Tuesday, October 1, 2013

5 things Miami can learn about sea level rise from the Dutch

It’s possible to live – and thrive – below sea level.

At last month's Resilient Miami Beach seminar Dutch engineers and planners shared their country’s long history of dealing with flooding, what they’ve learned and where they’re headed. Since the first dike was built in 1200 they’ve developed an elaborate system of pumping, dikes, and storm barriers to protect settled land and in some cases reclaim new land. Today 70% of the country’s GDP is below sea level, and in fact the coastline isn’t seen as a liability at all, but an asset, the backbone of the country.

But disasters do happen, when massive floods have occasionally overwhelmed the infrastructure and caused destruction and loss of life. Over 1,800 people died as recently as 1953 when storm surge overtopped dikes in a large area in the south. As the experts explained, those tragedies led to a “safety first” approach which mean projects in vulnerable areas are designed for protection from 1 in 10,000 year storms. By comparison, most of our defenses in the U.S. are for 1 in 100 year storms. 

Culture is thicker than water.

Hazerswoude-Rijndijk - Groenendijkse
Molen by Quistnix
The Netherlands is a small country on a major river delta in northern Europe, tucked between the ocean to the west and Germany to the east. The Dutch don’t have a lot of options if they want to remain a country. So as one Dutch representative said, only half-joking, they decided a long time ago “we’re not moving to Germany.” They worked towards developing systems and creative technologies that allowed people to continue to live there—examples like canal cities with floating houses, and barriers that keep out storm surge. Going all the way back to the windmills which first pumped water to keep farmland dry, these water management solutions have become symbols of the country and a significant part of what makes it unique and attractive.

It’s not just the engineering that matters, it’s the process.

These famous engineering successes didn’t just happen because the Dutch are smart people – they represent hard choices and negotiations about how water and land should be managed, and about spending large amounts of money to develop workable schemes that meet a variety of different and sometimes competing interests - those of coastal landowners, fishermen, shipping, and environmentalists for example. With sea level rising the stakes are even higher. So last year the country decided to devote $1 billion per year to climate adaptation, and to create a plan that involves input and action from all levels of government, the private sector, and the general public.

Obviously a great deal of unity and public support is needed for major changes. The Netherlands has a long-standing  governance structure of water boards, which are elected bodies that have the power to tax and make decisions about water management within their local region. As it’s evolved over the centuries, this system has ingrained into the Dutch DNA that compromise for the sake of water management is a necessary part of life. One consultant group summed it up with a fitting African proverb-- “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.”

Even if something’s been working for 800 years, it might have to change.

Major floods in the early 1990’s caused the country to take stock of their system and make some dramatic changes to the protection approach, particularly in light of accelerated sea level rise. By holding back the water and protecting low-lying areas from flooding the Dutch had actually encouraged development in risky areas. So instead of simply enlarging dikes and waiting for the next flood, they switched approaches – to working with nature instead of against it, and accommodating water during times of flooding instead of attempting to dam it up. For example the “Room for the River” project reshapes urban areas to create wider river basins that can accommodate periodic overflow without damage to life or property. Another example is the “sand engine” which redistributes sand naturally along beaches using the ocean’s currents, instead of trucking it in and dumping it.

How might this work in Miami? Our environment is different and the techniques themselves, like the sand engine, are not necessarily directly transferable. But an approach that understands and respects natural processes seems like an idea whose time has come. Like Everglades restoration, the approach of working with nature still means a managed environment, likely an even more managed environment than ever before. It’s not a return to a state akin to the days before intensive settlement. But it does represent a more realistic understanding and appreciation of our environment than the days of hack jobs like dynamiting the Miami River rapids. And maybe by finally acknowledging the limits of our ability to change our environment, we may actually be able to see more clearly where these limits are and develop realistic, workable approaches.    

To not be prepared is to give up.

You could say the Dutch are as prepared as anyone could be for sea level rise, having developed the understanding of their environment, the technologies, governance structures, and social approval around water management. Their approach is both reactive, built on their experience with past disasters, and proactive in preparing themselves for future extreme events. In South Florida we've learned from our experiences with hurricanes, but are just now developing a wider understanding of our real vulnerability to flooding. We have a window of opportunity for developing a proactive vision for dealing with sea level rise because the longer we wait, the fewer options we will have. If we don't prepare we will end up reacting to what happens with insurance rates, the real estate market, or the next big storm. 

Being proactive might seem costly, but the Dutch experts emphasized that their water management projects must “add value” beyond just holding back the water. For example enormous dikes in seaside cities function as promenades on top and parking garages underneath. Widened riverbeds increase wetlands and natural beauty. In fact one study found that river restoration had 80% public approval not due to fears of flooding, but because of appreciation for the intrinsic value of the natural landscape. And outside the Netherlands, the Dutch are working in countries like Vietnam where projects sometimes represent really new opportunities to remake urban public spaces and provide advanced flood protection for the first time. The "add value" approach shows that adaptation strategies win support by addressing everyday concerns and improving quality of life.

The presentations and video from the seminars are available from the City of Miami Beach here. Especially check out:

Dutch Perspective: Protecting the Coast by Creating Natural Habitat by Marcel Stive (University of Delft) and presented by Ad Reniers (University of Miami)

Dutch Perspective: Resilient Flood Risk Management in Urbanized Areas by Steven Slabbers, Bosch Slabbers Landscape Architects*


  1. Yes, there may be 5 things we may learn from the Dutch about engineering adaptation to sea level rise. Unfortunately, they are probably all wrong.
    By placing undue focus on adaptation schemes – schemes which are, by the way, perfectly suited to the needs of contractors, engineers and architects – we miss the one big lesson that we could learn from those who were here before us; the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. That lesson would be that South Florida is not the place to build a large metropolis. Miami is, and has always been, only suitable for small-scale habitation; a minor fishing village.
    For thousands of years, when large civilizations were being built in Central America and the Caribbean, Miami remained an outpost. Why? Not because those people didn’t know it was here. They knew it was here and they knew it was not fit for human habitation. It remains so today. Only with the introduction of European machines and hubris did anyone even consider it. It is worth noting that the development of Miami, stimulated by a railroad tycoon (economically) seduced by a temptress with beautiful oranges, took place roughly at the same time and with precisely the same equipment and precisely the same arrogance as the building of the Panama Canal. It involved the same process of industrial imperialism. One big difference is that, while the Canal, once completed, is relatively easy to maintain, the process of maintaining a huge metropolis against the inevitable incursion of the Atlantic Ocean is impossible. To be blunt: Miami was a mistake.
    But what is to be done, now that the mistake has been made? First and foremost, the mistake must be recognized. This is important, because without putting down the foolish and baseless arrogance that has characterized Miami’s entire modern history, it will be impossible to make any of the moral choices that need to be made.
    Those choices revolve around solving the inherent conflict between those who will profit from climate change adaptation; the contractors, engineers, architects and planners [these are the very industries that have profited greatly from the current folly] versus the less enabled homeowners and renters who populate what will become ~rather soon~ the sacrifice zones. By focusing entirely on engineering schemes to protect what can be protected and refusing to discuss assisting those in areas that can’t be protected, we completely avoid the obvious moral imperative.
    Suddenly – or not so suddenly if you were paying attention – the insurance issue is upon us. 2014 will be the year marking the collapse of real estate value in South and Western Dade as the federal flood insurance subsidies are withdrawn, as they should be. Homeowners will increasingly find their property resale value (equity) tank as buyers are faced with $3000 per year flood insurance premiums that will go nowhere but up. Those homeowners, who innocently bought homes in areas that never should have been rebuilt after Hurricane Andrew will be the ones sacrificed on the altar of a ‘free market’.
    Relocation assistance for those in untenable areas is not unprecedented. It was done in the Mississippi flood plain region in the mid-1990s. It is the fiscal and moral thing to do. But until we start talking about it; until it is included in the South Florida Climate Action Plan along with all the engineering schemes, no environmental justice can occur.

  2. Thanks for the comment Malagodi, you make a lot of good points. I certainly agree that acknowledging the mistakes of the past and looking to natural systems as we seek to adapt is critical, and I tried to make that point in the post. I also agree that relocation assistance should be included in adaptation planning, but in order for that to happen fairly, there needs to be processes in place for public engagement and decision making – that’s something else that I think the Dutch experience points to.

    The only other thing I’d add is that Miami is certainly not the only place where the capacity of the natural environment is overextended – for example arid regions like the plains states and much of Australia that were turned to intensive farming by European settlers are dealing with soil degradation. Lightening our footprint in sensitive areas will probably take a combination of social, technological and lifestyle changes.

    You might be interested in the “Idle no more” movement which has been fighting for indigenous land rights and resisting fracking in Canada.

    Thanks again for commenting.