Resilience through placemaking: public spaces in Rotterdam’s climate adaptation approach

Resilience through placemaking: public spaces in Rotterdam’s climate adaptation approach

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Peinhardt, Katherine
Discussion Paper 1/2021

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

ISBN: 978-3-96021-138-9
Price: 6 €

Urban public spaces are an opportunity for comprehensive climate adaptation and improved resilience. As a key part of a city’s physical infrastructure, it has long been clear that public spaces can be physically reinforced to absorb or weather the shocks of the climate crisis. As a result, many public spaces are designed to materially resist local impacts of the climate crisis, but fewer have seen efforts to harness their potential for improving social resilience. It is increasingly clear that the unique role of public spaces in civic life positions them to enhance not only physical resilience, but also to support the types of interpersonal connections essential to addressing shared challenges like the climate crisis. Through a “placemaking” approach, both of these goals can be layered into a single space: meaning that public spaces not only protect people from climate hazards, but also provide socially vibrant places and contribute to social cohesion.
As climate-adaptation plans become more widespread in cities across the globe, innovators such as the City of Rotterdam are leading the way by incorporating public spaces into their strategy. The most prominent example of this change is Waterplein Benthemplein, an early example of a “water square”, which absorbs excess stormwater while providing public space. This paper, based on a paradigmatic case study, examines the policy context for Rotterdam with regard to public spaces, climate adaptation, and long-standing practices around water management. It continues with an observational analysis of Waterplein Benthemplein, which provides best practices of, and potential pitfalls for, public space projects aimed at adaptation and/or resilience building.
To successfully work towards a resilient public realm, cities must evolve their practice relating to public spaces in four areas: the ways public spaces are subject to the outcomes of community engagement, and how public spaces are designed, programmed and managed. With these four areas in mind, Waterplein Benthemplein marks a paradigm shift for the inclusion of a public space in urban climate adaptation. In practice, the water square has seen mixed success: on the level of physical resilience building, its strengths are in its design and amenities, and when speaking of social resilience, the square is most effective in its programming and use. Meanwhile, the square has opportunities to be enhanced through climate-informed community outreach, improved and specialised management practices, and accessibility, among other efforts. The City of Rotterdam has continued to change its approach to both public spaces and climate adaptation – serving as a continually evolving example for cities facing climate hazards, particularly those facing hydrological risks.


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