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Rotterdam, Netherlands
Natural Environment

Citizen-led urban climate adaptation: A case study

Rotterdam is one of Europe’s most strategically important industrial hubs. It is also extremely susceptible flooding caused by rising sea levels and extreme weather events. Building on a long tradition of success, local authorities have launched an ambitious plan to climate proof the city, one neighbourhood at a time.

World Built Environment Forum
22 July 2020

Few places have such a complex relationship with water as Rotterdam. Home to one of the world’s busiest ports, the city owes much of its wealth and renown to the seas. At the same time, even by Dutch standards, it is unusually low-lying. With around 800mm of rainfall a year, it is also wetter than London, Paris, or Moscow. The threat posed by floods is severe and unrelenting.

Since the 14th century, the city has been a vital exchange point for people and commodities, a thriving hub of commerce and culture. It has maintained its status as one of Northern Europe’s economic engine rooms through a series of decisive actions to mitigate climate stress. Rotterdam Weatherwise is the latest such example.

Weatherwise builds on the successes, and learning, of the previous climate adaptation plan, Rotterdam Climate Proof, launched in 2009. One of the initiative’s notable achievements was the creation of a series of “water plazas” around the city. The plazas serve as water collection points in times of heavy rainfall, and public assets – football pitches, basketball courts and skate parks – during dry spells. Designed after extensive community consultation, they have improved liveability standards for local residents. What’s more, as no two are the same, they have lent a distinctive character to each of the neighbourhoods in which they are located. Finally, crucially, they have benefitted the public purse. Across the Netherlands, funds for regional flood defence schemes are raised through local taxation. Rates in Rotterdam are, unsurprisingly, among the highest in the country. By performing a dual purpose, water plazas effectively pay a double return on taxpayers’ investment.

Johan Verlinde
Johan Verlinde

Though a success, Rotterdam Climate Proof was limited insofar as it was concerned solely with the city’s public space. Weatherwise suffers from no such poverty of ambition. Johan Verlinde, who manages the implementation of the strategy, explains: “We want to incorporate private property into our climate adaptation plan. We work on four ‘tracks.’ The first is public space – we still have work to do on public spaces. The second is the ‘new city’ – every new building in Rotterdam needs to store water and cool the surrounding area. The third is existing buildings – we want to transform them into climate adapted buildings. And the fourth track is ‘Rotterdammers’ – which is about working together with the citizens and entrepreneurs of Rotterdam to make the city climate proof.”

The first Dutch regional water authorities were established in the 13th century and still enjoy a special place in the popular imagination today. For centuries they have protected lives and livelihoods. Perhaps more significantly, they are commonly held to be the country’s first democratic bodies. Management of water risk has long been a citizen-led endeavour in the Netherlands. Nonetheless, Rotterdam’s history of success in flood defence work may have bred some complacency among the people of the city.

“Because we have worked on water safety for such a long time, people tend to feel very safe,” notes Verlinde. “They say: ‘What is the risk facing us? And we pay our taxes, what more can we do?’” The task facing the authorities has been to re-engage with residents on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis.

"Because we have worked on water safety for such a long time, people tend to feel very safe,” notes Verlinde. “They say: ‘What is the risk facing us? And we pay our taxes, what more can we do?’” The task facing the authorities has been to re-engage with residents on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis.

Johan Verlinde
Programme Manager, Rotterdam Climate Adaptation Plan

“We’ve determined specific climate risks for every neighbourhood in the city, but we also looked at the social picture. Every neighbourhood has a completely different social composition and we need to speak the language of the people living there. Whether in areas with high incomes, or areas with low incomes, where 90% of the people originate from outside of the Netherlands, we had to adapt the message. That way we can show them what they can do to their buildings and their streets to manage climate risks.”   

The role of the built environment in managing climate change is well explored on these pages. Rotterdam Weatherwise moves the discussion beyond emissions levels in the construction and operation of real estate assets. It seeks to make the city’s commercial and residential buildings vessels for excess water in times of heavy rainfall. It’s an ingenious solution to a unique problem. The delta city’s dykes and tidal walls have been remarkably successful at keeping seawater out. However, when the heavens open, Rotterdam fills up like a bathtub: the impregnability of the sea defences mean the rainwaters cannot run off as they ordinarily would. For years, the city has used a complex pumping system to manage the problem. It’s an expensive and energy intensive solution, and the pumps are frequently pushed to their absolute maximum capacity. 

Over 40,000 homes in Rotterdam are owned and operated by social housing providers. Often, these homes are set in high rise blocks, with large communal concrete gardens.

Rotterdam’s dykes and tidal walls have been remarkably successful at keeping seawater out. However, when the heavens open, the delta city fills up like a bathtub.

“When the housing companies have budget available for renovations to kitchens, windows, etc., we also try to make sure they do something with the block’s roof,” says Verlinde. “That includes installing solar panels and, at the same time, a green roof or a blue roof – a water storage roof. We have also begun to transform the community gardens into water storing gardens.”  As with the water plazas, the gardens have been co-designed with residents. In doing so, the city has reinforced the impression that climate action is a collaborative and participatory undertaking.

Private developers are also incentivised to build water security into project plans, with subsidies awarded by the square metre for green roofs and newly greened paved spaces. New building regulations have been developed in collaboration with the sector, to ensure the regulatory regime embeds the highest green standards without inhibiting much needed new development.

Recent water security initiatives in Rotterdam have served not only to make the city safer, but also more appealing to residents and visitors. They have added a new aesthetic appeal and empowered marginalised communities through involvement in crucial neighbourhood resilience schemes. In line with the ambitions of the Weatherwise plan, the city is healthier and more liveable as a result.