By Esther Barfoot

Water Sensitive Rotterdam is a community initiated by Rotterdam Council to prepare the city for climate change. Together with designer Rogier Rosema, I developed the communication strategy and concept for this movement.

In 2030 climate change is a reality. Long periods of intensive rain and intense drought alternate. Also, extremely local, extremely hard rain fall frequently occurs.


But this doesn’t have to turn into a doom scenario. Water Sensitive Rotterdam (WSR) – initiated by the council of Rotterdam – is a movement of housing corporations, conservancies, architects, landscape designers and other creatives, that prepares the city for climate change with a huge variety of initiatives.


They work on a cool and resilient city with creativity and innovative solutions. Since 2015 Water Sensitive Rotterdam has realised 37 projects, 16 studies, 25 tools and 15 events. And still the movement is going strong. No wonder Museum Rotterdam just gave Water Sensitive Rotterdam the status of Real Rotterdam Heritage.



Before developing a communication strategy, I contributed to the overall strategy for Water Sensitive Rotterdam: setting up Water Sensitive Rotterdam in the form of a community. A community in which all participants are equal, co-create together and spread the philosophy of Water Sensitive Rotterdam. This philosophy entails that we prepare the city for climate change by making it greener (more gardens, parks, green roofs, green walls) and create all kinds of water buffering (underground and above ground), and by doing so we are making the city more attractive, fun and socially inclusive.


Principles on which the community and therefore our communication is based, are:
  • Everybody is a participant and contributes from their own knowledge and expertise.
  • All participants are equal.
  • We don’t differentiate between internal and external target groups.
  • We create together and spread the word together.
  • Change doesn’t come about through pressure, but because change is appealing and is promoted in an appealing way.
  • Our community is a coalition of the willing. If you don’t want to take part or don’t want to let go of traditional ways of working, we won’t drag you along. We don’t waste energy on ‘dragging dead horses’ as we say in Dutch. (This is an important principle, because many more traditional civil servants and professionals inside corporations and the like, struggle with concepts such as co-creation and community, and prefer to decide what is best for the city by themselves, in stead of working with people from other organisations and therefore other interests.)
  • For everybody learning is essential, just like sharing.
  • The route of our journey hasn’t been planned beforehand, but is being discovered along the way.
  • Our journey consists of many small steps.



Characteristics of our communication therefore are:

  • Interactive
  • Fun
  • We learn together
  • We meet regularly


And this is what our communication looks like:



Our website is a real community website, with lots of stories of participants, about their dreams for the city, their achievements, experiments, insights and doubts. We share these in the forms of written stories, photos, videos and animations. The website also has many interactive features. You can join in fora, share new initiatives. The wonderful photographer Jan de Groen gives the website a very lively, attractive and yet very real look and feel.



Every six months we organise a WSR-café, so all participants and fans can meet, catch up, share their ideas and create plans for more cool initiatives in the city. The WSR-café’s are popular in the community and reputed to be very fresh and innovative (‘You never know what WSR will do next’). Because we always choose special locations in town (varying from an old rugged factory and a cinema to a run down but atmospheric community center) and always go for totally different, innovative forms (often created together with the artists of Superduo). Recently our event has had the form of a bazar, a working dinner, a route across town and a curiosity fair (along all sorts of workshops). No sitting and listening. Always highly interactive and creative. And afterwards, our drinks, that meanwhile have become somewhat legendary.



Since the start we have developed five walking and cycling routes through unexpected (slightly rough) parts of Rotterdam, along (among other things) water sensitive initiatives, cool architecture and interesting community centres where they pour good coffee and where you can rub shoulders with the locals. Always illustrated by a Rotterdam (street) artist (so far: Stang, Bier & Brood, Bart Aalbers and Levi Jacobs) and distributed on our website, through email and as a Z-Card.


Present mail

Participants and fans also receive our email newsletter that isn’t a newsletter, but a as we call it a ‘cadeaumail’, a present mail. It always contains a small present, such as one of the routes through a cool part of Rotterdam (see above), a beautiful illustration that can be printed out as a post card or tickets for a local festival. Apart from that it is a quick update of matters of interest and always contains links to s couple of new interesting articles, videos or photo reports on the website.


Stylish gadgets

For our events and other occasions we always create a stylish and humorous gadget that people love to have and to give to others: linnen bags, umbrella’s, pencils containing plant seeds or a cool illustration of Rotterdam.


Many creative forms 

Apart from the above we work with many creative forms. In the past three years we have made the mini-movie Blue (about a rain drop hat gets lost in Rotterdam), the cinema trailer ROT (an apocalyptic movie about climate change), poems by the young Rotterdam poet Derek Otte spread on postcards around town, selfie sticks (slogans on sticks promoting our movement, that you can take selfies with). And many more.



We have also created a WSR-mobile with plants, a self watering system and solar panel, that also includes a table and seats, to create a space at festivals, markets and conferences to meet, have conversations and share ideas. The WSR-mobile is constructed from used materials and was designed and built by Thijs Masthoff.


Social media

We are on Facebook and Twitter. And will open a LinkedIn group and join Instagram next.


‘The Water Sensitive meet-ups are legendary! I never have the feeling I am going to just another networking meet-up, but always come home with many new ideas and contacts. I also really like to see that my own, ‘younger’ generation is becoming more active within the movement and is slowly taking over, haha. And Water Sensitive Rotterdam actually stimulates us to do so!’ Nora Prins (Conservatory of Schieland en de Krimpenerwaard)


‘What I love about the WSR-Café is that you bring your problems and queries in an informal setting. People aren’t scared of giving their straight forward opinion either. Everybody just wants to prepare the city for climate change.’

Bart van Veenendaal (Stebru developer)


‘What a valuable network of people visited the WSR-Café! I had very inspiring and useful conversations. One thing I know for sure: Rotterdam and Amsterdam can learn a lot from each other!’

Irene Poortinga (Climate doctor from Amsterdam)