Professor Chris Zevenbergen wants to use spatial design for a sustainable delta –

Interview All over the world, natural systems and communities struggle in urbanized deltas. This is no different in the Netherlands. That’s why professor of Delta Urbanism Chris Zevenbergen advocates more imagination in science and public administration. “It must be possible to believe in a future.” He gave his opening speech on 2 December 2022, TU Delft spoke with him.

From 1999 to 2012, Zevenbergen was director of innovation at the construction company Dura Vermeer. In that position, he put water management on the construction sector’s agenda. “Twenty years ago, flood risks in urban areas received relatively little attention. As a contractor, we quickly connected with knowledge institutions and governments that wanted to put the management of floods and high water in cities on the map. The emphasis is on limiting the consequences of a flood, not on preventing it. Then you talk about creating resilience – resilience – a term that has become very common in the discourse on climate change. How do you do it?”

‘River area, Waal: Breakthrough!’

of Fabrications, BoschSlabbers, Tauw
(source: TU Delft)

Practice and theory often go hand in hand for Zevenbergen. Firmly anchored in business, he also started working in 2005 as a professor in Flood Resilience at IHE Delft. A position he still holds, part-time. Another part-time professorship followed in 2020. At the Faculty of Architecture, he followed in the footsteps of Han Meyer, emeritus professor of Urban Design. “Thanks to Han Meyer, design research into the spatial development of urbanized deltas has been given a permanent place at TU Delft under the name Delta Urbanism.”

Strategic tool

As a professor in Delta Urbanism, he now leads a research program, Redesign Deltas, devoted to how densely populated deltas can remain safe and livable as climate change and further urbanization put pressure on landscapes and resources, and aging infrastructure needs to be replaced. “How will it be in the long term? What course is set? How do you arrive at new, well-founded plans and investments? As a collective and interdisciplinary effort, spatial design is a valuable strategic tool. Other faculties, knowledge institutions and the professional world are therefore closely involved in the implementation of the training.”

If you want a safe and habitable country in the long term, you have to make big decisions in the short term.

After joining, Zevenbergen first carried out the necessary discussions to form a picture of the position of design research in spatial planning in the Netherlands. “This type of research and the resulting knowledge turned out to have lost a lot of authority.”

While the Room for the River program still focused on the issue of how spatial quality is achieved in water management measures, “resources were subsequently used much more effectively for flood risk management.” However, there is a dire need for a thorough spatial design as a breeding ground for well-considered spatial planning, argues Zevenbergen.

Less predictable

“In the past decade, a policy of adaptation and adaptation by means of small steps has been pursued. However, the system turns out to be less predictable and manageable than we thought. Look at the uncertainty surrounding sea level rise or the droughts that have occurred several times in recent years. Look at what causes nitrogen.” The time of walking over and staying wet seems to be over. According to Zevenbergen, in the coming years, far-reaching decisions will have to be made about the design of the Dutch delta. “There is a realization : If you want a safe and livable country in the long term, you have to make big decisions in the short term.”


The need to anticipate an uncertain future naturally brings Zevenbergen to the role of spatial design. “Modeling reality and making predictions based on it seems to have its limitations. An approach where we thoroughly rationalize the interaction between physical systems and society and identify risks from there is too one-sided. To investigate and test transformative scenarios, we also have need imagination.”

As can be seen, Zevenbergen says, for example, based on the fact that globally, about ninety percent of the investments in the development of urbanized deltas are not climate safe is. “Spatial design brings imagination and can integrate spatial interests and functions in such a way that engineers can actually calculate scenarios. A challenging but well-grounded vision of the future can serve as a source of inspiration, as a touchstone and as a quality impulse for strategy formation.”

To properly understand and interpret the complexities of urbanized deltas, you need a new type of science

What a functioning delta could look like in 2100 is illustrated by the latest under the umbrella of Redesign Deltas developed future strategies for five Dutch regions. “The question is whether you will ever have enough information to determine what a large part of a country will look like in the distant future. But to outline possible paths of development based on the past and based on images of a distant future – forecasting and backcasting – gives something to hold on to.”

At the same time, radical visions of the future sometimes arouse resistance, notes Zevenbergen. Multi- and interdisciplinary collaboration still proves to be quite difficult. “Not everyone is naturally open to ideas that conflict with their own beliefs and values. Some scientists retreat to familiar fields. We also see that officials simply lack the time to really delve into the matter.”

Delta science

Reasoned thinking about the future is not only a skill in itself, it is also very sensitive because so many interests are involved in spatial development in complex societies. To understand and interpret the complexities of urbanized deltas correctly, you need a new type of science, says Zevenbergen. “ONE delta science which integrates and complements alpha, beta and gamma science. Of Delta designers that unites culture, behaviour, nature and technology and brings imagination back into science and planning. So the rational analysis of systems goes hand in hand with understanding and insight into the less tangible aspects of complex society. It must be possible to believe in a future.”

Read more about the 5 future strategies for the Dutch delta here, two of which are depicted in this article.

Cover: ‘Midden-Delfland as a nationally productive national park. Design Zus, Flux and Sweco’

by Zus, Flux and Sweco
(source: TU Delft)

Portrait - Eric Burgers

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