Hans van Zijst

Smart Spacial Planning

Recorded: September 18, 2013

The small country of the Netherlands has a population of over 17 million people. Hans van Zijst talks about how planning and zoning work in the Netherlands and how such a very small country can still preserve areas for open space/recreation, agricultural, and natural resources.  An expert in Green Plans, Hans explains how the Netherlands is zoned in a way that keeps the country green.

Hans van Zijst is an independent senior advisor of several Dutch ministries, government bodies and public sector companies in infrastructure development, environmental, nature and water affairs, as well as sustainable development. As co-founder of WesselinkVanZijst he specializes in complex issues of government cooperation and public participation.  Hans worked 11 years as a senior consultant for several national and international management consultancy firms. He started his career as a civil servant in the Dutch Ministry of the Environment (VROM).  During his 16 years at VROM, he worked on a range of national and international strategies for sustainable development and chemicals management, and was a founding member of the International Network of Green Planners.

He is a key spokesman in the US documentary, Green Plans, directed by John deGraaf, that focuses on the Dutch and New Zealand green plans, launched in the early 1990s.  From 1992 – 1994 Hans represented the Netherlands in the United States and Canada as environmental counsel at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, DC.


Hans van Zijst:    Spatial planning is a real policy field in the Netherlands.  I think that’s already something which is important to state up front because being such a small country as we are, and inhabiting not only 17 million people but also these enormous amounts of cows, poultry, pork, what have you, always asked from government authorities to be very clear about what you could do where, and to really regulate the use of land across the whole country.  And by today, if you want to do something new somewhere, it means you’ll have to get the former destination of that property or that land out.  So if you want say, “we need more nature,” it means you would have to change for example agricultural lands to nature or urban planning zones to nature.  If you say “we need new towns for people to live because we are still growing as a population, we need new places of where people can live,” there are only basically in the Netherlands two opportunities.  Either you put more people within the same space, that’s particularly true for the bigger cities, or you build new towns and you try to be as space efficient as possible in developing those new towns.  Rather than urban sprawl where you continue to put on little areas of housing to what you already have, which we see here in the Bay Area.

In the Netherlands, we have a system of green and red zoning.  Green zoning means that you have a green boundary around your existing development and you may grow to a certain level beyond that and it’s the province, the next level from the municipality, which oversees that and rules that.  If you hit a red boundary, it means you cannot develop further.  The red boundaries are there to protect open space, to protect nature reserves, to protect water reservoirs on the ground, ground water reservoirs, which are necessary for drinking water.  So I mean there you simply can’t continue to develop.

So the provinces are, particularly the small towns, which are likely to grow and grow and grow, they have a much tighter red boundary than the bigger cities and to make sure that little towns stay little towns.  The red limits there are quite strongly applied and enforced, while in the bigger cities the real challenge is to clean up brown fields.  More on the east coast than maybe on the west coast, but I always found it amazing how urban sprawl continues to go on while there’s this vast amount of brown fields where industry that has already been obsolete, that has died down, that is totally abandoned, continues to just sit there in the middle of town or very close to towns, which would be excellent housing property.

If you look at states like New Jersey, towns that I’ve seen there like Trenton, I mean there’s such a wide opportunity to clean up within the vicinity, within the existing town boundaries, clean up and build there, but that’s not what happens.  Everybody leaves the brown fields alone, it’s probably too costly.  Nobody ever made any reservation to clean that up, which is a very unwise decision but it’s allowed under the corporate regulation in the Netherlands, you can just go broke.  You can leave the property and there it sits for eternity.  That’s something, which I already found quite amazing that could happen.  It does happen occasionally in the Netherlands but basically there are the fields that are looked for as sort of that really should be the area that you should change, clean up and be the next housing area development, which means it would still be within the town limits instead of asking for new, pristine land.

The whole concept of what we call double land use is the fact that you staple destinations.  Within the inner cities, that is still very much applied.  So indeed, many of the parking garages go underground and then you have to build your office or your residential area on top of that.  If you want to settle as a company in the Netherlands, you will – you are forced by the municipal government — to organize your parking facility within the same lot.  So that’s the way spatial planning works out in the Netherlands.  It doesn’t mean that it’s nirvana because there’s always problems, there’s always decisions to make and that’s because we’re such a highly densely populated area, but I mean that’s the same for the Bay Area.  The Bay Area is highly populated, you still want your range lands, you still have your farmers here and there, you still have your nature reserves and at the same time there is a continuing call for new residential area development.  And there should be somebody, somebody within government at some level, maybe Marin County, maybe the state of California but at one point in time you would have to say, “Okay, this is the limit.  Here it stops and no more urban sprawl beyond this point because this is the valued open space that we need also to recreate, to enjoy and to make the whole thing still prosperous lively environment.”