Utopia as route | Floris Alkemade

The Netherlands is constantly changing. Ever since people first inhabited this land, dykes have protected us from the threats of water. Over the generations, these dikes have given structure to our delta. As a source of energy, we first had the forests, then peat and then coal and gas, and each form of energy production has left its traces in our country. Our cities and villages, our infrastructure and agriculture have thus shaped our landscapes. No square metre has gone unused. The Netherlands is always in motion.

In the coming decades, our expertise will be called on more than ever to make smart adjustments to the changing circumstances. Rarely has a generation faced such extensive and relevant challenges. Climate adaptation, agricultural reform, urbanisation and the energy transition are all issues with consequences that will impact us all.

These complex challenges regularly produce unrest and uncertainty in society. We have seen angry farmers and builders demonstrating on the Malieveld. One of the reasons for this dissatisfaction is because the call for change is often wrongly formulated in the form of doom scenarios. We must change, because otherwise... But optimism and an attractive shared view of the future form a much better engine for change.

Several years ago, the Board of Government Advisors and I launched Panorama Netherlands, a future perspective for the spatial quality of the Netherlands. In Panorama Netherlands, we show how the complex issues of today can lead to welcome changes in the future.

Take housing, for example. In the coming decades, we want to build a million homes in the Netherlands. By building most new-build developments within the existing urban environment, near public transport, work and amenities, we are not only protecting our open areas, but we are also improving the quality of life in our towns and villages. Our aim is to build in existing residential areas dating from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, which are often due for renovation, to make them sustainable and greener, to create more public spaces and to adapt our residential environment to the growing demand for suitable homes for single households and the elderly.

In the post-war reconstruction, wood disappeared from our residential building, replaced by concrete which is now responsible for around 8 to 9 percent of the global CO2 emissions. This is the moment to create a new building culture with biobased materials. That offers opportunities for a new way of building, new ways of manufacturing, different forms of design freedoms. Building in wood is ideal for prefabrication, enabling us to meet demand faster and transform existing districts with less disruption. And due to its light weight, wood is a great way to add extra storeys to existing buildings.

Through the example of residential construction, I want to show that no challenge exists in isolation. It is closely related to the challenge to maintain the quality of life in our current towns and villages, with mobility, but also with agriculture and nature. All design questions are about realising that it is not a goal but a means. The complex demand for housing is all too easily reduced to numbers and speed. This is a dangerous distortion of the actual demand which is a societal issue that needs to address themes like social segregation, inequality of opportunity, isolation and demographic development.

The question does not therefore become more complex, but rather more logical and relevant. And more creative, because it requires a different way of thinking: integrated, daring to choose quality and the long term. Solidarity as an engine for the architectonic way of thinking.

Over the past thirty years, we have experienced breathtakingly rapid development in terms of technology, computers and an online world which has given us endless new possibilities. But all the underlying principles leave a trail of destruction behind in the real world. The coming decades will be about using all the new technological possibilities to achieve an equally breathtaking and rapid development of the possibilities and improvements in the real world.

Wonderful times lie ahead. Now the designers must step up, imagination is key.














Text written by Floris Alkemade, government architect.
Heather picture by beelden van Panorama NL