AquaTerra: APA at the World Forum
on Delta and Coastal Development

By John Reinhardt

River deltas — the land masses formed where rivers flow into lakes, oceans, or other bodies of water — are some of the world's most fragile ecosystems. Although prone to flooding, land subsidence, and natural disasters (such as hurricanes and typhoons), these areas also offer unprecedented economic opportunity: fertile soil, waterways for shipping, and valuable aquaculture.

On February 10, 2009, delegates from around the world — including representatives from the American Planning Association — gathered in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, for AquaTerra, the second world forum on delta and coastal development, to share best practices and discuss the challenges associated with the sustainable development of the world's deltas.

To further complicate their importance, these land areas often serve important ecological functions: coastal protection, water quality control, and wildlife habitat, to name a few.

Given these important — and often competing — priorities, it should give pause to planners to learn that by 2015, an estimated 80 percent of the world's megacities will be located in these fragile river deltas. Smart planning will be at the forefront of striking a sustainable balance between economics, environment, and equity.

Conference organizers recognized eight important deltas for further study and review, and invited representatives from each area to share knowledge and expertise. The eight delta regions currently part of the knowledge exchange are:

  • Yellow River Delta (China)
  • Mekong River Delta (Vietnam)
  • Ganges Bramaputra Delta (Bangladesh)
  • Ciliwung River Delta (Indonesia)
  • Nile River Delta (Egypt)
  • Rhine River Delta (the Netherlands)
  • Mississippi River Delta (USA)
  • California Bay (USA)

Representatives from the United States, including APA Executive Director and CEO Paul Farmer, FAICP, shared the American perspective. Farmer spoke at a session on "Planning, Urban Design and Water: Dutch Dialogues in New Orleans," which focused on the partnership between the Dutch Embassy, the American Planning Association, and local planners and architects from New Orleans. Since 2006, these partners have convened two Dutch Dialogues — visioning sessions with design professionals from both countries — as New Orleans works to develop a water plan similar to those implemented in Dutch cities such as Rotterdam. (For more information on the outcomes of the Dutch Dialogues II, see the January 2009 issue of Planning magazine at www.planning.org/planning/2009/jan/celebrate.htm.)

Although the problems facing delta regions are varied (representatives from the Nile region, for example, spoke of the challenges of development and expansion in a region of water scarcity, while delegates from New Orleans spoke of the challenges of overabundance) delegates from every delta region stressed that finding sustainable solutions to water management is an imperative that simply cannot wait for the next generation. Climate change and sea level rise add a great unknown to the equation, and delegates were quick to point out that we can no longer rely on the models, measurements, and assumptions that have guided development decisions and risk management for decades.

The second world forum on delta and coastal development concluded with the formulation of the AquaTerra statement by AquaTerra moderators. The statement is an acknowledgement of the economic, environmental, and societal importance of delta regions and the dire need to implement best practices to improve safety, reduce risk, and restore natural habitats. The statement will be presented at the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, on March 19, 2009.

Following the conference, the U.S. delegation was given a presentation on historic and current water management in the Amsterdam area from representatives of Waternet, the organization responsible for drinking water, waste water, surface water and safety behind the dykes in Amsterdam. The following day the group heard presentations from Rotterdam city planners and toured the Maeslant storm surge barrier (part of the Deltaworks engineering projects) and RDM Campus.

In recognition that the sustainable development of delta regions will be one of the most pressing issues facing the next generation of urban planning professionals, the American Planning Association is committed to staying at the forefront of research, professional development, and public outreach regarding this topic. In addition to a continued relationship with Dutch Dialogue partners and upcoming publications, the organization will hold an International Symposium on Delta Urbanism as part of the 2010 National Planning Conference — an opportune chance to host thought leaders from around the world in the city of New Orleans. The symposium will be open to all planners seeking to learn more about this important topic.

John Reinhardt is a program associate for the American Planning Association.