Heat and drought, alternating with awesome downpours. This might sound frightening. Then again, you could also consider it to be an opportunity, which is what Dirk van Peijpe, co-founder of De Urbanisten, does. By developing epoch-making projects like the Hofbogenpark and Getijdenpark, this bureau deploys climate-change necessity to add splendour and fun to Rotterdam.

When asked how he pictured the future of Rotterdam in his mind’s eye, Dirk van Peijpe replied: ‘As a sponge city; that is to say, a city that works like a sponge. A city where redundant rainwater doesn’t go down the drain, but is sucked up, retained, squeezed and re-used. Quite simply, through the soil and plants. There is nothing high-tech about it. In fact, anyone who removes a few slabs from their pavement or lays out a facade garden is contributing to that sponge city’.

Testing ground

Van Peijpe founded De Urbanisten in 2009, together with Florian Boer. It’s a design bureau for urban development and landscape architecture that unequivocally put itself on the map in 2013 thanks to the Waterplein project; a site that provides a good place to chill, hang out, lunch, skate and play in dry weather, but which is inundated by heavy rainfall. The design is just as simple as it is revolutionary: ‘We showed that harvesting water does not necessarily require an underground solution and that you can also opt for above-ground infrastructure in a way that makes the city more attractive and congenial’. That last aspect – making cities more attractive and more resistant to climate change at the same time – is the core activity of De Urbanisten; in New Jersey, Mexico, Copenhagen, Antwerp, numerous locations in the Netherlands, but above all in Rotterdam.

Says Van Peijpe: ‘Rotterdam is our base camp, incubator and living lab all rolled into one. This is where we have the space to test the things we devise in situ, including room for realisation and ongoing development. Our bureau is located on one of the city’s most thrilling sites, and we can do whatever we want in our front garden’.

And these words can be interpreted quite literally, because in the front garden of the Keile premises in the MerweVierhavens, where the bureau is located, De Urbanisten has laid out its Sponstuin; a testing ground where experiments are carried out with different Rotterdam soil types and plant species to establish their capacity to retain water. This has yielded valuable information for two of the bureau’s major projects in Rotterdam: the Hofbogenpark and the Getijdenpark.


'The Hofbogenpark is going to be an all-inclusive resort for people and animals'

The Hofbogenpark, a great place for people and wildlife

The Hofbogenpark is set to be the longest and narrowest roof park in the Netherlands. It is being laid out on top of listed railway viaduct De Hofbogen, which has not seen a passing train for the last ten years. De Urbanisten, together with DS landscape architects and the Dakdokters, has designed a climate-adaptive and nature-inclusive roof landscape, crammed full of indigenous flora, and right in the middle of the city. Van Peijpe says: ‘Obviously, the opportunity to lay out a two kilometre-long park in the middle of the city is unique and something to be seized with both hands’. He paints a picture of opulent green, strolling people and children having great fun splashing about in little streams: ‘In contrast to, for example, the Highline in New York, which is basically an ornamental garden, we want to realise a truly nature-inclusive park here; a place which will also provide a habitat for wildlife like butterflies, hedgehogs, toads and bats. How can we make sure that this will be an all-inclusive resort for these creatures; somewhere they can find plenty of food and shelter? That is what we are currently working on’.

Those at De Urbanisten would not be true urbanists if they hadn’t thought about water too. Says Van Peijpe: ‘We have developed a circular water system for the park.

Rainwater falling onto the roof and environment will be purified by the soil and plants and will then be stored deep underground. In the event of a drought we can pump it back up and use it to water the plants’. So the Hofbogenpark will effectively operate like a sponge.


'There is nothing high-tech about it; the soil and plants do the work'

Green banks

In Van Peijpe’s opinion, it is only logical that Rotterdam should take the lead when it comes to climate-adaptive development: ‘A port city simply cannot afford complacency; it has to keep adapting itself to a constantly changing environment. This is already deeply embedded in the DNA of Rotterdam. But Rotterdam is also in a special location; we are a delta city. If you are living in a bath tub, heavy rainfall is bound to be unnerving. Rising sea levels impact our safety directly. We have no choice but to prepare ourselves’. This is the reason why the municipality of Rotterdam has provided space for experimentation to De Urbanisten and other innovative bureaus.
De Urbanisten is currently developing the Getijdenpark in the Keilehaven, another project right on their doorstep. This park has been constructed using a number of platforms which partly disappear under the water. In some places, the platforms are fully immersed twice a day, whereas others may only be covered by water during spring tides or not at all. The vegetation on each platform has been selected to cope with these situations.

Van Peijpe says: ‘The park demonstrates the dynamics of the river, providing spaces for abundant life both below and above the water. We are reducing the depth of the harbour in order to allow daylight to penetrate to the river floor. This will stimulate an underwater environment where fish can forage, which in turn will attract all kinds of bird life, which will be interesting for foxes… Isn’t it amazing that you can achieve an ecological chain like that in the city?’

The Getijdenpark operation is a work in progress; De Urbanisten wants to extend the project initiated in the Keilehaven to many more river banks in and around Rotterdam – and beyond, because: ‘All cities near the sea and on a river are having to face the same problems we have. Our aim is to address these issues in a way that enhances the city’s splendour and power of attraction. The site of Rotterdam was originally a delta; an estuary with the dynamics of wet and dry, high and low, sweet and salt. The harbours and the built environment have pushed away these natural resources, but we want to restore that tidal nature. Interested parties from all over the world are coming to Rotterdam to look at our operational approach.’

'Many young people in South don't leave their district, so we have to take nature to them.'

Nature makes us happy

Van Peijpe emphasises that cities have much to gain by interconnecting the various issues they need to address. He says: ‘Climate change, energy transition, social sustainability, inclusiveness, mobility; rather than considering these as single issues in themselves, we must tackle them jointly’. The Waterplein has demonstrated the yields that can stem from intelligent connections, with 60% of the funding for the project coming from money that was destined for the extension of the sewer system: ‘In fact, we have given Rotterdammers back money that would have disappeared underground in the shape of a square where they can enjoy themselves’.

Indeed, city residents having fun is a major driving force for De Urbanisten and its aspirations to make the city greener. Van Peijpe: ‘Research has demonstrated that the ready availability of nature makes people happy and healthy. That makes it even more alarming that many city-dwellers rarely have the chance to get in touch with genuine nature. Most of the young people in South, for example, have a small radius of activity. They stay in their own part of town rather than going to the Biesbosch, and that is why we must bring nature to their doorstep’.

What Van Peijpe means is that a few nature-inclusive, climate-adaptive projects is simply not good enough: ‘We have to look at these themes from an overall and integral city perspective; only then will we be able to build a future-proof city together. We are already performing quite well and have succeeded in many ways, but relentless efforts are, and will be required from all the parties involved’.

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