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For the southwest polder, university and government researchers are considering what kinds of development might be suitable. One option is to raise water or ground levels in parts of the polder and build amphibious or floating structures as appropriate; as a side benefit, raising water levels would halt the decomposition of peat. Other areas of the polder would be left at lower grades and could absorb floods. A decision on what to do in the southwest polder is expected in the next two years. Visions for other parts of the country include floating towns, floatable roadways that could be used for evacuation, and tanks beneath buildings that could hold floodwater. All of this would be a big departure from the traditional Dutch development method: throw a couple of meters of sand on top of the ubiquitous peat, install pilings, and pour the concrete. Still, impressive though it sounds, erecting floating or floatable structures is the easy part. The hard part of adapting to climate change is the planning, which requires intensive forecasting, sophisticated modeling, and risk mitigation strategies.

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High and dry concept: A developer’s vision of a floating town, complete with greenhouses, is still just a vision. The Dutch are doing risk analyses to decide where to build, where to forbid development, and where to change construction techniques. To experience historical and possible future flooding in the Netherlands, visit technologyreview.com/holland.
Courtesy of Dura Vermeer

The Dutch approach is gaining adherents around the world. “They are taking a systems approach that includes smart development,” says Lewis E. Link, a former director of research and development at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and now a professor at the University of Maryland, who led a postmortem federal investigation of Louisiana’s levee, pumping, and drainage systems after Hurricane ­Katrina. That means not just restricting building in certain areas but being smart about how to build in others. “I think in the U.S., we have been far too prone to let people build in vulnerable areas that then have to be protected,” he says. “It is just a mad cycle. We have trapped ourselves into this, over and over and over again.” Part of the problem in the United States, Link notes, is that the federal government has little control over land use, and local governments are often unwilling to challenge developers in areas that may face higher threat levels. In the Netherlands, the federal government can take more control, says Balfoort. “Sometimes you must make a top-down decision for the benefit of the nation as a whole,” he observes. “You do not discuss Christmas with the turkey.”

While it’s not clear whether the United States’ federal government will try to start making top-down decisions about land use in threatened areas, at least Dutch-­American research cross-pollination is well under way. Link has just completed an assessment of the New Orleans area–similar to the one Mynett is performing at the Delft University of Technology–to gauge the current risks posed to the Gulf Coast by various storm scenarios. Mynett sits on a U.S. panel making a similar assessment of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River valleys in California.

All parties are watching to see how the Dutch fare with climate-resilient housing. Given the dangers faced by coastal areas and river deltas around the globe, the rest of the world may soon beat a path to the Netherlands, clamoring for technical expertise. But before anyone will come, the Dutch must build it.

David Talbot is Technology Review’s chief correspondent.

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