Posted: April 11, 2018
by Winslow Hastie, President & CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation
On March 27th and 28th Charleston hosted the Dutch Ambassador and two specialists for a robust discussion on how the Netherlands approach flooding and sea level rise. Their visit presented an intriguing opportunity for the embattled Charleston community to hear from His Excellency Henne Schuwer, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United States; Mr. Dale Morris, Senior Economist and Coordinator for Water, Royal Netherlands Embassy; and Bart de Jong, Counselor for Infrastructure and Water Management—all experts in the Dutch approaches to water management and urban planning. As most people are already aware, the Netherlands has become the global expert in water management, flooding, and exporting ideas for how to adapt to the challenges of sea level rise. They also have devised a planning process referred to as the Dutch Dialogues, through which they import innovative Dutch ideas into the United States and beyond. This collaborative planning process was developed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and has extended to other cities such as Norfolk, VA.
During their visit, Historic Charleston Foundation convened a group of community leaders to hold a focused discussion around the role that organizations representing the interests of historic preservation, environmental conservation and urban design could play moving forward. The intent was to strengthen relationships within our community as we work to preserve and enhance Charleston’s natural and cultural identity in the face of increased flooding events and rising seas. Certainly, we all need to work together to determine the best solutions moving forward.
Time for a Fresh Look
Working with the city of Charleston and the Charleston Resilience Network, Historic Charleston Foundation is exploring the scope of a Dutch Dialogues workshop in Charleston. Currently, our most significant stormwater infrastructure projects—mainly huge pumps and tunnels—are being driven by a Stormwater Management Plan that the city commissioned in 1984. We believe that an evolution in best practices for water management (and certainly environmental factors such as sea level rise) necessitate a fresh look at these critical issues for our city. A couple of key takeaways from the discussions:
Two other important statements that I heard during the Dutch visit are that, first, our problems are not unique—what we’re experiencing is happening all over the world (which is either comforting or completely frightening depending on how you look at it)—and, second, that this Dutch team has not yet had the opportunity to incorporate historic preservation as a major component of any of their resiliency plans in the United States. So this could be an opportunity for Charleston to lead the way in the realm of preservation yet again.
Time for a Paradigm Shift
As a community, we need to determine our key priority approaches to flooding, resiliency and sea level rise, and have our own paradigm shift that allows for more advanced thinking on how to approach these complicated problems. From my limited perspective, I believe that to-date Charleston’s stormwater management and flooding mitigation plans have been developed largely outside of the public eye. This observation is not meant to be a criticism of the city, but is rather that drainage infrastructure and pumping stations are things that just “happen” with our tax dollars, much like sanitation pick-up, and the citizenry hasn’t previously been compelled to engage. However, those days are over—the public is incredibly interested in this issue, and hence the critical need for a broader dialogue. And I personally believe that the Dutch Dialogues process may be exactly what our community is looking for: outside experts championing the most innovative and progressive thinking as it relates to stormwater management.
Time for Action
As an organization, Historic Charleston Foundation has a legacy of bringing the best and the brightest to Charleston to help the community address a wide array of complex issues, from transportation to attainable housing to urban design. We all know that the last thing we need is just another plan. However, I do think there’s an opportunity for us all to brainstorm on how we can bring the Dutch experts back to Charleston to help us re-imagine infrastructure investments around flooding, and perhaps guide us on how to develop land use ordinances and development standards that innovatively address stormwater management.
The following are some of the questions that I think we need to contemplate as we consider whether a multi-disciplinary team of Dutch experts is the right fit for Charleston at this moment in time:
As an advocacy organization, it’s heartening to see so many people engaged on an issue. The Foundation has prioritized flooding as a major threat to the preservation of Charleston and will commit staff and resources towards advancing viable solutions. We invite you to also play an active role in the effort to mitigate flooding by contributing to our advocacy fund.