Human-Centered Infrastructure in the Netherlands

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient Kristen Hill traveled to the Netherlands during the summer of 2017 to research water management and community engagement practices. Kristen is a recent graduate of Tulane’s M.Arch program and worked with the Taylor Center as a Design Thinking Fellow during the 2016-2017 school year. She currently works with Ripple Effect, a New Orleans non-profit that promotes water literacy, as a Design Education Fellow. For more on Kristen’s trip, on-going research and what Ripple Effect is up to check out their facebook page.

Polders make up much of the Dutch landscape

The polder is the first step in understanding the complex history of the Dutch landscape. A polder is a low-lying piece of land in which water must be mechanically pumped up and out. In the Netherlands, polders make up much of the agricultural landscape and are a key part of the country’s identity. They even inspired a term, “polderen,” which means to compromise and work together, usually when referring to opposing viewpoints. The “polderen” relationship between the Netherlands and New Orleans began in 2006 through the Dutch Dialogues. The exchange with Dutch and American designers was initiated with the goal of sharing knowledge and creating a plan for New Orleans that incorporated geographic context and more sustainable urban water management techniques. This relationship continues today as New Orleans strives to work through coastal and urban water management issues.

Orleans Ave. Canal, New Orleans

Coming from New Orleans where social media campaigns to “Fix My Street” and other disapproval of local leadership are a regular part of life, the genuine trust the Dutch citizens have in their government is, at times, hard to believe. The key takeaway centers around water and water infrastructure as a part of daily life and an asset to society instead of being viewed as a barrier or nuisance. The Dutch are not afraid to try new ideas and although they don’t have it all figured out, they have been combating water issues and sinking themselves below sea level for hundreds of years. Instead of compartmentalizing projects to solve a singular problem at a time they work through the theme of polderen to bring as many views as possible to the table.

Westersingel, Rotterdam

The Netherlands, as did many parts of the world, developed around its water systems. The urban areas were connected by a web of both natural and man-made waterways used for transportation of goods and people. As methods of transportation developed and the waterways were no longer required in the same way their function shifted. Although large rivers such as the Maas that runs through Rotterdam are still active shipping routes. Smaller urban canals which were originally designed for drainage have often become primary public spaces in cities. Westersingel, in Rotterdam, extends directly from the main entrance of Centraal Station. The canal weaves together numerous layers of transportation infrastructure (including trams, bikes, pedestrians and cars) as well as various scales of public space. While the canal is full on a daily basis the water level can be lowered in preparation for a rain event. This is a radically different site-based approach when compared to the outfall canals in New Orleans which are confined by concrete floodwalls that divide neighborhoods on either side both from the water and each other.

Katwijk parking garage and dunes

One of the recent crown jewels in Dutch coastal infrastructure is Katwijk. The beach town of Katwijk faces issues of coastal erosion, vulnerability to storms from the North Sea and extreme parking needs during the “busy season” when tourists from around the country flock to the beach. In response, the solution focuses on a coastal defense system with a parking garage and sea wall hidden beneath extended sand dunes. While the simplest solution would have been to address each problem individually (building a sea wall and a large garage and replenishing the beach) by bringing them together an efficient and elegant solution is created which focuses on the people who will be using it.

The human-centered approach is also being taken on from an organizational standpoint with programs such as Amsterdam Rainproof. Rainproof was created by Waternet is a water company that addresses “the entire water cycle” from drinking water to sewage and drainage in Amsterdam and the surrounding area. In response to a large rain event that occurred in Copenhagen in 2011, Waternet’s response was to dedicate two million euros and hire a high level engineer to create a program. Although funded with government money, Rainproof exists outside of the Waternet identity and has the freedom to define itself and its goals. The programs expressed purpose is to work with citizens to build capacity and better prepare the city for large scale rain events. Their work includes working directly with

Rainproof funds innovative technologies like this “polder roof”

stakeholders and elected officials, distribution of educational materials and open source graphics that illustrate clear solutions at all scales and working with partners to help a number of built projects get off the ground. One particularly compelling initiative is a series of neighborhood scale diagrams that detail the how water flows and what the priority areas for reducing runoff should be street by street. These diagrams will help prioritize existing street restoration funding to incorporate sustainable stormwater management techniques. Director, Daniel Goodbloed, said his goal for Rainproof 5 years down the road is that it won’t need to exist anymore. Rainproof works with citizens to create proactive solutions that work in the context of their environment and will continue to work even after the program is gone.

Although many parallels and inspiration can be drawn from the Dutch the true strength of these designs are their response to context. The context of living in a country ⅔ at or below sea level is central to everything the Dutch do but it is not the only factor. The Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch government agency that oversees infrastructure and the environment, utilizes an “Integrated Project Management” model for all of their major projects. Under the lead project manager there is an environment manager (who mostly focuses on stakeholders), a technical manager, contract manager, and a

The coastal defenses at Scheveningen were recently modernized. They also serve as public boardwalk and gathering space.

planning manager. By dedicating space at the table for a variety of perspectives the context considered becomes broader and more thorough. The interdisciplinary teams allow space for more innovative projects to be accomplished.Dutch projects do not present solutions meant to be mirrored in New Orleans. Aside from fundamental size and cultural differences the annual amount of precipitation in New Orleans is about double that of the Netherlands. Instead, in the Dutch spirit, the city must draw from its own citizens when planning future infrastructure. Through a “polderen” collaboration solutions can be reached that keep the city safe and embrace what makes the city unique.

Using lessons learned from other cultures who have faced similar challenges, how might we design infrastructure in the context of the community who will be occupying it?