Beyond the obvious ‘broadening of one’s horizons’ that accompanies any sort of thoughtful travel experience, our Cities On Water program offers incredible access to the Netherlands. Not only have we had amazing opportunities to look at the land and water so cleverly engineered by the Dutch, we also have had great conversations with some of the people who keep the system functioning and who are working to improve its capacity in the face of cultural, ecological, and technological changes.
From practicing landscape architecture professionals to professors, government officials, and local citizens, we have met some very enlightened people and observed the machinery and designs that have made a sea into a country.
One example of this access is the few amazing minutes we were permitted to wander through the interior of the Gemaal Wortman pumping station on the outskirts of Lelystad. This growing city was founded in 1967 on a polder nearly five meters below sea level. This means that massive pumping stations are strategically located throughout the province. My impression of Holland before coming here was that the country is very old but since actually experiencing the landschap, I’ve learned that it is still being created. Every night, without fail, this and hundreds of other pumping stations across the country push water out of the canals and into the sea. In Flevoland, where the Gemaal Wortman pumping station is located, the canals rise more than 30 centimeters a day. As an American, I find it impossible to imagine what it is like to live with such an undeniable and omnipresent tenuous grasp on dry land. This pumping station began its task in late 1956 and in less than a year (at a rate of 2000 cubic meters per minute) the Eastern Flevoland was drained. Every day the water comes back to reclaim its place here. And every night the Gemaal Wortman pushes the water away.
Another impressive example of the investment in water infrastructure visible on the Dutch landscape is the Maaslantkering flood gates in Rotterdam. Our tour took us above this massive structure on a large earthen mound left over from the construction of these gates in the early nineties, into an interpretive center, and against the heart of the beast. It is impossible for me to describe the incredible scale of these flood gates. Straddling the primary shipping route into Rotterdam, this area is among the most important ports in the world. On either side of the Nieuwe Waterweg river (a part of the massive Rhine River delta), two incredible arms are designed to swing out in the event of a storm surge and block flood waters from inundating Rotterdam. Costing the Dutch more than 450 million Euros, each of these arms are as tall as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and weighs three times as much. On the largest ball joints in the world, these two arms are controlled by computers to swing across the river when waters rise to 2.6 meters above the NAP (Amsterdam Ordnance Datum) to protect Rotterdam’s population of more than 600,000 people. Ten years passed between the initial designing of the Maaslantkering and its completion. The gates have been closed one time, in 2007. The Dutch tour guide there told us that with that single closing, the Maaslantkering paid for itself.
The water landscape is all around us in the Netherlands. But a large proportion of the population really has no idea about the investment their countrymen have made to provide a landscape for such places as I’ve seen here.
Wetland plants such as bulrushes and reeds grown in the Netherlands are still prized as roofing material on Tiengemeten Island. In 2007, this two-thousand acre island in the Heringwhel River about an hour south of Rotterdam, once the footbed for a small agricultural village, was purchased by Natuurmonumenten and returned to a wilderness sanctuary. Here, after crossing the river by ferry, we toured the island by bicycle. From a turret-like bird-blind to wild cattle to wide vistas to lakes and polders beyond the horizon, we were treated to an exceptional tour by the landscape architect who has seen the place transform from its cultural heritage to a functional ecosystem. When he and I talked about an earthen mound somewhere in the wilderness section of the island, he told me that the depression in the center of the mound once held fresh drinking water and that the landform had actually been part of an extensive dike. It was amazing to see the integration of design and infrastructure in this remote part of Holland. The same structure that held back the water from the agrarian landscape on Tiengemeten had also provided the much needed drinking water for cattle. Now it has been preserved as a monument from which bird watchers and nature lovers look across the polder landscape.
Talking today- on bikes on a dike with an incredible headwind in Flevoland- with that same landscape architect, we discussed the American studies on perception from the 1940s that he read while he was studying in Delft. He related the importance of the “problem” to our profession. Landscape architects study and react to change. Design is infinitely important to the Dutch. Everything in this landscape has been organized by people from practically a tabula rasa. As I’m introduced to the designed landscape here, I’m astounded by the depth of making shallow the water here.