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Nurturing Nature: Indigenous Wisdom in Delta Planning

Afstudeerwerk van Laurens Westerhuis


Enter the verdant landscapes of the Rhine/Meuse Delta in the Netherlands, where the opportunity is revealed for striking a balance between urbanisation and the indigeneity of nature. This column explores the profound connection between traditional land use and the conservation of natural areas within this bustling delta.


Zoomed-in photo of the Scheldt, Meuse, and Rhine/Waal outlet


Water management

“Indigenous practices are often based on the local environment and resources, offering site-specific solutions to problems. These are practices that have been developed over millennia and are based on long-term observations and experiences and direct contact with the environment. People have deep understanding of patterns and processes in their landscape, which makes them inherently climate resilient” (Column by Shanna)


After reading this quote, I wondered to what extent Dutch water management (a crucial phenomenon when living in a delta) can be seen as an indigenous practice as inhabitants of the northwestern part of Europe had to deal with water issues for ages. Before I delve further into indigenous practices, it is important to understand why approximately 18 million Dutch people inhabit a densely populated delta region, confronting significant environmental challenges and susceptibility to flooding. It can be inevitably argued that Dutch water management is crucial to this ‘success’. The correlation between Dutch water management and its high population density is rooted in historical land reclamation efforts (e.g., Flevoland), compact urban development policies (mainly in the Randstad), and efficient network infrastructures. Water management projects have created a unique habitable land, allowing for dense urbanisation in the Rhine/Meuse Delta. This compact urban development attracts economic activity and promotes higher population densities in a flat delta area. For sure, there are several additional factors contributing to the high liveability of delta regions, such as their fertile soils conducive to agriculture, availability of water resources, and comparatively milder climates but for now, I primarily focus on the existence of ‘traditional’ land use.


Historic water tower of Strijen, can we consider this water management as an indigenous practice?


In my opinion, this planning approach of rapid urbanisation essentially ensured that all aspects of the landscape, from agriculture providing food to residential areas offering housing, are optimised for efficiency and to serve the needs of human inhabitants. One might say that this way of spatial planning has led to fewer natural areas compared to similar places in Western Europe (e.g., Oder, Seine Delta). I recognise that comparing delta areas is hard because they have different landscapes (e.g., soil typology), cultures, and histories. Nevertheless, through my thesis case study, I want to emphasise why keeping indigenous practices intact is vital for preserving green areas in delta landscapes. With the upcoming concept of nature-based solutions (will it be a new planning paradigm?), I argue that landscape architects and spatial planners should develop designs that prioritise the holistic needs of both humans and the natural environment and focus less on the ‘functionality’ of the landscape.


Thesis

In my thesis, I explored the correlation between green space accessibility and visitation frequencies, focusing on a case study that distinguished two primary land uses: agricultural land and residential districts. I selected a village near the Randstad area, Strijen, situated in South Holland within the Rhine/Meuse delta region. Strijen represents an 'exurban' setting at the boundary between rural and suburban environments within the scale of urbanity.


Within this context, I investigated not only the visitation frequencies to green spaces but also the underlying motives driving people to visit these areas. Access to green spaces, including parks, forests, and gardens, has long been recognised as vital for promoting human well-being. These natural environments offer opportunities for relaxation, recreation, and physical activity, all of which are crucial for reducing stress and enhancing overall quality of life (Constanza et al., 2014). In addition, green spaces serve as valuable educational resources, providing opportunities for environmental learning (Zhou & Rana, 2012). Furthermore, the aesthetic enjoyment of nature and the social aspect of green spaces, as places where people can gather, contribute to improved mental health.


In my thesis, I conducted a survey to explore the relationship between different types of green spaces and these motives. Since the term 'green spaces' is broadly defined, I categorized various types within close proximity to residents of Strijen. Also, I considered that certain typical Dutch natural landscapes, such as moorland, are not found nearby due to the predominant presence of thick clay soil. Luckily, I had remarkable significant findings. I found that when the average time spent in green spaces increases, residents go to meadow landscapes or nature reserves, which typically require residents of Strijen to travel farther distances. Additionally, stronger motivations to seek relaxation, engage in social activities, and observe nature within green spaces are positively linked with higher visitation frequencies to these areas.


Map of Strijen's neighbourhoods according to CBS statistics to determine spatial differences regarding green space accessibility and visitation frequencies


Indigeneity of the natural areas

So, what do these results tell us, and what is the correlation with the indigeneity of nature areas? This rapid urbanisation and focus on agglomeration economies causes landscape fragmentation. Traditional land use has rapidly changed over time, and continuous areas of natural or semi-natural habitats are broken up or divided into smaller, isolated patches or fragments (Jaeger et al., 2016). This phenomenon significantly impacts ecosystems by leading to the loss of habitats and biodiversity. That’s why there is an urge to change the direction of Delta Planning; try to link the pre-existing habitats and stimulate traditional land use. I’m saying that nature must be seen as more than just a resource. Indigenous wisdom teaches us to respect the landscape, to give back when needed, and to appreciate its importance. Let's remember these lessons as we plan for the future in delta regions. Let's aim for sustainable solutions that honour our past (i.e., indigenous practices) while looking forward. And let's make green spaces not just for the environment but for our well-being too, as places where communities can thrive in harmony with nature.


A meadow landscape around Strijen, a nature reserve with birds



Resources

Costanza, R., De Groot, R., Sutton, P. C., Van Der Ploeg, S., Anderson, S., Kubiszewski, I., Färber, S., & Turner, R. K. (2014). Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change, 26, 152–158. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.04.002


Jaeger, J. A., Soukup, T., Schwick, C., Madriñan, L. F., & Kienast, F. (2016). Landscape fragmentation in Europe. In European Landscape Dynamics (1st edition, pp. 157–198). https://doi.org/10.1201/9781315372860-34 


Zhou, X., & Rana, M. (2012). Social benefits of urban green space. Management Of Environmental Quality: An International Journal, 23(2), 173–189. https://doi.org/10.1108/14777831211204921

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