Picture a kid at the shore, scraping handfuls of wet sand from just under the surface of the ocean and packing it into a heavy mountain base to build a castle on. That′s what they′re doing at the Port of Rotterdam, on an unbelievably large scale. The Port of Rotterdam, in the western Netherlands, is the largest port in Europe, and once the busiest in the world (Asian ports like Singapore and Shanghai took over that mantle in the 80s). A lynchpin of the Dutch and European economies, it stretches over a distance of 25 miles along the North Sea coast. But that′s not big enough. With the flourishing of the European economy (recent setbacks notwithstanding) and with ever-increasing global trade, the amount of cargo moved from country to country is on the rise. That means more ships, and it means bigger ships.
The 1990s saw the advent E-class container ships that are 1,300 feet long and can carry 15,000 containers. When a container ship bellies up to the quay wall of a port, all hands (and cranes and straddle carriers) scurry to unload it, reload it, and send it on its way. With an E-class container ship, the pressure is even greater, because it takes up so much room at the quay—forcing other, smaller ships to wait. Or find another port. Rotterdam needed to expand, but there was no more land. So what does a good Dutch city do? It builds more. The Netherlands excels at water management and land reclamation—it has to: 20% of the country lies below sea level, and fully half within a meter above it. The Dutch build land from the sea and they build dams to keep the water in its place. In fact, when other countries need to pull or protect land from water, they call upon the Dutch, who′ve masterminded land reclamation projects all over the world, including the port of Hong Kong, Singapore′s new downtown, and the Palm Islands in Dubai.
Now they′re turning their expertise to a home project. In one of the largest land reclamation projects in European history, Rotterdam is building Maasvlakte 2, a new, 3-square-mile piece of land. Dredging boats go six miles out into the North Sea and suck sand into their holds—30,000 cubic yards in an hour—then return to the project site and "rainbow" it (spew it in an arc) out in front of the ship to build new land, layer by sandy layer. Then they will build concrete sea defenses to protect against the currents. And the whole thing is projected to be done by 2013—three square miles of new land just five years after the start of the project. Like I said, the Dutch know how to do this stuff.