Sustainability in Amsterdam

By Davor, Civil Engineering Major; Sophomore

            After two extremely short weeks, our time in the Netherlands has finally come to an end, as we conclude our travels in Amsterdam. We spent our final day together biking around the city that we started in, learning about what the city does to minimize its impact on the environment. Our tour guide for the last day Cornelia, did a fantastic job showing us as much as she possibly could around Amsterdam in the limited amount of time that we had. She took us through a few gorgeous green places, like down an old street that only allowed bikes and through the old industrial area that was being transformed into a creative hub (learn more about the Ceuvel here). Unfortunately, we did suffer some delays throughout the day, but I can say for sure that we all still had a great time.

The Ceuvel. Photo by Davor.

            Throughout the tour Cornelia talked about how sustainable the city of Amsterdam actually is, one of the sustainability endeavors has the city subsidizing blue and green roofs, to encourage the implementation and reduce the ecological footprint of these buildings. She also talked about how all the buildings were constructed with a communal heating system, which ran water through pipes to cool the building and heat up the water, and in the winter, in order to warm up the building they would run the hot water back through. This could never be done on a small scale because of the huge infrastructure needed to set this up, and the only reason that Amsterdam was able to this is because they own upwards of 90% of the land. That is an extremely high percent, even for Dutch municipalities, but that one aspect emphasizes the communal aspect of the county.

At the Ceuvel. Photo by Davor.

             As fair as I was able to tell, throughout this entire trip, the one aspect of that connected all of these sustainable communities was that they worked together. If there was anything from this trip that I learned and wanted to bring back to the United States would be that sense of the communities working together. 

We made it to the North Sea!

By Helene, Math; Junior

Learning about the Katwijk underground parking lot that is integrated into a sand dune (you can see a few entrances to it in the background). Photo by Kris.

We made it to the North Sea!! Today our biking was broke into two parts. First, we had a beautiful bike ride to Katwijk which was roughly 19 km from our hostel in Den Haag. The first part of this ride was through the city and varying neighborhoods, and then all of a sudden we were in the Dunes. The Dunes of the Netherlands somewhat resemble the chaparral of California – there is a lot of scruffy shrubbery, some thorny plants with lots of small leaves, and of course, sand and dune grass. This may be the most hills that we have biked so far! The bike path we took wound its way over one dune and around the next until our view opened up to the North Sea and we rolled into Katwijk – a small family town that rests just 120 meters from the ocean. Previously, the ocean was just over the dunes, lying only 90 meters from the town, but sand was brought in to extend the land and protect the town from storms and flooding. We took a tour of a parking garage that was completely integrated into the dunes and practically invisible from above ground. It was built to increase the aesthetic of the town by removing cars from the streets, and also reduced the amount of sand needed to protect the town. 
After a brief lunch and warm-drink stop in a gezellig café, we got back on our bikes an went a quick 14 km to our hostel for the night, just north of Noordwijk, tucked behind a dune. We quickly settled in, switched into our swimsuits, and biked back the way we came briefly to take a dip in the North Sea! The Sea was less than 2 km from our hostel so we zipped over and did a quick dunk before hurrying back to the hostel because a mean looking storm was blowing in fast. We made it back before the rain started and after the storm subsided a bit, we wandered across the street to a pannekoekenhuis – a pancake house! We had some lekker Dutch pancakes and returned to the hostel to do some work and recharge before watching the sun set over the ocean.

Sunset at the North Sea. Photo by Kris.

The United States Wears A Size 80 Shoe

By Jordan, Film and Television Studies; Junior

The front entrance to the University of Twente. Source: University of Twente.

Today we visited the University of Twente where we met with a handful of students and faculty to spend the day discussing risk management and the impacts of our water footprint. A footprint is defined as humanity’s impact on land, water, carbon, or other common source materials. It is measured by global production and consumption, or all human’s activities across the globe. Some people assume that because water in all forms is a part of the water cycle, that it cannot be wasted; however, water can be polluted and unusable, and therefore the resource should be utilized sustainably. Some ways that water can be governed is by setting usage caps in each water basin, limiting water usage by individual product production, or paying greater attention to water/food/energy trade-offs and how they impact one another. 

A map of the global water footprint. Source: Dr. Joep F. Schyns, University of Twente

The United States has by far the worst water footprint when compared to other developed countries — approximately 80% of the global water footprint is ours, with more than half of this being sourced from the Mississippi Basin area. We are sucking the water dry out from under our feed in order to produce the goods we enjoy, but at what cost? It was surprising to learn that the production process of just one bottle of Coca Cola leaves a water footprint of thirty-six liters. As a country who loves sugar, the impact of those plastic bottles can really add up! On average, according to a 2011 UNESCO study, the water footprint of a typical United States consumer is 7,800 liters of water per day. A large fraction of that goes into food preparation and production — about 80% (with 31% of that being meat production). Another 12% is a result of industrial products, and the remaining percentages are attributed to other production impacts. In California, the top six consumers of water are production companies for animal feed, walnut/almond factories, residential areas, rice factories, grape factories, and cotton mills. Take note on the fact that most of this water footprint is a result from food production, with the top consumer being meat costs. Beef has the largest global average water footprint — 10.2 liters per kilocalorie — followed by poultry and pork production. In the United States, because of how impactful meat is on the water source, more and more people are turning to options that result in eating less meat (such as vegan or vegetarian)  in order to reduce their personal water footprint.

After our discussion about the average American citizen’s water footprint and how big it really is, I decided to calculate my own water footprint. Using calculations from the Water Footprint Network assessment (link opens in new tab), it was determined that as a female living in the United States who eats an average amount of meat, my water footprint is 693.4 meters cubed per year. My water footprint is smaller than the global average, and meat is the food category that makes up a majority of my water footprint. As someone who wears a size five shoe, that’s a huge impact. 

My personal water footprint assessment. Source: Water Footprint Network

Suits at the Greenhouses

By Beck, Natural Resources: Ecology/ Green Building & Community Development; Senior

After our second night in Rotterdam, I woke up from the bustling street located below the Stayokay hostel. It was a dreary morning, warm, wet and sticky, not the best conditions for biking, but fortunately there were no storms so we could safely ride along the fietspad (bike path). This morning was unusual in that we actually had some time to spare before riding our bikes. So after breakfast some of the students took part in a local scavenger hunt looking for items that pertained to water management and sustainability, while others took the time to buy more food, exchange currency, etc. 

The rain was still falling when we started to bike, luckily it quickly subsided once we really got rolling. Our next location was about 16km outside of Rotterdam, a placed in Bleiswijk called Wageningen University and Research (WUR). Our plan was to tour the green houses there and learn about their sustainable horticulture research. Upon our arrival, we were met with rows upon rows of greenhouses. I have never seen anything like it in my life, it was truly fascinating. We were greeted by a nice young man named Jim, a Industrial Ecologist who had been working with the Wageningen University & Research Greenhouse Horticulture. Once we settled in, Jim told us about the Netherlands involvement in the advancement in sustainable greenhouses and how their research is leading to more efficient horticulture practices. The Netherlands is the number 1 country in in greenhouse horticulture, having about 11,000 hectares under glass. To put that into perspective, that’s about 1/93 of the country under green house glass, truly incredible!  

Before entering the greenhouses, Jim instructed us to wear these white suits that resembled hazmat suits, in order to prevent the spread of germs and disease within the greenhouses. Although the suits looked a little goofy and were hot underneath, we certainly looked official. Once we were under the glass we learned that these greenhouses served as the sources for food production as well as an area to research compartments. The research revolved around sustainability and energy efficiency. This included using low sodium rain and filtrated well water to increase the production of plant products, the use of diffused glass to spread light so every plant receives an equal amount, and much more. The company placed an emphasis on sustainability, using renewable energy to heat the greenhouses. They even set goals to increase their sustainability their aim is to have none of the greenhouses producing fossil fuels before 2020. One of the most interesting strategies they were researching was the process of taking away the cultivation from underground soil substrates. When crops are grown in open fields 30% of water is lost to the ground. The greenhouses used boxes filled with sand, covered in topsoil and watered through drip irrigation methods. Therefore the water was trapped and almost completely re-used by the plant saving the amount of water used to grow the plants. They were also practicing hydroponic techniques using Styrofoam boards to allow the plants to float over these makeshift ponds. This allowed the roots of the plants to grow into the ponds. These sustainable techniques can be utilized as weather patterns change and global temperatures continue to rise bringing pluvial and droughts to different parts of the globe. 

The crew at the Wageningen University and Research Horticulture Greenhouses. Photo by Jim vR.

Once we finished up and took our goofy suits off, thanked Jim and hit the fietspad for another 22 kilometers towards Den Haag (the Hague). The temperature had cooled down, but it was still very humid out. As we got closer to Den Haag, the roadways and paths became busier, but we were able to keep our composure and catch our train towards Hengelo. Once we were in Hengelo a group of us went to a wonderful Mexican restaurant where we feasted on fajitas and burritos while we reflected on the day’s adventures. I can’t wait for what tomorrow holds!

Greenhouse Visit

By Kelly, Environmental Studies; Sophomore

Wageningen University and Research greenhouse. Photo by Kelly.

This morning was chilly and rainy, but luckily we did not have to rush out of the cube hostel to make an early morning tour. Instead, we slept in a little more, took care of some laundry and grocery shopping, or competed in the Rotterdam Water Management and Sustainability Scavenger Hunt. This required students to find and take photos of objects or people that reflect examples of sustainability around Rotterdam. I opted for a trip to the grocery store and art store, while looking for some items on the scavenger hunt along the way. We started biking again (about an hour ride) after our day of rest for our 13:00 greenhouse tour with Jim at Wageningen University Research Greenhouse Horticulture. He was incredibly welcoming, offering coffee and tea to us as we settled in for a brief video introducing us to their mission. At their massive facility (11,000 hectares of glass houses – aka greenhouses!), their objective is for researchers to innovate sustainability through reducing the use of fossil fuels, limiting waste, energy saving, higher yields, controlling disease, and creating more appealing products for the consumers.

We put on some very stylish outfits to avoid contamination in the greenhouses – large white suits with clear shoe bag covers and hair nets – which everyone felt silly in. We strolled through the aisles of the greenhouse and learned about the ways they control different factors like temperature, sunlight, humidity, nutrients, water, pollination, ethylene, sodium, and carbon dioxide to engineer different environments for a variety of vegetation. One tool they use to diffuse light is through frosted glass windows. This blocks 1% of sunlight and eliminates any shaded areas and increases yields by 10%. I really enjoyed seeing some of my favorite foods – tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers – being grown in many non traditional ways.

My favorite stop was learning about the vanilla plant because my favorite desserts typically include vanilla and I never knew about its complex growth. I learned that vanilla is an orchid which takes 2-3 years to grow in their greenhouses but can even take up to 6 years when grown traditionally. More interesting, vanilla can only be pollinated when its flowers open up, and this only happens for about 6 hours in the morning for one day. If not pollinated during this time, the vanilla will not produce a yield.

After this, we went to another building with beautiful flowers where we concluded our tour. We then settled into our bikes once again for the 22km ride to the train station in Den Haag. The ride was about 2 hours to Hengelo and a quick walk brought us to our hotel for the night. We shared a delicious dinner at a restaurant in town before coming back for a debrief. It appeared as most of our excitement for tomorrow is surrounding our visit with Dutch university students!

Storm barriers

By Davor, Civil Engineering major; Sophomore

Group selfie.

            Today was the day we visited the largest self-operating robot in the world. Two computers operate the Maeslantkering storm surge barrier that protects the Rotterdam harbor, along with the all the residents in the surrounding areas. A true marvel of engineering, six motors on each side will push out both gates over a 30-minute period, closing off the canal when the water level rises three meters. The barrier extends over the 500 meter wide canal and sinks down 17 meters to provide a solid steel wall, closing off the canal from the raging North Sea. 

            The ability to observe the Maeslantkering with such a diverse group of individuals was a fantastic opportunity to see their perspectives. As an engineering student, the size, scale and the functioning components fascinated me, because I love knowing how stuff is constructed along with the technology used to develop it. Walking past massive steel beams 180 cm in diameter, really emphasized the size of the structure as a whole.

Standing atop a small hill nearby the Maeslantkering. Photo by Devor.
Walking nearby the Maeslantkering. Photo by Devor.

            Oosterscheldkering was the second storm surge barrier that we visited that day and it was even more massive then the first. We first visited the Neeltje Jans museums where we watched a movie about how the three-kilometer long barrier was constructed in pieces and then set in place. After the brief documentary we got the opportunity to walk along and through the barrier with our amazing tour guide Fred, who happily explained to us how the entire structure operated and all the functions That the barrier served. He explained to us the importance of the barrier allowing all the sea life to pass through and maintaining a balanced ecosystem behind the barrier, while the barrier also served its purpose of protecting the people. 

            The enthusiasm of both of our tour guides was great and the both obviously loved what their work, I couldn’t have asked for a better time. We were able to cover all the essential components of each of the barriers while playing fun interactive games in the museums, along with exploring the museums and being able to absorb all the knowledge that they these places had to offer.

Flood Defense in Hollandse Delta and Kinderdijk

By Helene, Math major; Junior

Today started with a presentation from Hans Waals who is the foreign affairs officer for the Hollandse Delta. This presentation was largely about the flood laws and defense systems in Dordrecht, South Holland. Not only did Hans tell us about the defense systems and the history of the area, but he actually took us around town and compared photographs of historic flood levels with the water levels today – there was as much as a 2 meter difference in water levels at some times! 

Hans explains the importance of flood defense in the City of Dordrecht. Photo by Kris.

After departing from our tour with Hans, we biked a quick 10ish kilometers to the Kinderdijk, a UNESCO  world heritage site based around a windmill complex. The bike ride into the Kinderdijk was beautiful – as we rounded a corner, all of the sudden the handful of small windmills on the distance multiplied until  there was a seemingly endless supply of traditional Dutch windmills in every direction you looked. After watching a short film about the history of the Kinderdijk, we walked amongst the windmills and even got to go inside of one to see how the family lived! While we were inside, the windmill was functioning so we got the full experience of hearing the sound they make and imagining life with wooden gears moving in the ceiling, as well as a rotating pole in the center of every single floor. The use of space by the inhabitants was very impressive – one family of 15 people was able to live within one windmill so there was no such thing as wasted space. In comparison, for a house in the United States, two or three people could live comfortably in the space provided by a windmill, but four or more may find it to be a little cramped, even through there technically are four floors within the one we toured.

A windmill at Kinderdijk. Photo by Helene.
Our group at the windmill that we toured. Photo by Helene.
A glimpse of the positioning of the windmills in rows so they could work together to pump water off of the land. Photo by Helene.
A view of some of the windmills at Kinderdijk. Photo by Helene.

After leaving the Kinderdijk, we biked a short ways to a water taxi, where we took a series of two boats into Rotterdam. We biked the last couple kilometers to our hostel for the night, during which we got a great preview of Rotterdam architecture. The city seems to be a blend of the typical older now European stone architecture with shockingly modern designs – including our hostel which is made up of brightly colored cubes sitting atop more conventional stone buildings!

Fun architecture in Rotterdam. Photo by Helene.

Today’s biking distance: 23.5 km (13.6 mi)

Provinces we have visited we have visited or biked through (of 12 in the Netherlands): 6

Lazy Sunday

By Elizabeth, Environmental Science; Sophomore

We started biking, pedaling toward the rising sun. The grass smelled fresh. Birds, or vogels in Dutch, were wide awake, their voices beckoned and echoed through the 6:30 am air. We biked by a huge windmill and enjoyed an impromptu photo moment. Some families in the Netherlands still run windmills. We headed to the ferry and could see the sun reflecting on the water. We left early so we didn’t have to be out in the heat.

A windmill in the Dutch countryside. Photo by Elizabeth.

We zoomed to the second ferry stop getting to appreciate the surrounding area. We were in the Biesbosch, a floodplain area that was discussed yesterday. Our tour guide Hugo had told us about various lines of defense used to prevent extreme flooding. The latest technique has been to develop floodplain zones where there is no development allowed. This area is a national park that serves as protected land for flood management, a habitat for various species, and a beautiful area for recreation. There were cormorants dotting the landscape near the edge of the marsh. 

A view from a ferry along our route. Photo by Elizabeth.

We got to the hostel early because we didn’t have a tour. As we ate lunch we discussed our thoughts on the course so far trying to recollect the main messages of the course. It was a great discussion; we built off each other’s ideas. Over the course we have been focusing first on the history of methods of water management for rivers. First the issue was the flooding of the sea until the later 1900s when rivers flooding drew attention inland. The approach to dealing with sea flooding was to build dikes. There was then a change of mindset, from wanting to fight against the water to deciding to live with the water. There was pressure to create a green infrastructure that would prevent flooding but also leave room for the river. It’s evident that the Dutch have a great sense of problem solving ability and use of space. Places have been reserved for emergency floodplains and there is strict zoning for cities, allowing for wide expanses of agricultural and natural areas.

It would be great if Americans could learn to cooperate; the difficulty is that there isn’t a shared central issue in the country. Dutch have a collective history and concern – water management. 

It’s been a relaxing afternoon, getting to rest and canoeing. It was calming to be out on the water but difficult to adjust to going against the current. The marsh was beautiful. We enjoyed a lazy Sunday! 

Learning from Hugo

By Jordan, Film and Television Studies major; Junior

‘s Hetogenbosch on a Saturday morning in June. Photo by Jordan.

We started out our morning by taking the train from Nijmegen to ‘s Hetogenbosch, which was a pretty big challenge because of how many bikes we had to fit into the little train cars. Once we arrived, we made our way to a popular market and ate fresh stroopwafels for breakfast. The St. John Cathedral featured angels in its architecture, and one of the figurines unique — one statue depicts an angel wearing jeans and talking on a cell phone — a more modern interpretation of an angel. After a brief scavenger hunt around the cathedral, we were able to find her! Our next task as tourists was to eat traditional herring, a raw fish that is gutted and covered in onions. 

Video of Binnedieze tour
Click on the image above to view a video of Binnendieze tour in ‘s Hertogenbosch. (Opens in new window.) Video by Jordan.

On our boat tour, Hugo was incredibly kind and funny, allowing us to engage in enriching conversations. Hugo’s discussion about the Binnendieze in Den Bosch and how it relates to the Water Authority really was one of my favorite presentations thus far — he took so much time out of his day as a volunteer with the museum to show us around the water system, and I think overall he just went above and beyond. In terms of the environment and sustainability, one of the things that really impacted me was when he said nature keeps surprising the citizens, so the engineers have to continue to change their plans over time. He talked about how previous natural flooding disasters have promoted water management officials to take action almost immediately, which I think is really impressive.

Click on the image above to view a video of our group biking in the Netherlands. (Opens in new window.) Video by Jordan.

Before setting off on our bikes for Waalwijk, we made a quick stop and had some Bossche bollen, a unique pastry filled with whipped cream, outlined in bread, and covered in chocolate. This definitely gave us our carbs and sugar to get us biking! I look forward to our upcoming meetings with even more folks, as their valuable knowledge will help us connect different aspects of environmental, social, and economic sustainability to water management in the Netherlands and allow us to reflect on how it is managed in the United States. 

Today’s biking distance: 20.9 km (13 miles)

Provinces we have visited we have visited or biked through (of 12 in the Netherlands): 5

Our Day in Den Bosch

By Allison, Wildlife and Fisheries Biology; Sophomore

We started off the day by biking from Amrath Hotel Bevoir in Nijmegen to the local train station. In order to get everyone from Nijmegen to Hertogenbosch or also called Den Bosch, we split up into several groups to take the inner city train. We went to the Den Bosch market which had a variety of different foods, clothing, jewelry and much more to choose from. A few of us went to Bagels and Beans for breakfast, while others got food from the market. We even bought some strawberries to share with everyone as well as raw herring with onions for everyone to try around lunchtime. To try the fish we held the tail above us looking up to eat it. Besides enjoying and trying new foods at the market, we all walked to the Cathedral. One of our goals was to find the angel who was wearing jeans!

The group got to try raw herring with onions. Photo by Allison.
Allison tries herring at the market in Den Bosch. Photo by Kris.

We then proceeded to meet up with Kris’ sister in law who lives in the Netherlands before heading to Kring Vrienden water museum. An incredible volunteer named Hugo, who was on the board of the Water Authority for eight years, gave us a powerpoint presentation about changing paradigms sustaining life along the Netherlands Great Rivers. Ten thousand years ago, the Rhine River was 120 meters lower than it is today due to the weight of the ice that was on it during the ice age. In areas of the Netherlands, remains of ancient trees and bones of mammoths that used to roam the area have been found. In 1883, the Rhine and Meuse rivers intertwined. Hugo mentioned that the Netherlands measures about 41.543 km3 and gave some statistics. Approximately 26% of land lies below sea level, 29% is vulnerable to river flooding which totals about 55% of flood sensitive territory. Early settlers lived on higher ridges and plains or ‘dwelling mounds’. In 1798, one national authority for ‘water management’ was created. One of the points Hugo made that I thought was very interesting was that the water board is non-political which is very different from the United States.

There was a 1953 flood catastrophe with over 2000 casualties. Hugo was an eyewitness to this event when he was just 7 years old (having to escape to a higher level in his home as the water came in). He explained to us that after that event, the government formed a committee to ensure that such a tragic event would never happen again. The water that flooded people’s homes and a broad area of land came from the rivers, surprising people. They were preparing for water to come from the North Sea. Some current challenges the Netherlands faces include: record heat and drought, accelerated sea level rise and salt intrusion, accelerated land subsidence and decreasing surface and ground water resources. Water museums are an important part of the past, present, and future – helping people to understand the importance of water.

Following our presentation with Hugo, he took us on a boat tour on the Binnendieze River. We went through tunnels under the city, and then went outside the city walls and observed a nature reserve that was once flooded in 1995, but now has controlled filling when needed if there is high water. We were able to get off of the boat and walk around, viewing a weir that controls water levels in Den Bosch, and seeing another area of natural land that is reserved for flood control to protect the city as well.

Boat tour through the tunnels of Den Bosch. Photo by Allison.
A nature reserve we saw along our boat tour. Photo by Allison.

For a treat after the boat tour, we went to Jan de Groot which sells pastries. We tried Bossche ballen which tasted like a chocolate covered cream puff and which was absolutely delicious. We then went back to the train station to get our bikes to head on to Waalwijk. We sampled Chinees Indisch food at a restaurant down the road from our hotel for dinner.

Boschs ballen pastry at Jan de Groot. Photo by Allison.