Climate proof Leiden: simplicity is key

Overwhelmed by new initiatives for tackling the effects of climate change nearly weekly, I got lost within this stream of ideas a long time ago. Each time I get confronted with technically complex product designs, my initial thought about creating new techniques and designs pops up. Why do we constantly have to come up with advanced and innovative ideas, when we can achieve so much with already existing ideas and products?

Take for instance Leiden. This Dutch city, also known as Sleutelstad (Key City), is a densely built-up city and municipality in the Netherlands. The inhabitants of Leiden are quite familiar with the abundance of water in the streets after high amounts of rainfall, which is getting worse year by year because of climate change. Especially the northern districts of the city have difficulty coping with high amounts of rainwater regularly, mainly because of the low-lying area the districts are located in and the further subsidence of the houses over the years. Adaptation is therefore highly essential to adjust to the short-term effects of climate change.

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Flooding in Leiden due to heavy rainfall. Source: leidennoord.nl

A wonderful and simple invention that can easily contribute to tackling this problem is the rain barrel, a product we already use for centuries to collect rainwater. As stated by WWF, not only is the usage of rain barrels a great way to conserve scarce freshwater, it is also a simple and cheap step to reduce flooding as a result of heavy rainfall. Different sizes and materials are available when purchasing a rain barrel, but the overall rule is that it should not take any effort to connect the barrel to the downspout. Taking into account that watering your garden can account for a high percentage of domestic water consumption and that you can easily use rainwater for flushing your toilet, installing a rain barrel could possibly save you quite some money and prevent you from using much more water than necessary.

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Example of a rain barrel connected to the downspout. Source: extension.usu.edu

The municipality of Leiden has tried to encourage the usage of rain barrels in 2009 by offering free rain barrels to the inhabitants of district Groenoord-Zuid. Despite the fact that 60 households were interested in participating in this project, the municipality has not actively continued encouraging the usage. Therefore it is time for action.

Major repairs and renovations within the city will not be enough to fully adapt Leiden to the rainy effects of climate change. Collaboration and participation of the inhabitants is also required to prevent everyone from having wet feet. In fact, to prevent flood damage, more and more municipalities obligate their inhabitants to collect rainwater from their downspouts with rain barrels. An active attempt like this would suit Leiden, especially because of their past experience with the abundance of water in the streets.

The solution for the water problem in Leiden does not necessarily have to be completely technically complex. Maybe by looking for straightforward measures as the key for adaptation, a climate proof Leiden is achievable sooner than we might think.

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4 thoughts on “Climate proof Leiden: simplicity is key”

  1. I really enjoyed this blog, thank you! I think it’s interesting to see how simple, old solutions like this can fall into oblivion so easy.
    However, I’d like to place one remark. Although this rain barrel is technically really easy, I can imagine that the societal aspect, the actual implementation, can turn out to be quite hard. How will you make people use this barrel? How do you prevent people from installing a barrel like this, but not using the water, so that the barrel is always full? Those are not questions I’m asking you to answer, but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes ‘easy’ (technically spoken) solutions can be accompanied with more complex or hard issues on other aspects.
    Do you see my point? Or am I talking non-sense?

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    1. Thank you Wiljo for your comment! I definitely see your point; actual implementation is one of the hardest parts within sustainability projects and so is the case with the implementation of rain barrels. However, I think the case of Leiden-Noord is a bit different. Me and my consultancy group had the privilege to talk to Wessel Tiessens from the municipality of Leiden. He made clear that the municipality is really passionate about making Leiden-Noord climate proof. This means that they are willing to spend their money on for instance free rain barrels, which proved to be a great success in a likewise project in 2009, like I wrote in my blog. Also, the municipality is working on a new plan for Noorderkwartier-West, in which they want to actively involve the inhabitants to make the neighborhood climate proof and offer all the help the inhabitants need, for example to install rain barrels in a correct way. The fact remains that we should always keep in mind that implementation isn’t always as easy as we hope it is.

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  2. Your solution sounds very simple and logical! I really would like a climate proof leiden trough everyone having a rain-barrel. However I share the doubts of Wiljo about the ease of installing one, next to that: are there any calculations available of the impact those rain-barrels could have? I really would like to see how much it would differ compared to the situation now!

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  3. It’s really nice and simple solution, even for people like me with zero technical background. I also think you did a great job thinking of a more simple solution. You’re right by saying not all solutions need to be technically complex product designs. The pictures you used really help sketch the problem and solution.
    I do have a few questions. If every Household would have a barrel, could major floods be prevented? You mentioned using the rain water for fushing the toilet. Will connecting the barrel to the toilet be worth the investment? It only rains 7% of the time and as far as I know the toilets are connected to the clean water supply of houses, which means houses will need to be addapted for using rain water.

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