In Conversation with Edgar Westerhof
May 30, 2018
This interview with Edgar Westerhof was conducted and condensed by frank news. Edgar Westerhof is the director of the Flood Risk and Resiliency program for Arcadis in North America. He is an expert on integrated urban water management. He lead the firm’s participation effort during HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition, including theBIG U. He also leads the firm’s participation with the Rockefeller Foundation’s100 Resilient Cities initiative.
Why Dutch people?
The Dutch have accomplished a systems approach to water management that is unprecedented. Arcadis has been around for nearly 130 years, we are headquartered in Amsterdam. Following Hurricane Katrina, there was a tremendous demand and political pressure to address future storms. The Dutch legacy and tradition of water management has formed our identity as a country and continues to give the Dutch recognition as global leaders in the field.
The core of the Dutch system is about defense. But this system has been refined through concepts like Room for the River or Building with Nature.
The Dutch aim to not only live with water, but turn challenges into opportunities that serve the community.
Many of the cities where we currently work (New Orleans, New York, Boston, Toronto, Miami, San Francisco), face threats of climate change and sea level rise. They work to better understand their system, local vulnerabilities, critical assets, and feasible solutions to mitigate risk. The 1-in-100 year storm is often used as a baseline for climate resilience planning. But, cities need to step up this approach and move faster.
You’re an engineer, working in US cities, communicating directly with communities. What sorts of perception issues do you encounter?
The hardest part for people is to really take in the implications of sea level rise, which will have drastic effects on our waterfronts. Projections for the year 2100 show a spectrum of possibilities for the waterfront of Manhattan, from regular flooding to a complete loss of the coast as we know it. That is a lot to deal with. The tough questions require tremendous coordination between stakeholders and communities. At the same time, we really don’t have time to waste.
While New York City has been leading the discussion post-Sandy through many studies, it is time to show tangible results that will help advance other climate investments.
What should the next step for New York be?
My message for New York is clear: it is time to work with the studies we have and get the shovel in the ground.
How does a disaster change the city and public’s approach?
There’s a big difference between post and pre-disaster planning. The bottom line is that governance, leadership, and stakeholders interest must be aligned. Momentum must be used to increase climate resilience. The Dutch learned this lesson the hard way— don’t let a disaster go to waste. For cities that have not experienced major storms, the key is to learn from other cities. To accelerate the planning process and adapt to future sea level rise and storms.
What is an engineer’s perspective on green infrastructure?
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if it’s gray or green. All solutions should be considered as part of a system that benefits the region. The Dutch system consists of natural dunes, as well as engineered walls, levees, gates and a wide variety inner city solutions for stormwater management. Cities should push natural solutions where possible, but the reality of dense or industrial waterfronts often requires engineered solutions.
Is green infrastructure viable as protection?
That’s a good question. Public perception is often: everything that is green is good. But we need to be careful of gimmicky green solutions. They may be part of the solution, but they are often not the only solution. And they can cloud understanding of the larger problems.
Are engineers part of the discussion of defense or retreat?
That answer is short - as an engineering consultant we don’t “engineer retreat.”
But we do see it is becoming part of the discussion nationally and globally, in the end we likely won’t be able to sustain our most vulnerable and low-lying waterfronts at all costs.
I asked Jesse Keenan this question: if I want to buy a house or move to a certain neighborhood, how should I figure out my risk? He said I should go ask the old people there.
Yes, well I certainly agree with that. Go online, enter the zip code, and look at the FEMA and NOAA flood maps. But also, ask around. We need to put more pressure on city government and developers to communicate risk. I have encountered so many people who bought property oblivious to flood risk. As climate data becomes more accessible, the perception of risk will change. People will be able to do theirown due diligence. This may affect the role local governance, investors and developers in a positive way.
You are an engineer, and your wife is a performance artist. You both work on sea level rise. How often do you guys speak the same language?
These two things kind of naturally coexist.
We need artists to build the bridge between communities and action through art. We can engineer a lot, but we have a hard time engineering awareness and uncertainty.
The choices we need to make are political, and they are driven by communities. If people demand a certain level of protection, that changes everything.