Dutch envoy unleashes flood of ideas

Henk Ovick addresses the Rice School of Architecture.

Henk Ovink addresses the Rice School of Architecture. Photo by Tami Andrew

Rice School of Architecture hosts water management expert for talk, roundtable on Houston’s future

Without collaboration in times of disaster, chaos rules. Henk Ovink told Rice School of Architecture (RSA) students that without collaboration in advance of disaster, chaos is inevitable.

Ovink, the Netherlands’ special envoy for international water affairs, brought to Rice his vision of how the collaborative energy and imagination of architects, engineers, politicians and citizens can help the planet not only prepare for but thrive in a future that he and many others believe will be dominated by the dictates of a changing climate.

Ovink delivered the last of RSA’s synthetic-themed spring lecture series April 4 at Anderson Hall. In her introduction, Dean Sarah Whiting characterized remediation projects as necessarily synthetic, as they are at once synthetizing efforts from multiple disciplines and are artificial insertions in anticipation of or in response to nature. Ovink approaches each community and its issues organically, but with a synthetic manner.

Ovink: "For the next decade and the decades beyond that, water will rule the top of the list of crises that are impacting us."

Ovink: “For the next decade and the decades beyond that, water will rule the top of the list of crises that are impacting us.” Photo by Tami Andrew

Rising water is a long-term threat that needs to be dealt with now, Ovink said. “The World Economic Forum put water crises as the No. 1 risk for the next decade. What’s interesting is that failure to adapt and mitigate these risks is No. 2, extreme weather events No. 3 and food crises No. 4. All of these are related to water.

“So for the next decade and the decades beyond that, water will rule the top of the list of crises that are impacting us.”

Ovink speaks from long experience as a native of the Netherlands, where expertise in managing water is an ancient and ongoing part of the culture. He has worked around the world with large and small communities where water presents what they perceive as a problem – and what he sees as an opportunity.

The envoy, the subject of a New York Times Magazine feature last year, has built a presence in the United States since volunteering to help strategize on remediation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the East Coast in 2012. In his role as an adviser to former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, Ovink helped form a plan that connected and sought input from all the neighboring communities in New York and New Jersey that were affected by Sandy, one of the most destructive storms in the nation’s history.

Ovink characterized Sandy as a Trojan horse that enabled the task force to develop systems and communications to manage crises. “We needed a process that was different,” he said.

Along with its role as the federal government’s crisis response team, the task force was charged with thinking about storms to come. “It was the task force and the president who said, How can we leapfrog to the future?” Ovink said. “Instead of only repairing, only rebuilding, only bringing aid to this region, can we prepare this region as an example for other places in the U.S. and perhaps the world?”

Part of that was the formation of Rebuild by Design, which started as a competition to gather ideas for remediation in Sandy’s wake and – no accident – has taken on a life of its own. Ten teams were chosen from 148 international applicants to embark upon three months of intense research into strategies that would not only help the region recover and prepare but could also be replicated by other communities.

Ovink described several of the projects that came about as a result of the competition, including the concept of a “Big U” around Manhattan to protect its neighborhoods from floods and storm waters; a rethinking of New Jersey’s Meadowlands to expand the restoration of protective marshlands and add recreational value to the expanse; and a comprehensive strategy to help Hoboken, N.J., survive future flash floods and storm surges.

“We wanted the talent of the world to engage with us,” he said of the competition. “We wanted interdisciplinary teams from all over the world to come to New York and New Jersey and work with us and a team of partners to try to unravel the region’s vulnerabilities and interdependencies before we jumped to solutions.”

While at Rice, Ovink gave one further demonstration of his commitment to building coalitions when he joined city and county officials, architects, engineers and academics in an April 5 discussion on planning for severe weather in the region.

The breakfast roundtable moderated by Whiting started with three short presentations on strategies for design resiliency by Ovink; Jim Thompson, regional chief executive at AECOM, and Phil Bedient, the Herman Brown Professor of Engineering and director of Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center. What followed Whiting said, was a “robust start to a discussion that needs to be ongoing if we are to design a better future for Houston.”

Ovink’s lecture will be available for viewing on the RSA website at http://arch.rice.edu/Videos/.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.