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Urban resilience in Rotterdam

The story of Rotterdam

We live in an era in which we are experiencing negative effects of climate change. Our planet is warming up, leading to sea level rise and more extreme weather events in our cities. Cities worldwide will expand to 2.7 billion people by 2050. Hence, we have to change the way we plan our cities: we need to build resilient cities. Cities that have “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience“ (definition by the 100 Resilient Cities network). If we do not change our urban planning system towards a more resilient approach, cities such as London, New York, and Shanghai may be flooded and will no longer be inhabitable.

Approximately 500 million people live in deltas. Deltas typically have very fertile land and are a gateway to overseas trade. As such, they are often pursued as one of the most prosperous places to live. Consequently, most of the population growth will take place in deltas. However, deltas are also some of the most vulnerable areas. They are threatened by both flooding and subsidence. That is why those areas are forced to change even more rapidly into resilient and livable areas.

Urbanizing deltas around the world that are facing flooding and subsidence, Image from “urbanizing deltas around the world” by Han Meyer

The Dutch tradition of water management

Since deltas have been inhabited, many different flood and subsidence protective have been invented. The Netherlands is a country that is mostly situated below sea level, in the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta. Consequently, the negative effects of climate change, soil subsidence and urbanization are all increasing the risk of flooding. Within the Netherlands, water comes from four different sides: the sea, the hinterland (Germany and Belgium), rainwater and groundwater. Therefore, the Dutch have invented a polder system that consists of dikes, pumps, and urban water management to protect the Netherlands from flooding. The figure explains how the Dutch have kept their feet dry until now.

Polder systems in the Netherlands, Image from “Rotterdam Adaptation Strategy”

From fighting water to living with water

The Netherlands is facing sea level rise and must strengthen its water management system. Dikes have to be raised and larger pumps need to be installed. The question is whether they are able to design livable cities by improving water management and creating dikes that are 3 or 4 meters high. In doing so, would Dutch cities become resilient from both physical and socio-economic perspectives? As a response to this, the Dutch have decided not to “fight against the water”, but to “live with water” instead. One of the first cities to embrace this concept in the Netherlands is the City of Rotterdam. Hence, Rotterdam was one of the first cities to become part of the 100 Resilient Cities network: a network that encourages cities worldwide to change their current planning systems into a more resilient urban planning and design system.

Area of Rotterdam that is located below sea level (the darker the color is the lower the area is)

New approach for urban resilience

The City of Rotterdam is located near the North Sea and is one of the main gateways to Europe. With 80% of its urban area below sea level, Rotterdam is a true delta city. Nowadays, the city has 635,000 inhabitants with many different cultural backgrounds. Without climate change, Rotterdam already faces water-related challenges. Ongoing urbanization, expansion of the port, and new infrastructure means that water resilience is always on the agenda. Climate change is creating an additional sense of urgency, along with several other disruptive transitions, such as digitalization and the energy transition. These factors led to the city deciding to develop an overall resilience strategy (launched in 2016).

In order to cope with challenges and changes that are taking place simultaneously, the resilience strategy focuses on 7 goals using the 7 resilience qualities. Rotterdam aims for:

    1. Rotterdam: a balanced society
    1. World Port City built on clean and reliable energy
    1. Rotterdam Cyber Port City
    1. Climate Adaptive city to a new level
    1. Infrastructure ready for the 21st century
    1. Rotterdam network – Truly our city
    1. Anchoring resilience in the city

The resilience strategy is, first and foremost, to bring the city to a next level of climate readiness. The implementation of this climate adaptation strategy started in 2013. Examples of the implementation are: acceleration of policies regarding vital infrastructure, cyber-resilient water systems, multifunctional roof landscapes, and mainstreaming water resilience through a strong participative process.

Examples initiatives

This comprehensive approach increases the city’s resilience on a district level. It anticipates the consequences of climate change, improves the quality of public space, and also contributes to improving the social cohesion of the community. Several examples of this approach have been implemented in Rotterdam; three of these are explained below.

1. The Benthemplein water square The world’s first large-scale water square has accomplished two goals: during heavy rain it captures a large quantity of water and returns it to nature, and it enhances the appearance of the city. The water square was designed according to an intensive participation process. During rainfall, water is collected in 3 basins. The accumulated water is then drained into the soil or is funneled to a nearby canal. The 3 basins hold up to 1.7 million liters of water (1,700 m3). This model is now being expanded to more squares in Rotterdam and other cities worldwide.

2. Multifunctional rooftop programme A unique roof landscape is evolving above the city. The surface area of the flat roofs in Rotterdam is about 15,000,000 m2. The possibilities to use the roofs for climate adaptation are endless: to make Rotterdam a greener city, as a water buffer, for the generation of sustainable energy, and as new places for people to meet. The future roof landscape in Rotterdam will consist of so-called green, blue, red, and yellow roofs. Each color represents a particular function: yellow for solar energy, green for vegetation on roofs, and blue for extra water storage. Red roofs have a social function; more and more, roofs are being used as meeting places. This is a necessary expansion of public spaces in cities, which are becoming more congested because of densification.

3. Global Centre of Excellence on Climate Adaptation In Rotterdam, a Global Centre of Excellence on Climate Adaptation is established. The Centre will support those that have the ambition to put climate adaptation effectively into practice, in all parts of the world. It will collect lessons learned from recently executed policies, programs and projects and use them to develop guidance to accelerate climate adaptation. Consequently, it will be used to support countries, communities and companies to successfully integrate climate adaptation into their investment decisions.