By Simon Richter, Interim Department Chair and Acting Graduate Chair

Germanic Languages and Literatures

September 3, 2019


There is a whole lot of floating going on in the Netherlands. That is not surprising when you consider that 26% of the country is below sea level. But sometimes you have to wonder: is it a gimmick or is floating a serious way to address the challenges of sea level rise? Students participating in the summer intensive Penn in Berlin and Rotterdam Program this past June had a chance to figure that out for themselves.

Schoonschip, new floating community in Amsterdam

For decades, houseboats have lined the canals of Amsterdam and other water-penetrated cities—floating, sure, but not quite what you would call floating architecture. The neighborhood of Ijburg was something different. Started in 2011, Ijburg is a cluster of 158 floating two- and three-story homes just minutes from Amsterdam’s Central Station. More exciting is the new development Schoonschip, also in Amsterdam. When completed in 2020, this will be the most sustainable floating community in all of Europe. With 500 solar panels, heat pumps, a communal smart grid, and innovative use of gray and black water, Schoonschip is a pioneer in socially organized sustainable living.

Insert  Floating Pavilion, photo by Simon Richter

To learn about experiments in commercial floating architecture, we had to get outside of Amsterdam. In 2009, DeltaSync and Blue21 constructed the solar-heated and water-cooled Floating Pavilion that provides event space in the historic port of Rotterdam. The pavilion is surrounded by the “Bobbing Forest,” an art installation that enjoyed a viral Internet existence, but is less convincing when seen on location. Blue21 is the architectural partner of the Seasteading Institute, a US-based libertarian think tank devoted to creating a floating city in international waters—but that’s another story.

The planned North Sea Wind Power Hub of TenneT, a Dutch-German TSO (transmission system operator), and the Port of Rotterdam involves a floating island in the North Sea, surrounded by scores of massive wind turbines, that would distribute electricity to the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and France. Marin (The Marine Research Institute) based in Wageningen has a robust research and instructional program on the hydrodynamics of floating offshore structures, especially wind turbines. For its part, the University of Wageningen, renowned for its focus on agriculture and environment, is partnering with Floating Food Farm to explore scaled-up use of aquaponics on floating surfaces for food security in the developing world.

Floating Farm Aerial, photo courtesy Floating Farm

For the students of Penn in Berlin and Rotterdam by far the most exciting project was the The Floating Farm of Rotterdam. The brainchild of Peter van Wingerden, CEO of Beladon, a company specializing in the design of iconic and sustainable floating structures, the Floating Farm is now home to 35 cows. To visit the floating dairy is to see agricultural history in the making and Penn students actually own a piece of that history. Penn in Berlin and Rotterdam has been meeting with Peter since the project was still on the drawing board and when the opportunity arose to donate a cow and give her a name, Penn students jumped on it. 1500 Euros later, students suggested names and chose the winner: “Sustainabetty,” with “If Not Cow, When” and “Rachel Cowson” as runners-up.

Floating Farm Sustainabetty, photo courtesy Floating Farm

To understand the Floating Farm, you have to be prepared to suspend a lot of assumptions. Peter has multiple goals: animal welfare, circularity, sustainability, education, and innovation. He is an eco-modernist at heart with a social justice bent and Farmer Albert is an urban cowboy with an iPad in his holster. These are not free-range cows, but there is science that suggests that it’s not the ability to roam, but rather exposure to fresh air that makes the difference to the cow’s health. Time cows spend in the stable is what’s detrimental and these cows enjoy fresh coastal air 24/7. Grass-fed sounds great, but these cows receive a scientifically formulated diet where 80% of the feed comes from the city in the form of bio-waste from a brewery, a potato processing plant, and as grass clippings from the beloved local soccer team, Feyenoord Rotterdam. Cows, of course, produce methane, but feed supplements and the prompt separation of liquid and solid waste reduce methane significantly. There’s a roving robot that takes care of that, pushing the waste to the floor below where salts are extracted from the urine, water returned to the river or re-used, and the manure prepared for use in city parks. The whole operation is powered by a floating array of solar panels in the shape of a milk bottle. Milk processing and yogurt production also take place on the second floor, while the level below the waterline serves as a lab for agricultural experiments, benefiting from a constant comfortable temperature year-round. School field trips provide opportunities for urban kids to learn about farming, sustainability, and urban resilience. Plans are in the works to create floating farms for egg production and vegetables. Additional projects are lined up for China and, appropriately enough, Brooklyn, NY. The idea for the floating farm first came to Peter in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy when he saw food distribution at Hunt’s Point come to a halt first hand and realized how vulnerable urban food security is.

Floating Farm Milk Bottle, photo by Simon Richter

Is the Floating Farm a gimmick? Penn students say no. Admittedly, the choice of dairy farming caused some concern among the vegans in the group. Peter explained that he went with cows because they posed the biggest challenge. The iconicity of Dutch dairy cattle on the water was an unintended by-product. What allowed Penn students to place Peter’s efforts into a larger context was a discussion with a water expert from another field altogether. Marjolijn Haasnoot of Deltares, the premiere research institute for water management based in Delft, is the author of a study on the potential consequences of accelerated sea level rise for the Dutch water defense system, known as the Delta Works. On the basis of her group’s research, four scenarios were developed, one of which entails returning the polders to the North Sea and converting cities such as Rotterdam, Delft and Amsterdam into islands. In the long term, this may be the most viable solution. A Dutch weekly broke the news to the public in an article with the headline “Sea Level Rise is a Bigger Problem Than We Think and the Netherlands Has No Plan B.” In response, another Dutch design firm, Lola Landscape Architects, released a visionary remapping of the new Netherlands which it cheekily called “Plan B” with submerged polders and—you guessed it—acres upon acres of floating agriculture. The inundated future that awaits us calls for lots of adaptation and innovation, as well as a keen sense of climate justice. Some of that innovation will almost certainly come from the Netherlands. Penn students own a piece of it.


Simon Richter is the Class of 1942 Endowed Term Professor and interim chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. As an environmental humanist, he specializes in cultural aspects of water management and adaptation to sea level rise, with a focus on the Netherlands, Indonesia, and the United States. He is the founding director of Penn in Berlin and Rotterdam, an intensive summer abroad program that introduces students to the practice of sustainability in Germany and the Netherlands. He is a member of One Resilient Semarang, an international design team that is working with the city of Semarang, located on the Northcentral coast of Java, to address multiple water challenges. A forthcoming contribution to theOxford Handbook on Translation and Social Practice is called “The Translation of ‘Polder’ in the Context of Water Management in the Netherlands and Indonesia.” As Poldergeist, he tweets about the complexities of life below sea level and hovers over polders in cities and regions around the world.