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64. Gener-marÁ 2020
Quarterly Newsletter of the Landscape Observatory of Catalonia

The Dutch approach

Henk Baas
Historical geographer and head of the landscape department of the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency (part of Ministry of Education, Culture and Science)

The Dutch landscape architect Adriaan Geuze said it very clearly: "we [the Dutch] are only good for two things: we make land, and then we paint it". Another quote in this context comes from the French author Michel Houellebecq . In his latest novel (Sérotonine) he says that "the Netherlands aren't a country, at the most they are a company of traders". With these two quotes in mind I will try to explain the Dutch approach to landscape, which is all about management of change, about adaption, adjusting, resilience and reshaping. 

The Dutch created about half of their country by themselves. This part is from Holocene origin and consist mostly of (reclamation) polders and peat lands. Landscape management here is in fact driven by water management, in contradiction to the Pleistocene part of the Netherlands, where landscape management is more driven by agricultural developments. In the 20th century, these Pleistocene soils were mostly re-cultivated for agricultural purposes. Landscape policy nowadays is mostly about re-shaping the connection between nature and agriculture, and the most valued places are mostly protected landscapes or nature reserves.  In the lowland polders and peat areas, landscape policy follows - as said - water management. And so is the agricultural use of these parts of the Netherlands: dairy farming.

At this moment in time, the re-shaping of our countryside for renewable energy as well as climate change is the most threatening driving force for the Dutch landscapes. Especially the typical Dutch polder landscapes - well known and internationally highly valued - are under pressure. Because the surface of most land is beneath sea level, the rising of the sea level, as well as the sinking of the peat lands themselves, are becoming a risk. Unlucky, this is also the economic heartland of the Netherlands, as about 60% of our citizens (10 million people) are living in these lowlands. Policy is now about climate adaptation, and adjustment of our landscape to climate change.  In fighting the sinking of our land by pumping, we seek for another agricultural use, which will change the landscapes as we know for ages (and painted it).

Landscape (and heritage) policy is about finding balance in protection and development, in characterisation-studies, in providing knowledge to decision makers about the way we addressed change in the past. The best example how to do this can be seen in our river landscapes in the middle of our country, where European rivers Rhine and Meuse formed maybe our most impressive landscape.  In the so-called 'Room for the River' we gave the rivers more room to be able to manage higher water levels. At more than 30 locations, measures are taken to give the river space to flood safely. With attention to and preservation of the character of the landscape (and it's heritage), we managed to design this in such a way that we improved the quality of the landscape as a whole. 

The European Landscape Convention is a framework for action on different governmental levels. In the Netherlands, municipalities have the strongest influence on landscape. As an outcome of spatial and environmental planning policies. As Cultural Heritage Agency (part of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science), we provide them with knowledge, and suggest that landscape biographies can be a useful tool for them, especially when it's also used as a tool for participation. On a national scale we monitor landscape in the way it connects to change. We use GIS but also photo-monitoring. In knowledge of the constant factor of change, landscape monitoring can be a real challenge. But necessary to provide decision makers ánd the general public with the right information about what's going on. 

Our landscapes are all products of changes in the past. We have a strong tradition in landscape architectural design, and therefore I'm hopeful about the way our future landscape will look like. In let's say 100 years they will look different than we think now, that's for sure!

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