Posted: November 6, 2018
by Winslow Hastie, President & CEO
I was honored to be invited to join a special delegation of Charleston leaders on a fact-finding trip to the Netherlands in early October. As guests of the Dutch Embassy and the Water Institute of the Gulf (based in Baton Rouge, LA), we toured the country to see cities and projects where the Dutch are implementing innovative approaches to water management. I was joined by Mayor John Tecklenburg, Councilman Mike Seekings, Councilman Dudley Gregorie, Chief Resilience Officer Mark Wilbert, Planning Director Jacob Lindsey, Parks Director Jason Kronsberg, Public Service (Stormwater) Director Laura Cabiness, Dennis Frazier from the Medical University, civil engineering consultant Jared Bramblett, and Sara Brown with the Army Corps of Engineers.
The purpose of this trip was to learn what the Dutch are doing in the areas of water management and resiliency, but what ended up being the most valuable was having our group from Charleston together focusing on a singular topic for five entire days. With the distractions of daily life removed, we were able to have honest and in-depth discussions with our hosts and with each other about what the future of Charleston could look like if we embraced some of the fundamental Dutch philosophies about how to deal with water. In recent years there has been a paradigm shift in the way that the Dutch approach stormwater sea level rise, and flooding. Because a large swath of their country is below sea level (including the areas that are most densely populated), they have recognized that there is a limit to the typical engineering solutions used in keeping out water. Dikes can only be so high, and pumps can only be so large; after a certain point these approaches are no longer realistic nor economically feasible.
The Dutch have pivoted towards a “living with water” approach by asking a fairly basic question: how can we let the water in while at the same time improve the lives of our citizenry? This has led to a “multiple benefit solution” approach to infrastructure planning. For example, in the resort area of Katwijk on the North Sea, they created a massive sea wall, covered it in sand and native grasses to form a dune and then inserted a massive parking garage inside the dune. They realized that the community would support projects that had multiple benefits that ultimately improved their lives and made them safer. The Dutch government’s overarching policy is to improve water management and protection while at the same time improving what they refer to as the “spatial quality” of a place. In Rotterdam, we saw an example of this where they have created playgrounds and public squares that also serve as water retention areas when necessary. Their recipe for success can be attributed to the fact that they always pair an engineer with a landscape architect so that the resulting project will be both functional and attractive.
Since this trip many people have asked me, “How on earth can we implement what the Dutch are doing here in Charleston when the governmental structure, the climate, and the topography are so different?” Those are all valid points. It is time for us to shift our thinking; the status quo will not suffice. As a group, our commitment to bringing an expert team of architects, economists, water engineers, hydrologists and urban designers to Charleston through the Dutch Dialogues process was fortified over this trip. This process will not “solve” our flooding problems, but it will catalyze our community to think differently about water in a more integrated way. We must break down the silos in city government, between the various departments that address flooding and land use—including engineering, stormwater, building codes, planning and zoning, parks and capital projects and resiliency. At the same time, we have to break down silos that exist within our community. While we are quick to argue about project priorities and sources of funding, we need to move beyond that and form actionable plans that will address the issue and move our community forward with a unified vision.
At Deltares, the research and development water think tank in Delft, four words are prominently displayed throughout the offices and guide the organization’s every action: “ambition, inspiration, innovation, vision.” As a community, we need to adopt all four of these in addressing this complicated issue, and I believe the Dutch Dialogues can help to push us in the right direction. At this time, HCF and the City are pulling together the funding to proceed with the Dutch Dialogues process starting in early 2019. The Foundation will be investing in this effort both financially and through staff time as we remain committed to the preservation of this city not just in our lifetimes, but for generations to come.
Pictured above: The Maeslant structure is the biggest mobile barrier in the world — picture a pair of steel lattices twice the size of the Eiffel Tower, lying down on either side of the channel connecting the Netherlands’ second-biggest city to the North Sea. The Dutch built the massive gate in the 1990s to protect Rotterdam from a storm surge of up to three meters. Source and caption: NPR.