Rotterdam tackles climate change and poverty
Rotterdam is betting that climate change adaptation can uplift residents in one of its poorest neighborhoods. Rotterdam's climate change resilience plans aren't like most others. In BoTu, as locals call the district, the city has come up with a plan that uses climate adaptation as a means to decrease poverty and improve living standards, in order to bring the area's social and economic standard in line with the city average. Danielle Batist (USNews) reports the following.
"Most people here remember the times we used coal to heat our homes," says 84-year old Jacques Stoppelenburg, locally known as Grandpa Jacques. He points behind him to the postwar Gijsingflats, an early example of resilience in the city, literally built on the ruins left by bombings during World War II.
Energy transition as a lever for a resilient district (BoTu)
The energy transition in his district, Bospolder-Tussendijken, has been ongoing here for decades: coal was replaced by oil, followed by gas. And now that, too, is going to go. By 2030, city officials plan to phase out gas heating in this working-class district and replace it with electric heating, generated by residue heat from the harbor or renewable energy from wind and solar.
Preparing for climate change has long been a key priority for the port city, where rising sea levels threaten its very existence. But Rotterdam's climate change resilience plans aren't like most others. In BoTu, as locals call the district, the city believes it's come up with a plan that uses climate adaptation as a means to decrease poverty and improve living standards.
"Resilience is in our DNA"
Says Arnoud Molenaar, Rotterdam's chief resilience officer. "We started in BoTu because the needs are great here. We spent a lot of time in the area and realized that in order to become climate resilient, we need to make people resilient, too."
BoTu was built between 1910 and 1930, at the same time Rotterdam's world-renowned port started to expand. In March 1943, in what is now called the Forgotten Bombardment, the Americans accidentally bombed the district, killing hundreds and making 13,000 homeless. Urban renewal began in the 1970s, with a focus on social housing construction. Cheap housing and unskilled jobs in the port attracted migrant workers, whose descendants often still live in the area.
In the eyes of many residents, the area has more urgent problems than future flooding or overheating. Three years ago, police found about 100 pounds of ammunition and explosives that they believed were intended for a terrorist attack in France. Crime rates and long-term unemployment figures remain high, 60% of people live in subsidized housing and three quarters of households survive on a low income.
Today BoTu's neighborhood index score – in which data related to living environment, health, language, debt and safety are collected by local government institutions for comparative purposes – is among the lowest in Rotterdam.
Resilience strategy and plan
In 2016, with help from 100 Resilient Cities, a network set up by the Rockefeller Foundation, Rotterdam drafted the city's first resilience strategy. In 2018, it created a 10-year action plan specifically for BoTu. Developed with the nonprofit and private sector and endorsed by the mayor, the plan intends to climate-proof the district in a way that will bring the area's social and economic standard in line with the city average.
As part of the plan, climate adaptations are meant to create local jobs and training opportunities. Many of the jobs will likely be tied to making infrastructure more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. The city, piggybacking on national efforts, has committed 150 million euros to speed up plans to move away from gas heating. Other jobs and apprenticeships may be tied to greening and water-proofing BoTu's outdoor space, as currently only 16% of the surface in public outdoor spaces is porous or water-absorbent.
In July, a 10-year agreement was signed between the city's major vocational training centers, colleges, energy companies, the building industry and social housing corporations, which offer subsidized housing. Though detailed targets are yet to be confirmed, the BoTu team expects renovations in places like Grandpa Jacques' flat block to attract local workers.
The city also intends to use its climate resilience work as a way to introduce social services to vulnerable residents. For example, when people get a visit from housing corporations to replace their heating system, social workers join to spot other needs they might have, such as debt counseling, language courses or parenting support.
Danielle van den Heuvel is one of the people trying to turn things around in BoTu. A so-called city marine embedded in the BoTu community, she has been granted special powers by Rotterdam's mayor and his team to cut through red tape and even break protocol when required, as long as it is "in the interest of people."
Van den Heuvel sees such grassroots community building as a crucial aspect to neighborhood resilience. "It is only after basic needs are met that residents might get energized and motivated to join in with other plans," she says.
Van den Heuvel and other local community workers warn that unless residents feel they have something to gain from climate plans in the short term, buy-in is low.
When Rotterdam first started to turn communal areas into huge water plazas to store excess rain water, for example, some were vandalized. Local mothers who started planting flowers and plants in concrete-heavy streets saw them stolen overnight. Youth with little opportunity preferred readily available illegal money-making opportunities over volunteering for community initiatives.
Within the "Go BoTu" team Van den Heuvel works with is a collective of family doctors and health workers, school heads, community workers, social housing corporations, local businesses and police. The collective recently launched a call for proposals to make the city both resilient and climate proof, inviting residents and businesses to send in plans. The best ideas will be selected this fall. Other cities are watching Rotterdam's approach with interest.
During a recent convening of the now shuttered 100 Resilient Cities in July, chief resilience officers and mayors from around the world gathered in Rotterdam to discuss urban resilience. They visited the city's water squares, its first floating cowshed and the world's largest movable storm surge barrier.
In BoTu, they met with community organizers, some of whom have been driving resilience projects since before the city's official resilience plans launched. One such project is Dakpark, Europe's longest rooftop park, created in 2014 after 15 years of community pressure to revive a derelict railyard. The park, a little more than half a mile long, was built on top of a shopping mall and hosts a greenhouse, playground, community garden and water fountains.
During a walk through Botu, Arnoud Molenaar echoed the words of Michael Berkowitz, the former president of 100 Resilient Cities. "Preventing the worst of climate change is going to cost a huge amount of money, so we better make sure this money also helps neighborhoods," he said. "It makes sense, and it pays off."
Source: Danielle Batist, a Netherlands-based journalist of USNews (article)
Foto: Luka de Kruijf