Green-Blue Cities: Nurturing Climate Adaptation in Dordrecht

Green-Blue Cities: Nurturing Climate Adaptation in Dordrecht

Ellen Kelder leads the Blue Green City team for the City of Dordrecht. In this interview she shares some best practices for climate adaptation based on the city’s extensive experience with initiatives like LIFE CRITICAL.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your work as the green-blue city manager?

I’m Ellen Kelder, the green-blue city manager in Dordrecht. With around 10 team members – including ecologists and flood-prone area resilience experts – we focus on climate adaptation, biodiversity, and cultivating a healthy environment. Our extensive portfolio includes European projects like LIFE initiatives, ongoing Interreg projects, contributions to national science agenda projects, and support from the province for a four-year “green and healthy city” initiative, emphasising community involvement.

Many of our projects span years, even a decade, providing time to build lasting relationships with the community and stakeholders. The long-term nature of these initiatives allows for a deeper, more meaningful impact on the community, making them enriching and rewarding for everyone involved.

Why is climate adaptation a focal point for the municipality and how does the city’s history with flooding influence this?

Dordrecht’s focus on climate adaptation runs deep in the municipality’s history, as its low altitude and location between rivers makes it particularly vulnerable to flooding. Back in 2005, global events like Hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding in New Orleans prompted discussions about the vulnerability of the Netherlands to similar events. Dordrecht emerged as the most exposed city, so the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education approached us for an in-depth study. 

This led to a groundbreaking policy theory for the Netherlands—multi-level safety. Since 2009, as part of the National Delta Programme, we’ve refined our approach. Recent significant floods in neighbouring regions underscore the urgency, shifting focus from mere protection to comprehensive strategies.

Why is climate adaptation especially important in the neighbourhood of Wielwijk?

Wielwijk’s significance arises from demographic and geographic considerations. As one of Europe’s most densely populated countries, the Netherlands faces housing challenges. In 2018, we addressed this by building 10,000 new houses within Wielwijk. The emphasis on densification led to vertical urban development to preserve existing green spaces. 

Exploring solutions, we focused on an area that historically served as a barrier between two distinct communities — Dubbeldam and Dordrecht — each with its own set of parks. While these parks were abundant in greenery, the sports parks were underused during the day, primarily reserved for evening activities by sports clubs. Engaging over 100 residents in collaborative design sessions, we reimagined the entire area, breaking down barriers and making sports parks accessible to everyone, not just club members.

The positive response from the community prompted us to present the proposal to our governing bodies and Aldermen. With their support, we collaborated with the national government and enlisted the architectural firm Mecanoo to translate the community’s vision into a comprehensive plan. By December 2019, the design sessions were complete, leading to a unanimous endorsement by the city council in late 2020.

How did you determine the climate adaptation measures to pursue in Wielwijk?

The climate adaptation measures for Wielwijk took shape through a combination of citizen involvement, innovative solutions, and lessons learned from prior projects. Initially conceived in 2006 and adapted after the 2008 economic crisis, the plans adhere to a list of 10 wishes from citizens, in which climate adaptation was a top priority. Residents expressed a need for more water features and green spaces, emphasising the importance of such elements for pastimes like jogging and walking dogs.

One key element of the redesign involved relocating a heavily trafficked street that passed through the heart of the neighbourhood – the Tromptuinen, originally named the Maarten Hapertz Trompweg – to the outskirts of the neighbourhood in order to free up space for greenery.  

Another key aspect of the vision for Wielwijk was to create a park and a large square, forming a central green axis accessible from every corner of the neighbourhood. This concept aligns with a broader vision for city parks but with a twist – addressing flooding issues. 

In Dordrecht, city parks often face water-related challenges that hinder growth, as water-logged soil prevents necessary oxygen from reaching plant roots. To counteract this, innovative solutions were implemented in Wielwijk, such as creating varying heights to guide water flow into canals that were created to gather water at a central place and to store it for periods of extreme heat(cooling but also watering purpose) and introducing specific plants adapted to diverse conditions.

The prolonged duration of this work, dating back to 2008, has allowed for a substantial learning curve. The ongoing LIFE project serves as a testing ground for these adaptations, evaluating their effectiveness in contributing to sustainable, resilient urban development.

What are the climate adaptation measures you are pursuing in Wielwijk?

Wielwijk’s climate adaptation measures focus on creating a liveable and future-proof environment. We’re adjusting topography, introducing diverse vegetation, and incorporating trees and plants suited to different soil climates. This not only enhances the aesthetic appeal of the area but also contributes to its climate adaptability, serving the dual purpose of mitigating heat and managing water runoff, especially in areas that were previously prone to flooding. Recent drone surveys quantitatively assessed the impact, revealing substantial temperature differences between green spaces and pavements. 

The emphasis on citizen science is a deliberate choice to involve the residents actively in the process. By providing tangible evidence through data collected together, the local government aims to strengthen trust in its efforts to combat climate challenges. The ultimate goal is not just environmental enhancement but also a tangible improvement in the well-being of Wielwijk’s residents.

What are the benefits of working with EU-funded projects in Dordrecht like LIFE CRITICAL and how do you make sure to make the most out of them?

Working with EU-funded projects brings many benefits – one of the most important being essential funding for community involvement. In projects like LIFE CRITICAL, citizen science methodologies not only gather valuable data but also reinforce the idea that climate adaptation is a collaborative effort where the public has a meaningful say.

With a number of ongoing EU projects, the thematic connections between these initiatives facilitate sharing approaches and lessons across the board. This collaborative approach promotes continuous learning and improvement, maximising the impact of EU-funded projects on creating climate-resilient, community-centric urban environments.

From your experience in Wielwijk and as a whole – do you have any lessons that could be applied in other cities looking to implement climate adaptation measures? If someone tuning into this wanted to set up a climate adaptation initiative in their city, what advice would you give them?

Reflecting on experiences in Wielwijk and the broader context, several lessons can guide other cities seeking to implement climate adaptation measures. 

Engage Stakeholders: Begin by understanding the local climate-related issues and engage with key stakeholders, including entities like Water Boards, safety regions, and the province, to form a comprehensive understanding of the challenges.

Prioritise Collaboration: Recognise that certain climate issues may extend beyond departmental, local, or national control. Collaborate at all levels to align efforts and ensure a holistic and comprehensive response to climate challenges.

Understand Local Context & Forecast Future Scenarios: Understand the local context by assessing vulnerabilities and forecasting future scenarios. This knowledge is crucial for tailoring climate adaptation measures to the specific needs of the community. Employ tools such as stress tests to assess the city’s resilience to extreme weather events. Be realistic about potential severity, considering historical data and future scenarios.

Align Priorities: Align priorities by integrating climate adaptation measures with ongoing programmes and projects. This ensures that climate considerations are mainstreamed into broader urban planning goals, avoiding isolated implementations and allowing for the seamless incorporation of climate resilience into existing initiatives.

With the impacts of the climate crisis becoming more tangible each year, what changes or trends do you predict for the future of climate adaptation – both generally, and specifically in Dordrecht?

Research indicates that climate change impacts are outpacing predictions. Despite the urgency, political discourse often lacks emphasis on climate adaptation, especially during elections. 

The reality is that the impacts of climate change are already unfolding, and the focus must shift from only prevention to include adaptation. Even with efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the changes are inevitable and will last for centuries. The need to adapt and find ways to live with these changes is vital. 

Local governments, like the one in Dordrecht, play a crucial role in climate adaptation. Despite global challenges, the ability of local governments to access resources and implement solutions positions them as key players in the larger fight against climate change. 

While the challenges can be daunting, the importance of collaboration and sharing knowledge cannot be overstated. Initiatives like those supported by the EU provide valuable resources, fostering connections and enabling the replication of successful strategies in different cities. The interconnectedness of global efforts becomes crucial in developing solutions not just for individual cities but for the planet as a whole. The future of climate adaptation involves continuous updates to strategies, a focus on collaborative efforts at both local and national levels, and a commitment to learning from and supporting each other on a global scale.

Any final thoughts? Expectations for the coming year?

Looking ahead, our primary focus is fostering public awareness through tailor-made community approaches. Our goal is to empower communities by providing them with the knowledge of what we are doing and, more importantly, why we are doing it.

In the coming year, we anticipate further progress in strengthening community involvement. By emphasising each neighbourhood’s role in climate adaptation, we aim to create shared responsibility for the city’s well-being. 

Through collaborative efforts, we hope to inspire a sense of ownership and pride among residents, fostering a resilient and actively engaged community. Challenges persist, but our commitment to adapting and evolving strategies persists as well. The coming year holds the promise of continued growth, learning, and collaboration as we navigate the complex landscape of climate adaptation, building a more sustainable and climate-resilient future together. 

Curious to learn more about the intersection between citizens science and climate adaptation? Get in touch!