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This article appeared in the 2022 summer issue of Urban Land.

Until recently, most European port redevelopments involved transforming a neglected industrial waterfront into an upscale mixed-use neighborhood intended to bring together food and leisure activities, retail, condominiums, and offices in a way that gave the city a stunning new venue and a fresh face to the world.

They still do that. But in the current era of global warming, planners are having to think harder about how to go about it. It no longer is enough to swap out barges for yachts and warehouses for sleek glass seafood restaurants. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting a sea-level rise of 3.28 feet (1 m) or more by the end of the century and at least 10 times as many violent storms, planners are taking a more defensive approach to waterfront design in the hope that they can deliver the appeal of urban life near the water without putting lives at risk.

Planners have been thinking about the consequences of global warming for some time, according to José Sánchez, director of Agenda AIVP 2030 of the International Association of Cities and Ports. What has changed, he says, is that the concern is more pressing, with a bigger and more public focus on how to mitigate damage.

However, at the same time, Sánchez says, the scale of the challenge continues to grow as waterfronts are being designed to accommodate an increasingly broad range of activities, bringing more people to precisely those places likely to be hit first and hardest by storms and swells.

Designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, the 26-story Elbphilharmonie—a glass concert hall built atop a 1960s-era brick warehouse—is a centerpiece of HafenCity in Hamburg, Germany. (Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron)

Staying High and Dry

Rotterdam, Netherlands, is a good example of this dynamic. Twenty-five years ago, Rotterdam was a city “with its back to the water,” says Alexander Geenen, program manager of Stadium Park—Feyenoord City, Rotterdam. “And it’s now really turned—new apartments, new high-rises have been built quite close to the water, celebrating the water. While on the one hand it might be a potential threat to the future, it is a value to have [the Rhine River] flowing through the city.”

The section Geenen works on, Feyenoord City, is a mixed-use redevelopment that will include about 2.8 million square feet (255,000 sq m) of housing, roughly 689,000 square feet (64,000 sq m) of commercial space, 893,500 square feet (83,000 sq m) of sports fields, and eventually a stadium for the Feyenoord football club. (Due to the sudden rise in construction costs, the timing of construction of the stadium is currently uncertain.)

Like other European port cities, Rotterdam has taken a number of measures to reduce its flood risk. One important measure is building what in Dutch is called a waterplein—a square of water—that is normally a playground for basketball and other sports, but in the event of flooding or heavy rainfall can serve as a collecting pond that keeps the storm sewers from being overwhelmed, according to Geenen. The city has also encouraged owners of flat-roofed buildings to install roof gardens and even sponsored contests to get people to replace tiled courtyards with vegetation.

“The idea is that you take pressure off the large district wastewater systems by putting in rainwater harvesting solutions,” such as retention ponds or permeable walkways, explains Billy Grayson, executive vice president for ULI Centers and Initiatives. “Having more of that green infrastructure integrated into dense urban environments is something that we’re seeing a lot of cities pursuing, including cities in Europe.”

Ironically, part of that infrastructure involves adding more nature to an artificial landscape. Rotterdam has reshaped some of its rivers by widening them to reduce the chance of flooding. Last year, the city also made some adjustments to a 4,600-foot-long (1,400 m) artificial island in the Nieuwe Maas River. City landscapers added a sandbank on one side and lowered some of the island to turn it into tidal land. A year later, plants have grown on the sandbar and wildlife is making itself at home. A 6.5-foot-long (2 m) sturgeon has been seen in the river and a beaver has taken up residence on the island, “which is something we did not expect to happen so quickly,” Geneen says.

Hamburg, Germany, has faced a similar set of challenges in its HafenCity project but dealt with them somewhat differently. HafenCity is a 395-acre (160 ha) port redevelopment that will bring 7,500 homes, several universities, and 45,000 jobs to 6.5 miles (10.5 km) of the Elbe River waterfront.

“We are really a waterfront project with all the advantages because you have wonderful promenades and a direct link to the water, but you also have these challenges of rapid flood protection,” says Susanne Bühler, a spokeswoman for HafenCity.

In order to reduce the risks of winter storm surges and spring runoff to HafenCity, planners added 6.5 more feet (2 m) of elevation to the port’s original 18 feet (5.5 m) above sea level, eliminating the need for a dike while preserving the harbor views for those living and working in HafenCity. The idea, Bühler says, “was more living with the water than protecting from the water.”

The principle is that all buildings are erected on artificially structured plinths. These “warfts” interconnect with the new street level. Streets and bridges also are sited at flood-protected levels, at least 24.6 to 27.9 feet (7.5 to 8.5 m) above sea level, so traffic and daily life won’t be stopped even in the middle of a storm surge. Further down, the warfts also function as car-parking space. At some places, the warfts also integrate with waterfront restaurants, which have massive retractable flood gates that can batten down the ground floor in the event of high water.

The HafenCity project has 1.5 miles (2.5 km) more paths for pedestrians than for car drivers, according to HafenCity planners. (Courtesy of Miguel Ferraz)

An Underused Port in Copenhagen

Copenhagen also has a massive port project underway, Nordhavn, which comprises 494 acres (200 ha) of underused port land that is being redeveloped as a new sustainable district that eventually will be home and workplace for up to 80,000 people. Here, too, planners are thinking about rain, taking care to elevate the buildings and install green spaces that can double as channels for runoff, according to Rita Justesen, head of planning and sustainability for By & Havn, a real estate company jointly owned by the city and the national government that directs Copenhagen’s port redevelopment.

By & Havn is also working on another project, a 494-acre (200 ha) artificial island being developed using dirt and rocks excavated for a new metro line elsewhere in the city. Along the Baltic Sea, 148 acres (60 ha) of the island will be used for beach and forest, a coastal landscape that “we call nature-based protection,” Justesen explains.

In Nordhavn, a newly redeveloped section of Copenhagen’s old port, developer By & Havn is building a new sustainable and resilient waterfront neighborhood that eventually will be home and workplace for up to 80,000 people. (Peter Sørensen)

“It’s quite another way of doing it than we did 20 years ago,” Justesen says. “Years ago, when we made green areas, they were meant for recreational purposes. Now, we are looking into biodiversity.” The project also uses more rocks instead of steel for the barriers, reducing its carbon footprint from 18,000 tons of carbon dioxide to 14,000 tons. At the same time, By & Havn is asking developers with whom they contract to certify the amount of carbon dioxide used in their own buildings.

The Water Always Wins

The shift in how planners deal with water reflects how planners’ thinking has evolved in recent decades, away from trying always to buttress developments against water to finding ways to live with it.

“Water wins,” Geenen explains. “If it becomes a battle, in the end, you will lose, because the water will keep flowing. . . . You can improve dikes, you can improve systems against rising water levels, but at a certain point, there is a duel, either economically or for the whole society.”

All over Europe, planners have begun to accept the idea that this duel not only cannot be won, but probably should not even be thought of as a duel. Over the past 15 years, coastal municipal governments around Europe have begun looking more seriously at the risk that climate change poses to their towns and cities, according to Sophie Storbjörk, a senior lecturer at Linköping University in Sweden and a member of that country’s National Expert Council on Climate Data.

But understanding the risks is just the first step. In many cases, the actual work of mitigation still lies ahead. In Sweden in particular, Storbjörk says, many municipalities have conducted a lot of studies but have not actually begun to build the infrastructure that is needed.

In Rotterdam’s Nieuwe Maas river, developers have relandscaped the 19th-century artificial island of Brienenoord. Improvements include this tidal pool, which is designed to reduce pressure on the city waterfront during storms. (City of Rotterdam)

Development as a Catalyst

What is the catalyst to getting that work done? Development, Storbjörk thinks. At one time, she says that she and some of her colleagues had believed that commercial development was generally not helpful for reducing the risk of climate-related damage, but she has since changed her mind about that. She now feels that developers have an important role to play in building the infrastructure needed to keep coastal communities safe.

In Sweden, particularly in urban coastal areas, municipalities will be able to make building approvals contingent on developers’ executing the elements of the local authority’s climate risk mitigation strategy. As an additional incentive, Swedish climate policy thinkers are also discussing the idea of requiring building sellers to certify their climate risks, in the same way they already must certify their buildings’ energy consumption, according to Storbjörk—a move that would further encourage owners to face their climate risks directly.

Regardless of the mechanism, Sánchez thinks that coastal owners will be forced to think harder about the impact that climate change might have on their investment. “Increasingly, we will see that if you’re going to buy property on the waterfront . . . you will probably need to convince people that, okay, this problem has been taken into consideration.”

Public/Private Collaboration

But developers will not be able to act alone, in the view of Lisette van Doorn, chief executive, Europe, for ULI.
“What will really help the creation of more waterfront property that is resilient to physical climate risk is a better collaboration between public and private sectors,” she says. Public support to defray the higher costs of climate-proofing, such as a guarantee or land discount, would be very helpful, she adds.

In addition to developers, Storbjörk suggested that residents and other stakeholders need to be brought into mitigation project planning early.

“In the existing city, where there are a lot of people and activities already in place, I think it’s a very good idea to have these participatory processes in the design and implementation of these measures, because if you want multifunctional use, you need to know how the people living in an area are using an area, and how they interact with it,” she says. “With small, slight adjustments of these measures, you can actually make them more useful for the people living there,” she adds.

But Storbjörk warns that thinking exclusively locally will not work—it is vital for planners and developers to think beyond the individual project to the larger region.

“We still have to have coherent coastal protection. . . . We cannot only look at the ports because then we end up in New Orleans,” she says, referencing the more than $160 billion in catastrophic damage that Hurricane Katrina wrought on an unprepared city in August 2005. And massive displacement of people. “And that’s not good.”

BENNETT VOYLES is a Berlin-based business writer.