tomorrow’s water city in Rotterdam | Successful connection

How do risk management and urbanization opportunities go hand in hand? In the Rhinestuary-Drechtsteden region, the municipality of Rotterdam and the MUST agency ‘urban design’ investigated how these themes converge on a potential area development location in the De Esch area outside the dykes. The eastern flank of the city is one of the major housing locations that will contribute to the major construction task in the Netherlands. Looking at the delta commissioner’s housing council, the plans are also in line with that.

What is design research?

You can use design research as a method to get answers to complex spatial issues. You look at tasks with a (design) view together with business partners. The purpose of the research is not to create a final design, but to establish new connections between different (thematic) tasks and possible solutions, and it sharpens goals. As a side result, it usually strengthens the cooperation and support between partners participating in this.

What can happen if the water gets a clearer voice? Rotterdam and MUST mapped the transformation options for the De Esch area outside the dykes in view of increasingly frequent high water levels. At the start of the plan development, flood risk management, climate and urbanization tasks were examined in the context of the scope of the area and the region of the Delta program Rhine-mouth-Drechtsteden. This resulted in the project Esch Water Speaks!

Senior urban planner and landscape designer of agency MUST Freek van Riet: ‘Esch Water Speaks has created three attractive future perspectives for this area outside the dikes, all aimed at the year 2200. We took into account a complex stack of tasks. The perspectives allow Rotterdam to remain a guiding city for other worldwide cities. We are once again making water a guiding principle for urban development.’

Images of the future give food for thought

In the design research, interdisciplinary workflows were organized with professional eyes at the municipality, the water board and area parties. This in combination with sociologists, ecological designers, not to mention inspiring introductions by ‘free thinkers’ Darko Lagunas (sociologist & environmental scientist), Theun Karelse (artist/ecological designer) and Han Meijer (TU Delft). This resulted in the three perspectives for De Esch. These images show what kind of city Rotterdam could be: ‘City on Two Oevers’, ‘Neighbourhoods and Islands’ and ‘Liquid City’.

These different future perspectives are based on whether the Maas is closed off from the North Sea and the subsequent implicit choice for the type of water system. It is important, for example, whether the city retains tidal and salt influence, or whether the water system does not allow this. The possibilities for landscape, nature and ecology as well as possibilities for urbanization concepts in De Esch are closely related to that choice.

For each scenario, you can see where the biggest investments – over time – are needed and which threats play a role. In addition, it is mapped out what the reasonable ‘moments’ are to – if necessary – switch to another strategy.

Visual representation of the Esch Water Speaks timeline. Source: Municipality of Rotterdam

Senior strategic urban planner and planner in the municipality of Rotterdam Marlies van der Maarel: ‘Esch Water Speaks is helping to expand the debate about the city of the future. The goal of the research was not to make a choice for a single vision of the future, but to visually list the consequences of choices (or could be) and where there are connections. It helps to make good decisions.’

Clear ‘visual narrative’ helps complex choices

This study shows the importance of designing research on complex issues. The interdependent scale levels, timelines – now and later – and accumulation of interests are integrated into a clear ‘narrative’. In this way, choices and follow-up questions from the stakeholders are seen in relation to each other and regarding the distant future. This contributes to conscious choices for society as a whole.

Esch Water Speaks contributes to the complex problem in various ways. Among other things, by:

  • To (continue to) look at sustainability from a broad perspective, including the non-human perspective, heritage values ​​and long-term effects;
  • As a government, make a crucial contribution to participation and awareness of opportunities and dependencies;
  • To bring the issue of distribution – especially a safe way of life – to a good result for everyone.

The municipality of Rotterdam sees opportunities to also use this type of research for other area development tasks in the city. Vera Konings, water safety advisor for the municipality of Rotterdam: ‘Exploratory design is highly recommended for all regions where different tasks and issues, such as in De Esch, meet.’

And now…

The municipality of Rotterdam is now continuing, in collaboration with the Delta program Rhine-mundingen-Drechtsteden, to get practical answers to questions such as: Is continuing to build solidly outside the dykes the answer here? Which investments, choices and initiatives can be justified? And also for example: How can we make the river’s unique qualities more accessible and inclusive for people and flora & fauna?

These issues need to be addressed in further knowledge exchange and decisions. The municipality of Rotterdam is already following up the research by collaborating with other authorities, residents, stakeholders and other partners.

See the Esch Water Speaks survey from Bureau Must here.

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