How the Dutch built cities on sinking land

The Netherlands literally means ‘low country’ and for good reason too. Only about 50% of the country sits above sea level and the lowest part of Holland is a whopping 6.7metres below sea level. But what do you do when you live in a sinking country? Well, you build anyway! But you build innovatively with canals, dikes, walls and dunes. 

Map detailing what parts of the Netherlands is below sea level. Source: Jan Arkesteijn/Wikipedia

The Dutch versus the sea

There is an old Dutch adage that goes “while God created the Earth, the Dutch created the Netherlands”. Dutchies essentially built their country on top of the ocean through a variety of hydro-engineering techniques.

This has lead to the Dutch becoming leading experts on water management and engineering.  Many other cities around the world now consult Dutch firms for advice on climate change and city building.

There is so much we could say about how skillful the Dutch are at conquering land (wink) but here is a quick summary about how the Dutch actually built their cities on the sea

#1 Building a wall

The Dutch built walls around a body of water they wanted to turn into land. Once this wall was in place, they would erect windmills next to the wall and would utilise the spin of the windmill to pump the water out of the land to dry it up. 


#2 The “Afsluitdijk” 1932 win 

The Dike

In 1932 the Dutch separated the North Sea just below the Dutch islands by building a giant dike. This barrier which stretches over 32km then created a lake on the other side of the dike. Never heard of a dike? Well simply put, it is a barrier erected to regulate or hold back water.

The Afsluitdijk. Source: Roger W/Flikr

A before and after map

The following map compares the Netherlands before 1932 and after when the dike was built between Noord Holland and Friesland. You can clearly see the barrier that was built to keep the North Sea out.

Cities built on top of the lake

After the lake was created, the Dutch began building cities on top of it and resulted in the establishment of an entire new province entitled ‘Flevoland’.

Going the extra mile

The Dutch didn’t stop there however. They decided to go the extra mile and prettify the dike by lighting up the “Afsluitdijk” gates in the dark with each passing car.

Roosegaarde, who designed the project for the Dutch government, said: “The Afsluitdijk stands for a piece of Dutch courage and innovation. By adding a subtle layer of light and interaction we’ve strengthened the beauty of the dike and created a new connection between man and landscape, dark and light, poetry and practicality.”

#3 Canals

The Dutch created many canals which helped control the water flow from their reclaimed land.

For example in Amsterdam, the canals serve as both a moat and a dam for the Amstel River on which on the city sits next to. Amsterdam is has three main canals (Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht) that form a circular canal belt around the city. These were built in the 17th century, also known as the Dutch Golden Age. The land that was dug up in the process was then used to create a barrier for the streets where houses were built.

They also made their cities very accessible by boat and is why Amsterdam it colloquially known as Venice of the north.

Canal in Delft. Source: djedj /pixabay

Filmmaker investigates how the Dutch overcame the Netherland’s low lying land

Johnny Harris is a filmmaker and journalist based in Washington DC who works for He travelled to the Netherlands to understand how the Dutch built their cities to avoid becoming submerged by water.

Check out his detailed YouTube video here:

But the dutch aren’t perfect..

A lot of the time we sit back and read about Dutch ingenuity with awe. But no nationality can be perfect. In 2002, construction started on Amsterdam Zuid-Noord metro line. 15 years later it was completed but it quickly became evident that Amsterdam’s precarious historical underground was a less than stable foundation for the new metro line. The result? Houses built above it literally began to fall into the earth.

Residents were forced from their homes, and even after the line opened ten years later most of the buildings were still empty. This was a massive Dutch fail!

Crooked houses in Amsterdam vulnerable to the sinking land. Source: pixabairis/Pixabay

The challenges of climate change

Climate change brings new challenges as tides are rising and storms are getting fiercer. Instead of denying that climate change is real like Trump, the Dutch are taking a seemingly counterintuitive approach by letting water in. That means devising lakes the water can spill into. 

Some experts are hopeful that the Dutch can cope with climate change..

Henk Ovink, head of International Water Affairs, tells NY Times ““We need to give the rivers more places to flow. Protection against climate change is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and the chain in our case includes not just the big gates and dams at the sea but a whole philosophy of spatial planning, crisis management, children’s education, online apps and public spaces.”

Arnoud Molenaar, the chief resilience officer for Rotterdam says we must start small “like getting people to remove the concrete pavement from their gardens so the soil underneath absorbs rainwater”, NY Times reports. 

And others are more sceptical..

Michiel Helsen, a physical geography and climate change lecturer at Hogeschool Rotterdam thinks we need to seriously consider the future of the Netherlands. He questions “Is living below sea level still a responsible option? In the long run, we may not be able to save the west of the Netherlands. It seems sensible to me for society to discuss which parts of the Netherlands we’re prepared to defend, and at what cost.”

Is it empowering to know we can make small changes like removing concrete from our gardens which drastically helps or unrealistic? What did you think of this article? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section! 

The post How the Dutch built cities on sinking land appeared first on DutchReview.