Meet the Dutch architects remodeling it

I am standing in the middle of an unusual public square in Rotterdam. To my left is a drama school with an imposing concrete entrance and sprawling courtyard. To my right is a trio of large sunken squares, each surrounding a few steps.

On an ordinary day like today, these squares can be used as basketball and volleyball courts, skating rinks, bleachers, or even nearby church celebrations. But when it rains, the squares can fill up and hold up to 450,000 gallons of water.

[Photo: courtesy De Urbanisten]

Water Square (Waterplein in Dutch) was designed by local architecture and landscape architecture firm De Urbanisten. Completed in 2013, it marked a shift in the company’s mission. Since then, architects have conducted research on water management issues in Mexico City. Antwerp, Belgium; And even New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. They’ve built another water arena in the Dutch town of Tiel, and a sponge garden outside their Rotterdam office, and now they’re working on two major projects elsewhere in Rotterdam: a tidal park designed for flooding, and a climate-adaptive version of the High Line in Manhattan, complete with landscaping. water purifier.

[Photo: courtesy De Urbanisten]

The core of De Urbanisten’s practice is the belief that landscape architecture can help mitigate climate change by moving away from aging drainage systems and toward more natural approaches such as rain gardens and permeable roofs.

Studio work is particularly important in Rotterdam, much of which is below sea level. But as climate change makes flash floods and torrential rain more likely around the world, it offers a repeatable model that extends far beyond city limits.

[Photo: courtesy De Urbanisten]

“The drainage city is a 19th century concept that was developed in the 20th century, but we’re not going to bring that into the 21st century,” says Dirk van Bejbe, founder of De Urbanisten. “We may still need a few of these tubes and pumps, but we have to start investing in a future system that is a nature-based system with soil, green and blue infrastructure.”

sponge garden [Photo: courtesy De Urbanisten]

In 2019, De Urbanisten created a small foam garden designed to quickly absorb rainwater, hold it temporarily, and slowly return it to the ground. Over the past three years, architects have used the garden as a testing ground, experimenting with various plants and soil compositions such as clay, rubble, and peat.

The park is not connected to the city’s sewer system, says Agate Kalnpure, the firm’s architect and landscape designer who took me on a tour of the sponge garden. Instead, it can collect and absorb rainwater without anyone having to water the plants. The concept can be scaled up and replicated across a variety of urban scenarios, from residential parks to landscaped strips alongside highways.

[Photo: courtesy De Urbanisten]

Not far from Sponge Garden, De Urbanisten operates a tidal garden. Located right on the river’s edge in a former port, the park – or parts of it – are designed to be flooded, about twice a day. The concept was developed with the Municipality of Rotterdam as the blueprint for a broader initiative that would see much larger stretches of riverfront transformed into a tidal park.

[Image: courtesy De Urbanisten]

Rotterdam has over 220 miles of riverbanks, but 70% of it is lined with solid piers and residential areas built right at the water’s edge. The tidal park will provide what van Bijbee calls “environmental soft spaces” with increased biodiversity prompted by the polluted harbor.

It will also increase flood resistance as the slope made of vegetation on the river bank can help break the waves when the water levels are high. On a normal day, parts of the park are accessible at low tide, helping to reconnect citizens to the river and the renewed diversity of animals that can be attracted to life underwater.

water yard [Photo: courtesy De Urbanisten]

This level of coexistence is important and suggests that public spaces can do double duty. A garden can also provide a natural flood defense, and a set of plazas can also serve as a rainwater storage.

Returning to the water plaza, the architects had to separate the plaza from the city’s sewage system. During flash floods, a network of stainless steel gutters integrated into the sidewalk directs rainwater into the three ponds, then into an underground infiltration basin that filters contaminants and allows the water to absorb back into the soil.

water yard [Photo: courtesy De Urbanisten]

Wait a few years, and Water Square will be part of a much larger network of public spaces and parks that will be linked by a green pillar hovering over the city. The Rotterdam version of the High Line is called Hofbogenpark, and it will take place over an abandoned 1.2-mile railway bridge.

[Image: courtesy De Urbanisten]

When the garden is complete, it will feature a robust circular water management system: rainwater will be naturally filtered through the soil on the surface, then sent to the aquifer via underground drainage pipes, where it will be stored and then reused to irrigate the garden landscape. Most of the park will also have a watercourse for children to play in.

Ultimately, van Bijby envisions, there will be something he calls a “rainwater cascade” scheme where rainwater is gradually collected and absorbed at various points throughout the city – first on the roof, then through the gardens around the building, and then on the permeable roofs along sidewalk, and then through a variety of systems from water arenas to sponge gardens, until eventually water slowly seeps into the ground and disappears.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: