Designed By Water: Keywords


At the 2020 Shenzhen Design Week, the Netherlands, Guest Country of Honor, presents to the public “Water as Leverage for Sustainable Development: A Call to Action by Design” with a rich collection of pictures, documents, projects, and multi-media works to showcase the Dutch legacy of living with and by water, along with centuries of practice of the Dutch in terms of water-related design, urban development, and landscaping. The exhibition focuses on the compelling approach to water by the Netherlands, which functions as the fundamental path of ingenuity, collaboration and design for centuries. By linking different layers of dialogue and interactions between humankind and nature, the exhibition tells a vivid story of the evolution and problems regarding water facing the country, and gives a clear thread on their efforts in discussing and finding innovative solutions.

The exhibition displays but also questions people’s lifestyles. Such a way of presentation allows the public to access and learn about the knowledge of water and water affairs through the exhibition, exchanges, and projects, to understand the link between ingenious design and environmental improvement, and to see the Dutch approach to the urgent crises and challenges.

We have selected some keywords from the exhibition collection to give a more direct narration of Dutch wisdom. We aim to inspire our readers regarding the relations between nature and cities from the perspectives of our day-to-day life, climate and geographic features, and historical and political development, and engage you in in-depth discussions, which, we believe, is the key to promoting the awareness of our citizens.


River Deltas

A river delta is an alluvial plain created from continuous deposits of sediment at the estuary of a river. But deltas around the world do not necessarily take the shape of a triangle, and the term no longer represents its appearance. In pre-historic times, deltas played an important role in human civilization. The advancement of agricultural technology gave rise to the splendid civilizations at the delta areas of the Nile, and the plane between the Tigris and the Euphrates. In recent years, scientists have used computer-based simulations to restore the formation of delta deposits that usually take hundreds of years to accumulate, in order to understand the dynamism of deltaic areas and seek evidence-based, eco-friendly approaches to water challenges.


The Delta Works

In the southwestern part of the Netherlands stands an immense engineering miracle, designed by Dutch engineer Johan van Veen, to protect the country from floods. The Delta Works connects the islands with dykes and cuts off the bay at the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta from the sea to form several large fresh-water lakes. The total length of the dykes is 30 kilometers. The project started not long after the catastrophic flood in 1953, and was completed in 1986. After the completion of the project, the freshwater from the rivers has gradually replaced the salty seawater inside the dykes. Eventually, the area will be free from the suffering of the North Sea, which it has suffered from for thousands of years.



Throughout history, major disasters have regularly affected the Netherlands, including violent storms, dyke breaches and floods. The St. Elizabeth’s flood in 1421 had a huge impact on western Holland. Currents in the delta changed course as a result of this storm. The dykes and polders (low-lying land that has been reclaimed and is protected by dykes) had to be partly reconstructed. The Zuiderzee, an inland sea, is centrally located in the Netherlands. During the flood of 1916, the dykes around the Zuiderzee burst, leading to disastrous consequences. After this disaster, an old plan to dam the Zuiderzee was carried out. Disaster struck again in 1953, when exceptionally high sea levels led to massive dyke breaches and almost 2,000 deaths. For centuries, major catastrophes and natural disasters in the Netherlands have led to innovations in water management. Ultimately, the innovations are catastrophe-driven.


Dutch Waterboards

Ever since the first dykes were built in the Netherlands, consultation and collaboration have been used as strategies to realize and maintain this great engineering practice. The water boards, which are responsible for water management and safety, are the oldest form of democratic governance in the Netherlands. The water boards still exist and have a democratically elected leadership.


Dutch Windmills

For centuries, the battle against the water was fought by means of the manual construction of dykes and the use of windmills. The mills pumped the water from the polders with a scoop wheel or an auger. In this way, lakes could be pumped dry and rainwater was drained from low-lying areas.



The landscape north of Amsterdam historically consisted of large lakes. These were pumped dry by order of wealthy Amsterdam entrepreneurs, as this is how they invested their assets. By means of dykes, canals and windmills, large and deep lakes could be kept dry by dividing them into a number of smaller lakes, called polders. The windmills were placed one in front of another, in order to drain the polders in stages.


Dutch Cheese

Dutch cheese is a kind of fresh cheese that contains curd and has a soft texture. The entrepreneurs who invested in the construction of polders built their country estates there. The fertile soil was ideal for agriculture and stock farming, which led to the birth of a new artificial landscape for people’s exploitation, leisure and entertainment. Alkmaar, a city that was once surrounded by water, became the trading center for the sea of green. Nowadays, the age-old cheese market is a major tourist attraction.


The Afsluitdijk

The Afsluitdijk (enclosure dam) dates from 1932 and dams off the Zuiderzee from the sea. Thus, a large lake in the heart of the Netherlands was created. The water changed from salty to fresh. The Afsluitdijk created security, freshwater reserves, and the opportunity to create a completely new province on what was originally the bottom of the Zuiderzee.

Flooding Rivers

In 1993, rivers became the source of disasters. Climate change and the rapid urbanization of the water catchment areas of the Dutch rivers produce greater peak loads at high tide. Over a short period of time, large quantities of water flow from Germany, Switzerland, France, and Belgium to the Dutch delta. The disaster in 1993 was narrowly avoided as the central part of the country was in danger of being flooded by the rivers. A new water plan became an urgent necessity. An important principle of the program, “Room for the Rivers”, was to always link water safety to spatial quality, social issues and economic or ecological improvement – entirely in line with the age-old Dutch tradition. The river courses were widened and deepened, and larger space was created on land to allow controlled flooding of the rivers in exceptional cases.


Flood Safety

Multiple measures had been adopted through the program, “Room for Rivers”, including emergency drainage, river bypass and DIY dykes. The program has also created numerous linking opportunities for agriculture, recreation, heritage and spatial quality, such as the development of marinas and the waterfront areas. One of the most visible results is the enormous benefit to nature and ecology in the river area.


The Dutch Approach

The Dutch approach to living with water has become an important national export product. The idea is not necessarily to implement copies of Dutch delta solutions elsewhere, but to use the knowledge generated by Dutch experts as the basis for appropriate solutions in other areas facing water challenges.


Water in Shenzhen

The city of Shenzhen is situated in the south of Guangdong Province and features 11 river water systems and a total of 189 reservoirs. With a subtropical maritime climate, Shenzhen has an average annual rainfall of 1935.8 mm, 85% of which mainly falls from April to September.


Shenzhen & The Netherlands
Dutch creative minds and offices are also working on key challenges for Shenzhen, such as coastal protection, waterfront development, battling surface water pollution, and the general improvement of urban quality by embedding the water issues into wider urban design practice.