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The Dutch Dialogues

The Dutch Dialogues

By Lorena O'Neil

Amsterdam, Netherlands --- 17th century houses on Amsterdam's canal at dusk ---


What we can learn from the Dutch may help us live with the world’s ultimate frenemy — water.

By Lorena O'Neil

Sometimes the best way to deal with foes is to invite them to live with you — permanently.

With cities sinking around the world, floods and huge storms wreaking devastation and sea levels rising, we could easily view water as a dangerous foe. No one knows this better than the Dutch, yet they will remind you how much land values rise with proximity to water. People love the wet stuff. To only focus on water’s dangers would ignore one of the first steps in water management: recognizing water as a central asset with growing value. 

The Dutch had to endure their share of flooding disasters before realizing they had to work with nature rather than against it.

“The Netherlands has had to deal with flood risk for hundreds of years,” says Dale Morris, an American who works as the senior economist at the Dutch Embassy. He says while cities in the Netherlands have been “mostly respectful” of water, this was not always the case. Morris explains the Dutch had to endure their share of disasters before realizing they had to work with nature rather than against it. He describes water as a “frenemy,” noting it can work simultaneously as a friend and enemy.

View of buildings lined up with water in foreground.

View from canal, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Source Corbis

He says in the last 25 years there has been a “rebirth” of discovering old practices that blend water into the urban environment. In cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the Dutch live with the water alongside them in canals and do not wall it off in an attempt to keep it at bay. Morris and New Orleans architect David Waggonner are trying to bring this renewed approach to living with water to the United States via cities like New Orleans, St. Louis and possibly even New York City. They run a set of conferences called the “Dutch Dialogues,” which were inspired by conversations the Dutch had with New Orleans leaders after Hurricane Katrina. 

In January 2006, Waggonner and Morris, along with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and other delegates, visited the Netherlands to study the country’s canal and dike systems. The group traveled to the country multiple times, and when they invited delegates from the Netherlands back to New Orleans to continue the conversation, the Dutch were surprised to see the Crescent City’s landscape.

You built the world in reverse. It’s all backwards. You want to get rid of what everyone else is desperate to have.

“They asked, ‘This is a water city; where’s the water?’” recalls Morris, pointing out that in Dutch cities water is very visible. “They told us, ‘You built the world in reverse. It’s all backwards. You want to get rid of what everyone else is desperate to have,’” says Waggonner. He discusses how many people want to live by water, the health benefits of doing so and the increased property value of living by water.

He cites European cities and Singapore as examples of places in need of water and reflects on how New Orleans pumps the majority of its water out of the city, keeping it contained outside of flood walls.

“We pump what we see until we can no longer see it and think, ‘Problem solved.’ We just changed the problem,” says Mark Davis, the founding director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy. He explains that when a large amount of groundwater is pumped out, the land dries, shrinks and the land sinks. This is called subsidence. New Orleans, which is already partially below sea level, sinks a little more every day. The city then swells with large amounts of rainwater or with storms, and the rise and fall of the city damages the infrastructure. Retaining the water in canals would help solve this problem.

For those of you thinking this is solely a New Orleans issue, listen up. Water risks don’t just threaten your ability to collect Mardi Gras beads and attend Jazz Fest; they could be affecting your hometown or the nearby watershed you rely on for clean water or the metropolis you depend on for power and fresh supplies.

Color photo of high water levee in front of homes outdoors

New levee wall constructed with reinforced concrete at one of the breach sites from Hurricane Katrina, in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans

Source Gerald Herbert/Corbis

While the Dutch Dialogues were launched in New Orleans, Waggonner, Morris and their colleagues involved in water management have been speaking with cities across the United States and internationally as well. Davis reflects on the recent sinkholes in Florida and then rattles off a list of places that are sinking: parts of Texas; Norfolk, Virginia; parts of Indonesia and the Netherlands.

Water risks don’t just threaten your ability to collect Mardi Gras beads and attend Jazz Fest; they could be affecting your hometown.

It’s not just about places experiencing subsidence. Waggonner and Morris held a symposium in St. Louis addressing climate adaptation in regards to the Mississippi River and recent floods in the area. They’ve spoken both formally and informally with representatives from a host of cities including Miami, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Houston, Boulder, Shanghai, London and Ho Chi Minh. Waggonner says it’s not so much about copying the Dutch but about learning lessons from various international communities and sharing experiences with each other. “There’s no way to manage water without cooperation from your neighbor,” he says. If you build a levee in front of your Hamptons house but your neighbor doesn’t, you still aren’t protected. Morris says they are hoping to put together a conference in the New York/New Jersey area in 2014 to discuss what the region can do to avoid the devastation that occurred after Sandy. 

Waggonner and Morris are not alone in their thinking. An Innovative Stormwater Infrastructure Act was just introduced in the U.S. Senate on November 14. A neighborhood in Everett, Washington, is showing what local rain gardens can do to alleviate flooding.

Map with arrows, landmarks, waterways

Proposed circulating water system

Why has flood planning seen so many delays?

1. Immense costs

One of the biggest challenges in conducting large-scale water plans is the price tag on changing a city’s infrastructure. In September, the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan was released. The plan was spearheaded by Waggonner’s architecture firm and designed by a team of local, national and Dutch experts. The team estimated that implementation of the plan will cost $6.2 billion.

This is no small price, but the GNO team says inaction will cost even more. They estimate inaction will cost the greater New Orleans area:

  • $8 billion in stormwater flood damage
  • $2.2 billion in subsidence damage
  • $600 million in insurance costs

To top it off, the team says delaying the new plan means missing out on an economic boom. The new Urban Water Plan would allow for:

  • $183 million in increased property value
  • $11.3 billion in direct and indirect jobs

By eliminating the cost of inaction and potentially increasing property value and job growth, the dignitaries, public officials and architects say the total economic benefit could be approximately $22.3 billion. All of these numbers are estimated over a 50-year period.

2. Informing the public

Morris and Waggonner say that it’s a challenge informing the public of the necessity for water management. ”People are used to thinking if you have a flood risk, you build a structure or move,” says Morris. “Moving is not an option when you have so much existing capital. We aren’t talking about tiny communities.”

3. Understanding environmental cost-benefit

In addition to public understanding, policymakers need to shift their perspective. Morris says, ”Economists are only recently able to value the benefits of eco-system services,” and he uses an example of how storing rainwater can produce a habitat for fish, which adds value. Waggonner stresses that adaptation is something that needs to be done quickly because more often than not the cities are not in a “neutral” position. He says we need to look at the price of change as an investment, not a cost. Davis agrees.  

“Reality is something you ignore at your peril,” says Davis. ”The tendency is to ask how on earth can we afford to manage water. We need to replace that with how can you afford not to?”

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