the outermost rim of Rotterdam’s water controls.
“We want to become a resilient city from every brick to the barrier,” says Arnoud Molenaar, manager of the city’s Rotterdam Climate Proof program. Eighty percent of the city lies below the level of its own port (by more than twenty feet in places), and every drop of rain that falls and waterway that flows in behind the dikes has to be pumped out, including the entire Rotte River. Big rainstorms demand an immense holding capacity from the urban environment while the pumps do their work. Molenaar estimates that the city center must be able to hold 80 million gallons, the capacity of an oil supertanker. (To illustrate that quantity, there are useful visual aids plying into the Port of Rotterdam on a daily basis.)
A 2014 New York Times Magazine article, How to Think Like the Dutch in a Post-Sandy World, described Rotterdam as a city “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.” In 2014 at least, this was a bit of exaggeration. Rotterdam is a city poised between architectural rendering and reality. “We have been investing at the scale of objects,” Molenaar told us on a visit that summer.
He was referring to wonders such as the Floating Pavilion, a triple geodesic dome built on the harbor as a demonstration piece, and Water Square Benthemplein, the sunken basketball court that the Times oddly pluralized. Bigger district-level plans were stymied by the European debt crisis that struck in 2009. But the objects are working. The architects of the Water Square, De Urbanisten, parlayed the square’s fame into a partnership in one of the successful Rebuild by Design entries in New Jersey.
De Urbanisten and fellow Rotterdam studio ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles) joined with MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism to enter the competition. In their presentations the team modestly referred to the task of defending New York and New Jersey as Delta Works 3.0. Their winning design was an overhaul of the New Jersey Meadowlands, proposing a berm around the remnant wetlands built into a raised development band, a linear city of multistory mixed-use buildings where there are currently only warehouses.
The logic of the so-called New Meadowlands sounds curious—protecting a vulnerable area by drawing in more assets—but it’s classically Dutch. And it has translated well to growth-led cities in America, where the New York waterfront and the Miami Beach bayfront follow much the same logic. At the ZUS office, Kristian Koreman, leader of the New Meadowlands team, explained, “Yes, you can pour a lot of money into securing and making this area beautiful, but this whole plan would cost $1.5 billion. You could in a traditional way extract that from the federal government and pour it into this, but a much more resilient way would be to connect it to the local economic system, so it can be much more than just the investment.” Koreman saw this coming up through pilot projects and incentive zoning inspired by Manhattan’s privately owned public spaces (POPS, the best known of which is Zucotti Park).
For Koreman and his collaborator, Florian Boer of De Urbanisten, the competition was a chance to design on a scale and with a freedom they can’t at home. “The openness of the question and the process is unseen in the Netherlands,” Boer said. Added Koreman, “Ultimately they asked us not ‘Where’s the problem?’ but ‘Where’s the opportunity?’ That’s what we like about America.”
Rotterdam bills itself as the city that “connects water with opportunities,” and the biggest opportunities are Rotterdam’s. As Molenaar explains, “We as a city have certain needs and we have challenges here at home, and we need innovative solutions to become more resilient. And if we do it in a way that is innovative and we implement it here, then we build our own showcase.”
This reminded us of something we’d been told in Miami by Harold Wanless, a geology professor who chairs the science committee for the Miami-Dade Climate Change Advisory Task Force. “The Dutch are here to help everybody so they can make money to build and maintain their own structures so they can survive themselves,” Wanless said. “It’s sort of like the old Dutch East India Company.”
This may be the most cynical description of the Dutch strategy, but the resonances are hard to miss in Rotterdam, ever a mainline conduit of the global market. Now the city and the country appear to have found a promising solution in marketing solutions. This sort of ingenuity will forever be a part of the Netherlands because of its existential commitment to engineered, development-led defense. Growth pays for protection and demands protection; defending capital with capital takes more of it all the time.As a showcase for the climate-ready future, Rotterdam carries every bit of that future’s baggage. Two flows define the city: the 760 million tons of rainwater that enter and leave the city every year and the 240 million tons of cargo that enter and leave its port. It’s mostly because of the port that Rotterdam charts one of the highest per-capita carbon emissions rates of any major city in the world, with 29.8 tons emitted annually per resident. Beyond the port and its associated industries, Rotterdam is also the Netherlands’ only highly car-dependent city, reconstructed after World War II on an auto-friendly American template.
In 2006 the city launched the Rotterdam Climate Initiative to oversee a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2025. In 2008 it began a separate program, Rotterdam Climate Proof, which was focused on adapting the city itself to change. A year later the two programs merged, and the more attractive and achievable Climate Proof goals soon edged out the original one.
For the time being, growth in Rotterdam is still closely tied to emissions. At least the resilient showcase pieces sprinkled around the city have small carbon footprints—but where do those footprints lead?
The Floating Pavilion clings like a cluster of soap bubbles beneath the skyline of the Wilhelminakade. Beside it sways a small grove of trees: an art installation called the Bobbing Forest, made up of repurposed buoys filled with soil and each planted with a Dutch elm sapling. The Pavilion is portable and will eventually be towed to other countries, a traveling floor model of green ingenuity. Inside, the attendant Duncan Vlag shows us its experimental solar climate control and water recycling. From our vantage point, he also expresses a designer’s admiration for the soaring Wilhelminakade and its statuesque New Orleans tower, an Alvaro Siza–designed building with peach-colored stone cladding from a quarry in China. But Vlag acknowledges that these developments aren’t really on the same page with the climate-friendly message of the Floating Pavilion. “It is kind of pointless to say we built this as an example for the city, and then right next to it you have this tower and four or five ships coming all the way from China full of stone. We could never balance that out.”
Come Float Away
The homeland of hydro-control has paid the price for its accelerated armoring of coast and riverbank, as more people and industries moved into better defended land, raising higher the consequences of failure. The last years of the Delta Works were marred by economically disastrous floods in 1993 and 1995. In 2006, the Netherlands’ water managers decided they couldn’t keep raising their bets, so they folded.
The next works, a $2.8 billion project called Room for the River, not only reversed the tactic of the previous sixty years; it represented a retreat from centuries of Dutch protective strategy. Along the Rhine, Meuse, Waal, and Ijssel Rivers, dikes have been pushed inland, floodplains restored, built obstacles removed, and sacrificial overflows established. Whole towns, in some cases, have moved. The shift from armoring to acceptance has dramatically increased the safe carrying capacity of the rivers and restored environmental quality through the delta.
Such a quick about-face is impressive and the voluntary movement of entire communities even more so. The ecological turn shows a softer side of the Dutch. The country’s regional Water Boards have existed since the thirteenth century, managing their respective patchworks of polders, dikes, and canals. They were the country’s first democratic institutions, and they represent the deep pilings of Dutch civic spirit. Living within a giant engineering experiment, the medieval Dutch learned, meant that communal concerns always came first, backed by the weight of water. This didn’t make Room for the River an easy task—the town hall arguments were long and vocal—it just made it possible.
From the moment it began, Room for the River was quickly absorbed into the Netherlands’ self-image and sales pitch. It’s a badge of environmental honor and engineering insight, but the ecological turn itself has not sold as well on the foreign market. Customers have reason to be skeptical of how ecological solutions—especially ones involving retreat—will fit with the free market.
Is there a way to make room for the river, or the sea, without forcing a retreat? There seems to be only one alternative: float. As a new imaginative frontier in the engineering approach, bouyant architecture projects the perfect image. The Floating Pavilion became an instant icon because it speaks to sacrifice without the sacrifice, a party that doesn’t have to end but can continue on the water—even stormy water or rising water. Floating structures bob through sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s era of “liquid modernity,” along with the hovering drones of war, drifting tides of labor, and buoyant liquidity of the neoliberal market.
Which is not to say that floating buildings are a new idea. People have lived on the water for a very long time, not least in the Netherlands, where the barges and woonboten (living-boats) of city canals have long been a home for the outcasts, the eccentrics, and the just plain poor. In recent years this semi-outlaw mode of life has been rehabilitated into a real estate trend, apace with the country’s renewed embrace of water.
Studios such as Koen Olthius’s Waterstudio.NL are designing hundreds of modern floating houses, floating apartment buildings, floating migrant detention centers, and much more. Olthius has designed floating wonders for clients around the world, including a master plan for the Maldives, the world’s lowest-lying island nation—the facility includes a floating golf course and a 185-villa floating resort in the shape of a flower. He and his contemporaries regularly talk about floating cities in the future. It’s an old science fiction idea that he believes is coming within decades of reality. For some, like the California-based Seasteading Institute (whose Floating City concept is a Dutch design), it’s a libertarian dream to seek autonomy in international waters outside any nation’s jurisdiction. Rotterdam’s floating follies play directly to this vision, taking the Netherlands from the hardest of hard solutions to the swelling crest of liquid modernity.
But if we can float cities to safety, can we float farms, grasslands, and forests to safety too? If we can engineer ways to protect ourselves from the planet, can we engineer ways to protect the planet from ourselves? On the shifting shores of liquid Rotterdam, there’s only one promise: the Dutch are willing to sketch something up.
Stan Cox (@CoxStan) and Paul Cox (@Paul_Cox) are the authors of “How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia,” published by The New Press. Email them at email@example.com