ideas

Go with the flow: Using nature to help fight climate change

Our climate is changing and because of it, our oceans and rivers are rising. In the past, we used large, man-made infrastructure to keep the water at bay. But maybe instead of trying to fight off nature, we should start working with it. Ideas contributor Anik See explores projects across The Netherlands, in northern Spain, and in New Orleans.
The Sand Engine, a large-scale project in the Netherlands. (Bronvermelding: Rijkswaterstaat/Jurriaan Brobbel)
Listen to the full episode53:59
Our climate is changing and because of it, our oceans and rivers are rising. In the past, we used large, manmade infrastructure to keep the water at bay. But maybe instead of trying to fight off nature, we should start working with it. A recent movement among philosophers and landscape architects thinks that the time of large, expensive infrastructure is over. Ecology is the new engineering, and this new approach of "building with nature" is being embraced around the world. Contributor Anik See explores projects across The Netherlands, in northern Spain, and in New Orleans. **This episode originally aired June 20, 2017.

Dutch-American journalist Tracy Metz describes the challenge of convincing Dutch residents that giving rivers space to flood is for the greater good. 1:08
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The Netherlands have to think ahead. If they don't, this country will simply disappear under the waves. And that makes prevention really part of the DNA of this country.- Tracy Metz

Since the 1990s, the Netherlands has been looking at softer approaches to help fight climate change, mainly by using the forces of nature.

"We are seeing that the consequences of those interventions are now coming back to bite us in the heels," says Tracy Metz, a Dutch-American journalist. "And as the climate becomes more irregular, there are more extreme events, it rains harder... more glacial water melts and comes roaring down the rivers and there's no place for it to go. We've tightened the rivers into very efficient navigation channels, which means that there's really nowhere for the water to go. Those are the two most important reasons for the Dutch to start figuring out a softer, more natural, more accommodating approach to water."

The new approach is called Building with Nature. That means cutting dikes instead of making them higher, and letting nature do some of the heavy lifting instead of building a wall to keep the water out. The Room for the River project involves 30 different interventions along the major rivers flowing through the Netherlands, and is essentially a flood control project that allows rivers to flood, instead of forcing the water to go where it wouldn't naturally go. The project, which cost 2 billion euros, involved buying out farmers and homeowners along those rivers to give more space to the water, but also involves improving urban design along the water.

Another large-scale project in the Netherlands is the Sand Engine, a massive pile of sand along the coast near The Hague. The sand was placed there in the shape of a teardrop, and over a period of about 20 years, the waves, wind and currents will gradually spread the sand along the coast to help prevent erosion.

The Dutch approach isn't just confined to the Netherlands, though. In Pamplona, which has seen flooding increase over the years, Park Aranzadi was redesigned to accommodate the flooding, and has changed the public's perception of flooding from a threat, to a natural part of the life of a river.

Pamplona's Aranzadi Park contains floodable forests, allowing the river to use the park as well as people. (AldayJover Landscape Architects)
And in New Orleans, architect David Waggonner has been working on a Living with Water plan for the city. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it involves water being more visible in the city, and allowing it to spread safely through the landscape instead of keeping it behind walls — walls that failed during the 2005 hurricane.

Watch a video on how the Sand Engine was built and how it works


Guests in this episode:

  • Willem van Toorn is a Dutch writer whose work often deals with the effect of humans on landscape. In the 1990s he was part of a group of writers and artists who protested a massive infrastructure project involving dikes in the Netherlands.

  • Marcel Stive is Professor Emeritus of Coastal Engineering at Delft University of Technology, and one of the designers of the Sand Engine.

  • Iñaki Alday is a landscape architect based in Barcelona who has worked with creating floodable public landscapes such as Park Aranzadi in Pamplona, Spain

Related websites: 

Further reading: 

***This episode was produced by Anik See, Greg Kelly and Dave Redel.

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