Water and the City: How citizens respond to flooding
On 23 March, the Environmental Humanities Center organized a symposium on the topic of Water and the City.
07/04/2018 | 2:51 PM
Climate change, increasing rainfall, sea level rise, and flood risk pose significant challenges for low-lying countries such as The Netherlands. Historically, Amsterdam has devised a number of strategies to deal with water problems in the city. In this symposium organized in the week of World Water Day, we looked back to ingenuous solutions and cultural practices of the past, and looked forward to new forms of urban design and ‘hydrocitizenship’.
In the introduction Petra van Dam, chair professor of Water, Culture and Environment (VU) said that we have two kinds of flooding. The classical flooding is the result of breaking dikes. Entire polders or even cities and villages were flooded by seawater or riverwater, though often the historical centres of settlements remained dry, built on high elements in the landscape (old river dunes, terpen). The modern flooding is flooding of cities, due to cluster rain showers. The capacity of the sewer systems is simply not large enough to deal with lots of rain.
She also introduced the term ‘hydrocitizenship’ (‘waterburgerschap’). It is a new concept in international scholarly debate among environmental historians, geographers, and scientists which encompasses heightened awareness of the meaning and value of water among citizens and both bottom-up and top-down community engagement for sustainable water management. She also asked whether this would be a concept that the Environmental Humanities Center should take up and elaborate. Or should we stick with ‘ecological citizenship,’ which is bigger and addresses a much wider awareness of all sorts of environmental problems and solutions?
The first session focused on past ways of dealing with water in the city. Petra van Dam provided a historical and cultural perspective of the ways in which Amsterdam coped with water in the 17th century. In her presentation she showed how, in the Golden Age, the Dutch established the NAP (Normaal Amsterdams Peil – Amsterdam Ordnance Datum) to improve measuring water levels and the height of dikes, and how this was related to coping with floods and increasing sea levels of the Zuiderzee. The rising of the Zuiderzee was related to big geological coastal processes, such as the widening of the sea inlets between the Wadden Isles, and not to climate change, yet for the contemporary people the result was the same as for us: sea level rise and, in particular, higher storm surges. The primary reaction also was similar, raising the dikes. However, one may doubt if this will remain an adequate strategy, since the current rising is much faster, than the historical one.
The second speaker was Ellen Vreenegoor, senior programme manager for the priority task: ‘Cultural heritage in relation to water challenges in the Netherlands’. She works for the Cultural Heritage Agency in Amersfoort, an agency part of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (RCE) and has an academic background in history, historical-geography and archaeology at the University of Amsterdam. Vreenegoor showed a longterm history of the landscape. She also showed a few examples of how the Cultural Heritage Agency thinks we could use old elements in the landscape to enlarge water drainage capacity. This included ponds of old watermill ensembles, parts of the old Dutch water lines and canals in cities. Some of those canals are visible on old maps, like those drawn by Jacop van Deventer. These are ideals objects for towns to be reconstructed if they need more water reserves.
After these two presentations a discussion followed. One of the questions was if in the past it was easier for people to live with the water. Vreenegoor stated that along the river Meuse, in the cities, people were used to flooding cellars.
The second sessions focused the present.
The third speaker was Daniël Goedbloed, programme manager of Amsterdam Rainproof. He introduced the Amsterdam Rainproof initiative and updated us on different projects taking place on the household, street and neighbourhood level to protect Amsterdam from frequent downpours. The Rainproof initiative offers a network platform to promote hydrocitizenship, encouraging all Amsterdammers to take an active role in tackling the issue.
The final speaker of the day was Ralph Lasage, senior researcher at Amsterdam Water Science and the Institute of Environmental Studies of the VU. He presented the project of the ‘polderdak’. He hopes that the VU will realise this type of green roof on the latest building under construction, the Nieuwe Universiteitsgebouw.
After these two sessions a lively discussion followed on all sorts of ways to capture and reuse rain on roofs and otherwise.
The day was closed with thank you’s for the presenters and the institutes who made presenters available.
Please find the presentations of the speakers here.