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Dutch cities not prepared for climate change

Why we need to move towards climate-robust solutions

Dutch cities are ill-equipped to deal with climate change. Meanwhile the chances of damage due to floods, draught and excessive heat are increasing. In addition to material damage to buildings, infrastructure and green spaces, public health is also at risk. If we do not start to take measures now, the costs for governments and citizens may run up to billions of euros. 



Old standards and an obsolete approach
In urban planning, municipal and water board administrators make decisions based on old knowledge. Urban areas are designed and managed the way in which it has always has been done. These old methods are not adapted to climate change and the increasing urban vulnerabilities. The current approach to urban spatial planning is obsolete and based on old standards. Soft soil is raised with heavy materials and the water level is lowered. As a result, inhabitants are faced with subsidence problems from the time they move into their new homes.

Municipalities, road administrators and network administrators are affected due to damage to roads, sewerage, cables and pipelines. Many buildings and infrastructures are not protected from water distress. Houses with ground access are especially at risk of flooding. Power problems are bound to occur, because switchboxes and transformer stations are often located near ground level. The water drains in the street are not always able to handle the downpour. Cellars and crawl spaces are high risk for water damage. Shopping streets and streets in residential areas also become flooded. When this happens, the sewage water, which is infested with germs, pours into the streets where children play. In some cases, the water floods houses and shops, causing power failure.

‘Sweating’ cities for heat wave protection
In periods of heat and draught it is difficult for cities to lose their heat. Cities are not able to ‘sweat’ due to lack of water. The heat is not carried away through evaporation, which causes very high temperatures. This results in a reduction of worker productivity unless the air conditioning is switched on. But air conditioning uses a lot of power. We also know that heat waves cause increased mortality.

Combining urban redevelopment with a climate-robust approach
Municipal and water board administrators should link making their cities more climate robust to urban renewal and public space reorganisation. These are ideal moments to redevelop parts of the city and adapt them to climate change. It is possible to make 80% of all cities climate robust within 50 years at low cost, provided these efforts are properly linked to the replacement of sewerage lines and the redevelopment of streets, dwellings, buildings and utilities.

Municipalities could, for example, lower the streets. They could focus on planting more trees in the streets, creating water squares and water parks, managing groundwater levels and ensure that vulnerable groups, objects and networks are properly protected. In addition, they could encourage citizens to take action themselves by buying rainwater tanks and installing private water storage and green roofs.

The water boards can take action by ensuring the availability of enough good quality water, providing storage for excess water and opportunities to use this water beneficially. There are many opportunities to make cities more climate resilient while reinforcing the quality of the living environment, often at limited cost. If municipalities and water boards neglect to incorporate measures for climate change adaptation into urban renewal and redevelopment projects now, they could be faced with having to take much more expensive measures ten or twenty years down the line.

About the author
Frans van de Ven is urban water management expert at Deltares and Associate Professor of Urban Water Management at TU Delft. For more information, visit

See also a related article in Dutch national newspaper Trouw (30/11/2011): Nederlandse steden slecht voorbereid op extreem weer

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