The Waterwheel: A Socio-spatial method for understanding and displaying holistic water systems

C.M. Hein, Y.B.C. van Mil, Lucija Ažman Momirski

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Many megacities around the world are located in deltas where the possibilities of shipping and the availability of flat fertile lands have attracted large numbers of people, industries and businesses. These areas also face multiple water-based challenges: the provision of clean drinking water, the cleaning of sewage water, subsidence, delivery of water for agricultural and industrial purposes, issues of land reclamation from the sea for agriculture and construction, but also protection against rising sea levels, salination or the need to keep waterways and ports open for shipping. These water-related challenges are interconnected and require coordinated and integrated responses from all stakeholders, city and regional governments, private and public actors, port authorities, as well as NGO’s and citizens. Exploring cities in urban deltas in general and port cities in particular from a long-term perspective shows that these cities have a long tradition of resilience, as diverse public and private stakeholders have developed formal and informal institutional and planning traditions that have allowed them to address and overcome diverse challenges meaningfully, forcefully and rapidly. This paper first proposes that an analysis of resilience in port cities can serve as a foundation for addressing the water-related challenges of the future. It argues that we need knowledge of the spatial and social conditions necessary for developing such systemic and evolutionary resilience. It posits that we need to combine a thorough understanding of socio-spatial patterns of water systems to provide insight into earlier moments of water transitions and into long-term implications of policies and structures and provide a foundation for future design. Taking advantage of the vast number of longitudinal datasets recently digitized or undergoing digitization, we propose to employ a methodology to pursue a multi- and trans-disciplinary analysis. We exemplify it through application of the concept to the theme of water and particularly port cities, calling it the Waterwheel for this specific application. The presentation proposes first steps towards the development of a methodology and presents selected case studies notably from Rotterdam, Hamburg and London to get a better understanding of water culture through the lens of port-city relations. In conclusion, the presentation explores how such a methodology can help explore conflict and consensus around issues of water and heritage through a new water culture that includes a new holistic water management approach in megacities to meet water challenges for livable cities.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Event2nd International Conference on Water, Megacities and Global Change (Online Pre-Conference) -
Duration: 7 Dec 202011 Dec 2020


Conference2nd International Conference on Water, Megacities and Global Change (Online Pre-Conference)


  • geo-historical spatial mapping
  • water systems
  • resilience


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