I walked into the Faculty of Architecture at TU Delft and was instantly reminded of long summer days spent at Gund Hall during my Harvard Graduate School of Design summer course in Architecture. Since the Dutch summer holiday period is wrapping up, the halls, desks, and studios weren’t as busy as I’d image they usually are. It was nice to walk through the studios and see all the workshop space where minds are usually hard at work designing and creating.
I meandered through the halls of the west wing of the building looking for the Urbanism department and the desk of Professor Meyer. Because I hardly know Han Meyer, here is a brief biography from the back of one of his books: Han Meyer is a professor of urban design theory and methods at TU Delft’s Faculty of Architecture. His research focuses on the fundaments of urbanism and on comparative analysis of urbanization and urbanism in delta regions.
Han Meyer spoke to me for a little less than an hour sharing some of his professional insights on urban planning in delta regions. He left me with a great suggestion for my visual journal and recommended two titles to pick up at the faculty book store as I left.
Here are some bullet points from our conversation:
- Flipping through my sketchbook, Professor Meyer encouraged me to draw plans and sections to compliment my current drawings of city ‘perspectives.’ He explained that the essence of urbanist drawings use the combination of the three type of illustrations to describe a built environment or a space in greater detail. Up to this point, I have been focusing entirely on scenes in perspective. He encouraged me not to forget about the informative power of the other two types of plans and sections.
- The Netherlands has been managing water since the 13th and 14th century. The landscape has developed into a patchwork of dikes, canals, and polders over a period of centuries. Still, there are always new delta plans and changes to their Dutch water management strategy. A country facing up to the challenges of sea level rise now cannot expect ‘Dutch’ results after a decade or so. The management strategies in the Netherlands are as old as the nation itself.
- In the U.S. today, there is a debate about whether to retreat from certain coastlines. What’s worth saving? Where are the costs too steep? I asked Professor Meyer if he had one recommendation for what the U.S. should do in the next fifty years, what would he suggest? His major recommendation for the U.S. is to stop building on the coast. It is unwise for private investors and public policy should change to prevent future coastal development.
- Meyer referred to a project he is involved with in New Orleans called the Dutch Dialogues (he actually happens to work closely with David Waggonner, an architect from New Orleans that I talked to in January of 2013 and really helped me organize my thoughts and strengthen my application for the fellowship). New Orleans as a ‘delta city’ is similar to parts of the Netherlands. But really, Meyer explained, there are more differences than similarities especially because of the cultural underpinnings behind the two countries. One major difference between the Netherlands and the United States is the ability to buy flood insurance. In the Netherlands, the damage from dikes breaking and the country flooding would be so great that insurance companies could not cover it. It is impossible to buy flood insurance in the Netherlands. Also, the Netherlands bans coastal development and leaves the sand dunes and beaches as a primary and natural line of defense. Professor Meyer explained that the power of Hurricane Katrina would have been buffered slightly by the wetlands of the Mississippi had they not be paved over and developed. The other major difference between the Netherlands and the United States is that the fate of the nation is on the hands of the water defense in the Netherlands, whereas in the United States it is only cities. If the Netherlands floods, the country, the culture, the history is wiped out.
- Planning in delta regions seeks a balance between ecology, economy, and the built environment. For example, in building the Oosterschelde Barrier, there were detrimental effects on the ecology, and the dam beheaded the shipping channels between the smaller port towns north of Antwerp but south of Rotterdam. The benefits of the dam were that it provided flood protection and reduced the exposed coastline. How can you find a balance between competing interests?
- A new initiative in the Netherlands is to pump sand into beaches and let natural features of the landscape work in the defense of the lowlands. How can we look to use the processes of nature rather than control nature. Why attempt to control something that is in such a constant flux? Employ the natural function of the landscape.
- Sea level rise in the Dutch context means something different from other parts of the world, because of the subsidence of the land due to draining polders for agriculture, the land behind the dikes is actually sinking while the sea is still rising. Therefore SLR for the Dutch is the net difference of the sea rising and the land subsiding. The Dutch are looking to the Mekong delta in Vietnam, where the fields still flood and don’t have the problem of subsiding land caused from draining. Yet, the Vietnamese are looking to the Dutch for the ‘Dutch expertise.’ As the developing countries grow and people get richer, they look to change their standards of living. For example in Vietnam, as GDP grows, they may not want to deal with the annual flooding of the agricultural plains, however it is this natural function that maintains the solidarity of the land.
- There is no universal solution to planning for rising seas. A ‘solution’ is so tightly bound and so heavily defined by the cultural, economic, and environmental context of the city, region, and nation in of itself. There is absolutely no way to find cookie-cutter solutions to these intricate and complex problems presented to cities at sea.
- Under Professor Meyer’s recommendation I picked up two books at the book store:
- Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands Edited by Han Meyer, Inge Bobbink, and Steffen Nijhuis: Delta Urbanism is a major APA intiative that explores the growth, development, and management of deltaic cities, toward balancing various and often competing goals in a sustainable manner: urbanization, port commerce, industrial development, flood defense, public safety, ecology, tourism, and recreation. Delta Urbanism contemplates the policies, tools, technology, coordinated planning, public outreach, and international cooperation–both current and emerging–needed to save deltaic cities.
- Atlas of Dutch Water Cities: ed. Fransje Hooimeijer, Han Meyer, and Arjan Neinhius: The Dutch have a rich and internationally renowned tradition when it comes to the intense relationship between urban development and water engineering. Their expertise and knowledge of the laws of water and ingenuous technology have helped them successfully transfer a wet and marshland type of area into an area for agricultural and urban use. However, water is a surprising and dynamic element of nature, whilst the use and perception of water have also been subject to change throughout the years. This is why the relationship between city and water is dynamic; it constantly needs to be determined, designed, and devised. Since the last decade of the twentieth century we are confronted with new and surprising effects of water: a rising sea level, increasingly intense rainfall, and greater differences in the volumes of water produced by rivers. Urban development forces us to consider a new relationship between city and water.
I am very grateful to have met Professor Meyer and had the opportunity to sit down with him. I look forward to reading his work and being able to organize some thoughts about delta urbanism in a structure that’s more organized than bullet points.
Before meeting with Professor Meyer, I had the chance to bike through Delft, a very nice town that’s architecturally a huge contrast to Rotterdam. Rotterdam is unlike any other city in Europe. Its dominated by reflective glass and ‘experimental’ architecture. After the entire city was bombed by the Germans in WWII, Rotterdammers rebuilt the city anew in the 50s and 60s. It lacks the traditional ‘european’ architecture: buildings from the 14th century, cobbled streets, and central squares. My roommate Berend describes it as the New York City of the Netherlands. Rotterdammers take pride in the skyscrapers and the urban development. They are also eternally bitter that Amsterdam is known by the rest of the world as the iconic Dutch city. But to me, Rotterdam can’t touch New York. It feels only slightly bigger than Portland, Maine.
The literal highlight of my day trip to Delft was climbing the steeple of the parish church through a claustrophobically tight spiral staircase that felt as if it never ended. It was a dizzying climb up the slippery triangular stone stairs, but the view and the breeze from the top was rewarding. It was a clear day so I could see all the way across the horizon. Skyscrapers from Rotterdam to the Hague pierced the skyline and I could see wind turbines and industrial cranes towards the port. My perch had seen this modern world grow up around it. It’s been standing there since 1381.
Here’s a drawing of the Delft central square:
Tomorrow I’m going on a 6 hour cruise to see the Maasvlakte 2, an extension of the harbor so that Rotterdam can upgrade and accommodate the largest container ships in the world. They are dredging sand and extending the coastline into the sea. I’m looking forward to checking it out.