Hans van Zijst

The Green Plan Report

Recorded: September 18, 2013

The Dutch have developed a holistic way of land use planning through Green Plans. They look ahead 25 years, or one generation. Hans van Zijst is a planner, consultant and expert on Green Plans. He explains how Green Plans work in the Netherlands, why they are used, and how they are used in parts of in the European Union.

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.

Huey Johnson:    This is about green plans.  Many years ago I was in a position on the governor’s cabinet in the State of California, and I had begun to realize that we couldn’t solve part of the problem.  If we looked at water and we’ve worked a lot on water, well, we still had air unsolved. And if you had to have water, you had to have energy because one of the largest users of pumps in this state is electricity — running all the water pumps to everybody’s house and down to L.A. from Northern California and so on.  It was a – it had to be a package.   And when that time was over for me and we were through with the political period, I spent some time looking around trying to find an answer that must be going on in the world far better than we were doing it, and we found that.

First in Norway, one of our partners, Peggy Lauer, went to Norway on a visit and we’d heard they were good and the Norwegians said “We’re good, but the Dutch are really where its happening.”  So I went to the Netherlands, with not figuring out quite how to be anybody and manage to do it, and they had what we called a Green Plan.  And it was a comprehensive plan that did all these – wove all these problems together, education, transportation, housing, water, air, in a comprehensive, manageable package so that you’re really managing the quality of life and not just focusing all your budgets and all your energy on one little part of it each time.  Because in doing that, if you only focus on part of the package spectrum of issues relating in a natural resource spectrum of water, air, energy and so on, forest, fisheries, parks, ad finatum, you are always having them come unraveled.  You get one fixed up just fine, but it’s related to the others, and the others didn’t get the attention. The one you fixed did, so it gets pulled down and tangled up again and you never really make much progress.  But in the case of a comprehensive, integrated systemic approach, which is what the Dutch did, you move forward in a dramatic and effective way.

In looking around at this, I then met a wonderful professional who was the environmental officer in the Dutch Embassy in Washington, Hans Van Zijst.  And with Hans’ help and guidance, we did a lot of work in the Netherlands, wrote a book and we’ve gone many other places as well, and he still is at it doing effective work and one of the interviews I’ve looked forward to is this one right now, interviewing Hans Van Zijst, then and now.


Huey Johnson:    We are pushed to the wall now environmentally.  The Dutch are smart enough to recognize it and act and make it a national purpose to clean it up.  They have let go of the rope, they’re going down the rapids, they’re not looking back, and they’re not looking left nor right.  They know survival’s at stake just as if they were threatened with war.  And this nation is pulling together in that way.

Hans Van Zijst:    We need to make a better effort [unintelligible] the approach of an integrated, comprehensive plan with the full scale approach as we’ve done in the Netherlands, is really the way to go.


Huey Johnson:    We met when you were in the embassy I believe in Washington.

Hans Van Zijst:    Yes.

Huey Johnson:    And the Dutch Green Plan at the time, an invention that I’ve felt was as progressive as human beings that have come up with yet.  The idea of a Green Plan has – was then in place, what has been the evolution of it?

Hans Van Zijst:    Well it came from 1989 that was the year when the first plan came, and it was then written into law that every 4 years there should be a new plan.  In the implementations, things go on but in terms of new ideas, new innovative approaches, the whole thinking in terms of the target groups, of the work with all the governance, the agreements with the corporate community and what they were going to do to lower their emissions and to lower their impact on the environment.  That was very much ‘90s.  The whole idea of the governance in the ‘90s was that you would have a certain type of industry, which would have an impact on the environment across the board, could be air, could be soil, be water, could be waste, and that you made sort of a total deal with that typical industry, with that type of industry to say “Okay, you’re going to do this on air.  You’re going to do this on noise.  You’re going to do this on safety.  And together, that is your sort of plan for the next 25 years.”  And we sign it and that’s what you’re going to do.  And we’re not going to wait for 24 years to see whether anything has been done in the 25th year, now we want intermediate steps, we want to see progress across those years.

That kind of sort of comprehensive approach, that was left already in something like later half of the ‘90s unfortunately.  What remained, fortunate enough, was sort of source specific or product specific or service specific types of governance where you would just say “Okay, I’m going to do this on energy,” or “I’m going to do this on waste minimization,” or “I’m going to do this on increasing the safety of my chemical plant,” or “I’m going to do this in terms of air quality improvement.”  But this great idea that we had in the ‘90s in which we actually developed early in the ‘90s of having everything, the whole – you might all really say the whole matrix into a few governance, which was really the innovative thing that you also think are one of the best things that happened in that time.  That was sort of gradually and unfortunately abandoned.  The idea is excellent and we proved that it was actually implementable.  We did it and it’s only because of changes in political, really not in political thinking that we sort of moved away from it after about 10 to 12 years.


Huey Johnson:    How about EU?  They adopted after..-

Hans Van Zijst:    Well that’s funny; the EU looked obviously very closely to the whole development of the environmental policy planning.  They were always very interested and they followed very closely.  To one extent, they were a bit afraid that all this voluntary agreements in the governance would maybe not bring the expected results in the end and that was their worry, because I mean if it’s in an Act, it can be enforced and therefore it probably in the end will live up to the expectation that was put up at front.  Here we go in a series of voluntary civil law agreements and you simply at the front don’t know whether you’re going to meet the expected results in due time, particularly if that due time is 22 or even 25 years ahead.  And we were always talking about a generation ahead.

Huey Johnson:    Right.

Hans Van Zijst:    So that was sort of, for them, that was a sort of problematic part but I mean the way that it worked to them was very, they were very enthusiastic about it.  It was a tempting idea to level that up to a, to put that to a higher level.  So finally, they proposed indeed, that to do.  But of course all the other countries within the European Union all had their different systems and some of them were highly legislatively based, others were less based on law but based on other stuff.  But I mean for them, the distance to the Dutch approach from their own existing situation at that point was huge and they, many of them simply could not envision them taking that step.  So while the commission tried to put forward the idea and thinking of European – of the Environmental Policy Planning process as done in the Netherlands to a wider audience, there was a lot of reaction, negative reaction from other countries.  The whole concept in its full strength that Environmental Policy Planning was in the early ‘90s in the Netherlands was never accepted by the European Union in its full capacity.  It was always sort of, it was picky, picking things out that were interesting and using that but never full flown everything.

So the union today is still always in any topic, whether its economic or political or social or environmental, it always takes a lot of time to get things done and with 28 countries around the table, you can imagine how this goes.

Huey Johnson:    Another comment that stuck with me over those years, since those years was it’s the process that’s important, not necessarily the result.

Hans Van Zijst:    Right.

Huey Johnson:    Working together, I mean European countries have gone to war for so many centuries, all of the sudden sitting down and working out a fiscal policy.

Hans Van Zijst:    Well this is true for the National Environmental Policy Plan as much as it is true for the whole European Union.  Process is key, but you do need goals.  You do need a point in the horizon where you say “Okay, this is a point which is so far that we can hardly imagine what we will be doing next year, let alone what we will know what we will be doing in 25 years.”  Still, if we can agree about some sort of, maybe even if its still a bit blurry or a bit fuzzy, but there should be something happening at the end of let’s say the next generation, 25 years, that’s always a nice figure.  Can we at least imagine what we should start doing today if we want to be there in 25 years time?  And are we willing if we put all our efforts together to sort of start working towards that goal?


Hans Van Zijst:    Six years ago, the ministry of the environment asked me to be one of the special advisors on a mission to get Georgia into environmental policy planning, it’s Georgia’s wish to enter into the European Union in due time.  In the past we would have helped countries by — basically we would write their plan.  We had learned the hard way that that doesn’t work.  We took them through all the steps but we let them do all the research, all the writing, all the thinking, and we would just challenge them and ask them the questions that they need to answer.  They have the plan now, I think a year, maybe a year and a half now, and now of course the challenge is to do the implementation.  I know that a donor community has been quite looking forward to this plan because it gives them the opportunity to focus on certain issues, to focus on certain investment decisions.

So not just the Dutch but I know the Germans, I know the USA and many others will sort of use this plan as they can find which will be their contribution to the better environmental developments in Georgia for the next, let’s say 5 to 6 years.  [unintelligible] from Germany will work this way and I know the Dutch Government will work this way too.  So the document will, we’ll sort of set the first record is the first Environmental Policy Plan of Georgia, which in itself is a success, but it will very much be to also the basis for the investments that will go on in the next 5 years.  And to that extent, I think the latter is even more important than the first.  Having one is fine, but the process of getting it going and we’re back to the question of whether process is more important than goals.  They’re both important but to get a process going where actually the donor community is putting their money where their mouth is, that is something which you would like to see developed.  So it has to be from them, by them, through them, gone through their own political processes.  They must agree to it, it has no meaning whatsoever whether we are happy with it, they should be happy with it and they should put it into action.  It’s a wonderful idea and we showed the world that it was possible to do it.