De-paving with Operation Stonebreak

Water use is playing an important role in climate adaptation, from bathrooms to backyards to sewer lines. A Dutch museum exhibit explains how.


Here’s a detour to the Netherlands, where I saw an excellent exhibit in Haarlem, at an architecture and urban design museum called the ABC Architecture Center, on how the region’s water systems will be affected by the climate crisis and how the city is starting to adapt.

It was a delight to see an architecture center take on this topic and make it accessible, because it’s not well-known in the general public although it certainly is in environmental and urban planning circles. (The ABC was also installing an exhibit on a Haarlem architect who was responsible for the restoration of important historic buildings such as this one, from c.1610, and who was also, curiously, one of the Netherlands’ greatest baseball players.)

It’s a topic that connects everyday concerns of ordinary citizens – their own yards and gardens, drinking water, utility bills – to broader issues of how the city and region are adapting to the impacts of the climate crisis on water supplies and sources. It’s not limited to climate though, because the problem of polluted stormwater running off of streets and into storm sewers and streams is already a severe one even without the influence of the climate crisis, which is starting to exacerbate the situation. In the U.S., a number of terms are used for this topic and its various subfields: de-paving, nature-based solutions, green infrastructure, low-impact development (LID), raingardens, decentralized stormwater management.

Operation Stonebreak (Operatie Steenbreek) is just one of many initiatives the exhibit covers. I’m singling it out because I like the name, and because it has potential to connect people to climate adaptation in a personal way. It’s a program that encourages homeowners to replace stone and concrete paving in their gardens – which is arguably more popular in the Netherlands than in the U.S. – with soil and plants, so rainwater and the pollution it carries will sink into the ground and be filtered by roots and soil instead of running off into sewers and streams. The name is a pun because steenbreek is Dutch for the plant called saxifrage in English, which, logically enough, is Latin for ‘stone-break’. Such programs exist in the U.S. too, but not, sadly, here in Germany, where the mania for covering gardens and yards with pavement and rocks has reached crisis proportions.

An overview…

Climate change impacts on infrastructure and waterbodies

Models and activities

Climate adaptation in residential areas: Rainwater storage tanks reduce flooding of storm sewers and streams. Many cities in the U.S. give these to residents for free, along with other water-saving devices such as low-flow shower heads, faucet aerators and even toilets. I don’t know if they do this in the Netherlands. Berlin doesn’t, and the water experts I know have not heard of it elsewhere in Germany. Designs for home gardens with ratings for how well they help cool the surroundings and save water.


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