For centuries, the Dutch have built higher and higher dikes to keep waters at bay in a country where 55 percent of housing is located in areas prone to flooding. But climate change has convinced them this approach will no longer work, so the country is embarking on a mammoth task of moving dozens of dikes back to make room for swelling rivers.

Now the oldest city in the Netherlands is being hailed for its plans to move the country's biggest river, building more efficient flood defenses and at the same time creating more sustainable urban living space.

The city of Nijmegen's "Room for the River" plan has received the "Excellence on the Waterfront Honor Award 2011" from the Washington, D.C.-based Waterfront Center for combining flood safety with construction of a riverside park with the close involvement of the local community.

"We are proud that Nijmegen now features on this list of world cities," said Ingwer de Boer, "Room for the River" program director. "The award demonstrates that Dutch water management expertise remains a powerful factor at international level. We're improving flood safety and giving a new lease of life to these areas."

The €359 million ($460 million) project involves pushing a dike 350 meters inland, digging a new channel for the river Waal and thus creating a new island and an urban river park in the heart of Nijmegen.

The river Waal bends sharply near Nijmegen and narrows to form a bottleneck prone to floods. A dike exists, but high water levels in 1993 and 1995 that prompted the evacuation of 250,000 people convinced authorities that climate change required additional measures.

Giving up on higher dikes
"After 800 years of building dikes, we've been making them higher and higher," said Gert-Jan Meulepas, project manager at Royal Haskoning, an engineering and environmental consultancy that developed the project. "But if something goes wrong, the damage will be greater."

After the floods in the 1990s, the government decided to no longer raise the dikes, but move them back. "We need to remain flexible in adapting to climate change, so now we try to remove the bottlenecks," Meulepas said.

In the early stages, there were 100 spots identified around the country where flood defenses may need an upgrade, and 39 have been selected for construction. One criterion was stakeholder involvement from local people and government authorities. The local government has the opportunity to change the waterfront, and the work is paid for by the national government.

"The Netherlands decided, as a national strategy, to deal with water in a different way, and the total budget is €2.2 billion [$2.85 billion]," Meulepas said. "The project has two goals: to increase safety and to add a spatial quality to the area around the rivers, reconnecting our country to the rivers." Royal Haskoning is working on half of the 39 projects, including four of the major ones.

Digging at Nijmegen will start next year. The dike, island and new channel are expected to be completed in 2016, with further development to follow, including building two new bridges, extending an existing one and constructing new housing and recreation space.

The 2,000-year-old city will change drastically as a result, but developers took care to respect cultural and historical elements such as former fortresses and locations of dike breaches, which were fitted into the design.

The channel will be 150 to 200 meters wide and 3 kilometers long. It will be dug after the dike has been moved back and will divert part of the Waal during high water, allowing for a larger discharge at the river bend in Nijmegen, which will reduce the chance of flooding. The channel will also be used for rowing and sailing, and will create an island in the Waal and a unique urban river park with possibilities for recreation, culture, water and nature.

Floating ideas, negotiations and restaurants
The project has also meant demolishing around 50 houses, which required negotiations and compensation for the property owners under the Netherlands' eminent domain laws.

"Local people who had to leave their houses were against it," Meulepas said. "Most received money as compensation; some wanted land somewhere else instead, so the government gave it to them. Five or six property owners are still negotiating at the moment."

With the necessary demolitions, the involvement of the local people became even more important.

"We had many discussions with people living there on how to make the waterfront better," Meulepas said. "It was important for them to participate, and it became their own plan."

Locals asked for floating restaurants and a marina in the new channel. On the new island, they wanted a huge area dedicated to concerts in the middle of an open nature area.

"We used the former flood plains to create a park," Meulepas said. "We put up sculptures designed by local people. We designed the new bridges with input from the people."

One bridge will be reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists and will link the western part of the new island with a future urban district named Citadel. A second new bridge will be open to cars, pedestrians and bikes and will connect the island with a new quay.

The quay will be a cobblestoned slope that gradually disappears into the water, with space for walking, biking and numerous cafes with outdoor seating with views of the river and a new marina.

The new island will serve as the rejuvenated heart of the city.

"Before, the city was mainly located on the south bank of the river," Meulepas said. "Now the city center will grow by a third, extending to the north. The river will run through the city, instead of along the city."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500