Dutch Dialogues

Originally published in USGBC+
October 24, 2014

As a young boy, Louisiana native David Waggonner’s philosophy about solving problems and creating resiliency in communities was being shaped as he watched his dad, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1960s and 1970s, deliberate with his colleagues in Congress.

Waggonner and BallJoe Waggonner, a conservative Democrat, sat on two important congressional committees—the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, which focused on the science behind getting American astronauts into space for the first time; and another—the prestigious House Ways & Means Committee—which is in charge of funding decisions for federal projects.

“Those experiences gave me the belief you can do anything if you put your mind to it,” asserts David Waggonner, a well-respected, New Orleans-based architect now in his sixties and a founding partner at Waggonner & Ball, an architectural firm regarded for its expertise in adaptive reuse and historic preservation. “Using science is big in the resiliency projects I’m working on now, but you also have to have a mechanism to pay for it.”

When young David Waggonner wasn’t in Washington, D.C., surrounded by newsmakers and learning how the wheels of government and power worked, he was back in Bossier Parish in northwest Louisiana, soaking up the values of living close to the land. He spent hours playing in the woods, laying in the grass and splashing around in the water with his friends. He described living amid nature, not separate from it.

Fast forward to 2006. Waggonner is now applying those lessons learned as he plays a pivotal role in the ongoing big fix of New Orleans—the Big Easy—in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the broken levee system soon after the storm to keep water out of the city once again. But some locals—including Waggonner—are working on other aspects of rebuilding the city and region to make it stronger to withstand even more calamitous hurricanes and storms that are expected to occur in the years to come.

In Waggonner’s view, a critical factor to solving future problems was overlooked from the start after Katrina. “Understanding the root of the question about water was completely ignored,” asserts Waggonner, who became a staunch champion of reshaping the conversation about repair and was frustrated by some of the early Band-Aid solutions.

Dutch Dialogues enters the American Lexicon of Disaster

Soon after Katrina, the Dutch Dialogues came to play a critical role in jumpstarting an entirely new conversation and approach: looking at collaboration over water management as the best solution. Waggonner, as well as other key players in the region, maintains that beginning that dialogue process in 2006 ushered in a new way of problem-solving for resiliency in communities that would catch fire across the nation.


Indeed, the Dutch Dialogues initiative in New Orleans got rave reviews among professionals and government officials addressing water disaster issues. Leaders in other storm-hit and flood-vulnerable cities and regions have called on Waggonner and others engaged in the Dutch Dialogues methodology to help them replicate the same process in their locales. In addition, a new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.,—called Designing for Disaster—includes a component about the Dutch Dialogues.

When the devastation of New Orleans and the surrounding region from Hurricane Katrina was seen around the world, there was an outpouring of sympathy and aid from near and far. The Dutch, in particular, had more to offer than most other countries.

People living in the Netherlands are surrounded by water in a delta region and have suffered the harsh repercussions of flooding for centuries. They’ve experienced tremendous loss of life, destruction of land and community infrastructure, and massive disruption of economic activity. As a result, the Dutch have learned how to address the constant threat of flooding, death, and economic disaster from water, says Dale Morris, senior economist at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C., and coordinator for Dutch Water Management and Climate Adaptation in the United States.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Dutch began to change the way they looked at water management, notes Morris. “They just couldn’t keep building higher barriers,” says Morris, an American who served in the Netherlands while in the U.S. Air Force and learned the language and culture while he was there. “They figured out how they can live more naturally with the water.”

Through the Dutch Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Dutch government in early 2006 invited an American delegation, led by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, to visit the Netherlands. There, they would meet with local experts and government officials to learn firsthand how the Dutch developed sophisticated, well-integrated systems that have made them more resilient in responding to the constant threat of potential water-related disasters.

Senator Landrieu assembled a group of state and local officials, and water and planning experts who could benefit the most from those meetings abroad. Waggonner was part of that delegation.   “The Dutch are geniuses in urban design and water design,” says Waggonner. “We needed to learn from them how to talk to each other and agree on how to solve our water problem.”

In addition, the Dutch are known for how well they pool money to address water problems because everyone benefits from it. “We don’t know how to do that here,” he notes.   By all accounts, the delegation trip was a big hit. “When David came back his eyes were wide open,” recalls Mac Ball, an architect and Waggonner’s longtime partner at the firm. “He said these Dutch guys have to come over and analyze our problem and start a series of dialogues to help us tease out solutions.”

After the trip to the Netherlands, Waggonner was intent on further engaging Dutch experts. He worked closely with Dale Morris at the Dutch Embassy to develop a patented process that was ultimately named “Dutch Dialogues.” They also had lots of input from the American Planning Association, a nonprofit that provides leadership in community development.


“Simply put, the model [of the Dutch Dialogues] brings multiple disciplines together to solve vast resiliency and risk mitigation issues,” explains Morris. “As opposed to working in silos, the dialogues allow people to work across disciplines to work on problems as the climate changes. Those challenges could be about drought, flood, or water supply issues.”

Two separate Dutch Dialogues workshops took place in 2008 over several days that engaged Dutch engineers, urban designers, landscape architects, city planners, and soils/hydrology experts and their Louisiana counterparts. In the first workshop, the parties exchanged information to show each other how they addressed water issues in their separate regions. The second workshop moved the conversation further with recommendations about how to improve the way they deal with water with ideas that haven’t been tried before in Louisiana.

When the first workshop began, local players in New Orleans learned that people in the Netherlands faced similar problems living in a delta region surrounded by water, but there was a fundamental difference in their outlook. Historically, New Orleans’ leaders focused on separating people and their buildings from the water, explains Waggonner. Powerful pumping stations are located in strategic points around New Orleans that begin pumping wildly at the first accumulation of rain or any other surge of water. Making the soil so dry has had terrible consequences: the soil is largely composed of sand and because of that, wide swaths of land in the city have been sinking and creating a new set of problems, he says.

“In the Netherlands, they learned how to embrace the water and its deltas, and live with it in a smart way that’s less likely to put them under water,” adds Waggonner.

The New Orleans participants learned the Dutch work closely together to propose solutions for the greater good of society (and not just special interests), because they saw that rising waters don’t discriminate by wealth or social status, says Morris. Everyone was affected by flooding. Their outlook on problem solving was shaped by that knowledge.

The residents of New Orleans—rich and poor—learned those same truths when Katrina forced the levees to collapse and inundated extensive parts of the city with water.


However, there are real obstacles that get in the way of good collaboration in the U.S., which was discussed in the workshops. Special interests and competing government jurisdictions often obstruct collaboration that could lead to better planning for protecting communities and creating wonderful amenities to benefit everyone too, explains Morris. The Dutch have overcome many of those obstacles, he says.

Also, “the Dutch, by nature, are consensus seekers,” notes Morris. “They try to give everyone a say before making final decisions.”

In the U.S., zoning issues and jurisdiction issues come into play, which is trickier to maneuver when trying to build consensus, admits Morris. “Zoning and pumping are local issues, but dredging and navigation are federal.”   At the federal level, the goal was to look at the outer protection system of New Orleans by rebuilding the levees. Waggonner believes the federal government wasn’t paying enough attention to urban flooding issues, and federal, state, and local authorities weren’t working together to figure out how to move that water around.

“In the Netherlands, flood risk mitigation, zoning codes, drainage systems, road building, and other aspects of urban water management are integrated so they get efficient use of their dollars spent,” explains Morris.

The Dutch Dialogues gave New Orleans stakeholders a framework for constructive discussion, and brought disparate parties to the table to create synergies that otherwise wouldn’t occur, says Waggonner. In addition, Waggonner set an intergenerational element to the discussions so younger professionals and university students could participate in the process and integrate that philosophy into their work ethic as they advance in their careers.

“We have an effective network now,” says Waggonner. “The work transcends the competitive. No one is making money doing this, including the Dutch participants. We’re constantly learning from each other.”

“In the Netherlands, they learned how to embrace the water and its deltas, and live with it in a smart way that’s less likely to put them under water.” – David Waggonner

A new radical plan for water management in New Orleans

Since the Dutch Dialogues, Waggonner and others have been working hard at coming up with funding for designing new plans for water management, and even larger pots of money that will be necessary to implement any of the design ideas that are approved.

Neutral Ground_FilmoreGentilly

In 2010, state and federal funds were allocated to Waggonner and Ball to lead a team of local and international water management experts to develop a Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. The in-depth plan, “Living with Water,” calls for a radically different game plan for how water should be incorporated into the city’s infrastructure.

Taking a completely different tack, the Living with Water plan recommends designing a new system within the levees that doesn’t automatically eject the water when it rains. Instead, the new ideas focus on rethinking the use of water and integrating it more into the fabric of the city.

“We want to make New Orleans consciously a water city by using surface water in the landscape,” says Waggonner. “In Louisiana, water has not been something we valued and we want to change that. Our new paradigm regarding water is to drain it, store it, and use it when we need it.”

These designs are intended to first promote safety for residents, but also establish amenities that improve the quality of life by living close to water. For example, one component of the plan reworks the canals, which currently are walled in, aesthetically unpleasing, and mostly hidden from residents, explains Waggonner. They’re used primarily as a place to push water away from residents. The new plan calls for a flattening of the canal walls, cleaning up the water, and making the edges of the canals more like a promenade for residents and visitors to have a place for walking and communing with the natural environment, he says. “What we’re trying to do is get people not to turn their backs to the water’s edge but to embrace it.”

To illustrate those ideas, Ball created a wonderful series of drawings that are intended to foster buy-in from the community because they’ll be able to visualize how these canals can transform their surroundings and draw tourists to the region, much like the High Line transformation did in New York City, he says.


“We were hired to do this study, but it took longer and cost more than any of us thought because it was very exhaustive and grounded in science,” notes Ball. “We’re hoping funding will come soon so this project can start.”   As of late summer, city officials and others were working on tapping potential funding sources, including the federal Rebuild by Design program, which was created as an initiative of the President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2013.

Waggonner, a natural leader, great networker, and sincere cheerleader for the city, was the best choice to head up the New Orleans team that collaborated with the Dutch in the workshops, concludes Morris. Aside from his fierce determination to rethink the fundamentals of water’s role within New Orleans, Waggonner knew how to tap the right experts for the local team.

“He told me there were people in New Orleans who were skeptical or were too busy to participate,” recalls Morris. “But David has a strong commitment to the city, he doesn’t give up easily, and adversity won’t stop him. The Dutch participants couldn’t succeed without the true local knowledge and participation that David brought together.”

Dutch Dialogues Beyond New Orleans

Since its inception in New Orleans, the Dutch Dialogues process has taken on a life of its own in the U.S. and elsewhere. Both Waggonner and Morris participated in a Miami workshop in August that assembled many local players to discuss how to build a team for addressing water issues. The first formal Dutch Dialogues are expected to begin there next year.

Indeed, many believe the principles and framework adopted by the federal government’s Rebuild by Design program after Hurricane Sandy was modeled after the Dutch Dialogues format.

After Hurricane Sandy, city leaders in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a coastal city hit hard by the storm, invited Waggonner as a consultant to facilitate a Rebuild by Design workshop for key stakeholders to figure out how to begin repairing its devastated infrastructure and nearby waterways. They’re moving along in the process, but will face funding challenges once they’ve devised a rebuilding plan, observes Waggonner.

“There can’t be any resiliency in Bridgeport without economic revitalization because there’s so few revenue sources there,” he notes. “You have to approach resiliency with an economic approach in mind.”

One of the segments at the National Building Museum’s “Designing for Disaster” exhibit includes a video of the Dutch Dialogues format in action as it was employed in Bridgeport during the workshop led by Waggonner. That inclusion in the exhibit is expected to give even wider exposure of the Dutch Dialogues methodology to a broader audience and spread the word further.

More city leaders around the U.S. have contacted the Dutch Embassy and are eager to engage in their own flavor of Dutch Dialogues, says Morris. Some potential cities and regions in line for future collaborations include Norfolk, Virginia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta in California. However, none of those will move forward until the right people are selected to lead the charge locally, notes Morris.

“We have to make sure there are good local partners,” says Morris. “We have to find the right David Waggonners in those places and we don’t have them just yet.”

Despite Waggonner’s considerable contribution to facilitating the Dutch Dialogues in New Orleans and elsewhere, he’s humble about his place in the important conversation bubbling up around resiliency in our cities and communities. “The scale of this ship is bigger than me; I’m just trying to be a voice in the chorus,” he insists.   “We don’t have the luxury of a 20-year feedback cycle,” he continues, with a tone of urgency in his voice. “If you want to combat climate change and be more resilient, we need to experiment at a much faster rate and the Dutch Dialogues can help us do things the right way the first time. I’ve learned that it’s always better to spend more time planning upfront—measure twice and cut once.”

Integrated Living Water Systems

The integrated living water system is the basis of the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. It is a new model for managing stormwater, surface water, and groundwater collectively, rather than as isolated phenomena. It works to slow, store, and use stormwater in order to reduce the region’s dependence on pumping, and it provides for the circulation and recharge of surface water and groundwater. The Urban Water Plan describes seven characteristic elements that join together the capacity of existing systems with those of the region’s open spaces, soils, plants, and wetlands.


1. Small Scale Retrofits. Interceptor streets on high ground (backslope neighborhoods) are a critical subset of small scale retrofits. Running perpendicular to the flow of water, interceptor streets function as speed bumps, absorbing and slowing water as it moves downslope, in order to alleviate localized flooding and lessen the load on drainage systems downstream.

2. Circulating Canal. In the region’s bowls and lowlands, circulating canals sustain local habitats and recharge groundwater. During wet weather, they continue to serve as drainage conduits. Circulating canals with flowing water and improved banks can be beautiful public spaces, as seen in this example from the Netherlands.

3. Strategic Parklands. Strategic Parklands are multi-acre areas located at key junctures of the integrated living water system that are designed to contain vast quantities of stormwater during heavy rains and provide invaluable open space and recreational amenities. Wally Pontiff Park in Jefferson Parish is an example of an existing parkland.

4. Waterfront Development Zones. Waterfront Development Zones around key waterways and parklands anchor the development of higher-density, multi-use districts defined by urban water assets. Shown is a multi-use development along the Industrial Canal.

5. Integrated Waterworks. Integrated waterworks are the water treatment plants, drainage pumps, siphons, sluices, and gates that draw, redirect, and filter stormwater, surface water, groundwater, drinking water, sewage, and industrial wastewater. They are the engines that establish the flows of the living water system. Shown here is a weir in City Park.

6. Integrated Wetlands. Wetlands located within strategic parklands and distributed throughout the region store and filter both stormwater and dry weather flows. Existing wetlands are restored with treated wastewater and filtered stormwater.

7. Regional Monitoring Networks. Surface water and groundwater provide system managers with real-time data that are necessary to address immediate drainage needs and long-term trends in water levels and water quality, and to maintain higher water levels without compromising safety.

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