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.)

The topic of water in cities in a time of climate change is one the bridges everyone’s daily lives – from their own backyards, gardens and utility bills, to drinking water and flooded streets – to broader issues of how the city and region are adapting to the impacts of the climate crisis on water supplies and sources. But this isn’t’ specifically a climate-related topic, because the problem of polluted stormwater running off of streets and into storm sewers and streams was already a severe one even without the influence of the climate crisis, which has started to exacerbate the situation.

The exhibit highlights several initiatives for making cities resilient to the increasingly intense storms, which in some regions alternate with increasingly severe drought periods, that are variously known as green infrastructure, de-paving, low-impact development (LID), nature-based solutions, “sponge city”, or decentralized stormwater management (they all mean pretty much the same thing). Examples include raingardens, green roofs, and permeable pavement.

One such municipal program goes by the clever name of Operation Stonebreak (Operatie Steenbreek). It encourages residents to replace the 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 that 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 on the Dutch word for the saxifrage plant, steenbreek, and indeed saxifrage itself is Latin for stone-break. Such programs exist on a smaller scale in some U.S. municipalities but not ot my knowledge here in Germany, where a mania for covering gardens and yards with pavement and rocks has been gaining popularity in recent years.

An overview…

Clear and well-designed diagrams such as these (click to enlarge) explain how water circulates in the landscape and how it’s used. The material has a university-course leve of sophistication.

Left: Information-dense maps show the impacts the climate change is having on infrastructure and waterbodies: Right: Showcase project, the Benthem Water Plaza in Rotterdam, a breakthrough in urban environmental planning of global significance, by a firm called De Urbanisten. In dry weather it’s a sunken plaza with bleacher seating, basketball courts and so forth. During rainstorms it collects water from the surrounding roofs and pavement, becoming a pond, and releases it slowly into the storm sewers. This is a critical function for mitigating the catastrophic problems with water pollution that are in store for every city that hasn’t already started taking these kinds of measures.

Left Family activity with blocks for planning and landscaping climate-friendly streets. Right: Model of how houses are connected to the water and sewer system.

Rain barrels, for collecting rain water from roofs so it can be used to water gardens instead of running through storm sewers, which empty directly into rivers. Many cities in the U.S. give these to residents for free and some even pay for the installation, along with other free 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 does not do this and I haven’t heard of it being done anywhere in Germany. In fact the city of Berlin does not have a water conservation program at all and my understanding is that the position of the water department is that if people should not reduced their water use, because if they did, sediment would clog the pipes.




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