Sustainable Cities™

Govert Geldof: Innovative planning while the water is rising

'Storytelling' and 'legofication'? In this interview, Dutch water-engineer Dr. Govert Geldof talks about innovative tools for successful urban planning where water is an important ingredient. Storytelling can get people involved, and legofication is a way of implementing different technical practices and make them become integrated in an urban area.

Q: What are the qualities that should characterize a sustainable city?
From a technical point of view, you have different cycles in a sustainable city, and the cycles are short and connected, e.g. the water cycle, the food cycle, the nutrient cycle, the organic cycle, etc. Nowadays these cycles are huge. Especially, nutrients, food, water and energy are really important drivers for making a sustainable city. From the human point of view, it means that people are happy and can find themselves, recognize themselves. When you bring these technical and human aspects together, then we get sustainable cities.

Q: What are the challenges that top the to-do list in cities around the world?
The biggest challenge is not only to make plans, but to really implement the plans. I have been in so many projects where we just made plans. We had very nice plans, but only a few of them were implemented. It's not very satisfying for professionals only to make plans and not to realize them and have positive feedback from society that they have really changed something. To meet this challenge, you have to accept the fact that you need other people, and that can be a big threat. As a planner you have to be interested in how other people think and that can be extremely difficult. So first, you have to accept that you are not the only one with good ideas - other people can have good ideas as well. And you have to be interested in hearing about these ideas. A main driver for the future becomes 'empathy', being interested in other people and that you have a feeling about how people think and react.

Q: What are the most promising initiatives/ideas/solutions/projects that would make living in cities more sustainable?
There are very promising projects in areas where there is already a climate threat. In Australia, there are really severe water problems now. In the Netherlands, we are discussing flooding, but I think that we can cope with it. The problems in South Australia - cities like Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, are very big. Especially Melbourne and what they do on water sensitive urban design -they are in the booming business. In Europe, I am very impressed about what have been done in Augustenborg and the western harbour in Malmø. In the Netherlands, I would say some of the projects in Nijmegen. Here, we really started to interact with people to make them come with new ideas about water. In Nijmegen today, you can see hundreds of small water projects spread all over the area. Some are about infiltrating storm-water, others are about art, or drinking-water. Because of the way we got people involved, they became the owners of the projects.

Q: How do you make people owners of projects by using "storytelling"?
You have to listen to the stories that people tell. This is what we have been working on for the last years. We asked ourselves: How does knowledge come into play, and who is carrying this knowledge? The insight here is, that the knowledge that is most fundamental for change is not the knowledge that you find in books, and it's not the scientific knowledge, but instead it's the knowledge that people have implicit in their system, and in the stories and histories that they carry with them. The way to bring this knowledge into play is by storytelling. It's very simple: you don't ask people what they think about climate-change, but instead you ask people to tell a story, and then the issue of climate change can come into play, and e.g. experiences with floods or the way that they have problems with the municipality about building their new house. The good ideas are emerging out of these stories.

You cannot make people happy by design (…) you cannot design if people will be happy or not. You can make designs for mega-cities e.g. like in China as an initial input, but then you have to develop it together with the people. You can give the basic structure, but then people have to fill it in with their own stories, and when their own stories fit in with the context where they are living, then you have a precondition for happiness. This is about understanding 'emergence' - a good city is emergent, it is not organized (…) When you develop a new area, or change something, you have to look at the emergence of the city. The urban shape is part of planning as well as part of stories. When you bring these worlds together, then you get something with quality.

Q: You have coined the concept of 'legofication' to refer to a crucial process in sustainable urban development - please elaborate.
We see 'lego' as something that has to do with mass-production and with standardization, and human size. With lego-bricks you can create everything (…) In the discussion about the water cycle, which is about making cycles shorter for water energy, nutrients and organic matter, we have so many different techniques, and the people who produce and use these techniques, they are competing with each other and are not really working together. Here we use 'lego' - and 'legofication' - to organize the cooperation between all these people, their ideas and the stories from their imagination - and we bring them together (…) A good story, a good narrative, contains a metaphor, and we found out that 'lego' is exactly the right metaphor. When I presented this in a recent project, people knew exactly what we meant. For people in the industry e.g. those who produce biogas-installations for waste-products, they understood it directly. In practice it means, that all different techniques, so to say, can be 'clicked on' and work together. So, for us, 'legofication' is a way of implementing all these good techniques that are already available and make them become integrated in an urban area. Every area could have their own emerging result out of this process. Some people like the 'bricks' of the green roof; others like infiltration facilities; others would like to have a rain garden, some people like to have phosphates out of their own urine, etc. Bit by bit more 'lego-blocks' would come into play.

About Govert Geldof

Govert Geldof Dr. Govert Geldof is a Dutch water-engineer who has been an advisor for a number of cities in The Netherlands, and cities around the world (e.g. Dordrecht in The Netherlands, Emscher in Germany and cities in Syria). Geldof is connected to the Danish Technical University. Link:

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014