By: Grant Mason & Lara Hintelmann
Grant and Lara are in their final year of the graduate planning program at Ryerson University. Lara enjoys exploring new places and learning about how culture and physical landscapes impact each other. Grant enjoys discovering and documenting the beauty in our urban environments and recognizing the ways culture is reflected in architecture. They are both passionate about urban resilience and building healthy sustainable cities.
Leaving Oosterdok in the early afternoon on the Lena Maria, we sailed through the canals of Amsterdam. Taking in the beautiful architecture and getting a feel for the city, we quickly realize two things: the Netherlands is a nation of cyclists and two, it is a nation that lives comfortably with and around water. Upon reaching the countryside, the latter becomes very apparent. Everywhere you look there are straight canals cut into the land. Add in some windmills, grazing cows, and cyclists, and the result is a very romantic and picturesque landscape.
As lovely as they are, these canals are not built for aesthetic purposes. Rather, they play an important and integral role in the Dutch landscape. Centuries ago land was creating from the then marshy land by a process called poldering: farmers would dig ditches and build dikes around a plot of land, and windmills powering screw-pumps would carry out the drainage process. As a large majority of the Netherlands is below sea-level, this has been the method used to produce land that is dry. Many of these windmills are still operating, though the majority have been replaced with modern electric pumps.
In the early evening we arrive in Leiden, located some 40km from Amsterdam. It is our first opportunity to take out the bikes in the Netherlands and explore, which proved to be quite the introduction to the country. In random bursts of sheet rain and downpours, we cycle through the city centre to experience the carnival that is in full swing. It is the celebration of Drie Oktober – celebrating the end of the Spanish siege of 1574. We hop on “The View of Leiden”, a ferris wheel that gives a wonderful view over the city and the festivities. Despite the down pouring rain, people are still on the rides and enjoying the fun atmosphere.
The following morning we get fully immersed in the Dutch culture of “living with water”. To start off our day we visit TU Delft where we listen to a presentation about initiatives in the Netherlands to combat, and also work with water. Projects here are geared towards finding ways to integrate stormwater and flooding, rather than combat and expel water. A major component of stormwater management is the holding, and slowing of water. In many cases the Dutch have engineered their public spaces to act as temporary reservoirs in the event of a storm. More water held in a park means less water to flood basements and homes. This is only one example of the technology being utilized to manage the growing risk of flooding.
After this introduction, we have a visit at Deltares, an independent institute for research in water specifically flood risk and adaptive delta planning. Here we are introduced to the Delta Flume – a 300m long flume capable of generating 4.5m high waves. This facility tests full scale effects of extreme waves, useful for flood defence designs and related research. We also take a tour of the hydro facilities and then visit the impressive Deltares interactive data research laboratory (iD-lab). During crisis and disaster situations, this lab uses real-time information to track flooding. Tailored visualizations are created to show the effects of a flood on infrastructure and demonstrates the linkages between stakeholders. The iD-Lab combines expert knowledge and open data to analyze cascading effects.
Our last stop of the day as at the Deltapark Neeltje Jans, where we take a walk over to the largest storm surge barrier in the world – the Oosterscheldekering. This experience highlights the history of the Dutch struggle against water.
As Toronto experienced Hurricane Hazel in 1954 that saw much devastation to the city of Toronto, the Netherlands experienced a terrible disaster as well in the 1950s. This storm and resultant flooding claimed the lives of 2,000+ people. This demonstrated the risk and cost of living below sea level, and forced the Dutch to upgrade their protective measures against future storms. The Dutch now face a triple threat in regards to water: sea levels are rising, increased precipitation and melt causes the river levels to rise, and historical poldering has desaturated the land, causing subsidence. In response, the Delta Works Commission was created to develop measures to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again. This particular project that we visited is the largest of the 13 Delta Works series of dams and storm surge barriers. This is an immensely impressive undertaking, which sees the delta – a stretch of 9km – cut off by 3 sections of sluices (62 gates in total). These gates close in the event of a major storm surge, but remain open the rest of the time to allow the extreme tides of the Lower Schelt estuary to move in and out. It took a decade to construct and is designed to last 200 years. Before the Oosterscheldekering, the chance of flooding was once in 80 years and now it has been reduced to once in 4000 years.
Ending this outing we came across an interactive playground that aimed to teach children about water and flooding. Children here learn at a very young age about water – living with water is very much part of the culture and it is evident everywhere we go.
After this day of learning about how the Dutch interact with their landscape and take measures to fight climate change, and the ever present threat of the sea, we understand a little bit more of this place and gain a great appreciation for their boldness and ambition.