David Bruce’s Watson Year: Studying Cities At Sea

David Bruce ’13, a recipient of the Watson Fellowship and an explorer for 12 months, recently returned to campus to share his international adventures. He spoke at an informal gathering at the Schwartz Center.

Watson Fellows spend a year away from the U.S. or their home country, traveling and working on an independent project. At Bowdoin, Bruce majored in economics and environmental studies and minored in visual arts. His interest in nature, urban planning and the arts shaped his goal to traverse the globe to draw, paint and write about places threatened by rising sea levels.

Bruce said he formed his plan after Hurricane Sandy decimated parts of the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast in 2012. “After the sea-level rise came into people’s attention with Hurricane Sandy, people thought that we have to look and see how the Dutch are dealing with water management, since they are the experts. That’s how I started my year,” he told the students.

For the first stage of his travels, Bruce went to the Netherlands to see why the Dutch have the reputation as trailblazers in water management systems. Seventy percent of Amsterdam is on reclaimed land below sea level.

After spending three months in the Netherlands, Bruce travelled to coastal areas in danger from rising seas in Argentina, Chile, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Hong Kong and China. During the 392 days he spent abroad, Bruce captured in paintings and drawings the urbanization of coasts and the people who live there. Much of his work is on his website, citiesatsea.com.

One of Bruce’s favorite parts of his journey was a trip to Sundarbans with his father in West Bengal, India. The Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the largest mangrove forest in the world, as well as a tiger reserve.

In the Sundarbans, four million people live on some the world’s most vulnerable coast, Bruce said, despite the protection from the mangrove forests which act as a natural cyclone buffer. The forests, however, are threatened by pollution and rerouted rivers. “Sometimes the natural world comes up with the best solutions for things,” Bruce wrote in his travel blog. “The Sundarbans is far more effective than any designed storm surge barrier…[and] the Dutch…are trying to emulate the natural process of the Sundarbans by pumping the seabed of the North Sea into fortifying sand dunes.”

Bruce said he was struck by the difference wealth makes when it comes to responding to sea-level rise. “Unlike other places I’ve been to, the Netherlands has resources. They have the ability to tackle the problem,” he said. “After my Watson year, I went back to the Netherlands to a conference where the chief economist for the World Bank said that ignoring the sea-level rise will cause the loss of three percent of the world’s GDP by 2050. Sea-level rise is a human rights issue, and the people who live in very impoverished countries will be hit the hardest.”

Bruce plans to attend an urban development program at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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