Kasper Spaan’s moonshot idea: Restore natural connection between water and space

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In 1962, President John F. Kennedy made an inspiring, bold speech – also known as the Moonshot Speech – that rallied the United States behind a costly but highly successful space programme in which thousands of Americans pooled their knowledge, insights and energy to put the first man on the moon. We could use some of that ‘moonshot thinking’ in water management today. To wrap up and build on the Climate-Robust Water Systems webinar series, we are asking a variety of people from the world of science and water management to share their own moonshot ideas as well as what they are doing to achieve them. This time, we spoke to Kasper Spaan:

Polite conversations about water won’t get us anywhere when it comes to finding solutions that really contribute towards a climate-robust living environment. At least, that’s how Kasper Spaan, climate change adaptation policy consultant at Waternet, sees it. Every day, he engages in discussions with anyone and everyone involved in spatial planning, looking for opportunities and possibilities. The magic word here is adaptivity. 

Tell us a bit about yourself and what drives you as a water professional

I studied ecology. Since then, I’ve worked in spatial and infrastructure development and water management. I’ve been working at Waternet for 15 years now. I started out as a spatial development consultant and now I’m a policy consultant on climate change adaptation. What I enjoy doing most is talking to partners in the spatial community and in society – because water only really gains any significance when it’s linked to other challenges. Water and climate change adaptation are becoming higher priorities, especially because water is so closely linked to other issues such as nature, agriculture, energy and housing. The water sector has traditionally been very inward-looking. Now there’s a need to think much more holistically and systemically. Building connections with other spatial actors is both crucial and interesting. That’s where you get new insights, where you have inspiring conversations, where you find the beginnings of real solutions. That’s what motivates me in my work.

What is your moonshot idea?

My moonshot idea would be to restore the natural connection between water and space. In this connection, water is the steering or guiding factor. We need to use that connection as a basis for working towards solutions in a different way, where adaptivity is at the heart of spatial design. The traditional belief in the malleability of our country is starting to work against us: we no longer know exactly what kind of country we need to build, given all the uncertainties and complexities of transition. We anticipate changing circumstances through Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest; but we should remember that survival of the fittest doesn’t mean the strongest survive – rather, those who are best able to adapt to changing circumstances.

What can be accomplished in ten years and what will we need to do to get there?

We need to quickly move away from thinking in terms of fixed realities. The environment and planning visions that are now being drawn up under the new Environment and Planning Act are, in fact, mostly adjustments to existing spatial visions and opportunity-and-risk maps. This seems to me like fixing, solidifying and consolidating. We need to learn to think in terms of flexible routes – spatial adaptive paths – rather than fixed destinations. In moving images, in films, rather than static photographs. This requires amendments to laws and regulations, to the way we make administrative decisions, but probably most of all to the way we deal with this ourselves. We will have to embrace the element of uncertainty in our own thinking and actions.

How can you as a water professional contribute to this?

By having frequent and open discussions with all parties involved in the spatial sphere – including those whom we, as water authorities, are not closely associated with – and bringing the longer-term perspective and wider interest for society to the fore. The urgency of the recent IPPC report, which refers to a ‘rapidly closing window of opportunity’, necessitates that we look beyond our own self-interest. This also means daring to ask each other the kinds of questions that respond to the complexity of the spatial jigsaw puzzle – a puzzle that we in the Netherlands have to solve together. So, let’s look for the answers together!  

And as an individual?

I have solar panels on my roof and a green roof with PV on the garage. But we still have Stelcon slabs in the garden which were laid by the previous owner. Even if we were able to, it would make little sense to remove them: the groundwater is so high here that it would create very little additional water storage. So I’ll leave them as they are. It makes more sense to make the base of my house watertight and waterproof. We live at the lowest point on the street. We’ve had water in the garden and basement several times. The water is only in your kitchen for an hour and a half but it takes months to fix the damage it causes. I’m in the blue area of the stress test, where the water accumulates. Unfortunately, Gamma doesn’t sell watertight doors yet. It would be great if more products became available for waterproofing your home. That would give people more options to protect their homes from flooding.  

What would be your message to other water professionals?

In our spatial planning, we define the length and width – the X and Y – down to the last millimetre, but the height measurements are more flexible. Use your height measurements to manage water – because HIGHER = DRYER! In our building culture, for example, we’re very lax about keeping houses and buildings free of water. Better and more thoughtful height measurement can go a long way to improving climate robustness. In Amsterdam, we’re already working on an integrated height strategy.