Landscape Disurbanism: Depolderization & Decentralization in the Dutch Delta Region

Over seventy percent of the GDP in the Netherlands is produced below sea level. To uphold this submergent economy, the Netherlands must spend 2 billion Euros annually on flood defense, equivalent to per capita spending on military defense in the U.S.. Notwithstanding dwindling reserves of natural gas in the North Sea, Dutch energy demand – which include water pumping systems and flood control structures – rely on the import of 976 thousand barrels per day, mostly from the Middle East. To withstand projected sea level rise between now and the 22nd century, flood infrastructure in the Netherlands must be raised 1.3 metres this century and an additional 4 metres following, while groundwater simultaneously drops 1.75 metres. When we talk about climate change and sustainability, what exactly are we trying to sustain? Should we fear sea level rise or exploit it? Should we shore up the Netherlands or let it flood? How do we deal with depleting energy resources and population pressures? Can design and planning preempt challenges that don\’t yet exist? The future of the Netherlands is clearly inseparable from the future of energy, engineering and ecology. Responding to the current call for re-armoring coastal defenses across the Netherlands, this design research project takes on the double bind of climate change and urbanization with a design research studio that first addresses the regional challenges of the Maas-Rhine River Delta, a region squeezed in by rising sea levels and increasing flood waters. Examining a series of urban deltas worldwide, the project brings to the surface a series of adaptive flood strategies and disurbanist spatial models – including decentralization, deengineering, depolderization – that have evolved over centuries to challenge the prevailing polder model and Dutch tradition of civil engineering that have evolved over the past seven hundred years by proposing a series of proto-ecological interventions for the Delta Region that capitalize on the climate conundrum of the 21st century. This design research project is a joint studio offering from the Departments of Landscape Architecture & Planning. Funded by the Graduate School of Design, the studio includes a week-long reconnaissance trip to the Netherlands for fact finding, ground truthing and geographic study. The studio welcomes students across the design and planning disciplines with strong research and representational skill to work both individually and collectively, across a range of scales. The penultimate objective of the project is to produce a series of measures, mappings, and models reproducible in urban deltas across the world where, according to the United Nations, almost half of the global population will live in by the middle of the 21st century. The project is sponsored by The Harvard-Netherlands Project on Climate Change, Water, Land Development, and Adaptation, and in association with the Netherlands Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management; the Netherlands Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment; and the Netherlands-based Deltares Institute