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How Rotterdam is pulling the plug on climate change

More than three quarters of the Dutch city is below sea level, making it particularly vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures.

By Megan Kenyon

This article was originally published as an edition of the Green Transition, New Statesman Spotlight’s weekly newsletter on the economics of net zero. See more editions and subscribe here.

More than three quarters of Rotterdam – the Netherlands’ second-largest city – is below sea level. A vital port, it sits on the edge of the Rotte, which runs through the Rhine-Maas delta. It is fondly known by some residents as the “bathtub of Europe”. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that Rotterdam is more vulnerable than most of its northern European peers to the result of rising temperatures.

The last 12 months have been the hottest ever recorded; and for countries in the Global North an increase in worldwide temperatures often means an exponential increase in rainfall. More rain means Rotterdam, and many other places, are at greater risk of flooding. This could cause lasting damage to the city’s homes, workplaces and metro system.

Indeed, Rotterdam’s residents and its government are well aware that something needs to change in order to improve their resilience against inevitable climate change. On a recent trip to Rotterdam – supported by Rotterdam Partners, the city’s tourism board – New Statesman Spotlight saw first-hand some of the work currently taking place across the city to adapt to climate change.

Vincent Karremans, one of Rotterdam’s eight vice-mayors, told the Green Transition last month that the pandemic had given the city and its residents an added sense of the importance of green outdoor space. With socialising curtailed, many people found solace in the outdoors. In towns and cities, public parks became a lifeline for residents.

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“We’re turning a grey city very much into a green city,” said Karremans, who is responsible for enforcement, public space and transport. He explained that after Rotterdam was bombed during the Second World War it had to be rebuilt, but this redesign did not include many green or natural spaces. The current government is looking to change that.

All that work pivots around the Seven City Projects, a series of public works that create seven new parks across Rotterdam. They are backed by a €233m investment from the municipality. The principal aim of the projects is to increase residents’ access to green spaces, but the parks will also provide natural water storage to accommodate increased rainfall, adapting the city to the impacts of climate change.

[See also: Why Ulez alone won’t be enough to decarbonise transport]

And it’s not just traditional parks being laid around the great Dutch port city: an increase in green roofs and rooftop parks will also add to green space in the city, as well as its water storage capability.

One example is the Hofbogenpark in the north of Rotterdam. It will be the longest rooftop park in the Netherlands and, if all goes to plan, will open in 2025. But the Green Transition got a sneak peek. It sits on a former railway line previously connecting Rotterdam and The Hague – what was the first electric railway in the Netherlands.

Walking along the prospective route is reminiscent of a similar project in New York, the High Line – another former railway, which runs directly through the west side of Manhattan. Hofbogenpark will include a water system that captures rainwater and purifies it through a sand filter. The water is stored deep underground, and then reused to irrigate the park’s plants and trees and in fountains and streams that are dotted along the route.

As Vice-Mayor Karremans explained, “You need green spaces to hold [excess water] as a sponge, so that we can constantly stem the flow of water into the city.”

The landscape architects at De Urbanisten, the Dutch firm that designed the park, have even included ramps to allow urban hedgehogs proper access into the park, creating a safe and comfortable habitat in the heart of the city. Hofbogenpark covers four densely populated neighbourhoods. It is hoped that a central, expansive park across this area will provide an essential and cooling green space to help residents deal with hot weather, and to prevent flooding during increasingly heavy rainfall. Karremans tells the Green Transition that he hopes the park will become “a very iconic landmark”.

The approach to climate adaptation is a pragmatic one. The city’s leaders realise such a project is essential; yet they have managed to oversee a large shift in the city’s urban make-up seemingly without widespread upset. Similar projects in the UK are often beset by Nimby objections or by overarching political controversies (see Ulez).

Karremans puts it simply: you have to make a case for these changes that appeals to residents’ sense of what might be missing from their environment. “We’re not simply talking about climate adaptation,” he explained. “We’re also saying: look, you can go for a nice walk in this new park, you can have your lunch there, you can meet up with your friends. It’s about adding utility to it.”

While the city may – on the whole – look like a sea of grey right now, in the next five years a smattering of green and blue is planned to bloom across Rotterdam. Through an expansive project of urban renewal, the “bathtub of Europe” could eventually pull the plug on climate change.

[See also: Caroline Lucas: “The absence of climate policy from the election is unforgivable”]

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