INTERVIEW: ''Perfect plans simply matter less''

Paul Gerretsen is chief designer in the fields of regional planning, urban planning and architecture. He has studied at the renowned Universities TU Delft and ETH Zurich. He graduated with honourable mention in 1999 at the TU Delft as Master of Architecture.
From 2003 Paul Gerretsen has worked at Maxwan Architects and Urbanists on both urban and regional planning projects. Between 2005 and 2007 Paul Gerretsen was appointed Director of the South Wing Studio for Research and Design of the Province South-Holland. Since 2001 he teaches and lectured at numerous schools and universities.
From 2008 onwards he is appointed director of the Deltametropolis Association. The Deltametropolis Association is a members association that focuses on the development of the Randstad area, consists of the metropolitan area around the four major cities of the Netherlands.


- What are the main topics in the Deltametropool in terms of projects and processes?

The key projects and other state-investments programs in the city, which are almost two decades old, are now finally being finished. Examples of this are the big station projects, but also the Rijksmuseum. However by far most of state-investment go into infrastructure and particularly the widening of the roads. Since these projects take a very long time to prepare these investments based on challenges of the past are still dominating the investment agenda for years to come. The key-projects were a big trench of projects that had a strong belief in public, state spending in big projects. Some of them are quite spectacular like the Rotterdam Central Station. The Delta-program is the next big investment program that has significant impact on the way this country and particularly the western, urbanized part, will look like. The Delta-program is directed at water management and water quality and it could have far reaching consequences that we can’t oversee yet. But could be a chance also for other investments to hook onto. What is interesting to note is the absence of state investment into urban areas. Apart from Rotterdam South, there is no central government spending into cities anymore. Redevelopment of cities and strategic investment like for example the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam are now almost non-existent. Also investment in spatial economic interventions is absent although some changes in policy are appearing. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, there was quite a large spatial economic policy from the central government in the sub-regions that we are talking about. There was a big shift in Dutch policy, partly because these investments where not effective and partly because the money is being spent on other things at the moment. The FES-fund, income from the gas and oil exploitation in Groningen and the North sea, used to be directed into structural investments of all kind, but has now been stopped as an austerity measure from 2008 financial crises. The income out of oil and gas now flows into the state-budget that can be spent on anything which effectively means it is spent on relieving debt and social security.

- Was that an effect of the economic crisis or a structural political choice?

Both the economic crisis and the political/instrumental shift came at the same moment. It was bound to happen. The concept of using collective income (from oil and gas) for structural investments instead of letting it flow away into anything else, was generally not evaluated very well so was bound to change. Structural changes were unavoidable as other investment, into healthcare and social security where no longer being able to fund without a tax increase. The long term effects of structural investments are harder to pinpoint at the moment. In that sense it is a sign of the time.
Are the Netherlands losing its unique strength of planning?
The change of policies and the end of centrally steered structural funding has evoked a certain dynamic within the Dutch planning system. Formerly strong instruments lost their meaning and part of the strong negotiational structures lost their senses. Of course there are private funds and investors and also decentralized governmental structures, but they cannot cope with the loss of the impact and size of central government spending. You could say that these are marginal in relation to what was spent before.

- What is the role of the association?

The Deltametropool is a independent, non-partisan, members-association of parties that have a stake in metropolitan development. Within the association, there is room for thinking, planning, designing, negotiation and debate about the future of the urbanized heartland of the Netherlands. It is a platform for exchange and to discuss topics on an independent and informal ground, which brings people and parties together without bringing issues immediately into the ‘real’ world.

- Was that also the history of the association?

Historically, the association has always been a place for content, knowledge and debate. It started out at the end of the 90’s as a vehicle of the four major cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Den Haag, Utrecht) to influence the central government policies on the spatial development of the area, but based on a strong will to build on planning concepts. In 1998, a common declaration by the Elderman of the cities marked the official start of the association. Its strategic goal was to strengthen the development of the Randstad into a European metropolitan area with a strong international position. A central term within that declaration is growth. On the one hand, the development of the Deltametropool was seen as part of an ongoing natural growing process which historically started centuries ago.

The development of the Deltametropool was seen as part of an ongoing natural growing process

This process got an extra impulse from the growth of the second half of the 20th century and the start of the EU. On the other hand, growth is also seen as a task to deal with in terms of quality, distribution and complementarity. At that moment, there was also a strong tie between the central government and the cities on the field of spatial planning. They were more or less in line and there was no major conflict. The need for lobbying was less important than the aspect of setting a common agenda driven by content.

- What has changed since then?

Orientation towards spatial challenges was always a very strong driver for the association but the way it was used has changed and needed to change, especially if we think about a new generation of projects. As we discussed in the beginning, most of the projects currently being accomplished were based and developed in the 80’s and 90’s. If we think that we should or could develop a new generation of ‘key-projects’ just the way these kind of projects were developed and prioritized back then, we would follow the wrong path. To work in a structured method towards the type of investment that needs to be done has become very difficult. Next to the economic situation, the steering aspect has changed, so for me, that period has come to a close.

- What are possible reasons?

One reason is the fact that the area has become a city in itself. This aspect – the process of metropolization- is and always has been our key argument. What is different now is that it is less and less a discussion on how we should ‘make’ the Metropolis. It is more about how we can act smartly in a very complex regional and political context and within a social-economic dynamic in which no one can foresee the future developments clearly. That makes it harder for planners to know ‘a priori’ what to do. The things you can be more sure of lie within the bigger themes identified like water levels or demographic change. Within these themes, different kinds of investments will definitely pop up. The emphasis should be on the process to change the way different stakeholders act together. For me, the way we organize the processes to act on decisions for budgets and investments is very crucial. We also see the central government dealing with that question by trying to rethink the way the agendas are currently made. There is the ambition to leave and create more space for integral planning and the involvement of all stakeholders. [...]

Conducted by Helmut Thoele
15. April 2014 Rotterdam


Full version of the interview can be downloaded below (PDF)


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