Water and Urban Planning: Lesson from the contemporary Netherlands to Brazil
18 de December de 2017

Among the contemporary challenges of Brazilian cities, the water issue is an urgent matter. The rapid and enormous growth of cities was not accompanied by a concurrent increase in protection against floods, nor by an increase of landscape quality in the relationship between rivers and cities. Rivers and streams are still being straightened, with river banks of concrete or confined under the ground; public spaces beside fresh water are poor; floods remain a problem.

Considering cities as the human habitat, and urban rivers as a relationship between nature and culture, to bring good practices in the relationship between rivers and cities is to contribute to the sustainable development of Brazilian cities.

The Netherlands is the delta of several European rivers and the relationship with rivers, groundwater, sea and rain has always played a prominent role in the shape of the territory and urbanization. This relationship has been established over the centuries, has changed, and continues to change in the current times, determined by economic, cultural and the way of seeing water. The water is no longer seen only from the point of view of functionality, but nowadays a more integrated approach between natural processes and the landscape, social, leisure and recreation issues that are part of human needs.

Within a context of climate change and a future of uncertainties, where traditional engineering works are no longer sufficient for urban water management, cities must be prepared to be more resilient and more adaptable . To know the Dutch experiences in this direction is to learn valuable lessons to, with the correct contextualization within the Brazilian reality, to move towards a more balanced relationship between cities and rivers.

Among the projects underway in the Netherlands, three stand out for their applicability within the Brazilian context. They are: Water Squares, The River as a Tidal Park and Room for the River, as we will see next.


Water Squares

The water wealth of our country has generated hundreds of cities along the rivers and waterways and urbanization generates a mismatch in the water cycle.

The rapid Brazilian urbanization process, coupled with a tropical climate condition with high rainfall, has resulted in an obsolete drainage infrastructure that is no longer able to manage the amount of rainfall we have in the built environment.

The traditional solution concentrates on the re-design of the structure: piping of rivers and increase of the diameter of the pipe.

“But what are the additional values ​​that can come from a purely functional view? The necessity of water management also creates a lot of opportunities”, says Taneha Bacchin, brazilian researcher and coordinator of research group at Delft University. “We should think about updating this structure, but do it under a new paradigm, redesigning the urban context, to store water in space, with the union between the open space and underground.”

Instead of rebuilding the traditional structure, an expensive process that bore the population (with the closing of streets) and without political appeal (since the pipeline is hidden), she suggests maintaining existing networks, but include landscaped open areas, detention areas, water spaces – spaces that will only be flooded in case of need. It is a decentralization process, including blocks and plots that are no longer connected to drainage. “We should think of hybrid structures. Do not disconnect everything, but include open spaces.”

A good practical example of applying this concept is the Water Squares project in the city of Rotterdam, The Netherlands. These are sports courts for the use of the population, but also function as a water holding area in case of floods. Even the drawing and painting of the blocks emphasize the multifunctional character, through a painting in shades of blue, like a swimming pool, for the population to recognize as such. “It’s a holding basin as part of the urban design,” explains Taneha Bacchin.

The multifunctionality of green and blue infrastructure should be considered in Brazil. Adding to a functional structure environmental values, such as natural and landscaped areas, and social values ​​such as parks and blocks, is also a more economical solution for Brazilian cities. This is to solve problems in a sustainable way through urban design.


Picture 01 – Water Squares – Project

Source: http://www.urbanisten.nl/wp/?portfolio=waterpleinen Access on May 25, 2017.


Picture 02 – Water Squares – Real photo on site.

Photo: Walter Weingaertner.


The River as a Tidal Park

“The river banks are a balanced mix between nature and culture” (De Urbanisten)

A special feature in the Netherlands is the presence of the canals. The Dutch territory is in about ⅖ of its area, below sea level, which was possible through the construction of dams, and canals. In this way, the presence of water in the Dutch landscape is a constant.

According to the architects of the group “De Urbanisten”, the region of Rotterdam has more than 360 km of river banks; But about 70% of these are considered “hard”, that is, covered with stones, concrete or other materials, turning the rivers into mere channels of water flow. Only 10% of the margins can actually be considered natural. In this way, environmental and social functions are very limited.

The River as a Tidal Park project seeks to redesign the transition between the river and the city. The idea is to bring nature to the edges, with the reconstruction of the banks, the fauna and flora and the conditions necessary for it to occur, such as food and shelter for animals.

For a long time, the river has been seen only as a function – transport, port, drainage, for example – which has been changing considerably in the last 25 years. The canals are subject to tidal flows and ebb tides. “The river needs room for its natural behavior, including about 1.5 to 2m oscillation,” says Professor Han Meyer of the Technical University of Delft, “the project creates more conditions for nature, emphasizing the transition – important to natural ecosystems – and bringing recreational areas into the city center. “

The union between structure and landscape is a feature of contemporary projects, where landscape can be interpreted as a new way of designing infrastructure. Taneha Bacchin, coordinator of the research group on Deltas Urban Development at Delft Technical University, says: “We must think of multiple benefits with environmental inclusion, within the scope of urban revitalization and rivers.” Thus, new projects must be attentive to landscape design, which encompasses natural ecosystems. This brings a number of additional advantages such as water quality, air, noise, and consequently additional advantages for humans. The benefits to physical and mental health, such as outdoor sports activities and reduction of stress levels, and social activities, such as leisure and meeting opportunities, are also the subject of environmental economics studies. The studies put financial values ​​as arguments in terms of health spending and real estate valuation, for example – unfortunately, part of the population still does not recognize the importance of environmental and social issues.


Picture 03 – The River as a Tidal Park – The hard banks at Rotterdam’s canals.

Source: http://www.urbanisten.nl/wp/?portfolio=river-as-tidal-park Access on May 25, 2017.

Picture 04 – The River as a Tidal Park – Project

Source: http://www.urbanisten.nl/wp/?portfolio=river-as-tidal-park Access on May 25, 2017.


Room for the River

The Dutch “Ruimte voor de Rivier” program, also known as “Room for the River”, aims to give more space to the water, so that the river itself can manage its waters, in case of floods.

The Deltas region is quite sensitive, both from the ecological point of view and from human pressures to use and occupy the coast. In addition, upstream interventions are reflected more intensely downstream. And it is on the Dutch coast that flow three important rivers: Reno, Maas and Scheldt. “The Rhine is heavily urbanized in all its extension, and the problems that erosion entails are concentrated in the Netherlands,” says Professor Han Meyer of the town planning department at Delft University. “It takes national organizations that have the responsibility To manage water, and also at the European level. “

After the major floods of 1993 and 1995, 250,000 people evacuated, and a context of climate change, the Dutch government took action within a new approach. “It’s a ministry project that says “no” to traditional engineering, and says “yes” to non-works, to open the beds”, explains Taneha Bacchin, researcher at University of Delft. “Traditional engineering processes are not enough against a backdrop of uncertainties (such as climate change) and recent experiences show that we need to learn from natural processes.”

Professor Meyer adds: “There were public policies for population distribution, but in the last 15 years, within a government policy of not take care of personal lives, big cities are growing again and urbanization is growing in risk areas. The question is “how can we maintain good living conditions and keep people safe. That is what delta urbanism is about. “

In more than 30 parts of the country, measures have been taken to ensure that the river can safely flood. As each river and each stretch has peculiar characteristics, each solution is designed to measure. Below are some of the key steps taken, such as removal or relocation of landfills, dikes and structures.

But not only that. There are other additional values ​​that have been brought to the play. A good example is the city of Nijmegen, which has additionally gained a large public park in areas that can be eventually flooded. In the beginning, the population was against, as there were many conflicts of resettlements, for example. But today the population is very satisfied, with the addition of public spaces for leisure and meeting people. And finding this combination of safety, wellness (economic and social) and ecology was the great challenge of the project. “For a long time, we have considered only safety and economy. But if we do not pay attention to ecological issues, the delta takes it back. We need to find a new balance”, says Professor Meyer.

“Pay more attention to river, not only as something dangerous, or very important from a functional perspective (because it is a transportation corridor), but especially pay attention to its natural characteristics, ecological life related to the river, and the way that the river can play a role for the leisure of citizens”, he concludes.

Picture 05 – Room for the River – main solutions.

Source: https://www.ruimtevoorderivier.nl/english/ Access on May 25, 2017.


Contemporary Holland deals with the water towards an integration between natural processes and human needs, whether these are social or economic.

The Water Squares project shows a hybrid solution between conventional drainage structures and new structures that work as landscaping or recreation, and which may eventually be flooded. A more economical and less inconvenient solution to upgrade drainage structures – and with additional gains in quality of life for citizens.

The project The River as a Tidal Park deals with the renaturalization of rivers and banks, which over the centuries have been straightened and stabilized, as a way to bring nature back to urban centers, while bringing more recreational areas to cities.

The Room for the River project understands that in flood cases, the most efficient solution comes from promoting more space for the river to flood, a view almost opposite to what had been practiced for some decades.

For the Brazilian reality, the world’s richest water and biodiversity, and still lacking social policies, the three projects cited serve as inspiration for a more sustainable future.


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