Experimental City: How Rotterdam Became A World Leader In Sustainable Urban Design

Faced with rising waters and other threats, the city of Rotterdam had to transform itself to become a resilient city of the future. This cross-post from FastCoExist shares how Rotterdam became a world leader in sustainable urban design. 100RC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.

When Helly Scholten makes dinner, if she needs a tomato or squash or an onion, she heads upstairs—the top floor of her house is a 440-square-foot indoor vegetable garden. She starts cooking before the sun goes down, while warmth is still flooding through the glass walls of the kitchen downstairs. The entire home is wrapped in a greenhouse.

Sitting on the edge of the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port—with a view of massive cranes out a kitchen window—the house is part of an experiment called Concept House Village, created to push the limits of sustainable design. Down the street, in the middle of a mostly empty field, another house tests features like an energy-producing toilet that harvests phosphate from pee. Another house, built from renewable materials, is designed to be constructed in a day.

Inside each of the three houses built in the “village” so far, volunteer families act as guinea pigs, committing to live there for three years while giving feedback on the designs.

“Of course, it’s a test,” says Scholten. “We knew upfront that everything was not going to be perfect right away.” A rainwater-harvesting system on the roof, which was designed to directly water the vegetables growing in the loft, hasn’t been working correctly, so the family spends at least an hour a day watering the plants by hand. The parts of the house directly under the greenhouse walls can overheat, while the rest of the house can be cold in the winter. The current solar hot waters aren’t enough to keep showers comfortable.

When these new challenges arise, a team of students and professors from the University of Rotterdam—who originally designed and built the home—come over, sit at the kitchen table, and plot solutions, continually tweaking the design.

Sustainable architecture is not unusual in Rotterdam, the second-largest city in the Netherlands. For new buildings, sustainable design is standard. On a plot of land next to the Concept House Village test site, another planned development of 170 homes will be completely energy-neutral—meaning, at the end of each year, the homes will have produced as much power as they used. But the technologies used in the new development (solar panels, LED lights, heat pumps in the ground to heat and cool the houses) are already common on the market. By 2020, all new houses in the Netherlands will have to be carbon-neutral, by law.

Concept House Village is an attempt to take things in different directions, experimenting with more radical features, such as a garden that takes up the entire second floor. It’s an example of something that’s common in Rotterdam: This is a city that loves to play with new ideas.

The city is becoming a sustainable design capital, home to dozens of experimental projects. Next year, the world’s first floating dairy farm will open in a local harbor, followed a few years later by a giant floating high-rise. The city is testing one-of-a-kind recycled bike paths and climate-proof parks; the port will soon start filtering plastic waste from the harbor. Local entrepreneurs are experimenting with mushroom farming, bread recycling, and turning food waste into fake leather.

This is the story of how a gritty port city—once known more for its crime rate than design—became more inventive in sustainability than other cities that are 10 times as large. While other cities are experimenting with some similar projects (Knight Foundation grants, for example, have spurred creative ideas such as turning an old highway into a bike path), the scale and breadth of what is happening in Rotterdam is unique.

Four things were critical: Rotterdam’s roots as a future-obsessed port, the threat of rising seas, an abundance of open space, and a government willing to support original—and sometimes weird—new solutions.

Credit: ​Alex MacLean

A Culture Open to Change

Rotterdam might seem, at first, like an unlikely home for the cutting edge of sustainable design. A fairly small city (with a population around 600,000, about the size Baltimore, its U.S. sister city ), it has working-class roots. For decades, the city’s port was the largest in the world, and the local economy revolved almost entirely around shipping. Now those jobs are declining. Rotterdam is poorer than Amsterdam, has the highest unemployment rate in the country, and the biggest population of unskilled immigrant workers. It also has one of the highest crime rates in Europe.

But if the presence of the port led to some problems, it also helped shape a local openness to change. As long as the city has been a major port, it has embraced ideas from the rest of the world. By the early 1900s, the city was building skyscrapers while nearby towns (and Amsterdam) stayed quaintly old-fashioned.

During World War II, Rotterdam was bombed by the Nazis, flattening entire neighborhoods. The city center was completely destroyed. Instead of rebuilding the past, the city government decided to reinvent itself instead.

“I think that decision is a very good characterization of how the culture in Rotterdam is,” says Paula Verhoeven, director of the city’s department of development. “It’s very much entrepreneurial, very much looking toward what is good for the city in the future.”

The early changes weren’t always successful: As the downtown filled with office towers and streets widened, some of the social life in the center disappeared, and planners are now working to make the city denser (their attitude toward design is one of continual iteration: If something doesn’t work, you just try again). But other midcentury changes seem innovative even now.

In the 1940s, when Rotterdam built a traffic tunnel through a major river, it also installed a massive bike tunnel and separate pedestrian tunnel; every day, thousands of cyclists take an escalator down to the tunnel to make their commute. In 1953, the city built the world’s first car-free shopping district.

Now, much of the innovation is focused on trying to help the city lower its carbon footprint and prepare for climate change. A district heating system uses waste heat from the port to keep local houses warm in the winter, and will soon expand. The city is in the process of adding a huge wind farm at the port to power 200,000 houses, and will help cover other homes with solar panels. The public transit system is spotless. Like other parts of the Netherlands, the city has an extensive network of separated bike lanes; about a quarter of all journeys are made by bike.

Because the quality of infrastructure is already so high, it leaves room for designers to experiment with more radical ideas.

“For all intents and purposes, their city, as a machine for living in, is more or less finished,” says Nels Nelson, an urban planner and designer who used to work in Rotterdam, and now works in Boston. “It works so well. There’s not this issue with people getting killed on their bicycles every day like we have in Boston. Things just work. When you’re operating on that level—and you have thousands of architects living in your city— you’re going to start to do really interesting and creative things.”

Some of that creativity is focused on one of the city’s major challenges in the near future: 90% of Rotterdam is below sea level, and as the climate changes, the city faces more risk from flooding.

Credit: ​Pallesh and Azarfane

Sponge City

“I think we’re about four meters under sea level right now,” says urban designer Dirk van Peijpe. We’re sitting on concrete steps in Rotterdam’s center. The country’s extensive water protection systems—including 787-foot-long floodgates that can swing open in a storm surge to hold back the North Sea—mean that we’re not underwater.

But as sea levels rise, the city is facing different problems. When it rains, (something that had happened three or four times so far that day) high groundwater means there’s nowhere for the rain to go.

Credit: De Urbanisten

“It’s basically a bathtub we’re living in,” says van Peijpe. The city could have built bigger pipes to try to deal with the heavy, frequent storms that are coming because of climate change. Instead, they worked with van Peijpe and fellow designers from his architecture firm, De Urbanisten, to build something that had never existed before: a concrete park that doubles as water storage when it rains.

When it’s dry, the concrete basin can be used as a basketball court or a soccer field. The stadium-like stairs act as seating for plays by theater students in the school next to the park, or for churchgoers from the church on the other side. If it suddenly rains, the basin fills up with water, and then slowly releases it into the ground, giving the city’s overloaded sewers a break.

The park is part of a larger district that the city is making climate-proof, tearing up asphalt and concrete and replacing it with new paving that can hold water. A nearby building, surrounded by skyscrapers, is topped with Europe’s largest rooftop farm—part of the city’s push to cover roofs in greenery that can absorb water in storms. Already, more than 200,000 square meters of roofs have been greened. The city’s network of trams winds through tracks surrounded by grass and flowers, not pavement. An underground parking garage, like the concrete park, doubles as water storage when it’s needed. Ultimately, infrastructure may be redesigned so stormwater is all stored and no longer flows into the sewer system at all.

All of these changes are the result of a sweeping resilience plan. The city, which is part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative plans to be fully climate-proof by 2025, so every neighborhood will be protected from problems like heavier rainfall, overflowing waterways, and heat waves. “Doing nothing is not an option,” Ahmed Aboutaleb, Rotterdam’s mayor, wrote in the original adaptation plan in 2012. “The proper functioning of the city is much too important to be left to chance.” With a full commitment to change, the government had the motivation—and the funding—to take on original projects like the water-storing park, projects that have started to inspire other cities like Copenhagen.

See the rest of the article on FastCoExist.