In the wake of its devastation, Hurricane Sandy leaves New York with difficult questions about how the city could prevent similar destruction in another storm. The Netherlands is familiar with the risks of flooding. It has implemented numerous measures – some big, some small – to prevent a recurrence of the disaster that decimated that country in 1953.
With an eye toward how New York will prepare for the next Sandy, Josh Robin of NY1 News and Juan Manuel Benitez of NY1 Noticias traveled to the Netherlands in January to produce the special TV series, "Fighting the Tide." Robin also wrote this web-exclusive report about his trip.
Part V: A Floating Neighborhood in Amsterdam (And Maybe Rotterdam, too)
Daniela Hannema is a Pisces. But she sees her Dutch heritage as a bigger force behind her comfort in a home that had me feeling seasick five steps inside the front door.
"Water always flows downhill, you know," she told us. "This country is all downhill. It's like a swamp. So we're used to it. We're always dealing with water, and building in and on the water."
The house is a "water villa," a bobbing three-story structure in Amsterdam's IJburg (yes, it's spelled that way) neighborhood that she rents for €1800 a month ($2400). Her neighborhood floats on a lake less than 10 miles from the city center, easily reachable by tram.
Hannema's previous home didn't have enough room for her three kids and equal number of pets. She's now two months into a yearlong lease on this fully-floating house, replete with water-line windows in the basement and a floating deck/fishing pier on the side.
"There's always life around you when you're watching the water, and when you're being close to the water," she says. As if on cue, a paddling of ducks swims by, impervious to the chill.
Does she love it? Her response is familiar to any renter, whether she leases a home on land or something else.
"As a tenant you try not to get so attached to the house," she said.
The next day we toured Rotterdam. Unlike Amsterdam, German bombs destroyed much of the city during the Second World War, leading to a quick Dutch capitulation. Pre-war low-rises have since been replaced by grey office towers and boxy metal apartment houses. It lacks Amsterdam's Old World hominess, but has its own clean, sleek character.
Rotterdam is also home to the world's second biggest port – but the harbor has been moved to a deeper, modern facility from its historic spot in the city center. It left city planners with a lot of open water in the middle of the city where ships used to dock. They may find the solution in a funky-looking building riding on the city's old harbor.
It's called the Floating Pavilion, a geodesic event space consisting of three floating half spheres, resting on the water in the former port; polystyrene, the lightweight building material forms the base of the domed buildings. The plan is to build more of these floating structures – office buildings; houses; you name it – all taking advantage of the ample water.
The pavilion was finished in 2010 at a price of €4.5 Million ($6 million), partly with European Union money. "In the Netherlands, we have a long tradition of living on water," the architect, Bart Roeffen, told us. "We have had houseboats for the last century or so. But now there's a renewed interest in the Netherlands to expand upon these ideas so we are now developing new technologies to make bigger buildings and in the end, even neighborhoods that can float on water."
From a zoning point of view, the bureaucrats are still trying to figure out if it's a ship or a building. Whatever it is, it's somewhat self-sustaining, through solar vacuum tubes and natural ventilation for temperature control. Waste from the bathrooms is processed internally, through microbiological treatment. This prompts us to go check out the urinals, which look like…well…urinals. Unlike the floating home, the floating pavilion didn't make me seasick; I couldn't even feel the building moving.
The conversation turned a bit bleak. Roeffen was giving me the impression that we'd all end up living on these floating things; that there's nothing to be done to stem the rising tide. I shouldn't have been surprised. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the sea level is about eight inches higher than in 1880. It says the average temperature of the Earth has risen 1.4ºF since 1900. As everyone should know, it's projected to get warmer.
"We have kept the water out for many centuries," he says. "Now we cannot keep up - the sea level is rising and we cannot keep doing this for the next hundred years. So we are also developing new strategies that involve living together with the water and not just trying to fight it."
"Are you losing the battle?" I ask, referring to climate change. I should have asked if ‘we' are losing the battle. "Are all buildings going to have to be built with this bottom eventually?"
"Well maybe in the far future," he says. "But I think it's not realistic to say that all the cities in the world will have to change…but at the same time, we have to think of new strategies for the new developments that we are making."
Floating Pavilion architect Bart Roeffen explains the philosophy behind floating buildings in this extended interview.
Arnoud Molenaar, a city planner who heads Rotterdam's "Climate Proof" program, doesn't seem as worried. But as a government official, he also knows the pace of bureaucracy.
"We know that we have to do something to be resilient to sea level rise," he told me. "You have to plan it backwards. Since we know that we'll have to implement measures to counter rising sea levels during the next decades, we have to incorporate it already in our development that is going on now."
He adds: "We have been fighting against the water, but the best thing is to try and live with the water. It's quite impossible to keep on raising the dikes. Otherwise, within ten or twenty years we will be facing walls here within our city."
The Floating Pavilion is not only an event space; it's also a government tool to attract attention to climate change.
"A lot of people are not really aware of this anymore," Molenaar says "So we have to tell the story. And we have to start up the communication about this with the public. And by developing these floating objects, that's also part of the awareness."
And it's gotten attention. BMW has used it to demonstrate its new electric cars. A Dutch rapper recorded a music video there.
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City planner Arnoud Molenaar talk about developing flood-safe buildings in this extended interview.
Our trip got even more interesting after the floating pavilion.
With a spokeswoman for the Rotterdam Climate Initiative directing us, we pulled into what appeared to be an ordinary parking garage. Then she opened a heavy door tucked into a side passage and we met Daniel Goedbloed, a senior advisor for Rotterdam's Department of Water Management.
"This is a storage facility to store rainwater in case of extreme heavy showers," he said, leading us into what looked like a high-tech crypt. (A similar Rotterdam rainwater storage project is illustrated in an animated video clip.)
The storage facility wasn't just for rainwater. It was for mixed sewage, and the people of Rotterdam should be glad this stuff was well below the street, and not flooding their basements. Sewage treatment plants in Rotterdam (and New York) that process both wastewater and rainwater are often overwhelmed during heavy storms. When that happens, both water sources end up flowing to waterways, without being processed first. It's a common environmental mess.
Goedbloed offered us the chance to peer into the large windows overlooking the tank. It was hard to make out; I first thought I was looking at a wall. Then it came into focus: it was a huge tank, and a thick film of dried sewage had coated the glass. In one section, a discarded condom stuck to the pane.
"When the sewer system can't handle all of the water, it overflows into the canals, and then the canal level finally gradually fills up," Goedbloed said. "When that happens, we can't discharge any water into the canals anymore and then the streets flood and shops flood."
Rotterdam's tank stores three million gallons, buying time and preventing that disgusting runoff. It's based in an underground parking garage because it was useful to piggyback off the deep hole the garage required. And that brings up another useful idea some are pushing: when one entity digs a hole, it should tell utilities and others who may find the extra space useful.
The facility cost €11 million (about $14.8 million) and has been used ten times since it opened in August 2011.
Dutch officials seemed pained not to point out the obvious: that we New Yorkers are well behind in building these kinds of modern flood-resistant structures. They tend to accentuate the positive, that Americans are better at organizing large-scale evacuations than the Dutch.
"In the US, people more rely on themselves," says Aerts, of the University of Amsterdam. "If they have fear, they take out insurance, or they rely on evacuations schemes for example. Here in The Netherlands, we rely more on the government. So there's a cultural difference."
The cultural difference had my wondering if all of the things we saw in the Netherlands even possible to get done in New York? A parking garage/water overflow tank? A sea barrier spanning New York harbor? A floating neighborhood in the East River?
As I write this, it's been about three months since Hurricane Sandy struck, and Congress only just approved emergency relief money that New York long ago requested. Federal officials recently updated the region's flood maps for the first time in thirty years.