Recently I have been on an excursion in the center of the Netherlands in an area that is famous for its natural beauty and even features one of the biggest natural reserves, the National Park Hoge Veluwe. I indeed saw a lot of natural beauty and wildlife. But what I also saw was less amazing and highly alarming. In an attempt to make use of the area for recreational uses while ‘respecting the nature’ (quote of a project developer), so called ‘buitenplaatsen’, places outside the city in close contact with nature, are growing like mushrooms everywhere.
Wealth in the Netherlands has reached such levels that not having a weekend house somewhere seems to turn you into a marginalized part of society. People think without having a possibility to be in nature on Saturday and Sunday, their physical and mental health is at risk. Add to that that the country wants to profit from domestic and global tourism, and you can easily imagine that not only Amsterdam’s historic centre is at risk, but also the little natural nature the country has.
If you go to the Hoge Veluwe today you will find a nature reserve that slowly but surely gets eaten away. So far the stealth killer was coming in the form of holiday parks where tiny houses, caravans and portable cabins are planted in camp grounds with a patch of domesticized green, utilities and – of course – a drive-up. It all looks small and innocent but the bio diversity in these areas and the amount of wildlife can easily be considered oblivious in the face of pesticides used, all herbs and wild flowers ripped out and replacement of deer with dogs. The stealth killer has upgraded his weapons. The new one is the above mentioned ‘buitenplaats’. Where previously the permanent camping usually was the initiative of local farmers to use their land in a different way and generate higher income, the new killer is development business. I really wonder if a former Nazi air defence installation that has not been used and where even some of the buildings have been taken down years ago should be brought back to ‘old glory’ by renovating the remains, transforming them into housing and even cutting mature trees that had taken over to rebuild Nazi army camp premises. Exactly this is what ‘Buitenplaats Koningsweg’ at the outskirts of Arnhem is about.
I can totally understand that the Dutch perspective might be different than the perspective of a German living in the Netherlands when it comes to the handling of the heritage that the National Socialists left behind but turning it into the banality of a weekend house destination – I don’t know.
But the idea of this buitenplaats goes beyond reconstructing what was there. They build more – just a little more: 11 follies (one of them a chapel that will be moved and transformed into a weekend house) populate green areas. All these mini architectures are no bigger than 40 square meters on 100 square meter plots, and they will be individually designed – ‘top of the bill’ (quote of the developer) – by architects. What they do not mention is that each one of them will be reachable by car, will have all utilities and of course the impact of a house if bigger than the plot it covers. This is low density super sprawl with the aim to have minimum impact. The real impact will be much bigger than 11 follies stacked with a single parking next to it. But of course that will not render the image of balance with nature.
Buitenplaats Kongingsweg seems to be a successful project. Two of the most renown designers and artists of the Netherlands have moved their ateliers here, and they are establishing workplaces for new ways of working. According to the developer, they add to the active, lively mix of the place. But wait – was the idea not to be in balance with nature? Was the intention not to leave nature undisturbed? This project is not the only one, and I believe that all parties involved have the best intentions – from their perspective. The result however is less nature and another little piece eaten away from it. Now multiply this by the number of projects under way and by 100 years, and one should not be surprised if nothing is left of the National Park. If we do not change our land use policies, we inevitably will end up with no nature.
I think we have to take effective and profound steps to stop this human land hunger. We need to establish a new land management regime that does away with the easy exit of building in the green field. We should simply declare all natural, all not urbanized area untouchable. All future land use discussions should only take place inside the urban areas. Need more housing? There is ample land available in all the former harbour areas, low density industrial areas and even within existing housing districts. A new stadium? Combine it with other uses. Why not having an inhabited stadium or a ring of office around it? Energy production? We can use huge roofs of all the logistics premises and all the houses we have to place PV cells. There is no need to build them on grassland. This list can be extended ad infinitum. It can be done. We have the means, but we do not have the will to do so. Instead, we gloss over the fact that our weekend in the green might be good for us but not good for the green itself. I can understand that humans long for a green environment. But then let us put more green in the cities in the first place. If we then still want to be in nature – let us come up with densified natural experiences instead of sprawl in the green. A ‘highrise-datcha’ would not only deliver that but also offer unprecedented views onto nature and if we really want to immerse ourselves into it, then let us use tents without infrastructure – as they do in North-American National Parks. I believe the result would be a lot more exciting – 100% nature here and 100% urban there. Maximum contrast rather than a uniform soup of urban-nature sprawl that lacks any form of excitement.
by Markus Appenzeller