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A tale of two river cities: Locals and Dutch examine climate change and our rivers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 23, 2012: In the last few years, the Mississippi River has given us floods and droughts, devastating highs and devastating lows. 

"We so often associate climate change with coastal cities, and we don’t often associate a change in the middle part of the country," said John Hoal, head of the master of urban design program at Washington University. 

But those changes exist.

In about 12 months time, he said, there have been a major flood and a major drought, retrofitting of the river to get barges through, levees blown up, farmland flooded.

"This is not just: do you believe in science or do you not believe in science," said Hoal, a former director of urban design for St. Louis. 

The river has changed. "That’s a reality now," he said. "So let’s talk about it."

The Mississippi is the world’s fourth-longest river.I t drains 31 states (or 40 percent of U.S. landmass) and is a primary channel for agricultural exports, according to a statement about the conference. But the region's recent volatile climate — the 2011 floods followed by 2012 drought — threatens the use of the river and adjacent lands.

Beginning today and lasting through Monday, a symposium of experts from the Midwest and the Netherlands will consider different strategies for adapting to the changing conditions of the Midwest’s rivers.

The conference, "MISI-ZIIBI: Living with the Great Rivers," is being hosted jointly  both the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University and the Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C.

On the local side, the conference is bringing together people who work in regional planning, river and port transportation, agriculture, recreation and the environment, said Derek Hoeferlin, an assistant professor of architecture at Washington University. Those stakeholders include people from Heartland Conservancy, CityArchRiver, the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council, and the East West Gateway Council of Governments.

Also present will be landscape designers and architects from the Netherlands, who will begin the symposium by learning more about the Mississippi and its specific issues, before spending the weekend in panel discussions and scenario-planning workshops.

The polder method

The concept for the process came from a project Hoeferlin worked on in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which came to be known as "Dutch dialogues."

Through that process, Hoeferlin worked with Dale Morris, senior economist for the Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C. As the extreme weather of the last year unfolded, the two teamed up with Hoal to bring the Dutch dialogues to this stretch of the Mississippi. 

The process uses the Dutch approach of collaborating among many disciplines and interest groups until a solution is reached, known as the polder method. That method was used in New Orleans, Morris says, with great success. 

And in bringing in Dutch counterparts, there’s also the ability to share not just a specific way of approaching problems but also the knowledge held by other river city dwellers.

The Mississippi is nothing like the waterways with which the Dutch are used to dealing, Morris said, and that’s part of the attraction, too.

There’s more water variability, and it’s much bigger, and the prospect of learning about it has the Dutch coming for the conference excited and humbled, he says.

Their approach will reflect how they view their own waterways, he said, which isn’t about fighting the river but living with it.

River towns

Hoal predicts changes in the rivers over the next 50 years. Just what they’ll be, he and the others at this weekend's symposium can’t exactly say, but they can talk through a variety of scenarios that, he and the other organizers hope, will serve as the beginning of a collaborative discussion. 

Broad themes over the weekend include:

  • issues of farming, where a zone from the the Melvin Price lock and dam to the Illinois confluence will be examined;
  • urban density and flood risk, looking at an area from the Missouri confluence to Interstate 270;
  • and opportunities in suburban zones to make them more resistant to flooding and drought, including land from Earth City to the Chesterfield Valley.

Conservation, economic vitality and viability, farming and communities will all be part of the discussions.
"This is not about floods," Hoal says. "This is about a much bigger set of relationships."

On Friday at 6:30 p.m., Morris, along with two landscape architects and designers from the Netherlands will present the keynote speech, which is free and open to the public. The talk examines the "Room for the River" program, an eight-year and $3 billion project along the Netherlands’ Rhine-Meuse Delta. The conference will conclude on Monday with a series of public presentations from the working groups, as well as a presentation by Rachel Jacobson, the Department of the Interior’s acting assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.

The goal of the weekend isn’t to walk away with solutions, Hoal says, but to start the dialogues.

That could lead to more workshops, Hoeferlin says, where participants have the opportunity to get more detailed and specific. 

And the entire process is one Hoal thinks can be a prototype for other cities, big or small, as they face their own issues along the midwest’s rivers.

Even if numerous symposiums occur and offer solutions, is there the political will to make them happen?

Yes, Hoal thinks, when you look at the multiple billions of dollars it could take to maintain and fix the state of things as they are along the river. He thinks that political will to make necessary changes to adjust to climate change along the Mississippi will come when possibilities are offered that make it possible.

"We have to find a better way to do this that is more economically viable, more environmentally sound," he said. 

Hoeferlin agrees. 

"I’m an architect, so I’m an optimist," he says. "I believe in this, we all believe in this."

The political will to make real and lasting changes along the river will come, he thinks, when good ideas for the problems that exist come.

"Just talking about things isn’t gonna get things to change."

Kristen Hare