The harbor of the future is taking shape in Rotterdam. Its “floating pavilions” are one example of things to come


One fourth of the Netherlands lies below sea level. The country’s inhabitants have learned how to defy the forces of nature—and even how to make floods and storms useful. In this age of climate change and environmental pollution, the Netherlands are once again playing a leading role. Projects that include water as part of a new quality of life are springing up all over the country

Ramon Knoester holds up a bag whose contents—a colorful mix of blue, red, white, and gray pebbles of different shapes—any child would love to spill out and play with right away. The pebbles are made of plastic. Nowadays Knoester, an architect whose firm is near Rotterdam’s central railroad station, considers them his main construction material. That’s because these tiny particles will be processed to form a firm dark mass for constructing building foundations that will eventually float in the water, overgrown with plants. “My fiveyear- old son proudly told the kids at his childcare center that his father builds plastic islands,” says Knoester with a broad smile.

Creating new land from the recycled waste of our prosperous society—this is a new dimension for the Dutch, who have always been very imaginative when it comes to exploiting the potential of their special circumstances.

In the broad water basin of Europe’s biggest seaport with its ultramodern skyline of skyscrapers, people like Ramon Knoester are thinking ahead about the harbor’s future. For the past four years Knoester, the founder of the architects’ firm WHIM, has worked mainly in the harbor delta of Rotterdam, where the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt Rivers flow into the North Sea, bringing with them tons of plastic waste from all over Europe. Knoester would like to gather it up before it’s washed out into the open sea. The first filter units have already been installed. “As an architect, I believe I bear social responsibility. Our project aims to use old plastic as a raw material for implementing sustainable solutions for waterborne construction,” he says.

“We want to reduce the amount of plastic in the sea and use it for sustainable construction solutions along the water”

Ramon Knoester:

The architect from WHIM who founded the “Recycled Park,” which is now being tested in the harbor of Rotterdam

Modules made of old plastic and plants: The architect Ramon Knoester is building a “Recycled Park”

A blue-green testing ground

The project has already taken on shape. From the Wilhelminapier you can see the “floating pavilions”—three domes on a floating foundation that look like space stations. A century ago, oceangoing steamships carrying immigrants to North America would depart from this peninsula. The pavilions that are floating here today serve as event locations and exhibition venues. They symbolize the new era of Rotterdam. That’s why this was the ideal place for Knoester to dock the prototype of his “Recycled Park.” Each of thethree modules is 2.40 meters wide. The rough underside enables water plants to take root, and the upper surface has been planted with thick grasses. On other platforms resembling buoys, trees sway in the water like sculptures. Platforms in flexible sizes ranging up to thousands of square meters are also conceivable. The city government recently included the “Recycled Park” in its urban development concept, which calls for additional green zones to be created in the harbor in the near future.

The Timmerhuis: The roof garden of this 14-story residential and commercial building is part of Rotterdam’s sustainable water management system. The building also houses the urban development department

“We are putting in plants on roof areas and also changing the city’s water balance”

Eveline Bronsdijk

works for the city of Rotterdam, where she has been conducting climate protection measures for the past decade

Rotterdam has become an extensive blue-green testing ground. That becomes evident if you climb up to the roofs of the city. Eveline Bronsdijk does that almost every day. “In the past ten years we’ve put in plants on about 250,000 square meters of roof area,” says Bronsdijk, who is responsible for Sustainability and Communication at the city’s urban development department. While she drinks tea in the “Op Het Dak” outdoor café, a few meters away a guide explains to a group of visitors how the automatic irrigation of tomato plants in the roof garden works. The eighth floor of a 1960s office complex between the railroad station and City Hall is a flourishing landscape consisting of quiet zones, wildflowers, and garden plots. “Many of the buildings in this area were regarded as derelict,” explains Bronsdijk. “But now an entirely new sense of neighborliness has developed in this former social flashpoint. And we collect rainwater for far more uses than just watering flowerbeds.”

80 percent below sea level

The roof terrace offers an excellent view of the “Water Square Benthemplein,” where children are playing and skaters are practicing their fancy moves on the steps. On very rainy days, the square is transformed into an urban lake. It’s a typically Dutch solution: a rainwater retention basin that relieves the pressure on the city’s sewers and at the same time serves as a place for communication. In Rotterdam, which was almost completely rebuilt starting in 1945 after a series of devastating bombing attacks, periodic self-reinvention has become a habit.

It’s the second-largest city of the Netherlands, with a population of about 630,000, and 80 percent of it lies below sea level—in some places, as much as six meters below. Flooded streets would seem to be inevitable. To prevent this from happening, a protective network of dikes, high-water locks, and pumps has been installed along the country’s southern coast. The steadily rising sea level resulting from climate change has intensified the external pressure on this system. And not only the sea but also the increasing volumes of river water and rainfall have to be managed. Rotterdam has created its own climate protection department, which is working hard to create new water circuits through a dialogue with scientists, architects, and environmental engineers.

Storm surge in 1953: Pumping water out of cellars

The Netherlands:

Stormproof and inventive

The Dutch people have been living with water for centuries. During their eventful history they have constantly faced new challenges

Disaster alert: In 1953 the southern part of the Netherlands experienced the strongest storm surge of modern times, which killed 1,835 people and more than 200,000 animals. The Dutch government subsequently created the “Delta Plan” to improve coastal protection and began to implement it in 1958.

Delta works: This system of 13 storm surge barriers along the North Sea coast is a unique technical monument that was continuously expanded. The Eastern Scheldt barrier alone is three kilometers long. The project was completed in 1997 with the Maeslantwehr in Zuid-Holland province.

The future: Even after the completion of the coastal protection network, the government’s Delta Commission has continued to invest €1.2 billion annually in research projects and flood protection measures.

A recently completed floating settlement in Dordrecht that was designed by the Waterstudio architects’ firm

Buildings that float in the water

„“For decades, we’ve done everything we can to keep the water away. Now we have to learn how to make better use of it for ourselves,” says Koen Olthuis from the Waterstudio architects’ firm in nearby Rijswijk. Olthuis is an architect, but like many of his colleagues he also does interdisciplinary work. He calls himself a visionary in the realm of “floating cities.” Examples of what he means can be seen in the newly created urban district of IJburg in the east of Amsterdam. Here, along the Ijsselmeer, Olthuis’ team has created the Waterwoningen project, a settlement of about 60 buildings ranging from bungalows to three-story apartment houses. Even the buildings that are 18 meters high float securely in the water and resist storms with a wind speed of 12. The construction, which is similar to a massive drilling platform, shows that it’s possible to build large-scale settlements on the water. “People like to associate Holland with picturesque houseboats,” says Olthuis, “but we want to think further ahead and create new kinds of urban living.”

Treating water not as an enemy but as a friend by nature—this approach is increasingly gaining ground in the Dutch mindset. Koen Olthuis, who regularly receives delegations of experts from all over the world, advocates a fundamental change of perspective. He believes that the water from the polders—the areas surrounded by dikes that are so characteristic of the “Land of Tulips”— does not have to be pumped back into the sea. In the future, flooded regions could be settled—through the use of flexible amphibian platforms. “Such platforms adapt themselves to the water and could even be pushed around so that they could dock in other locations,” Olthuis explains.

“Instead of keeping water away with dikes, we should use it to create new ways of living”

Koen Olthuis:

The head of the Waterstudio architects’ firm designs floating environments for living and working

This paradigm shift is taking place on a broad front throughout the Netherlands. It’s not only port cities that are receiving support from the authorities. In recent years the general public has realized that the network of rivers in the interior is a crucialcomponent of the country’s sensitive ecosystem. It has also become obvious that land reclamation and the straightening of watercourses have magnified the risk of flooding rather than decreasing it. This is a problem that many countries are struggling with. Ten years ago, the Dutch launched a government program based on the principle of creating “Room for Rivers.” The effects of this program are now visible to everyone, for example along the Waal River near the city of Nijmegen.

Three youngsters are having fun swimming near the riverbank. On the opposite bank an elderly lady and her grandchild are walking their dog. Joggers run over the new bridges. Andrea Voskens, an architect, takes in the view of the Waal. “This program has totally changed our concept of the river,” she says. “Formerly there wasn’t very much going on here; now it’s a real leisure paradise.” In the catchment area of Nijmegen, which has 170,000 inhabitants, water sports are now possible. They used to be inconceivable because of the river’s current and its shipping traffic.

The reconstruction of the Waal, the southern arm of the Rhine in its river delta, was one of the 30 measures of a country- wide flood-control project. Voskens supervised the local implementation of the “Room for Rivers” project as a stakeholder manager for the Nijmegen city council. In Nijmegen the Waal takes a 90-degree turn and its width narrows from 1,500 to 450 meters. This bottleneck was the cause of high water and severe flooding in the Nijmegen region and in southern areas along the river in 1993 and 1995, with 250,000 people having to be evacuated. This experience led to a rethinking of the problem: Instead of building ever higher dikes, it was decided to give the rivers more room.

The Waalbrug in Nijmegen connects a newly created island with the mainland. The landscape was restructured in order to prevent the Waal River from overflowing

“Formerly there wasn’t very much going on along the river; now it’s a real leisure paradise”

Andrea Voskens:

This architect coordinated the “Room for Rivers” landscaping project for the city of Nijmegen

A model for New York

In Nijmegen, a side canal three and a half kilometers long was built and the original dike was relocated. This resulted in the formation of an island. Houses that were previously situated in the floodplains now stand on this island. On the site of today’s side canal, 50 houses had to be demolished. “When the project started there was a lot of protest,” Voskens recalls. People in Lent, the affected part of the city, didn’t want to leave their houses or feared that the dike relocation would cause a rise of the groundwater level that could damage their houses. But theirattitude changed in the course of the project. In the end, everyone moved willingly and sacrificed their homes for the greater good.

Until a couple of years ago, Lent was a village. Even before the start of the project, the growing city of Nijmegen had planned that Lent, separated by the Waal from the city center, would in the future be part of the city. So “Room for Rivers” also promoted urban development in addition to being a flood-control project. The citizens of Lent are now proud of the results. “We involved everyone right from the start,” says Andrea Voskens. She was always available to the people affected by the project, helping them solve many technical problems and search for new accommodation. She was also there for the families as they took a final look at their old homes, always mindful of the fact that they were losing their past. That was what drove her to find satisfactory solutions for their future—a task that gave this previously technically-minded architect great satisfaction. “The best thing in the entire project was the trust that people placed in me,” she says.

The project’s open atmosphere and practical approach are also attracting lots of attention abroad. The New York Times reporter Michael Kimmelmann is impressed by its innovative strength and regards it as a model for water-rich major cities in the USA, such as New York and New Orleans. “In this small water-soaked country, climate change is regarded not as a problem but as an opportunity,” he says. In Rotterdam he experienced urban diversity on the water, including the city’s latest project, which combines two core areas of Dutch expertise: seafaring and agriculture. The architects’ firm Beladon is creating a floating farm called Merve4Heaven in the harbor. Soon cows will be grazing here on three levels, fed by a closed organic circuit of solar energy, rainwater, and animal feed. “We’re bringing agriculture into the city and fresh milk closer to the consumers, thus shortening transport routes and saving energy,” says the head of Beladon, Peter van Wingerden. Thanks to the popular urban farming movement, this kind of water-based cultivation should also be possible for another traditional Dutch product: greenhouse tomatoes. Peter van Wingerden is convinced that his pilot project will have many imitators. “Cities will continue to grow, and most conurbations are located along rivers and other bodies of water. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of that?”

Ursula Jäger,

Managing Editor of Evonik’s employee magazine Folio, has traveled along the Dutch coast more than once

Uwe Killing,

a Berlin-based journalist, used to dream of a hippie houseboat, but gave up this cliché after visiting Rotterdam