A Dutch Dilemma?

Cashin, P. “New York’s South Ferry subway station after it was flooded by seawater during Sandy.” Climate.gov, 2013. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-casestudies/how-sandy-affected-new-york-city%E2%80%99s-long-term-planning

            The Dutch are widely known for their constant battle with the sea and the technology that has resulted from centuries of innovation. As a country with some of its biggest cities under sea level, the Netherlands has the most to lose from the current climate crisis. As a result, many of its practices and policies are sustainable, putting it 9th in the world in terms of sustainability according to the United Nations SDG project (Netherlands sustainable development report). However, there is still room for improvement with the country’s high greenhouse emissions and lack of housing, which leads to the questions: What makes a sustainable city and what aspect of cities in the Netherlands are actually “sustainable”?

            There are key elements that must be met to create a sustainable city: Safe and affordable housing, proper transportation systems, cultural protection, access to green space, positive economic links between rural and urban areas, etc. (Goal 11). One aspect the Dutch do extremely well in is considering the natural area that they are building on and giving everyone access to green space. Architectural historian Joppe Schaffer says their city planning based off Ebenezer Howard’s “The Garden City” ensures that green areas are protected and preserved to “maintain good health and aesthetics”, as well as help create a community. There is a fundamental idea that “trees are just as important as bricks” which can be seen reflected in the abundance of green space in Dutch cities. Garden villages are present in places such as Amsterdam north and Rotterdam, where there are public libraries to create a sense of community. Schaffer gives us an idea of the green space inside city centers. But following Aaron Betsky’s journey to work as director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in False Flat, we learn of the landscape the cities surround. The “green heart” is an area surrounded by Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague, etc. that is still predominantly rural. However, dotting the inside of the green heart are growing cities that are slowly becoming part of the trade and commerce network (Betsky 24).

            Oftentimes when people think “sustainability”, they only consider the environmental and ecological side of things. However, sustainability is multidisciplinary and encompasses more than environmental effects. Preserving culture is one of the targets in SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities, that the Dutch have reached. In A Millennium of Amsterdam, journalist Fred Feddes writes, “Little by little, they came to have so much invested in the land that they couldn’t walk away from it.” It seems foolish to begin building on land that is below sea level. However, the problems brought about by water were “slow and gradual”, as a result, the Dutch were able to deal with each issue as it came. They slowly moved their homes to higher ground and built higher and stronger dikes (Feddes 27). “The development of polders happened gradually… built in different places [,] at different times and in different ways.” (Meyer et al. 45). The first settlers established themselves in different places, using different methods to keep the water out. But as the water became a larger issue “preventing the land from eroding further [demanded] cooperation on an increasingly large scale” (Feddes 12) forcing people to begin working together and forming the beginnings of a city. At a certain point they had invested so many resources creating land for themselves and could no longer move away. This idea lies at the center of the Dutch culture of constantly fighting the water and why staying is so important to them. In fact, the Dutch do not have any plans to stop expanding on land below sea level. In recent years, they have even built more islands to the northeast of Amsterdam for additional housing (Schaffer). By continuing to improve their resiliency practices to remain in place, Dutch cities are preserving and protecting part of their culture.

            Maintaining and improving water management infrastructure comes at an enormous economic cost. When is it no longer reasonable to continue investing in water management and consider relocation to higher ground? We have seen how differing perspectives can teach us different things about the same area of land and this question serves as another example. As a Dutch citizen, Joppe Schaffer said that there is no discussion or consideration of moving east, where the land is high above sea level. However, from an outsider’s point of view I think that it is important to begin thinking about the possibility of building elsewhere. As a New York City resident, I saw firsthand how much destruction hurricane Sandy caused and the subsequent recovery efforts. Even though New York City was considered a good example of a resilient city in the US, the city was extremely unprepared. Sandy cost an estimated $19 billion in damages (some of which can be seen in the photograph by Cashin) and led to over 20,000 displaced households (Impact of Hurricane Sandy and Gibbens). In some of the hardest hit areas such as the Rockaways in Queens, New York, many residents were unable to afford rebuilding their houses and forced to leave.

            Following Sandy, NYC was granted billions for various agencies and departments to improve resilience. One method is through city parks. For example, through the East Side Coastal Resiliency there are plans to raise the elevation, install floodwalls, and reconstruct the waterfront to protect plants and facilities in the East River Park (East Side Coastal Resiliency). There has also been discussion for a seawall between the Rockaways in New York and a strip of land in New Jersey. However, many scientists are skeptical about this because it only protects from storm surges, not flooding or storm runoff (Barnard). On top of that, the barrier would cost $119 billion and protection “could be obsolete within decades” due to rising sea levels. Even with these efforts, years after hurricane Sandy, some residents are still unable to return home while others have relocated to higher ground.

            In recent years the Dutch have struggled to build enough housing even as parts of their cities are being gentrified, making displacement a more pressing issue. I believe hurricane Sandy and New York City serve as an important parallel to the cities below sea level in the Netherlands. Before Sandy hit, NYC was considered resilient and had infrastructure such as seawalls, yet it was unable to handle the aftermath of a water-related natural disaster. The Netherlands is spending billions on protecting its land but as sea level continues to rise it becomes more expensive to maintain their safety. Over 17 million people live below sea level in the Netherlands and if a large flooding event overpowered the water systems, millions would be at risk. On top of that, dikes need to be maintained and about 1 kilometer of dikes must be repaired each week. The Afsluitdijk, a 32-kilometer dike, has cost 700 million to reinforce and heighten (Nicholls-Lee) and there are over 22,000 kilometers of dikes in the Netherlands (“Dutch dikes”). Don de Bake, senior advisor for flood defenses at the Rijkswaterstaat predicts that the Netherlands will have to completely change their defense after a 2m rise in sea level, which could happen in less than 200 years (Nicholls-Lee). This means that the billions of dollars invested into infrastructure could be useless in the next 80 years.

            Although Dutch cities are currently safe and sustainable, citizens should begin considering relocation. Although relocation goes against Dutch culture of fighting water that ties them to the land they are on, many of their major cities house cultural elements encompassing arts and customs as well. Hurricane Sandy serves as an example that the rising economic cost and possible life toll are not things that should be ignored.



Barnard, Anne. “The $119 Billion Sea Wall That Could Defend New York … or Not.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Jan. 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/17/nyregion/sea-wall-nyc.html.

Betsky, Aaron. “False Flat Why Dutch Design Is so Good.” Phaidon, 2008.

“Dutch Dikes.” Dike-Map, 2014, dutchdikes.net/map/.

“East Side Coastal Resiliency.” East Side Coastal Resiliency : NYC Parks, http://www.nycgovparks.org/planning-and-building/planning/neighborhood-development/east-side-coastal-resiliency.

Feddes, Fred. “A Millennium of Amsterdam: Spatial History of a Marvellous City.” Thoth, 2019.

Gibbens, Sarah. “Hurricane Sandy Facts and Information.” Environment, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/hurricane-sandy.

“Goal 11 | Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” United Nations, United Nations, sdgs.un.org/goals/goal11.

Impact of Hurricane Sandy.” NYC RECOVERY | Community Development Block Grant                      Disaster Recovery.

Meyer, Han, et al. Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands. Abingdon-United Kingdom, United Kingdom, Taylor & Francis, 2017.

“Netherlands.” Sustainable Development Report 2020, dashboards.sdgindex.org/profiles/NLD.

Nicholls-Lee, Deborah. “As Sea Levels Rise, How Long until the Netherlands Is under Water?” DutchNews.nl, 30 Dec. 2019, http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2019/12/as-sea-levels-rise-how-long-until-the-netherlands-is-under-water/.

Nicholls-Lee, Deborah. “Can the Netherlands Save Itself from Rising Water Levels?” DutchNews.nl, 24 Dec. 2019, http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2019/12/can-the-netherlands-save-itself-from-rising-water-levels/.


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