Lessons from Dutch-style climate resilience 

University of Pennsylvania professor Matthijs Bouw joins Vineyarders to discuss climate resiliency options.

Matthijs Bouw telling the audience about various ways to manage local water sources.

Matthijs Bouw, an advisor to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s (MVC) Climate Action Plan team and founder of One Architecture and Urbanism, led a Zoom presentation about developing climate resiliency and how these methods can help communities. 

“Tonight is something of a prequel of climate action week [happening in May],” MVC climate change planner Liz Durkee said to the 50 people watching via Zoom. 

Bouw, who is from the Netherlands, began the presentation describing how his country handles being a coastal community through what he called “Dutch water management,” which uses methods that work in tandem with nature.

The Netherlands has 26% of its land below sea level, according to Bouw, giving the Dutch 800 years of experience solving water issues. Today, this vulnerable land holds 60% of the Netherlands’ population, generates 70% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and contains important cities like Amsterdam and The Hague. Dutch innovators created solutions to coastal flooding, riverine flooding, and pluvial, or rain-induced, flooding. These techniques include the usage of levies, polders, and using the natural landscape to best make these water management structures.

According to Bouw, developing water manipulation methods takes more than engineers. Bouw gave an example of how blocking off estuaries is harmful to the marine ecosystem. As a result, “openable barriers” were developed to “keep our ecological systems intact,” such as in the Meuse River. “If you only let the engineers do the things and really look at one particular risk only, you might be overlooking a lot of other risks,” Bouw said. “When you do these types of projects, you want to get as much expertise on the table, but as broad of [an] expertise on the table.” 

Bouw also pointed out to the audience that managing the local water systems does not equate to adapting to climate change because of the different scales of managing the two. Adapting to climate change does not just mean making ways to deal with the “deep uncertainty” in people and dealing with the acceleration of “global weirding,” a term coined by environmentalist Hunter Lovins to describe how climate change is causing more extreme weather events. 

To show some ways his firm dealt with climate change in America, Bouw turned the audience’s attention to New York. The firm worked to make parts of the city more resilient against climate change and to consider the social factor, such as developing flood protection infrastructure and shoreline extension in Lower Manhattan. The firm also made a “big U” around Manhattan that helps mitigate flood damage from storms but also provides recreational areas for residents. In East Harlem, the firm offered programs for students to be more aware of climate resiliency. Bouw said a programmatic and inclusive approach is needed to implement long-term change. 

Bouw also suggested using nature on Martha’s Vineyard to increase climate resilience, such as using the ocean currents to move sand to where it’s needed. According to Explore Beaches, a beach education project by the University of California Santa Barbara, this is done by placing “sand up coast and in the nearshore zone and allow waves to move it onto and along the beach.”
“Doing stuff in nature is much cheaper than doing stuff in buildings,” Bouw said. He mentioned the planting of mangrove trees in Indonesia to mitigate the damage from storms. 

A discussion and answer session was held after the presentation. MVC commissioner Jeffrey Agnoli pointed out that climate resilience projects require a lot of space, which might be cut off by private and public property, and he wanted to know how to gain the type of consensus to go ahead with these projects. Bouw said there are a couple of things that people can try, such as “investing in the social capital that is necessary” or educating people about the costs it would take to convert to climate-resilient infrastructure than doing so sooner.

“That doesn’t mean it will happen,” Bouw clarified, saying different people will have varying interests and senses of urgency, among other factors. 

Following up, attendee Isaac Taylor asked how it will be possible to get the funding for these projects. Bouw said Martha’s Vineyard “is in a good spot” because the Island is already working on climate change issues. He acknowledged there will be difficulty in getting the funds, but “the community overall” is better off than most in regard to climate change efforts. 

This was the first in a series of events about climate change hosted by the MVC. The next one will be on Thursday, February 10, at 5 pm and is about managing rainwater on your property. The Zoom event can be accessed at https://bit.ly/3guUiDZ