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Works That Work, No.1, Winter 2013

Dutch Design

by Peter Biľak (593 words)

An innovative project strengthens the Netherlands’ seacoast while creating new recreational areas and a stable ecosystem.

Cover photo: 21.5 million cubic metres of sand was dumped into the North Sea, creating the Zandmotor (Sand Engine), an artificial peninsula of 128 acres, or 256 football fields. (Photo by Joop van Houdt, Rijkswaterstaat)

The Netherlands is not only one of the most densely populated countries in the world, but because of its unique geography (half of its surface lies below sea level), it is also very vulnerable to flooding.

A popular saying goes that God may have created the world, but the Netherlands was created by the Dutch. As proof, the Dutch can point to an entire province which consists entirely of land reclaimed from the sea, and a complex system of drain-ditches, dams, barriers, canals and pumping stations that keeps the country dry, habitable and arable.

The unique situation of the Netherlands makes it especially sensitive to climate change. The rise in sea level caused by global warming has exacerbated coastal erosion, which necessitates continual reinforcement of the shoreline. Traditionally this has meant that beaches have to be replenished with fresh sand every three to five years, an expensive operation which also disrupts the ecosystem and forces it to redevelop every time.

Zandmotor over the years: 2011, after 10 years, after 20 years (Illustration by Carvalho Bernau)

In 2011 an innovative alternative method of coastal protection was implemented by Rijkswaterstaat and the Province of South Holland in the area between Rotterdam and The Hague: 21.5 million cubic metres of sand was dumped into the North Sea all at once, creating the Zandmotor (Sand Engine), an artificial peninsula of 128 hectares, or 256 football fields. Within 20 years, if everything works as expected, the wind, waves and sea currents will evenly distribute the sand along the 20-kilometre stretch of coast, reinforcing the coastline and creating wider beaches and new recreational areas. Construction of the peninsula cost €70 million, an investment that should make further sand replenishment unnecessary in this area for the next 20 years. An additional benefit is the creation of a stable local ecosystem. The Zandmotor has already become a popular destination for surfers and kite surfers. Seals frequently visit the giant dune, and seaweed has covered the bottom of the new lagoon, creating a habitat for fish.

Living below sea level requires a different way of thinking about how to live with the forces of nature. The Zandmotor is an important experiment in dynamic coastal management, and may become a model for similar projects along the Dutch coast as the weather becomes more erratic, and protection of the coastline becomes a matter of survival. This approach proves that the largest projects are best managed by working in harmony with nature, not against it.

Peter Biľak is the founding editor of Works That Work magazine. He also runs Typotheque type foundry and co-founded Dot Dot Dot magazine. Peter also teaches at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague.

This article comes from Works That Work magazine, No.1.
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