Science - May 6, 2004

The Dutch puzzle over their lack of space

The Netherlands is a small country with a lot of people in a confined space. Hence the annual government memorandum 'National Spatial Strategy'. This year the subtitle is ‘creating space for development’. Newspaper headlines such as ‘Netherlands set to get even fuller’ appeared as the Minister for spatial planning announced priority for economic growth, with an emphasis on air- and water ports, a ‘brain port’ in the Eindhoven area, and ‘green ports’ focusing on international greenhouse cultivation. Municipalities and provinces will have more say in where they new construction can take place. Wb asked a number of people in Wageningen UR whether the Netherlands will become more cramped as a result.

Professor Arnold van der Valk, Professor of Land Use Planning:
“I think it is a good sign that the central government has taken a step back to leave more up to the provincial and municipal authorities and developers. What has happened in the ‘greenbelt’ areas in the west is diametrically opposed to what the government set out in its memos on spatial planning. The means to increase density in urban areas and keep rural areas open are limited as far as I understand. I fear that at the provincial level there are also not enough tools available to work in a development oriented way, so I suspect that things will continue in the similar shambling fashion. Most of the Dutch would agree that we want to retain as much open countryside as possible in the Netherlands, but spatial planning is the result of all the contradictory goals we have set ourselves. I think it is good that the government no longer expects the impossible of spatial planning. For years we have seen the politics of illusion, but there’s no money for spatial planning and it’s good that the government is not overplaying its hand. Now we can go over to more of a policy of spatial development: fewer big gestures, but setting boundaries and then concentrating on individual projects and how they fit together.”

Herman Agricola, researcher at Alterra, who developed a model for calculating where municipalities should build and where they should leave open space with Dr Pieter Vereijken of Plant Research International:
“I find it an exciting development that the municipalities themselves will have freedom. But there is a danger that the ‘red areas’, residential, work and infrastructure will get the upper hand. The memo should not become a carte blanche to fill up the outlying areas completely. We are in favour of compensation: red-for-green constructions, where you create collective functions, for instance recreation together with nature conservation, climate control and so on.
We support more being done at the local level, but municipalities should work together in joint cooperation, otherwise there will be too much fragmentation.”

Dr Fred Kistenkas, senior researcher in management law, Alterra:
“The Netherlands is a decentralised unified state, and that is a hybrid situation. There is both a certain amount of autonomy for municipalities and provinces, and centralised authority. This new memorandum opts for decentralisation, but it’s a process that goes backwards and forwards. In 2015 we’ll be talking about a proposal for more centralisation. In general I’m more in favour of an Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian model. England is a country that is run in a more centralised fashion. At the local level they can decide where to put a streetlight, but that’s it. In terms of spatial planning they have more ‘agencies’ as they are called, which are independent civil service institutions. These are concentrations of expertise that are depoliticised, that integrate jurisdiction and interests. But this is very sensitive, because then you would rob municipalities of all their authority.”

Martin Woestenburg