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Archis 2004 #3

Unplanned vitality. How everything might just turn out well with the spatially planned Netherlands

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In the last edition of 2003 Ole Bouman, prompted by the report in the IKC-RO Newsflash (the news bulletin of the Netherlands Institute of Spatial Planning and Housing), provided a provocative view of the current situation in spatial planning in the Netherlands, which raised the issue of the discrepancy between dream and fact.1

Fred Schoorl has written the following piece by way of a response.

 

How vital is spatial planning today? After postwar reconstruction, Modernism and umpteen policy documents, what is left of the fervour in that professional world which, in essence, revolved around planning and the making of this man-made country? Hans van der Cammen, director of Spatial Research and Development Process of the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment (VROM) cautions about ‘the idea of progress in spatial planning’, and he’s right. But that in itself is not a reason for lack of fervour.

 

The spatial planning situation reminds me of Gustave Flaubert’s heroes Bouvard and Pécuchet from his eponymous novel. Two naive wealthy men who energetically strive for omniscience rather than feasibility in a dazzling array of subjects, vainly experimenting, in search of meaning and connection. A hopeless undertaking, rather nefariously recounted. They engaged daily in a kind of quasi-scholarly Newsflash. Amassing scholarly facts, events and experiences in a great many fields, meaningless in themselves. Hoping for synthesis, for general truth. With a bit of imagination you can see this quest for the ideal synthesis reflected in our twenty-first-century quest for the ideal of a Beautiful Netherlands, or in any case a Spatially Planned Netherlands.

 

But the Netherlands is not a novel, and it’s not proper to be condescending about what has been achieved. On the contrary. Our spatial development is a world-class feat. Only, if we don’t watch out, we might fall into a decline with our oh-so-practical, efficient and beautifully designed country, which is currently groaning and creaking at the seams. And certainly if – as happened in the nineteenth century – culture becomes dominated by mediocrity that considers expediency and usefulness as paramount, while achieving little else. If we’re not careful, the new Spatial Policy Report will be an example of what we want and not what we can achieve.

 

Of course, in the midst of all the various crises in Dutch society, the spatial planning crisis is in fact not particularly notable. Certainly, an innocent reader taking a look at the current policy ideals – development power, vital town, vital country, main ports, spatial main structure, etc. – would be impressed. In the world of intellectuals and professionals, however, there’s a lot of sighing and moaning. There’s no discourse and no visible successors to the older generation of planners; moreover, the new insights lack excitement, depth and engagement. The Netherlands is finished, and the Netherlands is a mess. And there’s the nagging feeling that there’s too much talk and too little substance. In any case, it seems we should say goodbye to the idea of a conceived, planned and constructed Netherlands. Whatever, there’s a lot of grumbling going on in the spatial discipline, and we certainly excel in that!

 

Grumbling in a field that was par excellence peopled by inspired planners and planning professionals? Is there any vitality left in a field or discipline such as spatial planning? Ole Bouman’s almost comical overview of the informative but disjointed and aimless activity as outlined in the IKC-RO Newsflash is, of course, spot on. The daily news it purveys is – when looked at cursorily – indeed a mishmash of ideas, intentions, projects, problems and procedures. ‘It amounts to a great deal, but where does it lead?’ asks Bouman. Sometimes to nothing, but that’s inherent in all human activities: mostly doomed to failure. The human shortcoming. The characters in Flaubert’s novel. The question is: is Bouman’s observation evidence of total suffocation in an unbridled number of ‘actions’, as he would have us believe? For anyone who still believes in clarity of overview, it is indeed suffocating. The image of a world in terms of Dad with his pipe and slippers, and the newspaper brought by the dog as the window on the world, is inescapable. A hopelessly old-fashioned image. Because the IKC-RO is a real window. It makes something visible in a simple and targeted manner. It places the global village Netherlands on the digital doormat in condensed format. That’s no invention or development, but a fact that’s only now becoming really evident.

 

Where previously all regional and local actions largely avoided the intellectual debate, it would now seem that it’s precisely the local and regional which are being rediscovered. That’s not so much a new phenomenon, as new information for the countless studies so prevalent in the Netherlands. Some people needed Manuel Castells to rediscover the significance of the local, to make it presentable. But what use is that? So it’s not so much suffocation – although that’s part of it – as the confrontation with the stratification and complexity of the reality that throws the intellectual back on his own limitations. That provides the spatial discipline with a new playing field, as it were, with space for unorthodox measures and approaches. It’s exactly in that area that things are being tried out, but few real risks are being taken. And there’s no progress without risks.

 

The tension between dream and action, between idealism and cynicism and, particularly, between the present and the future is no less important now than it was in past decades. De-mythologizing Dutch feasibility is certainly no boon for the vitality of the spatial discipline. Grand projects such as the Delta Works, the reclamation of the IJsselmeer polders and new towns such as Zoetermeer are behind us. However relative that makability is or was, it certainly prompted the implementation of some highly arresting exercises. The inspiration drawn from them was the elixir of life for the spatial design world. Take, for instance, the initiative ‘Netherlands Now as Project’ of some two decades ago, with an actual exhibition in Berlage’s Beurs. The spatial representation of the distant future of a preeminently makable country. Something that engaged a whole generation of planners and designers, and was quite normal at the time. It would certainly have merited a mention in the IKC-RO (as a never realized project). A show like that, however, is inconceivable at the moment. Literally inconceivable. No one would nowadays put the Netherlands on the agenda as a scheme or design project, at least not if they wished to be taken seriously. But that’s due more to a lack of political ideals and vigour, than to the deplorable state of the profession. At this juncture – let’s call it welfare on-hold and ideological vacuum – if you come up with a planning proposal, your only response would be a pitying smile. Progress forms no part of spatial planning nowadays. Or of the makability ideal. In the cabinet there were even heated discussions to prevent Almere – the only real New Town – from expanding too explosively because otherwise that might smack of the old social-democratic makability ideals. Nonetheless, we do live in a time when spatial planning is deemed to be instrumental in achieving economic growth. More than in achieving other ideals.

 

A shortage of lofty ideals, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that an area such as spatial design has lost its vitality. Or that there’s no new fervour, either present or emerging. Indeed not. There are certainly signs of it. It’s not the IKC-RO’s lack of focus that’s the yardstick, but the versatility and drive for action to make something of it in practice. And that’s also the source from which the mantra of the ‘developmental spatial planning’ can and must be fed. The simple ambition to make something that contributes towards a better village, a better town, a better landscape or country, without a blueprint. With new coalitions, new frontiers and new identities that are worth their salt. Whether it be IJburg, Roombeek (Enschede) or the New Dutch Water Defence Line.

 

The new fervour must be found in the ambition to conceive and implement such plans in an unorthodox manner. This would spawn a new language which – all being well – would form the key to genuine changes, rather than cloaking impotence. It’s a world sometimes cursed with terms such as integral and interactive, with ‘the process’ as the key to action. And with the accent on civil society, the daring of administrators and bidding farewell to all-knowing and ‘all-doing’ government. It is precisely by accepting chaos, the unpredictability of processes and placing the accent on people, personal contributions and personal qualities – for instance of some architects in decision-making processes such as those studied by Emilie Gomart – that a major gain can be made in terms of the world of system, structure and planning fetishism.2 Of that once so overseeable world.

 

In dealing with the enormous projects now facing us, versatility, a multidisciplinary approach, creativity and – it is said – the personal expertise of those involved will all come to play a far greater role. It’s a sign of vitality that people other than planning professionals are now entering this field, whether it be architects or public administrators. That’s precisely what makes the complex cultural brief in a by-definition chaotic world so exciting. The ambition to take up once again ‘Netherlands Now as Project’ in a practical sense is perhaps utopian, but the necessity to deal with matters now is no less important for that. What with the water brief for the twenty-first-century, the Delta Metropolis or Wings, the anticipated transformations to the countryside, the call for new villages and so on, there are plenty of matters to tackle in a concrete way. Is a new generation of thinkers and doers forthcoming? Hopefully, they’re feeding upon the chaotic stratification of the un-ordered space and the resulting spontaneity. In that sense ‘the profession’ is moving away from the well-trodden paths, and in fact we are becoming more and more Flemish in our focus on spontaneity, lack of planning and unplanned renewal. The vitality of the area lies in the vitality of creative chaos. And what people themselves can do with it.

 

In that light the timing of the Spatial Policy Report is favourable. Especially if in its presentation it signals a new trend in spatial planning with more room for development power and local and regional direction and implementation. And with greater emphasis on implementing schemes in an inventive and ingenious manner. In short, with all those mantras mentioned above, which if not actually fleshed-out become hot air. Developmental spatial planning – as a supplement to the traditional discipline – can certainly imbue the profession with renewed fervour through the results that it can achieve. If one reads the concepts of the Spatial Policy Report and the countless newspaper reports, one gets the feeling that the direction is right, but that ambition and implementation are lagging behind. With all the call for vigour, it would seem that what’s emerging is ‘talk-spatial-planning’ with a strong focus on further study, postponing decisions and minimal strategic decisions. Thus, there will probably be a new planning study into the housing brief for the Haarlem-Leiden-Amsterdam triangle. Development in the north wing has been more or less curtailed by a ‘difficult planning study’ into a bridge connection between Almere and Amsterdam. This seems like stepping on the accelerator (economic) and braking (spatial) at the same time. Especially if one believes the necessary investment will come from ‘the market’. The market that must leap into the hole that’s been created and must invest with Public Private Partnership or otherwise (and not shift the risks onto the government). Will the market finish Almere? That market is anticipating the situation. In this way the Spatial Policy Report becomes the empathetic vehicle, not the timetable for renewal that is desperately needed. That would be a missed opportunity. Ultimately, the Spatial Policy Report does not determine this type of spatial development. At best, it plays a supportive role. Nothing more, nothing less. Enterprising sense, another attitude and less governmental compartmentalisation are more important for the future. In brief: honesty bids me say that development doesn’t necessarily need a Spatial Policy Report. Nor this article either.

 

 

Fred Schoorl is Director of the Netherlands Institute of Spatial Planning and Housing (NIROV).

 

1. For the IKC-RO Newsflash, see www.ikcro.nl
2. Emilie Gomart, ‘Ontwerpen als een politieke activiteit’, S&RO no. 5, 2003, pp. 22-33.