Thursday March 13, 2014 Rotterdam


Our first stop on Thursday morning was a presentation by Corjan Gebraaad from the Rotterdam Climate Initiative, a branch of the City of Rotterdam Planning Team. The main goal of the initiative is to adapt to climate change and the effects it has such as rise in sea level, low river discharges, long periods of heat/drought, and more intense rain events. While these events will happen in cities all over the world, the Netherlands and specifically Rotterdam are at the forefront of design and planning in water. To begin the process, the team did an in-depth analysis of the city taking note of the lowest areas most susceptible to water damage during flood events. From there, a strategy focused on the environment of the city emerged.

The core of the adaption strategy aimed to create a livable and economically viable urban environment while focusing on water management. Public networks, public spaces, transportation, water systems, vital amenities, and building infrastructure are the main building blocks to the strategy. Large and small scale designs must be implemented to support the strategy as well as robust and resilient systems. Corjan, our lecturer, said, “Why wait for another disaster? Let’s strategize to increase safety now.” This line stuck with me throughout the week because it demonstrates the proactive approach the city takes on a problem that many coastal cities will experience soon and have experienced recently. The initiative has begun to move from a framework to designing specific sites to intake an influx of water quickly.

At a community level, green roofs have been encouraged and subsidized to decrease the amount of impermeability during a rain event. A green roof at the most basic level costs approximately $30/sq ft and $11/sq ft is subsidized. In a public space, but small scale plazas and squares have been developed to purposely flood during rain events. One of the projects the initiative is working on includes a raised walking platform with vegetation underneath sloping towards the shore. During flooding, the vegetation would be covered with water, but the platforms would remain intact. A larger scale project in the works consists of parking garages that double as storm water storage when necessary.  At street level, metal grates would connect to pipes which would carry the water to the underground storage. These were just three examples of different scale implementations planned for Rotterdam, but the city planning team will continue to consider strategies to manage water systems.


Stepping up the gangway and over coiled ropes, engine exhaust from the ferry lingers in my nostrils as it prepares to take us across the Port of Rotterdam. Directly making my way to the railings at the stern, I somberly realize it’s been months since I’ve been on a boat (other than the houseboat several of us called home for three days in Amsterdam last week). The houseboat hadn’t left the dock for years and might not ever again so I feel that doesn’t even count. There is something about boats that will never get old for me. Whether it’s a large schooner or small dingy; when pushing off the dock, the sensation is always exhilarating.

Observing Rotterdam by boat is an exercise in realizing dichotomies and possibly even contradictions. About half way to the RDM campus, it became glaringly obvious to me that I was only seeing industry to my right and mostly residential with interspersed commercial activity to my left. Separated, of course, by the churning water in between that we were riding upon – water that was the reason for this place’s existence, but this same water is also Rotterdam’s biggest threat.

Barges and hazy sunlight dominate the watery landscape throughout the Port of Rotterdam this late Thursday morning. Containers pass by on ships headed to Scandinavia, England, and the Mediterranean. Even larger barges are making their way to and from Asia and the Americas. It is surprisingly quiet; several tourists snap photos nearby and the dull hum of other boat engines are punctured only by calls of seagulls and the occasional tugboat blast. For being the largest port in Europe (and fourth largest in the world) Rotterdam is deceivingly calm. Lingering at the stern as long as possible, I am content for the moment to know that another ferry ride awaits me in the afternoon.

HEIJPLAAT Rachel Burand

Bicyclists and dog walkers pass by as we wander over cobblestone streets lined with picturesque brick homes. Neighbors are enjoying tea and a book in meticulously maintained terrace gardens drenched in afternoon sunshine. Heijplaat has everything one would expect of an adorably quaint and historic European village. Yet wandering through this particular neighborhood was curiously unsettling. Heijplaat is surrounded by heavy industry, and its presence is unavoidable.

Background noise consists of clanking metal cranes, and scenes of enormous machinery permeate views from charming street corners. Industrial infrastructure trickles into the background of a delightfully detailed schoolyard. The contrast between residential and industrial zones on this quay in Rotterdam was striking and dramatic.

Cor Van Asch of the Port of Rotterdam lead us through the town, explaining how Heijplaat emerged in the early 1900s after RDM (Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij) began its shipbuilding operations. The RDM shipyard was rather isolated from the rest of the city, and the garden village of Heijplaat was built by RDM to offer nearby housing for its workers. Today, the RDM campus (which now stands for Research, Design, and Manufacturing) is a collaboration of the Port of Rotterdam, Rotterdam University, and Albeda College.

We walked through Heijplaat from the RDM campus on our way to the “squatters’ village.” Originally a quarantine for people entering the Netherlands, the site has attracted squatters for decades. RDM is working on a new agreement that allows the squatters to live there for another ten years while RDM restores the houses on site and prepares them for resale.

What made our stroll through Heijplaat stimulate such strong sensory perceptions? Location and context. Even in a picturesque little village, seeing and hearing the contrasting surroundings set the tone for a completely unexpected site impression. Wandering through this town on our way from the RDM campus to the squatters’ village was a brief, but powerful moment of the day. The spatial experience was a perfect example of how context can shape how we perceive and relate to a place. Having visited a handful of Netherlands’ many smaller towns already this week, my expectations of canals, cobblestone, and sweeping green landscapes had been set. Heijplaat was jarringly different, and I noticed. Metal cranes leaned in from the edges of scenes I had experienced just days prior, and the constant awareness of juxtaposing surroundings was a new and prevailing sensation.