By Dale Morris
Senior Economist, Royal Netherlands Embassy
The plane door closes, and I’m off to the desert in Phoenix, Arizona, to talk about flooding. Yes, life is ironic.
Though I’m an American and an economist by training, I have coordinated much of the embassy’s “water efforts” in the US for 10 years, starting in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and rippling outward since to Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tampa, Miami, St. Louis, Memphis, Houston, Galveston, and Norfolk.
Hurricane Sandy swept me to New York City, New Haven, Bridgeport, and Boston. Add Seattle, Chicago and Minneapolis to the list and something crystallizes: US cities have serious water risks and they seek inspiration.
Since 2008, I have enlightened US urban planners about the Dutch approach toward water management via a partnership with the American Planning Association (APA). That approach is elegant: flood-risk reduction in cities can be combined with integrated planning and smart landscape architecture.
These fuzzy slogans conjure up aspirational goals: sustainable, resilient, adaptive, multiple benefits, and green.
The Dutch approach is ambitious, too, demanding that we think smarter and harder about the difficult fact that ignoring urban water challenges will condemn people and cities to die, swept away like so much flotsam and jetsam, as citizens, jobs, investment and business flee to safer places.
Our message is clear: Nothing is free in life, and to do nothing in the face of these risks will be enormously costly. Thankfully, if you say something often enough people start to believe it.
This water-logged reality isn’t uniquely or primarily American; it envelops Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Venice, London, Jakarta, Bangkok, Dhaka, Mumbai and many world cities.
In fact, 45 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas where 65 percent of world GDP is produced. The US statistics are similar, and the trend is unmistakable. More people live, and more GDP is generated, in more dangerous areas than ever before.
Can we make a difference?
People in New Orleans understand — after seven years of intense collaboration with the Dutch — that they will thrive as America’s most unique Spanish-French-Native American-Caribbean-African city only if they make difficult decisions and massive investments to live with, and not always fight, the water that surrounds them.
Otherwise, their unique, iconic, spicy-gumbo-of-lifestyle-and- landscape that I love and that many admire has but a limited shelf-life (see www.LivingWithWater.com).
The ‘Tidewaters’ of Virginia
Back to Phoenix, via Norfolk, one of 16 cities in the Hampton Roads region of southeast Virginia. This bucolic “Tidewater” region extends from Williamsburg — the first US colony home to America’s first university (The College of William And Mary) — to Virginia Beach.
The watery, beautiful lower Chesapeake Bay dominates the region and its ecology, alongside the hulking vessels of the largest naval station in the world.
The region’s diversity is its strength: Smithfield Hams, peanuts, shipbuilding, fisheries, the East Coast’s’ deepest port, colonial and revolutionary history, and America’s largest coal export terminal round out the economy.
Tidewater, however, has the highest rate of relative sea-level rise on the East Coast, and monthly nuisance flooding — in which streets, intersections, sidewalks, cars, and basements are routinely inundated — is common and increasing.
We were pulled to Norfolk via New Orleans and New York, proving that life is a journey and not a destination. After four years of discovery and consultation, we organized a five-day Dutch Dialogues workshop (www.dutchdialogues.com and www.lifeatsealevel.org) in June 2015.
Life at Sea Level is both descriptive and prescriptive for Tidewater (and for the Netherlands). Our APA friends in Phoenix — I promised I would get there — wanted to know how our Virginia discoveries were transferable to populations, planners, and politicians elsewhere.
I learn and share much at APA conferences, but the Phoenix conference allowed me to expand upon my own view of American exceptionalism. The US preference to react and not prepare, to disown and discourage regional cooperation, is maddening.
Water doesn’t respect political boundaries, but still we Americans try to solve water problems in a political straitjacket while ignoring the functioning of the natural landscape and the benefits of long-term approaches. Exceptional, indeed, but maybe not always in the best way.
Phoenix allowed me to publicly worry that federalism limits our ability to develop smart, economical solutions to flooding and sea-level rise, and that procurement rules produce lowest-cost solutions but hinder innovation, collaboration, multiple benefits, and cost-effective solutions.
You get what you pay for, they say, and what we’re getting is a raw deal. The audience nodded, knowingly, in agreement.
Watch out for that tree!
Let me digress for some self-inflicted humor.
While in Phoenix, after discussing water policy with APA leadership, I was strolling back to my hotel and turned to my iPhone to check ice hockey scores. Head down, eyes focused on screen, I walked straight into a thick tree branch overhanging the sidewalk.
Bam! Ouch! Stunned!
I carefully probed my face and happily saw only a bit of blood on my fingers. Back in my hotel, however, my temple and cheek were oozing blood. I laughed at my stupidity and cleaned up, a bit worried about my appearance and presentation the next morning, and went to bed.
Maybe the Phoenix audience wasn’t so impressed by the provocative insights and key prescriptions I confidently rattled-off — maybe, instead, they simply felt sorry for me.
Later, when I jokingly told some of my embassy colleagues I scratched my face in a bar fight, not one of them blinked an eye. Hmmm …
Five days after Phoenix I was in Miami to deliver a keynote on climate adaptation at the GeoAmericas conference. Miami in April is no hardship, and my exceptional stupidity was exposed when I decided to stay in Miami for less than 24 hours. Sigh.
The keynote started with a brilliant warm-up by Nathalie Olijslager, the Netherlands Consul-General in Miami, and a sobering closing presentation by Jennifer Jurado, director of Broward County’s Environmental Planning and Community Resilience.
Nathalie challenged south Florida to embrace its risks and Dutch innovation, while Jennifer explained how she and a small, dedicated group of county officials are confronting the most complicated flood and sea-level rise challenges in the entire US.
I had the easiest keynote job, as the Netherlands boasts numerous pilots and projects of sufficient “wow power.” My messaging was simple: the Netherlands is adapting its cities for looming challenges; Miami has challenges that dwarf those in the Netherlands; and collaboration between the two would be a win-win.
As in Phoenix, the audience agreed. But many decision makers — in South Florida and elsewhere — are seduced by the profits of even more (risky) coastal land development and are in denial about the hazards that entails. They win, we lose.
‘Water week’ at the embassy
Two days after Miami, we hosted an APA “water week seminar” at the embassy, with the planning directors of Norfolk and Baltimore. I dropped my embassy role for a moment to (happily) represent New Orleans.
There is a clear thirst for smart planning and adaptation, but to purposely mix metaphors, the horse isn’t drinking the water fast enough.
These 12 days in April show the engagement of some important people doing important work on a crucial topic impacting many people. And there I am, an unexceptional American straddling two continents as I travel the US on behalf of Dutch water exceptionalism. Talk about irony.
Who am I am helping in my work? Dutch companies and researchers? Yes. Holland branding? For sure. Dutch ministries and policies? No doubt. US Cities and Americans living in flood-prone areas? I hope so.
Think about the privilege and irony in that.