When it comes to gauging coastal resilience, there is no reality check quite like a hurricane. In the summer of 2005, Hurricane Katrina made it clear to the city of New Orleans, that its old ways of handling water–with pumps, levees, drains, and floodwalls–were no longer enough to protect its people and resources. Seven years later, Hurricane Sandy awakened a similar sense of vulnerability and urgency in the northeastern region of the country, particularly along the coastlines of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Katrina and Sandy were two of the most destructive and costly storms in U.S. history, but in the devastating void of their wakes, signs of hope rose to the surface. Two of those signs came in the form of initiatives that shifted the coastal conversation from storm surge protection to holistic and integrated water management, and from recovery to resilience. Both share a strong link to a nation that had a centuries-long head start on the U.S. when it comes to flood protection: the Netherlands.


Almost immediately after Hurricane Katrina, Dutch officials reached out to leaders in New Orleans to offer help. Like New Orleans, the low-lying Netherlands is situated on an urbanized delta, with a significant amount of its territory at or below sea level. Having been engaged in hydraulic engineering since the Middle Ages, the Dutch have learned a thing or two about coastal protection—and resilience.

For centuries, the Dutch did what most other waterlogged societies do: they pumped, piped, and drained water away from the land and built upon it. In the process, they developed deep expertise in engineering. When large storms occurred, they applied that expertise to build higher dikes and levees, increase pumping system capacities, and take other measures to separate water from land. “When there was a flood,” explained Dale Morris, former senior economist with the Royal Dutch Embassy and current Director of Strategic Partnerships at The Water Institute of the Gulf, “the Dutch would respond by trying to prevent that exact flood event from happening again.”

After the devastating North Sea Flood of 1953, Dutch engineering expertise kicked into high gear, with the launch of a 40-year effort to build Delta Works, an expansive coastal protection system of 13 dams, dikes, barriers, sluices, locks, and levees. Morris cites the redesign of the largest of those structures, the Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier, as the beginning of a turning point in the Dutch approach to water management. Constructed during the 1970s and 80s, after the birth of the environmental movement, the 5.6-mile-long structure was originally designed to be a closed dam. Concerns about its impact on the local ecology and fisheries of the estuary of the Southwest Delta, however, prompted a redesign to include integrating 62 sluice gates to allow for tidal exchange.

Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier

But according to Morris, the Dutch transition away from single-purpose water infrastructure was truly accelerated in 1993 and 1995, when riverine floods caused by extreme upstream precipitation and snow melt forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate.

“The Dutch have some of the best engineers in the world, and all of that wonderful infrastructure,” said Morris, “but they realized that they could not just wall off Mother Nature and protect themselves with no residual risk.” No longer asking, “how can we remove this water in order to live?” the evolved Dutch approach asked, “How can we live with water?”

It was a failure of government at all levels—a lack of imagination, coordination, and planning.

Morris and the Dutch Ambassador visited New Orleans weeks after Katrina to offer assistance. “What I saw angered and frustrated me,” said Morris. “It was a failure of government at all levels—a lack of imagination, coordination, and planning.”

One of many photos Morris captured of the post-Katrina devastation

A few weeks later, Morris and the Ambassador brought Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and a delegation to the Netherlands to learn more about the Dutch approach to surge and flood risk mitigation. Among those on the trip was David Waggoner, president of the New Orleans based architecture firm, Waggoner & Ball. Deeply concerned that a focus limited to surge risk protection and the rebuilding of levees and pumps would not protect the city, Waggoner approached Morris about bringing the Dutch “Living with Water” approach to New Orleans.

(L-R) Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and former Dutch Ambassador Renee Jones-Bos with David Waggoner and Dale Morris

Soon, the two created what came to be known as the Dutch Dialogues, a series of collaborative sessions that brought together Dutch and American urban designers, engineers, landscape architects, planners, academics, and government officials to explore creative, multi-benefit solutions for long-term resilience.

Briefing the Dutch in New Orleans

Morris admits, “We invented Dutch Dialogues in New Orleans as we went along,” but the initiative ultimately developed into a replicable, three-phase, multi-day format. The first phase is one of discovery. Participants are divided into teams and assigned a specific topography at the regional, sub-basin, or neighborhood scale. Each team then takes a deep dive into flood risk analysis, particularly causality.

Dutch Dialogue participants visit New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward

This not only involves reviewing and analyzing a great deal of historical evidence, but also walking the sites and conversing with the people who live there and know its history in ways that may not be reflected in maps and data. This is essential to the process, according Morris, “Whether you’re an architect, planner, developer, or an economist like me, you need to touch the space. You have to go get your feet muddy, talk to people, and understand how these places operate.”

The second phase, which may last one or several days, is dedicated to collaborative design workshops where conceptual ideas are generated and explored. This phase, which Morris jokes involves “a lot of designing, arguing, arguing some more, putting stuff on paper, and then throwing it away” enables American designers, engineers, and planners to exchange strategies for handling water and other climate challenges with their Dutch counterparts and begin to collaborate on new solutions. The third phase focuses on developing concrete proposals aimed at ultimately creating an integrated water system that addresses not only flood protection, but overall social, ecological, and economic resilience. Those proposals are presented in the form of a final report.

A Dutch Dialogue public meeting

“Big ships turn slowly, and someone has to make the first nudge,” said Morris. “That’s what we see the Dutch Dialogues doing.” What determines a ship’s nudge-ability? According to Morris,  it takes an aligned willingness among politics, governance, citizenry, non-profits, and academics to spend the resources needed to get it done. That willingness is among the factors Morris and Waggoner evaluate in determining the feasibility of an effective Dutch Dialogue program for a particular place.

Though Morris and Waggoner did not originally set out to create an ongoing program, the usefulness and replicability of Dutch Dialogues was hard to deny, and Dutch Dialogues have since occurred in St. Louis, Missouri; Norfolk and Hampton, Virginia; and most recently, Charleston, South Carolina. The Dutch Dialogue process has also been used in Los Angeles, Tampa, Miami, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. While each Dutch Dialogues program is deeply rooted in the people, history, and culture of the designated place, some aspects, such as the emphasis on compound flood risk, solutions with stacked benefits, and the integration of natural and nature-based solutions, remain constant. Collaboration is critical throughout. “The Dutch have had to work together and build consensus on how to manage the landscape and accomplish societal and economic goals,” said Morris. “Lots of value is created when planners, landscape architects, architects, engineers, water managers, hydrologists, and biologists challenge each other.”

The evidence of this value is increasingly visible in New Orleans. There, the final Dutch Dialogues proposal led to the funding and development of the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, a 50-year program of systems retrofits and urban design opportunities to embrace water as an asset while enhancing safety and sustainability in Orleans, Bernard, and Jefferson Parishes. That plan, which was spearheaded by Waggoner & Ball, informed Resilient New Orleans, the City’s planning strategy for long-term resilience. It also generated progress in the form of policy changes. For example, the City Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance now requires new development and redevelopment retain, detain, and filter the first 1.25 inch of stormwater runoff during rain events.

Big ships turn slowly, and someone has to make the first nudge.

In terms of actual projects, the impact of the Dutch Dialogues has been important. The Greater New Orleans Water Plan, for example, helped the city secure a $141 million federal grant to create a stormwater retention district in the Gentilly neighborhood. The “Gentilly Resilience District,” was once a convent, but after the concept for its centerpiece, Mirabeau Water Garden, took shape during the third New Orleans Dutch Dialogue, the Sisters of St. Joseph leased it to the City of New Orleans for $1 on the condition that it follow the Dutch Dialogue designs and be used to support environmental, educational, and spiritual well-being. It is well on its way to doing just that. The District’s centerpiece is Mirabeau Water Garden, a 25-acre wetland designed to absorb, filter, and return stormwater from the low-lying neighborhood to the ground, rather than immediately piping it into an already stressed sewer system. In doing so, the Water Garden not only reduces flood risk from overflows, but reduces subsidence by allowing more water to infiltrate back into the ground. Currently in permitting, the project will ultimately be the largest urban wetland in the country, as well as a neighborhood amenity, demonstration site for water management, and living laboratory for water research.

Just last month, the City of Hampton, Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation announced a pilot grant program to reimburse property owners willing to install rain gardens, replace impervious paving, and take other actions to improve stormwater management. This program came out of “Resilient Hampton,” an initiative sparked by the 2015 Hampton Roads Dutch Dialogues. That is a rather tiny, but tangible example of action resulting from the Dutch Dialogues process. Other examples are not so tiny. The largest resilience initiative with an origin that can be traced back to the Hampton Roads Dutch Dialogues is the Ohio Creek Watershed project. Designed to protect two of the most vulnerable neighborhoods along the Elizabeth River in Hampton, Virginia from storm surge and sea level rise, the project, which received $112 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, also aims to reduce coastal erosion, expand tidal ecosystems, and enhance public amenities and waterfront access.  While the project, which was designed by Waggoner & Ball in collaboration with community members, does include grey infrastructure components, it integrates a living shoreline, green stormwater infrastructure, wetland enhancement, the creation of trails linking neighborhoods, and improvements to streetscapes and a nearby playground. Construction began in early 2020. Once complete, the project will also provide the opportunity to demonstrate a “living with water” approach that can be applied to other vulnerable waterfront communities.

Dutch and American experts confer

Despite its title, the Dutch Dialogues is driven by Morris and Waggoner, both Americans. They assemble the Dutch and U.S. teams. “The Dutch help and inspire,” said Morris. “It is up to the U.S. team members to translate that into action. That is certainly happening in Charleston, South Carolina. The Charleston Dutch Dialogues report was released in late September of 2019, and a mere four months later Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg was quoted in a news story as saying of the program, “It informs policy and projects going forward.” Just this fall, the City piloted its Charleston Rainproof project, an initiative inspired by a similar program in Amsterdam and recommended by the Dutch Dialogues, the program provides property owners with grants and technical assistance to install rain gardens and rainwater harvesting systems.

A key recommendation from the Charleston Dutch Dialogues: Multiple Lines of Defense

The Dutch Dialogues may soon impact the approach to planning John’s Island, one of the initiative’s four strategically selected areas of focus. Large and ecologically diverse, John’s Island buffers a large portion of Charleston from storm surge, but it is under pressure from rapid development. The Dutch Dialogues proposed re-zoning of the Island according to elevation, flood risk, and ecology. According to Morris, this recommendation is currently in the process of being explored.

Public presentation of the Charleston Dutch Dialogues Final Report

The Dutch Dialogues in Charleston have also inspired the design community. In April of 2020, the U.S. Army Corps of engineers released its Coastal Flood Risk Management Study, part of a three-year, $3 million study of storm surge on peninsula. Among the Corps recommendations (which included some nature-based solutions) is a $1.75 billion storm surge wall around the perimeter of the Charleston Peninsula. During the study’s first public comment period, which closed in June 2020, a group designers and engineers, many of whom were inspired by the Dutch Dialogues, collaborated to envision a solution that builds upon the work of the Corps, but integrates an interconnected system of living shorelines, horizontal levees, living breakwaters, green stormwater infrastructure, and other locally inspired, nature-based solutions to protect the City center from the breadth of water management challenges it faces. Known as “Imagine the Wall,” that vision now has its own website, and is gaining support. Waggoner & Ball Architects and the Water Institute of the Gulf are on the City’s review team for Corps’ study. [Click here to see a recent webinar about Imagine the Wall]

Imagine the Wall ©One

It can be easy, when considering the wake left by Hurricane Katrina, to think only of the devastation. But the word “wake” can mean something other than a deathwatch. It can be an aftermath, a path left by a moving body, or simply the state of being awake. In the case of catalyzing Dutch Dialogues, it has clearly meant all of those things.


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