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Interview

Peter Bosselmann: It’s all about adaptability

Peter Bosselmann: It’s all about adaptability

11 jun 2014 - The American professor Peter Bosselmann (Architecture, City & Regional Planning, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design) from Berkeley University is visiting professor and researches delta cities. During his stay as visiting professor in Delft he concludes that the World could learn a lot from the adaptability of cities in the Netherlands.

What is the purpose of your stay in Delft?
“Mostly to write a book about the development of cities in deltas. And I’m taking part in the Delta Forum.”

Do you see completely different challenges for cities here, as compared to America?
“The issues that confront a delta city like New York are definitely comparable to those of Dutch cities. The enormous amount of water carried by the Hudson River can also cause problems. What design solutions do you need to cope with that? All the delta cities around the World have to struggle with the effects of climate change. What are we going to do about it? It is quite a challenge for American cities to change their structures, thanks to their wide, expansive lay-out.”

What have you learned from your visit to Delft?
“That there is a tremendous amount of expertise in the Netherlands. Other parts of the World have a great need for this expertise. What I’m learning here is that you have to design your environment in such a way that it is adaptable. The idea of robust construction appears to last for only a limited time, 40 to 50 years.”

You have set up urban simulation laboratories in Milan, New York City, Tokyo and other places to study and to gain insight into design challenges. Will you be doing the same in Delft?
“Who knows. The laboratories came about as a result of new American legislation to help increase our understanding of large planning and development projects. Also with respect to their impact on the environment. Climate change demands large-scale interventions, and the Netherlands has developed adaptive methods to deal with it. Space for the rivers; new ideas for coastal protection such as the Sand Motor. In this respect, the Netherlands is already a laboratory that the rest of the World can learn from.”

How do you go about your research?
“I visited the Delta Works and a number of cities. I try to envisage how the water moulds them and how they have adapted to changing circumstances. Dordrecht, for example, is a very dynamic city thanks to its situation between two rivers. I visit the city and study historical maps. My sabbatical gives me the opportunity to read a great deal. I also try to get to grips with how architects’ designs have influenced daily life in cities to such an extent that the “threshold of urbanization” is reached. That’s one of my passionate interests. Maps and historical writings reveal the way a city came into existence, many centuries ago. That, and the adjustments to circumstances that have given the city its present form. I think the Dutch delta cities are splendid, with their very particular composition, and the polder landscape with its man-made patterns.”

But is that of any use to you? The Dutch have actually come to the conclusion that the way we battled against the water for centuries is no longer effective.
“Ha ha, the rest of the World would appear to have a different opinion about that. And the solutions that Dutch engineers have come up with are still exported to the rest of the World, even if they’re no longer as optimistic about them themselves. The truth of the matter is that a lot of wisdom has been acquired in the course of the centuries. In the San Francisco Bay area, where I live, we never talked about future water challenges until five years ago. New Orleans is wide-awake, but they are not yet discussing these questions in the great Chinese, Vietnamese or Indian deltas. It’s high time that that changed. There are tens of millions of people living there!”

What lessons can they learn from historical Dutch cities?
“That it’s all about adaptability. You can see how the orientation of cities has constantly changed. The topography of San Francisco Bay, for example, is quite different from the Netherlands. But there we also built in areas that we shouldn’t have done, and those are mostly the poorer districts. Here in the Netherlands, you can find examples of how you can offer protection to such areas.”

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