De-paving with Operation Stonebreak

Water in cities has a critical role in climate adaptation, from bathrooms to backyards to sewer lines. An engaging exhibit in the Netherlands 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. (In an unrelated and delightfully quirky twist the ABC was installing an exhibit on one of the greatest Dutch baseball players, who was also an architect and was responsible for the restoration of several important historic buildings such as this one, from the early 1600s.)

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…

Oustandingly clear and well-designed diagrams such as these (click to enlarge) explain how water moves around in the landscape, where it comes, and where it goes. I can’t speak for other countries but you would hard-pressed to find such a level of sophistication in even specialized university textbooks in the U.S.

Similarly information-dense maps showed the impacts the climate change is having on infrastructure and waterbodies:

There were models of how sewers work and hands-on activities for children and families:

Climate adaptation in the home: These are storage tanks for the backyard which prevent rainwater from overloading storm sewers. 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 entire 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.




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