The Netherlands is a common case study–and top exporter–of coastal resiliency. And for good reason: Catastrophic floods have threatened the country for centuries, a technical and social challenge that the Dutch have learned to live with over the years.
In the flood-prone city of Nijmegen–one of the country’s oldest towns sited along the Waal River–water levels can rise more than 12 feet in a span of 5 to 12 days each year, according to Michel Schreinemachers, a partner at NEXT Architects. That variance is what inspired the firm, in collaboration with H+N+S Landscape Architects, to design the Zalige footbridge with a subversive and dynamic presence.
Originally commissioned as part of Room for the River, a nationwide, government-sponsored series of infrastructure projects designed to better accommodate flooding, NEXT was tasked with creating a bypass off the northern bank of the Waal that would access a new recreational island within an urban river park. The program, budget, and site were all set in stone–but rather than devising a way to forgo the city’s floodplain, the architects built the walkway to coexist directly within it.
“Bridges are part of the broader landscape or urban fabric. They connect to the different issues that are at play in a given location,” says Schreinemachers, who specializes in infrastructure and also designed the Lucky Knot bridge in Changsha, China. “In the case of the Zalige bridge, it is about our relation to water.”
When the water level rises, the bridge’s concrete-block pavers become partially submerged, making the walk across a bit like a game of hopscotch. It’s a playful design crafted for user experience, in which the visitor is made to pause, note, and even appreciate the water level.
“It was important to design something that would strengthen people’s experience of the environment in a positive way,” adds the architect, particularly for the residents of Nijmegen, which evacuated a quarter of a million people in the wake of a flood in January 1995.
The Zalige, which has been open since March 2016, faced its biggest test last week. As the city anticipated its highest water level in 15 years, the bridge’s fully submerged blocks became a point of excitement and conversation among locals.
“Hundreds of people came out to see and walk over the stepping stones. People are eager to use the bridge,” says Schreinemachers–apparently, even when instructed not to. “Due to the high water, authorities had closed off the area with a fence and a sign of no entry. People just made their way past it on their own risk because they really wanted to experience the landscape and the high water from the bridge. We succeeded in making something that really speaks to people’s imagination.”
The project is yet another case study demonstrating how the Dutch have learned to adapt and live with water, emphasizing public engagement in the process. Along the 85-year-old Afsluitdijk levee, which stretches 20 miles along the Dutch coastline, creatives are using its current renovation as an opportunity to present a public showcase of artworks that frame the structure as a “smart landscape.”
“Living with water is not seen as a struggle with nature anymore,” says Schreinemachers. “The idea that keeping water out is the only thing we need to do is losing ground in favor of an approach whereby the water is welcomed, brought in, and given more space.”