Urban stormwater management is important. In fact, life often depends on it. Just look at communities like New Orleans, which averages five feet of rain annually. And when Hurricane Katrina hit southeast Louisiana, the consequences didn’t just damage the city’s beautiful French and Spanish Creole architecture. According to experts like urban and environmental architect David Waggonner, most flood protection infrastructure in the U.S. is fighting a losing battle: resisting the area’s natural topography (by keeping water underground) instead of adapting to it.
Luckily, the U.S. can learn a thing or two about urban stormwater management from other cities. In Amsterdam, which is also a port city like New Orleans, there’s plenty of water to go around.
Water helps make Amsterdam picture-perfect — postcard-perfect, actually, with its pattern of concentric half-circled canals that are particularly stunning at night when illuminated. Perfect, not unlike Venice, for serenading, with its narrow houses, bridges, cafes, artsy destinations and endless bike trails.
But unlike many U.S. port towns, Amsterdam is a model example of long-term sustainability for living with and around water. “We should seek to emulate Dutch cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam in how we deal with water,” Waggonner asserts. What can the U.S. learn from this city when reconsidering its own flood protection infrastructure and urban planning? Let’s take a look.
In the Netherlands, water is visible everywhere. People “invite water into the city,” says Waggonner. Excess stormwater gets stored in beautiful (yet functional) canals, rain gardens, underground cisterns and parks. In New Orleans, those canals are surrounded by high walls on top of levees or gutters, or they’re otherwise kept underground. Even the houses next to the canals have concrete walls blocking the water views.
In Amsterdam, houses next to water cost more since they provide attractive views that are in demand.
High-powered hydraulic pumps help water management in New Orleans, but they sometimes see so much action that they become overwhelmed, resulting in excess stormwater flooding into the lowest points of New Orleans’ concave-shaped topography. As a result, the water cannot properly reach the pumps and ends up sitting for days. And counterintuitively, this continuous pumping-out of stormwater ultimately dries out the land and contributes to the sinking of the city overall through a process called subsidence, which occurs when groundwater is pumped out of the ground, causing it to dry out and collapse. Storing excess water in the actual landscape would help relieve the pressure on the pumps and keep groundwater where it belongs: underground.
Nearly two-thirds of the Netherlands is vulnerable to flooding, with a significant portion of its land area already below sea level. It also happens to be one of the most densely populated countries. The Dutch rely on a multilayered defense system so that if one mode of protection fails, there’s always another layer to rely on, which is helpful for avoiding a complete disaster.
Although New Orleans put significant focus on levees and sustaining the perimeter protection around the city, it’s just important to revamp the infrastructure so that if there is a system failure and massive flooding, it won’t cause such disastrous consequences for the city’s economy — or pose such a significant threat to its residents.
There’s a finite amount of time left for New Orleans to transform, Waggonner tells The Atlantic. “You have to put your money where your mouth is,” he says. “You have to green the city, you have to take down the concrete walls.”
Just like the Netherlands, New Orleans needs to continuously look for innovative strategies and techniques to secure its future. Learning from cities like Amsterdam and collaborating with the international community is a start. Perhaps it’s time to showcase its water instead of hiding it.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.