“Room for the River” – Climate Change Resilience and Urban Redesign

Rotterdam is known to be well adapted to sea level rise. This is the result of a long history with flood management.




Storm from the North Sea

The Maeslant Barrier was constructed as part of the Delta Works project. However, as with the limitations of traditional flood barriers and sea walls (listed below), the Maeslant Barrier had its limitations.

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 11.56.28 PM

Maeslant Barrier

Hence, structures like the Maeslant Barrier are not long-term solutions to rising sea levels and does not necessarily keep Rotterdam safe from flooding.

This raises the question:

“How much can we resist nature?”

Today, instead of “protecting” the city, Rotterdam has adopted a different “room for the river” approach which allows rivers to expand by creating release valves for swelling rivers to drain into designated public spaces (Goddell, 2017).

Netherlands’ solution is to let water in, where possible, not hope to subdue Mother Nature; to live with the water, rather than struggle to defeat it (Kimmelman, 2017).

Harold van Waveren

This stems from changing mindsets towards climate change as not just a hypothetical possibility or economic burden, but an opportunity to generate new and creative strategies.

The result,

  • urban redesign to creates water parks, plazas and public squares that improve everyday living
  • spaces double as enormous storage basins for when the seas and rivers spill over, keeping the water from flooding streets and neighbourhoods
  • e.g. Eendragtspolder, a recreational area which has become a popular retreat for families and water-sports enthusiasts (seen below)


Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 1.13.09 AM

To evaluate the success of Rotterdam’s flood management strategies, it would be useful to understand the concept of RESILIENCE.

A resilient system is one which returns to either an old or new stable state even after significant fluctuation (Holling, 1973).

Sea walls and flood levees employ engineering resilience thinking which in policy terms is concerned with the time required for the system to return to original state. However, this type of thinking is ill-suited towards climate variability and change (Funfgeld and McEvoy, 2012).

As resilience gains popularity as a prescribed remedy for dealing with climate variability in cities, a growing number of governmental and non-governmental organisations seek ready-made, off-the-shell toolkits for “resilience building” (Davoudi, 2012). This is problematic as cities cannot be understood at unitary and neutral containers.

Davoudi and Strange (2009) extends the concept with evolutionary resilience which emphasises “fluidity, reflexivity, contingency, connectivity, multiplicity and polyvocality”. Recognising cities as complex, interconnected socio-spatial systems with unpredictable feedback processes operating at various scales and timeframes (Davoudi and Strange, 2009), evolutionary resilience advocates exploration and transformation, offering a useful framework to think about urban planning (Kimmelman, 2017).

Evolutionary resilience thinking in Rotterdam recognises the uncertainties and rapid change that climate change brings about. Protection against flood risk in Rotterdam builds resilience, by moving beyond building gates and dams to a new philosophy of spatial planning and redesign for crisis management (Kimmelman, 2017). Creating “room for the river” points towards a sustainable and long-term approach to the inherent unpredictability of climate change.

“In ecological literature, the desirable outcome of resilience is sustainability” (Davoudi, 2012).

With fortifications knitted seamlessly into streets and squares such that they become a boon for daily life, flood and climate change management is connected with social welfare and neighbourhood improvements in Rotterdam.

“Environmental and social resilience should go hand-in-hand, improving neighbourhoods, spreading equity, and taming water during catastrophes. Climate adaptation ought to yield a stronger, richer state.” (Kimmelman, 2017)

This certainly seems like the case for Rotterdam!


Some of the resources I used:

Davoudi, S. (2012) ‘Resilience: A Bridging Concept or a Dead End?’, Planning Theory and Practice, Vol. 13, No. 2, 299 – 307.

Davoudi, S. & Strange, I. (2009) “Space and place in the twentieth century planning: An analytical framework and an historical review” in S. Davoudi & I. Strange (eds) Conceptions of Space and Place in Strategic Spatial Planning, London: Routledge, 7–42.

Funfgeld, H. and McEvoy, D. (2012) ‘Resilience as a Useful Concept for Climate Change Adaptation’, Planning Theory and Practice, Vol. 13, No. 2, 324 – 328.

Holling, C.S. (1973) “Resilience and stability of ecological systems”, Annual Review of Ecological Systems, Vol. 4, 1–23.

Kimmelman, M. (2017) ‘Coping with climate change: How the Dutch are facing down rising waters’ can be accessed by clicking here!

Goddell, J. (2017) ‘Rotterdam has learned to cope with rising seas. Here’s how.’ can be accessed here!


(534 words)



One thought on ““Room for the River” – Climate Change Resilience and Urban Redesign”

  1. Many cities have now come to acknowledge the fact that ‘we cannot resist nature’ and have moved towards mitigation strategies with respect to dealing with climate change. I agree with the concept of ‘resilience’ which you have mentioned and was just thinking how it ties the urban-political-ecology aspect very well together. Indeed, all the flows and interaction of materials and actors in our everyday lives all seem to be for the betterment of the society and to achieve a resilient community in which we can thrive, work and play!


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