The Netherlands has a heroic tradition of dredging, land reclamation and landscape building – collectively referred to as “landwinning” in Dutch. More than half of the country is directly reclaimed from nature. This has resulted in extraordinary landscapes such as the Delta Works and Flevopolder.
For the study of water management, the Netherlands is a paradise; 25 percent of the surface of the country is below average sea level, and without protection 65 percent would be flooded regularly. The Netherlands can only survive by a massive system to control floods and maintain water levels. It is not astonishing that a relatively rich country can afford such a system (as opposed to a country like Bangladesh). However, since a major part of the country’s wealth is produced by the lowest areas, the historic development of this situation seems astonishing: how could such a highly complex technological and organizational system be created with so few resources?
Contrary to the popular saying that “God created the land, except for the Netherlands, which was created by the Dutchmen themselves,” the Dutch did not create their land, but rather, almost destroyed it. In the early Middle Ages, the northern and western parts of the Netherlands were peat areas and tidal salt marshes. As the peat was dug lakes came into existence and tended to grow by caving in. Moreover, peat bogs were reclaimed for agriculture, which meant that the land was drained. But as draining peat bog interrupted the natural growth of the soil, the peat was vulnerable to oxidization, and the dry peat set. Therefore, in order to protect a reclaimed area, an almost continuous process of improving the drainage system was needed and measures had to be taken against the growing lakes. Drainage canals were lengthened to reach open water with a low level, dikes and dams had to be built, and sluices and windmill technology were introduced and improved. Similar problems occurred in the tidal marshlands, due to a rise of the mean sea level and population growth.
Public organizations developed to maintain these water-management systems. Starting in the 12th century, local water boards were in charge, but when the problems grew, regional water boards with greater authority were needed to create larger-scale solutions. From the end of the 16th century, first private and then public bodies aggressively dealt more with water problems. Many successful attempts were made to drain lakes, and some land was gained from the sea. Initially, these activities were usually undertaken by entrepreneurs rather than public organizations. In the 17th and 18th centuries, most small lakes and the shallowest tidal marshlands were reclaimed. However, the large lakes and the sea arms were too risky for these entrepreneurs. In the 19th century, the government became actively involved. In order to play this new role, it gradually created a large professional organization to design and control hydraulic works.
In the 20th century, the enormous reclamation works of the Zuider Zee were managed by this government body, as was the creation of the large Delta works that protect the Scheldt/Maas/Rhine delta against floods. Today, these grand projects are being reversed in part by the national Room for the River project that works to adapt dikes, widen rivers and expand floodplains to accommodate rising waters and reduce the risk of catastrophic flooding across the lowlands.
1 Early Delta Reclamation|
2 Early Alkmaar Reclamation
3 Early Zoutkamp Reclamation
4 Early North Coast Reclamation
5 Continued Delta Reclamation
6 Continued Alkmaar Reclamations/td>
7 St. Annapbrochie Reclamation
8 Dollard Reclamation
9 Beemster and Schermer Polders
10 Zoetermer Polder
11 Haarlemmermeer Polder
12 Heerenveen/Wolvega Area Polders
13 Deltaworks/Port Reclamation
14 Wieringermeer Polder
15 Afsluitdijk Dam
16 Frisian Lakes Polders
17 Zuidelijk/Oosterlijk Flevoland
Dutch scholar Fransje Hooimeijer provides a framework of six phases in the evolution of landwinning in the Dutch Lowlands. Hooimeijer’s work offers insight into the relation between the landscape, the available technology and urbanization per phase. It becomes clear that there is a transformation from land winning processes intended to resist natural forces to more technologically advanced process which overrun and are completely disconnected from the natural system of the landscape.
The relationship between the civil engineer (the discipline that owns the knowledge for building land) and the urban designer (a discipline that only came up in the 20th century) is of great significance. In this, different attitudes towards dealing with the water are recognizable. The following phases are used to order the state of technology in transformation of the lowlands landscape and eventual urbanization: Acceptation, Defensive, Offensive, Early Manipulative, Manipulative and Adaptive Manipulative.
The dynamics of the regional water system, which include groundwater and rainwater in combination with surface water, is crucial for the process of development and urbanization of the Dutch polders. Until the 8th century, the Dutch lowlands were an uninhabitable marshland where the forces of water and wind had free reign. The first developments in the lowlands were built on higher levelled grounds, such as dunes and riverbed sedimentation. The Frisian in Friesland, the north of the Netherlands, build moulds to escape the water. These moulds are the first method of preparing ground for productive inhabitation.
The way people dealt with the wet circumstances can be described as acceptation of the situation as it is, and adopting ways to live with it. There were small initiatives in controlling the wild landscape by digging ditches to drain the field to be able to grow crops. Also the Romans have stabilized their bridges on the wet and weak grounds by the use wood around the year zero. They also introduced the wooden sluice that was coming in use more commonly around the year 900.
The period starting around 1000 and ended around 1500 with the invention of the water mill, is also referred to as the ‘great reclamation’ of agricultural grounds, sometimes accompanied by state supervision and bills, producing regular patterns and standard measures. The ditches dug around the separate owned lots discharged their water on peat streams of a river. In the 12th century this discharge became difficult partly due to salting up of the main river, the Rhine. They intervened by digging new discharge canals and by building dams and sluices to control the water. The cooperation and organization of these kinds of state projects leaded to the oldest government known, the ‘water boards’.
The most important condition for creation of cities in the lowlands is the construction of dikes, which can protect ever-growing areas which have become vulnerable due to settlement and subsidence against flooding. The dikes replaced the moulds in Friesland in protection from the water. The first generation of large-scale dike rings was built in the 13th and 14th century.
On the location where a dike crossed the watercourse a dam was built. The dam turned into a trading market, and the estuary outside the dikes of the peat river became a sheltered harbor. The dam city and polder become hydraulically as well as economically connected. The technology of dikes and dams at that time is not institutionalized but a handicraft organized in guilds: the water boards. The profession of surveyor – one of the ancestors of the urban designer – becomes distinct around 1300.
This period is marked by the invention of the mill as a pumping force and ends with the steam engine, again an enlargement of pumping capacity and the beginning of the Netherlands as a monarchy after the French occupation in 1814. In the 16th century water management is perfected by the availability of the new technology which changes the approach from defensive to offensive. The mill is deployed to drain water from the settled areas and to make ground ready for building. Whole lakes could be drained and cultivated for agriculture by the use of the windmill. The draining of lakes was also partly due to the invention of the Archimedes’ screw, this replaces the water wheel as a water raising machine, so that the height the water is raised more than doubles.
The 17th century is a Golden Age for the Republic, cities flourish from the economic growth, the period wherein lowland occupation expanded. The characteristic of modern civil society is that the future is consciously planned on the basis of rationality, mutual consult and decision-making. The political independence is accompanied with advancements in science, technology and art: the Dutch Renaissance. Large-scale application of grid-shaped street plans takes place during the Dutch Renaissance. Simon Stevin cultivates the role of urban engineer: a technically trained and a creative urban thinker capable of integrating hydraulics and urban planning. Amsterdam around 1620 decided to build an entirely new urban structure over the existing polder structure. The famous grachtengordel (ring of canals) is an integral design of a street plan and a new water system and shows that the relationship between land restructuring, surveying and water management is the basis of urban development in the Netherlands.
The period starting in the beginning of the 19th century, after the French occupation, is characterized by an exploding population growth and industrialization by the transformation from hand towards machine labor, made possible by the introduction of the steam engine. This altered strongly the shaping forces of the urban landscape. Besides the shifting from hand to machine power also the hydraulic technology changed. It became easier to control the water, make it do things it would not naturally do: manipulate it. The building of cities on wet and unstable soil is dependent on three fields of knowledge that made their first moves in the previous period. The first is the general hydraulics of water movement, the second is the science of soil mechanics and carrying capacity. The third field is crucial to both previous mentioned fields and considers the development of engine power important for the movement of soil and water.
In general water management is the prime interest of the military and civil engineer. The discipline of civil engineer is institutionalized due to the French occupation (1795-1813). The French bureaucratic and centrally organized governmental structures are superimposed on the Dutch administration. Water management becomes of national concern and the governmental corps of civil engineers is structured according the French model. The main projects of the civil engineers in the 19th century are the building of channels and the draining of the Haarlemmermeer (1848-1852). The first great draining project with the use of (experimental) steam engines (and 30 windmills) was the Zuidplaspolder (1836-1839). After the windmill the steam engine is the most significant change in technology.
The fields of knowledge important to the construction of lowland cities together create the changing force of the manipulative era: people take an increasingly vulnerable place in the game between water and land. In terms of site preparation the shifting sources of power (from steam to diesel, oil, gas, electricity) meant greater possibilities in constructing new ground for inhabitation. This power shift also enlarged the scale of water management once more. Land could be made out of water: closing of the Zuiderzee and building new polders in the IJsselmeer. All fields of knowledge together made it easy to control the water, make it do things it would not naturally do: manipulate it.
While the functional meaning of water increasingly devaluates, ‘nature’ in the city gains prominence. Besides traffic, buildings, and water, a new element in the city structure was introduced: public space. At the same time, structures of buildings, traffic and the combination of water and green spaces were separated. These structures coincide in traditional cities, such as in the Amsterdam grachtengordel, which has one single main structure containing all the elements. The breaking up of the various structures illustrates the segregation between civil engineering and urban design. Water became a waste product, and was situated alongside the outskirts of districts, integrated into the infrastructure or the green space system. The water system as designed by civil engineers cannot be recognized as such, since underground pipelines alternate with the surface water. Moreover, more sophisticated reclamation methods provides the urban designers with a tabula rasa on which each project could be realized without any concern of the water system. Where in cities up to 1940 the total surface of the city contained 12%-15% of water, in post-war city expansions, this percentage was often reduced to less than 5%.
The refinement of technology in the last decades of the 20th century makes it possible not only to maintain that which is threatened, but also to elect for an increasingly vulnerable balance between water and land. In response to the technocratic approach towards urban design in the 1950s, it was in the 1970s that the ecology of water returned to the attention of the urban designer. The adaptive manipulative phase started in the 1970s but from the 1990s on, due to acknowledgement of climate change, there was growing awareness that the lowlands required holistic approach that combined spatial and technical considerations.
From the seventies, various plans to re-establish previous waterways were developed and realized. For example, in Utrecht part of an old outer canal was once again excavated after it had been filled in for traffic reasons. In the last two decades there was a sense of decline, but eventually water made a comeback in cities. In the eighties, as a result of economic recession, attention to public areas decreased, which was of great influence to the application of the canals as a natural element. The positioning of public areas in the urban development plan and the profile of the canals were quickly reduced to being functional and virtually maintenance free.
In the nineties, the rediscovering of water as an element of urban development composition coincided with the effects of the changing climate. In many new development districts, surface water is given a structural role, as it had historically. In IJburg, the water serves as a backyard, positioned as a division between private and public areas. This natural boundary makes living next to the water as a natural fencing immensely popular and valuable from a real estate perspective.
Surveying the historical relationship between technology and the design of polder cities one can only conclude a tightness that has been dominated by technological prosperity. The Netherlands is a water machine of which all cogs are connected to each other. The Dutch cities are hydraulic constructions, with a spatial layout that is strongly connected to the rules of the water.
The overview in six phases offers insight in what ‘the fine tradition’ is and how this self- evident relation between water management and urban design is shaping through time. We have seen that during the phase of acceptance and defense there was a great coherence between humans’ actions and the logics of the water system, based on a flexible attitude. This attitude might be useful in the future: when we need to adapt to more wet surroundings and to use this to our advantage. During the offensive phase technological knowledge was developed in coherence with the knowledge of the capriciousness of the territory. This was very lucrative and a condition for economic prosperity. It can show us now that may the specialization of different fields on knowledge is not always the ultimate — water should not be handled as a separate problem, but as a task that also brings quality and conditions for a better living environment.
In the post war era all the technical aspects were dealt with by the engineer, and were not something that concerned the urban designer. This technical approach of management has been leading up to the current situation wherein the change of the climate (with more extreme storm water) causes flooding in the lowlands. The days of the use of pipes and pumps (the work of the civil engineers) are over. Water needs to be reintroduced in the urban design of the cities. The water system of the future should be flexible and self-cleaning. This requires a spatial approach where fluctuations in water supply and ecological water systems have to be taken into account. Projects like the grachtengordel illustrate that the Dutch water cities require combination of urban vision and civil engineering. There is a need for strengthening coherence between to be able to go on living with water.
‘Landwinning: Technology and Transformation in the Dutch Lowlands’ is part of a series of essays analyzing the role of land reclamation in the (re)formation of eight coastal cities: Dubai, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Incheon, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Venice.