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Somberman's hope. Towards change-oriented landscape architecture and spatial planning beyond the status quo

Artikel door Martijn Duineveld

Years of in-depth research have given me the following insights on the relationship between students' motivation and their study choices:

'Dunno eh , something with people, or uh' - Communication or psychology.

'I want to make a fast buck' - Business administration.

'I want to help companies circumvent laws and regulations' - Law.

'I like mushrooms and beetles' - Forest and Nature Conservation.

'I love to boot the gong and stick a Djonko in my horn' - Philosophy.

'I like to work on a non-existent future' - Animal science.

Luckily, students' motivations for studying Landscape Architecture and Planning at Wageningen are much more subtle and considered. For a long time, they ranged from 'I love to design, but I find architecture too technical' to 'I really like art, drawing and nature, and this study combines it all'. And for many, Landscape Architecture and Planning does not disappoint. In fact, Landscape Architecture and Planning is a super cool and interesting study. Not only do you learn to think about the future layout and design of our shared public spaces and landscapes, but you also learn to design for it, often in projects of great social value. In other words, you will literally be planning and designing the future of the Netherlands (or other places in the world). And every year Wageningen produces dozens of super-smart, motivated and hands-on students who often immediately find a job making the near-perfect colour picture of the Netherlands a little nicer, greener and better.

So much for the close-to-the-truth advertising narrative I used to propagate on information days. But not anymore. Something has changed. In the world, in the students and in me.

Afbeelding 1: The observed and possible future average global temperature changes (AR6 Synthesis Report)

The year 2023 stands in stark contrast to all the years I have taught in Wageningen before. That year I asked a group of about 50 first-year students, who had just finished their final presentations on the future layout of the Netherlands in 2050, whether they were hopeful about the year 2050, about the state of the world in 2050 and about their lives by then. No opinion: a fifth of the students. Hopeful: four. Not very hopeful: the majority. I didn't know what to say. I wanted to say, 'don't worry, everything will be fine'. But to be honest, I'm not so sure anymore. Like many people, I worry about the future. And these worries are, unfortunately, scientifically justified. Lectures, papers, books and piles of reports on the state of the climate or biodiversity can, sadly, be summed up as follows: The shit is hitting the fan and we are fucked. At least if we don't act as soon as possible, if we don't reduce our dependence on fossil fuels on a global scale, and if we don't reduce our meat consumption, with the richest and most consuming people in the world taking the lead, otherwise your good intentions will create even more inequality.

The realisation that 'shit is going to hit the fan and we're fucked unless...' helped me realise that planning and designing for the future of the Netherlands (and a number of other rich western countries) has, for a couple of generations now, mainly been a matter of making some aesthetic, ecological and climate-adaptive improvements to a seemingly almost finished country (or countries). Consciously or unconsciously, we planners and designers have blindly trusted an unfounded belief in progress. We thought we could solve the problems at hand with technological adaptations, so-called technofixes, of land and landscape. Flooding: we design higher dikes or give the river more space. Stress: we design more parks for walking, preferably with winding paths. Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: we mitigate this by planning a few extra hectares of nature in a distant country. Loss of biodiversity: we invent a few trees on the roof of a concrete building and then let everybody know we are building with nature in mind.

Too often we deceive ourselves and others by making the existing world a little greener, but leaving untouched the conditions under which we interact with the landscape, with the land, with humans and non-humans, and with the world. That is to say, we are particularly good at sticking plasters on wounds whose root causes lay within existing mindsets, paradigms and ideologies. Perhaps we’re a bit like the thugs of the tobacco industry. We know very well that cigarettes cause cancer, and as a solution to this problem we design a filter so that it might take a little longer to get cancer. But instead of constantly designing new filters, you could choose to ban cigarettes and make the conditions under which we live such that we no longer need addictive drugs to temper stress. And that is exactly what we should be doing right now within the study of landscape architecture and spatial planning.

It is now 2024. Now is the time for both the study of Landscape Architecture and Planning and the knowledge-providing disciplines to radically reinvent themselves. In this process of reinvention, systemic change must be much more central. In other words, we must also dare to think radically differently about the organisation and design of land and landscape. For example, what will the Netherlands look like if we opt for a controlled shrinkage of the economy (degrowth), what if we become radically regenerative, start working with closed cycles and consume less (who really needs the plastic sh%# from Amazon and And look around you, isn't Wageningen living proof that you don't need to wear fashionable clothes for an (academic) community to thrive?) What do we do with the eastern part of the Netherlands if we have decided to give a large part of its western part back to the sea, before the sea itself claims it? What do post-fossil landscapes look like? What if more collective forms of housing emerge, if skyscrapers become real eco-buildings, if public space is once again seen as a space to be cared for by different collectives?

So. Gone are the days when we learned to tidy up our almost perfectly raked landscapes, to improve them a little, to make things a little more efficient, and when we were happy when all the actors in participatory processes could have their pee-pee and felt included. Gone are the days filled with optimism about the future. Yet! As long as we are alive it’s not too late to make a difference. The gloom, frustration and sadness some of us experience about the future of the earth can be productive for the necessary transformation of design and planning education, where systemic change becomes central. And fortunately, we are not alone in Wageningen and beyond. Alternative ways of thinking and acting beyond the status quo are being invented and reinvented in scientific disciplines, departments, studies and study associations. Sometimes they are barely visible, but if you listen carefully, you can hear whispers and quiet growls from the fringes. I am certain they soon develop into roars.

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