‘Why should we produce pork for China here?’

“I am really annoyed by that agriculture. It causes a lot of pollution and few jobs.’ Peter Boelhouwer doesn’t mind. He is a professor Housing systems at TU Delft and studies the space issue. “In principle, we have enough land to solve our housing shortage. Now we use about eight percent of our land for housing. We can easily make nine percent of that.’

“We use more than half of our land for agriculture, while we earn only 6 percent of our gross domestic product (1.4 percent with agriculture itself and 4 percent if the supply industry is also included, TdJ). And it is not for our own food either, because the vast majority of the products are exported and used as animal feed. We are the second largest exporting country in the world, what does that mean in a small country like the Netherlands? Why should we produce pork here for China?’


What will the city of the future look like? More than 12 million people live in cities in the Netherlands, and that number will only increase. The city is a place where we live, live and coexist. But also a place where many of our social problems meet. What pain awaits the townspeople? And: is there a view we can stick to? In the coming months, journalist Tim de Jong will investigate how the city is changing and what we must do.

Boelhouwer sits tall. According to him, we must completely redesign the Netherlands, balancing interests such as the housing crisis, agriculture, energy transition, climate adaptation and quality of life. After all, all these tasks require space. One million new homes, thousands of wind turbines, more greenery in the city, local and small farming and then also room for pleasant, livable cities.

It requires national direction. Boelhouwer: “Precisely because space is needed for everything, we will not solve the problems if we continue to tackle them individually. Many Dutch would rather have a home and nature than a fence with cows or a data center. I find it incredible that the city council of Zeewolde can decide to build a data center instead of housing, nature or renewable energy. Such a choice transcends far greater interests. If you can decide it locally, you get a banana republic’.

According to Boelhouwer, we have enough space in the Netherlands, but we have to make brave and smart choices. On a national level. As we have set it up now, those choices must be made by the politicians. And that is where the danger lies. Because is the decision-making geared to it?

Stuck on the beaten path

A residential area surrounded by a food forest. Or recreational areas with a lot of biodiversity. Those kinds of things many times use of space, both according to Boelhouwer and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) is an important part of the solution. It saves space, and the combinations also offer other benefits. Living close to nature, for example, provides more joy, relaxation and cooling, and makes cities more resilient to the climate.

also readThere is more to a green city than planting a few trees11 July 2022

The only problem is that it is precisely for these kinds of solutions that the policy is not well designed. Annelli Janssen is a transition researcher at DRIFT (a research institute affiliated with Rotterdam Erasmus University). She sees it in all the major issues at the moment: ‘Political dynamism is about solving acute problems in the day-to-day issues. One minister is responsible for one task.’

According to her, that dynamic works path dependence in the hand. By making certain choices, we create a path that we become addicted to. Then it is difficult to deviate from it. Motorways are a well-known example of this. We have spent decades trying to solve traffic jams by building more highways. As soon as the queues subsided, the car became more attractive again, which resulted in more cars and therefore also new traffic jams. Meanwhile, people have invested in a car, parking lots have been built and businesses (gas stations, garages, etc.) have become financially dependent on the car. These kinds of path dependencies can make better alternatives more difficult or even impossible.


It is a dynamic that we must break out of if we want to solve the space issue. But how? According to Janssen, we must then look further ahead than we do now. Backcasting instead of Forecast.

Janssen: ‘Now we think in terms of existing problems. We have a nitrogen crisis and we must solve it. With backcasting, you look ten, twenty or thirty years ahead. Where will you be then? What do you want cities and the surrounding space to look like? What do we use our space for? Based on such a vision of the future, you reason step by step back. It may sound logical, but in practice we hardly do it’.

‘Now a lot of money and time is being pumped into a major restructuring, all kinds of parties are coming together, but we are not coming up with smart solutions that can be used for decades.’

A concrete example of how we feel now is the national program for rural areas. It has been called the biggest spatial rearrangement in decades. The national government makes 24.3 billion euros available to the provinces area program to make. The goal is to come up with nitrogen measures that also take nature, soil, water and climate into account.

According to Janssen, it is a missed opportunity. “Actually, it is primarily the nitrogen problem that is on the table. In this way, most of the money must be used to buy out farmers, where agriculture becomes nature. It will lead to enormous shifts in physical planning, and it would be a shame not to include housing and mobility. Now a lot of money and time is being pumped into a major restructuring, all possible parties are coming together, but we are not coming up with smart solutions that can be used for decades’.

Breaking free from unsustainable systems

The municipality of Katwijk shows that, despite all the obstacles and political dynamics, it is possible to use our space smartly. There is now a raised dike, which means that the South Dutch coastal town is better protected from the sea. Under this new embankment is a garage with 550 parking spaces. This construction is covered by dune landscape, which has increased biodiversity and preserved the view from the boulevard.

It is a feast for the eyes. According to Janssen, if we succeed in breaking away from the beaten track, we can come up with many more such solutions. Cities where shops are combined with green areas and meeting places, such as at the rooftop park in Rotterdam. Or play areas that act as water storage facilities in extreme weather.

‘If we create images of the future, it is often with the established order, which clings to unsustainable systems.’

Janssen closes with a final advantage backcasting. ‘If you develop a vision for the future, you can think about it with the parties who play a role in that future. For example, innovative farmers. By staring blindly at the issues of the time, we now mainly talk to parties like Rabobank and farmers who have an interest in the current path. If we create images of the future, it is often with the established order, which clings to unsustainable systems. With new stakeholders you have the chance to break free from it.’

She hopes that the national program for rural areas will still be used as an opportunity to create a completely new design for the Netherlands. A layout where we look at how we want to live and live together. In the countryside, but also in the city. Together with new stakeholders, we are looking at how we can best utilize our scarce space. The new spatial layout, which Boelhouwer is also in favor of.

Leave a Comment