“The city of Rotterdam is protected by a tidal park that surrounds it on all four sides, ensuring a constant supply of water.”
This area used to be a busy harbor for industries, but it has been transformed into something completely different – a tidal park designed to accommodate the natural ebb and flow of the river in the heart of the city, creating a thriving habitat for wildlife.
The swans have made themselves comfortable on the glistening Keilehaven waters in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Other feathered creatures such as grebes, oystercatchers, wild ducks, and kingfishers are also finding their place here swiftly.
According to Dirk van Peijpe, a landscape architect from De Urbanisten architecture bureau, this may be a glimpse of the future. He believes that there is a growing focus on an ecological agenda that considers not only climate change, but also the preservation of nature. He questions whether our efforts are solely for the benefit of humans or if we are also considering the well-being of city wildlife.
The tidal park, which has won awards, is located near his shared offices. It offers a solution to the question. In the past, it was a gloomy industrial harbor. However, it has been transformed into a sandy beach that leads to the water. The park also features shelves of different heights and barriers made from tiles that were removed from Rotterdammers’ gardens. Native plants will be planted and allowed to grow freely.
“According to Marit Janse, a senior landscape architect at De Urbanisten, the introduction of nature-friendly banks has led to the emergence of new species, such as wading birds that come to feed in the silt. The construction of tidal parks also aims to restore the lost identity of the region as a natural estuary system, finding a balance between natural processes and the human-made park.”
This task is not a privilege. Rotterdam is a metropolis that, similar to the majority of individuals or locations in the Netherlands, defines its identity through its connection to water. This is a longstanding bond; as the saying goes, while God may have created the world, it was the Dutch who created the Netherlands. Poet Hendrik Marsman, writing in the 1930s, depicted a country where “the sound of water/ with its never-ending catastrophes/ is both feared and heard.”
However, it is also a relationship that spans both the present and future. As sea levels continue to rise and the climate crisis is linked to more intense rainfalls, this relationship becomes more crucial. Van Peijpe noted, “In Rotterdam, water is a threat from all directions.” Delta cities are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change, including sea level rises that are occurring at a faster rate than anticipated. Additionally, these cities face challenges from heavy rainfall events, drought, and rising groundwater levels, often compounded by subsidence.
During the month of December, there was severe weather caused by Storm Pia and heavy rainfall. In response, Rotterdam utilized its Maeslant storm barrier for the first time to defend against potential flooding. Other regions also took precautionary measures, such as using sandbags, to combat the abnormally high water levels in the Maas and Rijn rivers, as well as the IJssel and Marker lakes.
According to Dr. Frans Klijn, a senior specialist in floods at the Deltares institute, the government now has a clear policy of prioritizing water and ground in both water management and urban development. He explains that the increasingly severe weather conditions make it difficult to maintain precise water and groundwater levels, leading to a need for more flexibility and space for water storage and discharge. The water boards are already advising new developers to avoid wet areas and allow for larger freeboard and fluctuation potential. Additionally, there is a need for more storage space for water.
The “Room for the River” project, which costs €2.3 billion, aims to create floodplains at over 30 sites along four rivers. It has been praised for preventing the country from experiencing severe flooding this year. The national delta programme is committed to investing in measures to protect against flooding until 2050. Additionally, the multi-billion euro flood protection programme (HWPB) includes 100 projects to reinforce kilometers of dykes. According to Rijkswaterstaat, the infrastructure organization, if these dykes were not strengthened, 60% of the country would frequently be flooded.
According to Arnoud Molenaar, the chief resilience officer of Rotterdam, water protection in cities must also consider urban design in order to create an appealing and adaptable city. A significant amount of effort has been put into this, resulting in the construction of water squares, green and blue roofs, and a 2km-long park on top of a railway viaduct. The water squares, which were also designed by De Urbanisten, are built in areas where there is excess rainwater. They function by filling up during heavy rainfall and then gradually draining, preventing the storm drains from becoming overwhelmed. Once the water has receded, these spaces can be used as public areas again.
Molenaar emphasizes that our priority is not investing in measures that we will regret. Instead, our focus is on transformative delta management, rather than making small adjustments. It is crucial to consider water safety in the broader context of all transitions. Furthermore, waterfront properties have a higher value and we aim to create a greener city that is appealing to higher-income families and businesses. By implementing intelligent strategies for an adaptive city, we can also enhance its attractiveness.
According to Niels de Zwarte, deputy director of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam, the incorporation of floating houses can benefit nature as well. The structures can provide shelter for various marine life such as mussels, algae, fish, and macrofauna, while green facades can support plant growth. He also emphasized the importance of incorporating designated areas for water in urban planning to allow for a blend of nature and recreation. These spaces would provide opportunities for city dwellers to enjoy nature within the city.
According to Friso de Zeeuw, a retired professor at TU Delft who specialized in spatial development, excessive urban planning can lead to a disconnect from the reality of a country that is accustomed to annual flooding. He suggests focusing on building stronger dykes and allowing rivers more space, rather than strictly adhering to new planning regulations. De Zeeuw believes that it is better to accept occasional minor flood damage than to impose strict rules. He compared society to the princess in the story who complained about feeling a small pea under a pile of mattresses, saying that we tend to overreact to small inconveniences.
However, there are many who embrace a shift in the direction of urban planning, particularly at Keilehaven. “I have a fondness for nature-oriented projects that incorporate the ebb and flow of tides,” expressed de Zwarte. “Rotterdam is truly one-of-a-kind in having a river with such a transition from freshwater to saltwater.”