Planning in the Netherlands

Another European nation with a strongly centralized planning system and a commitment to national-level planning is the Netherlands. The Netherlands' population density is about 13 times that of the U.S.'s "lower 48." The nation's land form has been substantially changed by a long-time policy of reclaiming land from the North Sea. Thus some of the nation's population lives on land that lies a few feet below sea level and is protected from the sea by dikes. It is no surprise that the Dutch take a different attitude toward planning than do Americans. When it comes to the use of land, the Dutch have learned to cooperate with each other. They have no alternative. Then, too, with a land area only a little larger than that of Connecticut and no major physical barrier that divides the nation, planning the entire nation on the basis of a unified vision is much easier. Peter Newman and Andy Thornley note that the Netherlands has been called the "most planned" nation in Europe. The American planner traveling in the Netherlands is very likely to feel that this description is true.

As in many other parts of Europe, there is a very sharp separation between town and country. Urban development and farmers' fields meet abruptly with no intervening suburban development. The first impression one gets of the Dutch landscape is of great order, of a landscape in which very little space has been wasted, and in which every acre is earmarked for some purpose. The nation's largest city, Amsterdam, is densely developed but also orderly and charming. It is very modern and functional, yet a great deal of the old survives. The core of the city is not big; there is essentially no vacant land left, and the city is a major magnet for businesses and tourism, as well as for permanent residential use. It is clear that if the land and property market were allowed to work without interference, the effects of extremely high land values would quickly transform the core of the city. Buildings of five or six stories, the typical height, would quickly be torn down and replaced with much taller structures. The street system would soon be overwhelmed, as it has an essentially pre-automobile-era layout. In very little time the charm and the delightful pedestrian character of the city would be gone. Part of the city's charm comes from a well-preserved system of concentric canals that once performed a central transportation function but are now primarily scenic and recreational. The canals, too, would not survive if land uses were determined purely by the market. Planning controls are obviously very strict and effective.

The Dutch planning system is a top-down one. The national government produces both the laws that govern planning and, periodically, a national plan. Provincial governments, the middle layer in a three-tier system, interpret the national plan and prepare directives and the like for local governments. Local government plans must be in conformity with the national plan. At the local level there is a structuurplan that lays out the overall picture. The U.S. counterpart would be the master plan. To implement that, there is a detailed plan (bestemmingsplan) that specifies the expected and acceptable use of every parcel. The U.S. counterpart would be the zoning ordinance and map.20 The system as described here may sound rather more rigid and autocratic than it is. In actuality there is a great deal of communication up and down, and there is opportunity for the public to comment on plans. But when the period for comments and adjustments is over, the plans are binding. Some years ago I attended a presentation by a Dutch planner to a group of American planning professors. When the planner had finished explaining the system described here, one of the Americans asked, in effect, "But does it really happen that way?" The Dutch planner answered that indeed it does, and he seemed puzzled by the question. The Americans understood the question perfectly, for they all knew about the role of politics, the process of litigation and appeal, and our love affair with private property. But they had difficulty believing the answer.

The most conspicuous example of Dutch planning at the national level is the Randstad Holland, the urban heart of Holland. As shown in

A section of a canal about a mile from downtown Amsterdam.

Figure 18-1, this urbanized area consists of a grouping of six cities around an open core. This arrangement will not happen naturally, for if events are left purely to the market, the central core will fill in because locations inside the core will offer good access to all the cities and thus become very valuable. Rather, the arrangement is made to happen through large-scale planning and strict controls on land use. The arrangement has several advantages. First, it gives the residents of the Randstad much better access to the natural world than they would have if the same 4.5 or so million people were all contained in a single city. The arrangement also reduces commuting times, as the average trip in a small city will be shorter than the average trip in a large city.21 There are environmental advantages as well; for example, the ring of cities will, all other things being equal, have better air quality than would a single city containing the equivalent number of people and economic activity. Peter Hall notes that there is a considerable degree of specialization among the three larger cities of the Randstad. Rotterdam, at the mouth of the Rhine, is a port city, in fact, the largest port in Europe. The Hague is the seat of the Dutch government and also contains some international organizations including the World Court. Amsterdam is a commercial, financial, and cultural center. Much of that specialization is historical accident or is decreed by geography. But some is planned and makes the cities more efficient economically than they would otherwise be. In an economic sense, the group of cities, because they are physically close and linked by a very effective transportation system, constitutes a single economic entity and achieves some of the advantages of large scale that a single metropolis would have.22 But the group also achieves some environmental and quality-of-life advantages that we normally associate with smaller places.

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