III Hydraulic, Ecological, and Bioregional Design Case Studies

The Dutch Deltametropolis

The Dutch Deltametropolis1

Lianne van Duinen


In 2001, The Economist proclaimed the development of the Dutch would-be Deltametropolis “the biggest land use planning issue in Western Europe.” In so doing, the journalist referred to the Deltametropolis concept as proposed in 1996 as an alternative to the Randstad concept by the councilors ot spatial planning of the tour major cities in the western part of the Netherlands: Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam, and Utrecht. They argued for development of the Randstad area “from a group of four, separate large cities into a single thinly populated region, a conurbation to rival any in Europe” (The Economist 2001). A qualitative leap was aimed for: both in living—working environments and in transport qualities. At the time, the proposed concept was innovative in many respects, and its advance in the political arena was rapid and successful. Yet in the end only a stripped-down version of this idea remained, in many ways resembling the old Randstad concept that it should have replaced.

A case such as this makes us question the contribution of conceptual evolution in regional design and policy.Traditionally,this role of conceptualization of space and territory is important in Dutch national spatial planning. As the literature in political and policy science suggests, planning concepts can potentially play an important role in bringing about policy change. They do so by bringing innovation and new understandings into the policy-making arena (Baumgartner and Jones 1993, Stone 1997, Healey 2004). However, it is unclear to what extent spatial concepts succeed in maintaining this innovative function in the political process.This chapter concentrates on this issue, specifically focusing on the Deltametropolis as a case study regarding regional design and the evolution of planning concepts.

While this new regional conceptualization carried new insights and understandings into the Dutch planning debate, its innovative capacities did not hold.The innovative elements regarding urban structure were replaced by well-known elements of urban form (urban—rural morphology), in the end leading to an abolishment of the Deltametropolis altogether. In part, this might be attributed to the Dutch political tradition in which policy outcomes are reached through negotiation and consultation between many different actors, known as the Dutch polder model (Schreuder 2001). However, this chapter argues that there may be a more fundamental explanation for the impoverishment in the political arena: over time spatial concepts may become encased in the predominant urban—rural planning orientation, sustained by planning practices. After outlining a theoretical and methodological framework, this chapter examines the conceptual evolution of the Deltametropolis concept that emerged as an alternative to the Randstad concept.

Theoretical Framework: Discourses and Conceptual Innovation

In order to study conceptual innovation in a political arena, a theoretical framework is required that considers the interplay between ideational and political factors, not privileging one over another. For this purpose, discourse-theoretical approaches provide useful insights (see Hajer and Versteeg 2005, Leintelder and Albert 2010,Thomas and Littlewood 2010). In a discourse- analytical perspective, the policy process is regarded as “a struggle to determine the legitimate way of framing issues” (Hajer 2000,141). It is a process in which politicians, government, companies, interest groups, and citizens together determine what should take place. All these actors participate and interfere. No politician can afford to force a decision on the basis of his authority (Hajer 2010).The actors have to legitimize their position by raising support for their views.

This view on the policy process stresses the importance of ideas in policy-making (Stone 1997, Campbell 1998, 2002, Walsh 2000). It is all about how actors mobilize ideas to gather political support and thwart the aims of opponents, in order to make and control policy. These ideas are not isolated notions but are embedded in broader ways of understanding. Following Hajer and Versteeg (2005, 175), these can be defined as discourses: specific “ensembles of ideas, concepts and categorizations through which meaning is given to social and physical phenomena, which are produced and reproduced through an identifiable set of practices.” Discourses can be defined at various levels: from broad, enduring ways of understandings to more temporary and fluid policy discourses. This chapter restricts itself to the latter view and defines discourses as policy discourses: discursive ensembles that can be distinguished around specific policy fields, in this case the spatial policy field. Over time, dominant policy discourses may get translated in practices: institutional ways of handling problems such as organizational routines or legal arrangements and power relations that help sustain a particular discourse (Hajer 2001).

It is against the backdrop of spatial policy discourses that new concepts emerge. Out of a sense of urgency, actors seek new perspectives: framing ideas and problems into a new, appealing conceptual understanding. They may actively question premises of current concepts, challenge their rationality, inevitability, and validity', and introduce and promote alternative conceptual approaches (Baumgartner and Jones 1993, Rein and Laws 2000, Wilson 2000). By doing so, the actors involved determine how an issue should be perceived, what should be considered as a problem, and therefore the range of alternative solutions. This process of problem setting through concepts cannot be perceived separately from the actors involved. After all, as Rein and Laws (2000) argue, concepts are never self-revealing: they require a sponsor. Concepts gain popularity’ because they are advocated by particular actors.

In this process,actors frame and reframe conceptual understandings, and coalitions emerge: the concept as a banner around which different actors may unite. By introducing alternative ways of understanding and carrying them into the policy-making arena, new concepts act as a vehicle for innovation. In so doing, spatial concepts may reorder our understandings. It can function as an icebreaker that breaks up the ice and introduces alternative views into the policy-making arena (Korsten 1997). As long as the ice of the existing understandings does not freeze up again, other reorderings may follow. Policy change may therefore take place through the emergence of new planning imaginaries (Davoudi 2018). That new ideas are wrapped up in the form of a new concept may be obvious: planning concepts are tailor-made for packaging interpretations through their ability to name and frame space and spatial relations in just one word, or image (Zonneveld 1989, Kunzmann 1996).

To determine whether the new concept brings fundamental change or just superficial adjustments, this chapter employs the model of the three layers of spatial concepts as elaborated by van Duinen (2013). This model distinguishes three layers ot a concept to analyze change in content: the label (the name, rhetoric), the problem definition, and the core idea. Together, they form a conceptual frame. If change occurs at the rhetoric level only and not at the deeper layers of a concept, then the innovation is merely a case ot “old wine in new bottles.” With these theoretical notions (discourses, actor coalitions) and the three layers of concepts (label, problem definition, core idea), we will examine the development and conceptual innovation of the Deltametropolis concept.

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