In the Dutch political system the government holds office for four years and watches over both the daily course of events and long-term planning. This is of crucial importance for spatial planning. Yet we see each successive policy document trying to force the Netherlands into a different planning mould, so that much thinking is short term. To mark the appointment of the new Minister of Transport, Spatial Planning and the Environment (Verkeer, Ruimtelijke Ordening en Milieu - VROM) we felt called upon to make a recommendation to the Minister on the planning of the Netherlands. Instead of just one more in a long series of policy documents, which would only remain valid for four years, it would be better to introduce a strategy which would remain in force regardless of changes of government. The urgent need for surface water coupled with the need to limit suburban developments provide a direct opportunity to introduce such a strategy, based on the art of setting boundaries and the possibility of a new spatial planning policy.
Dear Ms. Cramer,
First we would like to offer you our sincere congratulations on your appointment and wish you every success in directing spatial planning in the Netherlands. A substantial part of the future of the Netherlands lies in your hands, more particularly because, at this time, there is a clear choice between bumbling on pragmatically at local level and setting up a visionary delta plan capable of coping with the current planning chaos. We would like to support you in developing the latter choice with a few ideas about the planning of our country.
Doom and trump card
The supplement to the fourth policy document on spatial planning appeared to signify a break in the strong tradition of Dutch spatial planning. The motto ‘local if possible, central if unavoidable’ created a Netherlands dominated by a succession of fiercely competitive business parks and suburban residential utopias. The south side of the Randstad seems to have served as the prototype for the most recent policy documents: an illegible complex urban tapestry, showing clearly that we cannot entrust the public interest of cultural-historical landscapes, townscapes and the need for control to local authorities and their project developers and urban designers.
Moreover, it seems that we in the Netherlands have lost the art of spatial planning or at any rate the craft of setting boundaries. Administratively speaking there may well be separation, but in reality the distinction between town and country has become almost invisible. The developments which have taken place in the last ten years have made their own destructive contribution. The invisibility of boundaries has made spatial planning impossible for anybody to understand and there are few who still feel themselves really responsible.
But over and above these planning vicissitudes hangs a greater challenge, namely to deal with the consequences of climate change. In the Netherlands this is mainly a matter of water management: reinforcing our sea defences, more space for the rivers and increasing the area available for water storage. Paradoxically enough, we see water not as the greatest threat but primarily as a valuable trump card for our planning.
At the same time there is some chance of a favourable outcome from a new spatial regime based not only on the maximum achievable (‘if possible’), but also on a controlled optimism. The imposition of limitations stimulates creativity and innovation. Well-known examples include Central Park in New York and the public parks in London. It is not so much the parks themselves as their razor-sharp boundaries that have ensured their value. When available space is limited, adjoining developments are inclined to search for specific opportunities for high quality building.
Our proposal is as simple as it is effective. The large amount of water storage area that will have to be provided in the coming years, estimated at 7,500 hectares, should be divided between existing towns and villages. A water margin laid round each core would define its territory, forming as it were a moat. Inside this moat the local authority would be given the greatest conceivable freedom to deal with the space available in the best possible way, in cooperation with its citizens and the market. The limitation would be strict, because any outward extension would only permitted as far as the water’s edge. Urban cores would be urged to treat the available space innovatively, so that areas that become empty would be given a new use. Even the edge of the town would become valuable, because it would offer an exclusive view of the countryside. It would therefore automatically attract more attention than at present, when such areas often referred to as the ‘edge of town’. In the StadRand Plan the edge of town would become a respectable waterfront. Rotterdam, for example, would no longer direct its attention exclusively to the centre, with the periphery allowed to fade away. The new limitation would encourage it to achieve higher densities with more quality on the new StadRand [CityEdge].
The country, on the other side of the periphery, would come completely under the control of the state. The public interest served by the scarce and historically valuable countryside is particularly defenceless against the forces of consumption and deserves to be protected by a higher authority. Not least because future shrinkage means that it would be better to invest in existing post-war districts than rigorously building outside the city, in open country.
The proposed strategy is designed to achieve sustainable spatial planning. Investment would be made in the preservation and development of both town and country. The spatial configuration of StadRand would lead to a clearly legible urban landscape and offer a growth model for the coming century.
Madame Minister, we hope that this short account has aroused your interest. We are well aware that the proposed approach would require a significant cultural turnround, but at the same time we are convinced that this is the right time to set a new course. The issue here is not one of a VOC mentality, looking across borders, but a Delta mentality that recognises that erecting boundaries actually creates new freedoms and restores pride of place to the Dutch spirit of innovation.
We look forward to your response.
Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman
Name: Letter to the minister: Plan Stadrand
Location: The Netherlands
Area: 41.528 km2