Let the Water In: Tracy Metz at GSD

Tracy Metz (LF 2007) was recently back at the GSD headlining a panel to examine how the Dutch negotiate their evolving relationship with water--and what the rest of the world can learn from them as our sea levels rise, our rivers swell and storms and droughts multiply. 

Presenters included Vivien Li, president of the Boston Harbor Association; Juliet Simpson, coastal ecologist at MIT Sea Grant College Program; Dan Schrag, professor of geology and director of the HU Center for the Environment and Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and chairman of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Metz co-wrote Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch with Maartie van den Heuvel to untangle the complex history of how the Dutch have lived with water and suggest creative templates for ways to live and work with water. 

The Netherlands, built upon reclaimed land and converted marshland, is largely below sea level. For centuries windmills have assisted in pumping out water. Thus, the Dutch may well be world experts for living on the precipice of rising sea levels. 

Watershed moments in Dutch history have shaped policies towards water. The 1953 North Sea flood that claimed nearly 2,000 lives sparked Deltaworks, a network of dikes, dams and pipes. The system is designed to separate sweet—fresh—water from saltwater. 

With climate change presenting new pressures on land, Metz proposes that there are new ways to defend the country from water that are less ecologically damaging. Sweet & Salt considers three scales of intervention—architectural, urban and landscape, the largest scale of thinking. 

At the architectural scale, the demands of sea-level rise will offer new opportunities for designers. Land use and housing are closely related, and some farmers have shaped the landscape at a micro-scale, arranging mounds so that they can live alongside the land they till.

At the urban scale, there are innovative ways of incorporating water into the city. Urban design in the city of Rotterdam is selectively including water in public spaces as a calming measure during flood periods. The wet and dry fluctuation is functional, as well as a pedagogical and theatrical display about the changing nature of place. 

New Dutch dikes are beginning to be multifunctional, used for housing, or recreation. For example, by draping a promenade over a dike it becomes an active public space. One project, nicknamed Super Dike, has 2 km section that includes a swimming area. These changes, Metz contends, all require a different mindset. Engineers often dislike programs on dikes, since they can’t visually check the system for leaks, however built-in sensors can do the job. 

Tracy Metz’s talk comes at a sobering time for the U.S. as policymaking now will influence how we will shore up against future disasters like Hurricane Sandy, which paralyzed East Coast cities in October 2012. She contends that new ways to manage water will take citizen participation. We can "learn from American pragmatism, with Dutch collectivism.” 

In a panel discussion following the presentation, Dan Schrag responded with strategies for disaster management. He prefers to frame the challenge as "preparedness” rather than "adaptation,” which carries a negative connotation in the U.S. Schrag points out how Americans persist in living in harm’s way—the majority of Florida, for example. 

The National Flood Insurance Program under FEMA has insured around $500 billion in assets on the taxpayers’ dime. This insurance is thus the second largest fiscal liability of the US government after Social Security, yet it is all but invisible for many Americans. Schrag states, "We need to align basic financial behaviors and policies with the behaviors that we want.” 

Vivien Li said that Sandy showed sea-level rise and flooding is "very real, and can happen anywhere.” Li addressed students in the audience, stating, "the work you’re doing at the GSD will influence and be implemented, so keep being creative and imaginative.”

Metz, in advocating for "soft” measures to counter sea-level rise, muses that "People love to be around water. Design can make living with water safe and more palatable.”

Read more examples of the Dutch approach in the recent N.Y. Times article by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, "Going with the Flow.” 

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