On September 29-30 the IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology) hosted a two-day conference devoted to innovation in waterfront and brownfield development, and to associated architecture, design and sustainable policy development. The conference subtitle was 'Learning from the Dutch Experience', and understandably, participants focused on the transfer of knowledge from one country (NL) to the other (US) through presentations and panel discussions.

The majority of conference topics and presentations were helpful in better understanding waterfront development and establishing a more harmonious relationship with the environment.  The panel that seemed most timely, 'Living Below Sea Level', focused on differences in national policy between the two countries when it comes to this hotly debated issue. The ‘success’ of one policy and the ‘failure’ of the other were highlighted. This panel was added to the conference to address the situation in New Orleans caused by the recent Hurricane Katrina.

The panel speakers in this session were: Dico van Ooijen (Sr. Advisor for Dikes/Dams, Department of Water Management); Peter Torbijn (Director of National Spatial Planning Policy); Larry Prather (Asst Director of Public Works, US Army Corps of Engineers); and Wayne Troyer (architect, New Orleans).

Wayne Troyer painted a picture of the current situation in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA). This was followed by a brief Q&A session moderated by Tracy Metz. It was informative enough but unfortunately most of what was said was common knowledge by then and familiar from newspapers. As sincere and hopeful as Wayne was, he refrained from developing any thoughts on how to move forward with planning and reconstruction. He argued that the next steps are not for architects but for politicians and planners – a fair and common opinion but completely unhelpful to the discussion, and rather distressing too.

The next presentations, from the two Dutch representatives and their US counterpart, didn’t concentrate on the unique technological gift of the Dutch in dealing with flooding. Rather, they pointed out differences in national policy and, more specifically, they addressed the question, ‘whose issue is it to deal with?’ The alarming number of people threatened by flooding in the Netherlands keeps the issue on the national agenda.

The situation in the US is different, since only a minority of the population face even the possibility of floods. This lack of engagement among US citizens has obviously killed off any chance of generating a significant and sustained debate on how best to deal with the threat. Dico van Ooijen and Peter Torbin subtly stated that the Dutch national policy on flood control is highly successful, which was all the more apparent when contrasted with US policy as outlined in the factual but enormously undercooked presentation by Larry Prather. He characterised the evolution of the debate in the US from controlling flooding to minimising property damage and admitted that this policy was to blame for recent high-profile failures in the south. He admitted that economics had largely reduced the national response to a discussion of costs versus benefits.

Of course every national dialogue will be set in a ‘cost-benefit’ context but the failings of the US response became very clear when set next to the Dutch approach. Prather finished, without irony, by sharing the view that perhaps we should consider flooding less in economic terms so that we can allow for a re-evaluation of the priority of human life. No matter how strange it was to hear a presentation about a policy whose shortcomings are so glaring yet without any interest in change, it was even more alarming to hear the end of his presentation.

Larry Prather concluded with a short aside about the role of environmentalists in the current NOLA crisis. Through their reluctance to allow development along the delta, he said, they actually increased the devastation caused by the recent hurricanes. Yet the reality of the situation suggests the opposite and calls for a wider discussion about the national (US) tendency of sidelining environmental concerns and then framing them as the culprit when things go wrong.

The concluding panel discussion offered no new information other than an agreement by all four that it is unreasonable to expect a national response in the US that is as focused as that provided by the Dutch. Yet it was admitted that without such a response, the problems faced by the US will most likely continue.

After an entire day focusing on national approaches to flooding and living with water, all that emerged as ‘new’ information was unfortunately ‘old’ and familiar. The message was that by paying careful and constant attention to an obstacle you can learn to live with it. The conference was at its best when it raised awareness of the fact that that the US doesn’t need to obtain ‘secret’ technical knowledge from the Dutch but simply to pay attention. At which point in the day you realise that the whole NOLA crisis could have been averted if only we really ‘wanted’ to. Unfortunately, this knowledge is no comfort, since the eerie question that still needs answering is, ‘Why doesn’t the US want to pay attention?’