Continuous Transformation of Dutch Space (for 21 July)

Dutch polders. Borrowed from

Ask any real estate agent why it’s so expensive to live in cities like Washington, D.C., and they’ll all tell you basically the same thing: there’s just not enough room for everyone who wants to live there. It is true that there is a shortage of housing in those places, and what there is has become increasingly unaffordable. This is not a shortage of space. It is an inefficient use of the space available. We need look no further than the example of the Netherlands to see how a population can live densely and efficiently when they treat space as something that is as flexible as it is finite and valuable.

No one can create new space on Earth, but what we can do is transform it. That’s what humans did when we built artificial landscapes like farms and cities in the first place. The Dutch have been radically transforming the space available to them in the Netherlands for centuries. David Winner, whose book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer talks extensively about spatial planning in the Netherlands (more on this later), writes that “large parts of the country were literally dragged out of the sea and dried using centuries-old techniques of dike-building and drainage systems” (47). In the areas in and around Holland in the west of the country, most of the land itself was originally…not land. Even before the formation of a Dutch national identity, people inhabiting the area now known as the Netherlands have made something of a national pastime out of squeezing water out of the way to claim space for human habitation, and through this process, they transformed what was essentially mud into a country that would become one of the most highly developed and densely populated on Earth.

Living in a country mostly below sea level where so much of the land has been artificially created is something of an exercise in problem-solving. Winner, our soccer enthusiast, has much to say, but we can read in much more technical detail about the development of the Dutch landscape in the book Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands by Han Meyer, et. al. Meyer writes that the ways in which people have been manipulating the balance of water and land in the Netherlands “have always been adaptations to changing local circumstances and responses to endless disasters” (45). Ancient though the process may be, the Dutch have continued converting sea to land well into the modern era; construction on the major Afsluitdijk project began as recently as the 1920s. This project separated the existing Zuiderzee estuary into freshwater and saltwater bodies of water—in the process creating the lake known as the IJsselmeer—and increased the Netherlands’ land area by a full 4%. Meyer tells us the final reason for the green light was a need for more farmland after the First World War (79). Again, the Dutch weren’t getting what they needed out of the space around them, so they took radical steps to transform it to suit their needs.

The conversion of the Zuiderzee into the lake known as IJsselmeer (seen here protected by the Afsluitdijk) allowed for the drainage and use of the land shown in green. Borrowed from

The Dutch land-reclamation process has been miraculous, but there is only so much sea that can be converted to land. Much of Dutch spatial planning centers around the reevaluation of the use of space—it’s so limited that there is no room for anything to be wasted, and what’s there must be constantly updated. It is this kind of re-evaluation that makes the Dutch the shining stars of spatial planning they are, and their affinity for re-engineering space shows itself in other projects.

Let’s take another look at David Winner’s analysis of Dutch soccer. He describes a team that plays the game like no other, redefining the available space on the field to their advantage in a way that no other team has quite mastered. He argues that the Dutch play the sport in this unique way because of the unique relationship they have with space. Winner describes the Dutch style as “a conceptual revolution based on the idea that the size of any football field was flexible and could be altered by a team playing on it” (44). He also writes that the Dutch interact with the soccer field the same way they treat Netherlands itself; while they cannot actually make the field bigger, they can treat the space they have as flexible and repurpose it to suit their needs. It is their very Dutch-ness that makes them so successful at taking advantage of space, and this aspect of the culture is an important one to understand.

In the 21st century, reevaluation of the use of space applies especially in urban areas. These spaces have been heavily developed and painstakingly planned, but, this being the Netherlands, they are constantly changing to meet shifting needs. There are a staggering number of bicycles in the Netherlands, and the ever-developing infrastructure in place for these bicycles serves as an excellent example of just how dynamic Dutch space can really be. Obviously there’s a need for roads and bridges in any urban environment, but in the Netherlands, they work continuously to make sure that these roads are also safe and accessible to these bicycles.

One fellow WordPress blogger over at the Bicycle Dutch Blog writes cheerfully and in great detail about these projects, and tells us that rather than just painting some lines on the pavement or having the bikes only share the roads and signals that cars do, the Dutch have in fact set aside quite a bit of space specifically for bicycles. One excellent example of this is major traffic intersections, which in the Netherlands are designed to be as safe for cyclists as possible. Whereas in other countries, cyclists must turn with traffic or wait in the most dangerous parts of the intersection for an opportunity to cross, Dutch cyclists enjoy protected lanes and buffer zones for waiting. According to the Bicycle Dutch Blogger, projects like these make the streets of the Netherlands the safest anywhere (“Junction Design for Safer Cycling”). It’s also yet another instance of quintessentially Dutch spatial planning—the way that intersections were set up wasn’t working the way they needed it to, and since the use of space is so flexible, reorganizing the whole setup to meet the needs of cyclists makes perfect sense.

An example, courtesy of the Bicycle Dutch Blog, of a project to rework bike lanes to make things safer and smoother. Link:

Even infrastructure that is already in place in urban areas is not immune to reexamination and redevelopment. According to our friend the Bicycle Dutch Blogger, basically every street in the Netherlands is completely overhauled within about every 30 years, and at any given point in time in a built-up Dutch area, there is almost certain to be a street somewhere undergoing such construction (“Cycle Route Update”). He also takes a deep dive into some of the updates that have been brought specifically to existing bicycle infrastructure with some magazine-worthy before-and-after shots. Honestly, some of the changes are so minor that a blog reader without much background in bicycle infrastructure might not even have noticed anything without it being explicitly highlighted by an expert, but what is evident even in the most minute of detail changes is the ever-present Dutch need to reorganize space, to make sure that what is in place is the most efficient and the best-suited to the needs and goals of the population.

Winner quotes an old Dutch saying:

“God made the Dutch, but the Dutch made Holland.” (48)

It is true that the landscape of the Netherlands would not be anything like what it is today without continuous, dramatic human action, and the people taking that spatial action developed an identity as the Dutch. Spatial planning and the rational, efficient organization and reorganization of all the limited space available in their little corner of the world have been a constant there since the area has been populated.


Meyer, Han, et al. Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands. American Planners Association Planners Press, 2010.

Winner, David. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. New York Overlook Press, 2000.

Bicycle Dutch Blogger. “Cycle route update: it’s all in the details.” Bicycle Dutch Blog, 21 July 2019,

Bicycle Dutch Blogger. “Junction design for safer cycling in the Netherlands.” Bicycle Dutch Blog, 21 July 2019,


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