In my World History class I spend quite a bit of time teaching about Medieval Europe and the feudal triangle. During this period in history, the feudal triangle helped many people during a time of stress and war. At the bottom of the triangle were the peasants, they were protected from marauding neighbors by the knights; the Lords, who were higher up on the triangle, gave the knights land as payment for protecting the peasants. One drawback with this system was that the differing levels of society could not be breached. If you were born into a family of peasants, you and your family would always stay there, for centuries; there was no way of escaping your placement on the ladder of society. This was the method used throughout Europe to survive, except in one place - the Netherlands.
In Russell Shorto’s book, “Amsterdam: The Most Liberal City in the World” the idea of the Dutch not using the Feudal Triangle is discussed. Since most of the Netherlands is below sea level, their common enemy was not human instead it was water. The Dutch had to work together and continually fight the water so they could continue to plant and live in the Netherlands. This was a group effort for centuries so there were no levels of power within their society. Anyone could plant crops or sell land; you did not need to hold a high position to be the one to make decisions for those in the Netherlands. Anyone who was willing to help and problem solve against the ever pressing water was just as important as any leader in the country. The idea was that they all worked together against a common enemy, so EVERYONE, made a difference in how their society developed, not just those making the major political decisions. Since they saw the value in each individual and their ideas, the Netherlands respected and welcomed those who were different from themselves and appreciated their ideas. The Dutch still hold this value today.
The Dutch’s unique way of fighting water is now influencing the area of New York. Ironically, the Dutch established the Colony of New Netherlands in the 1600s, in what today is New York and the surrounding areas. The issue of the Dutch controlling water has now come full circle here. In a recent article by Russell Shorto, in the New York Times, I learned about Shaun Donovan, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the United States. President Barack Obama asked Donovan to find a solution to the New York area’s issues with severe flooding during Hurricane Sandy. He wanted Donovan to “radically rethink” the setup of the area with climate change in mind. While on vacation to Germany, Donovan decided to take a detour to the Netherlands and visit the world experts on water control. Here he met Henk Ovink who was the director of Spatial Planning and Water Management in the Netherlands. Ovink offered to come to the United States and assist Donovan with this issue of controlling the water. His idea was to help the United States “live with water not simply resist it.”
Ovink has his work cut out for him as the United States in not as open to new ideas as the Dutch have always been. As he walked along the shorelines of New York, the American engineers talked about their plans to rebuild the same walls that protected the areas, which had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Ovink asked what they would do if the walls were broken again by the water and the engineers simply answered they would rebuild them again. Ovink saw that a new thought pattern needed to be introduced. When Ovink discussed climate change, many American water management workers looked at him like he was crazy; they have not yet grasped the reality of this looming problem.
The Water Boards established in the Netherlands during the Middle Ages are a main reasons that the Netherlands established as such a cooperative society where everyone worked together. They used dams, windmills and dikes to live with the water and make land for themselves to live on during medieval times. Now faced with the effects of climate change, the Dutch have changed their strategy again. The windmills and dams are no longer effective with the new forces of water that have kept coming their way; they realized they need to once more “think outside of the box” and drastically change how their city is built to withstand water. One example is the city of Rotterdam; here they have built houses and office building that float as well as making a hole under city squares. These are mainly used as basketball courts, but when the water is high, they can be flooded with the addition runoff.
As Ovink has continued the water fight in the New York area, people have begun to listen and think outside of the box - more like the Dutch who settled the area centuries ago. However, they are still not as willing to reach out to other neighboring states affected by Hurricane Sandy; instead they have simply decided to let them figure out their own plan. Many homeowners in neighboring states are struggling to put their homes on stilts for protection from future water disasters. This is a very expensive and difficult task, especially accomplishing this one house at a time. Ovink suggested the entire area work together and help each other financially and materially to make it a more effective and affordable task. Their response was that it was too socialistic. They have not understood as the Dutch have learned, that when fighting water, you need to work together to win.
The Dutch have always been at the forefront of “weird” ideas. Things like the thought that the sun was the center of our solar system and that there are microscopic “animals" (today we call them bacteria and viruses) in us that make us ill. They have also continually worked together to tackle big problems, like the water, allowing everyone to be equal in fighting the challenge. In European museums there are portraits of kings and great leaders from the 1600s-1700s. The portraits from the Netherlands are a bit different from this time. Instead of only royalty, we see faces of the members of baker’s guilds and builders alongside the political leaders of the day.
It is hoped that the residences of New York and the United States, can take a risk on the Dutch way of thinking and work together and use different ideas to solve their water issues. As we examine a picture of New York from the Costello Plan map from around 1660, we can see that New York looked much different then it does now. When overlaid with a current Yahoo Map, it is obvious that throughout the past centuries, New York citizens have taken over a part of the water just as their ancestors from the Netherlands. It seems that things have come full circle and New York could benefit if they used their “Dutch sense” to keep the land they have claimed from the water around them and live at peace with water, as the Dutch have done for centuries.