The Dutch Can’t Save Us From Rising Seas

Dutch engineers are renowned for their ability to keep cities dry. But their approach doesn’t necessarily translate to an American context.

Billy Fleming
Research Coordinator, University of Pennsylvania School of Design
In nearly every major coastal city on Earth, elected officials are going Dutch—placing their faith and the future of their communities in the hands of Dutch engineering firms who are exporting their brand of climate adaptation to anyone that will listen. In the United States, their ideas have dominated the recovery and rebuilding efforts that followed Katrina in New Orleans, Ike and Harvey in Houston, and Sandy in New York. Even San Francisco, a city with little or no experience with tropical storms, is becoming a site of experimentation for Dutch engineers through a competition known as Resilient by Design.

It’s easy to understand why so many American cities are eager to entertain these ideas. Perhaps more than any other issue, climate policy engenders a sense of hopelessness. The scale of the problem and the measures necessary to combat it can seem overwhelming. Mainstream writing on climate change remains apocalyptic. The reaction to last week’s IPCC report is emblematic of the optimism deficit that pervades American climate policy—one that’s left the nation without anything resembling a plan to manage the disparate, diffuse, and devastating impacts of climate change.

That vacuum of leadership has created an opening for industry and other nations to shape how we think about the future and, increasingly, how we redesign our communities for a wetter, more volatile world. Americans are turning toward the Dutch because, in their telling, they have a success story to share—a rare glimmer of hope in cities facing the existential threats of sea-level rise, storm surge, and mass human migration.

The closed storm-surge barrier “De Maaslandkering” seen from Hoek van Holland (Hook of Holland). (Jerry Lampen/Reuters)

Over the last half-century, the Netherlands’ coastline has been completely transformed through massive feats of engineering aimed at keeping its major cities dry. Dikes and levees, pump stations and retractable barriers, polders and reinforced dunes have all been erected in a national initiative to hold back the floodwaters of the North Sea. Water engineering has become, as one Dutch architect told me during New York’s Rebuild by Design competition, “the principal export of the Netherlands.” Holland’s investment in water engineering has earned favorable headlines for their firms in major news outlets all over the world, including a recent feature on Henk Ovink—the Dutch Water Ambassador—on 60 Minutes.

There, and in nearly every other outlet that’s covered their work, the message has been the same: The Dutch are coming to save us, if only we’d let them.

But I’m not so sure. Although the United States has much to learn from the rest of the world’s approach to climate change, it’s not clear how or why we should expect the Dutch approach to adaptation to translate so readily to our shores. There are major, perhaps irreconcilable differences in the nature of the flood risk, the physical and economic geography, the political systems and institutions of each nation.

It would be difficult to imagine two nations in the Global North with less in common when it comes to flood risk. The most devastating storm in the Netherlands’ history—the storm that catalyzed the half-century of coastal armoring that now defines their national water brand—brought a surge of nearly 15 feet ashore in 1953. It killed at least 2,000 people and ravaged the nation’s coastal communities, and remains a singular cultural event in Dutch history. There’s never been another storm like it in Holland—they simply don’t experience storms of that intensity with any regularity.

Yet in the United States, at least 10 hurricanes made landfall along the Gulf or Atlantic Coasts with comparable surge heights since 2000. Hurricanes Ivan (2004), Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), Wilma (2005), Ike (2008), Bill (2009), Irma (2017), Maria (2017), Florence (2018) and Matthew (2018) have met or exceeded the surge levels brought by Holland’s Great Flood. To put it bluntly, there is nothing remotely comparable about the nature of the risk in the Netherlands and the nature of the risk in the United States. Designing a coastal barrier system like Holland’s is a simpler, cheaper proposition when the frequency and intensity of the storms are markedly lower than those experienced in the U.S. More American cities should question whether the Dutch approach will transfer so readily to their coast.

The two nations also differ considerably in their physical and economic geography. The Netherlands is a small nation with three major cities all clustered along roughly 620 miles of coastline: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and the Hague. Each city rests, in whole or part, below sea level and lacks any sizable, proximate inland areas in which to contemplate retreat. The cities are, quite literally, boxed in by dykes, walls, and water. The nation is heavily invested in keeping it that way, too—the Dutch economy is predicated on the ability of those three cities to persist, more or less, in their current form. Given the physical and economic constraints facing the nation after 1953, fortifying the coast became the only viable option for Dutch engineers—one that successfully limited each city’s flood risks, but also created one of the world’s largest hypoxic or dead zones in the North Sea.

None of these constraints are present in the U.S., where more than a dozen major cities line the East and Atlantic Coasts, each with ample inland land supply that offers a variety of other options for communities contemplating investments in climate adaptation. Also, there’s nearly 100,000 miles of coastline in the U.S., making it impossible to emulate the Dutch approach to water management in all but the wealthiest global cities.

That brings us to the greatest discrepancy in the argument that what worked in the Netherlands can work in the U.S.: Each nation is operating under dramatically different political and infrastructure financing systems. The Dutch have high tax rates, low military spending, and a strong, centralized, activist government that, as a matter of survival, has to invest in coastal protection. Climate adaptation isn’t left up to the market in the Netherlands. From the capital costs of construction to the annual costs of operation and maintenance, the Dutch fund their protective barriers as if their lives and livelihoods depend on it—because they do.

In its current state, the American political system simply isn’t equipped to handle large, complex issues like climate change. Decentralized and increasingly privatized, the federal government isn’t designed to quickly build large networks of coastal infrastructure like the Dutch.

Worse, the high cost of maintaining coastal infrastructure is borne by local governments. Though federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Housing and Urban Development often contribute the bulk of the capital costs for new infrastructure, the upkeep—including the regular raising and bolstering of large structures that tend to slowly sink, thus lowering the level of protection they provide—is often the sole responsibility of state and local governments. In practice, this means that most cities cannot afford to maintain the protective systems they already have, let alone a massive, complex surge-barrier system such as the BIG U in New York. And even the capital costs can be a problem. When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, nearly $1 billion in Ike recovery money remained unspent after nearly a decade, largely because Texas counties and municipalities could not come up with the matching funds required by federal agencies to build most coastal infrastructure.

As a result, the American coastline is a patchwork of uneven protection, ranging from substandard to non-existent, with the most protection found in wealthy areas with a local tax base to support the private financing of infrastructure, and little or no protection found elsewhere. An inevitable result of America’s neoliberal land-development regime is that storms like Florence and Michael will become more common and that their impacts will be felt most acutely by the poor and working-class people we’ve forced to live alongside our most hazardous waste in our lowest lying areas. It’s not a coincidence that these storms all meet similar conditions along the coast. That’s a feature, not a bug, of market-driven land development in the U.S.

This isn’t to say that the Dutch approach will never be appropriate in the U.S. It will be. And in some sense it already is, in the BIG U project that will rim lower Manhattan in protective barriers and parks. In addition to hosting the nation’s most valuable stretch of real estate, a vestige of affordable housing in its Lower East Side, and perhaps the most economically productive community (the Financial District) in the world, Manhattan also sits at a relatively high mean elevation—nearly 20 feet, compared to, say, Norfolk, Virginia, which sits closer to 6 feet on average.

For the vast majority of American cities that aren’t New York or San Francisco, other measures will need to be considered. Liz Koslov and others have noted that many people are hoping to retreat—and we should give them that opportunity, through buyouts, immediately. There’s no sense in building walls where people no longer want to live. But we should also consider softer, more flexible forms of protection along the coast—dunes, reefs, and other forms of what the Army Corps of Engineers calls nature-based strategies that can lessen storm surge, restore and create marine fisheries and habitat, and be more easily altered or managed as sea levels continue to rise. Put another way, no single approach—let alone an extraordinarily expensive, complex one like the Dutch approach—will work in a nation as large and diverse as the U.S.

Instead, governments can give coastal residents the two resources they need most to adapt: time and money. Smaller, nature-based coastal infrastructure can forestall, not halt, sea-level rise, giving residents some agency over when they leave and where they go—a decision that’s often made for them after major storm events, and that could be far less disruptive if the federal government invested in managed retreat, including the community organizing and resettlement assistance people would need to make that decision and cope with the consequences. The work of landscape-architecture studio SCAPE in Staten Island, the Environmental Defense Fund’s work with sediment diversions in the Gulf, and Catherine Seavitt Nordenson’s work in Jamaica Bay all offer alternatives to the massive, rigid infrastructure endemic to the Dutch approach.

We are entering the uncharted waters of planetary climate change. Dutch walls and dikes can’t stop that, and the Dutch approach to adaptation cannot save us—nothing can. But investments in community organizing and a more modest set of design tools can lessen its impacts and give people a chance to remake their lives, and the coast, for a wetter, uncertain future.

About the Author

Billy Fleming

Billy Fleming is the Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. He is a co-author of The Indivisible Guide, a co-creator of Data Refuge, and an alumnus of the Obama administration’s White House Domestic Policy Council.