Polder Politics and Urban Planning

Stop de Kindermoord campaigners visit Amsterdam’s House of Representatives in 1972. Source: The Guardian.

***Hi All! I previously emailed essay 2 to Professor Troutman on the due date (July 21st) because I had a few questions and wanted to make sure I wasn’t drifting off course with my response — I was afraid to post it publicly. He asked me to post the essay here anyways. So Here is Essay 2!

Cheney Lonberg

Amsterdam: City as Work of Art

Professor Troutman

Polder Politics and Spatial Development

I found the video of children protesting car traffic in De Pipj, Amsterdam 1972 especially moving. As we have learned in the readings this week, the Dutch view space as a precious commodity. The video from 1972 depicts the children of De Pipj, a poor overpopulated neighborhood in Amsterdam, protesting the lack of space they had to play and the dangerous traffic in their area. The children come together and start a public movement to shut down certain streets for designated play areas. These schoolchildren took to the streets with signs and petitions, arguing that the automobile traffic caused unnecessary deaths, pollution, and took up too much space. They set forth a call to action for the government to shut down certain streets (or at least during certain hours) so that they could have a place to play outside. Newspapers wrote about the cause and the children gained national support, as well as some negative backlash. Nevertheless, later that year several play streets were built as a direct result of the fierce campaigning of these school children. I found this video of their campaign incredibly motivational and insightful. These school children came together on their own accord and acted on the belief that, “if we want something done, we must do it ourselves.” These children organized a successful campaign and sat down with members of their community and government officials to discuss their collective needs. The notion that children could come together and effect change in their community is indicative of the political and cultural environment. The political structure of the Netherlands is uniquely defined by the poldermodel, named after the unique features of Dutch landscape.

Betsky discusses the “polder model”, explaining “it is a political phrase, but also a real one. The [Netherlands Architecture Institute] sits on a polder, or a piece of land reclaimed by humans. It would be riding waves if human ingenuity did not keep sea and river at bay” (Betsky, 1). The Dutch created polders as a result of their constant battle with encroaching water. Betsky elaborates, “fighting the sea demanded an organization that led to founding of heemraadschappen, groups of farmers united to regulate the process of keeping the water at bay. These groupings provided a political and social alternative to the hierarchical fiefdoms that governed most of Europe at the time. Every inch of land was used productively and governed more and more cooperatively” (Betsky, 7). As the water infringed upon Dutch lands, people had to come together as a collective (farmers, engineers, builders, etc.) to protect their land and space. In turn, the Dutch have consistently depended on social groups working together for spatial planning and water management. Rather than rule by power, the Dutch were primarily governed by consensus agreements.   

According to the book, Discovering the Dutch: On Culture and Society of the Netherlands, “the fact that the Dutch still convene in many a meeting, that decision making is still largely based on consensus and compromise, and that trade unions, employers organizations and the state still attempt to monitor the economy in this collective fashion – all these facts are explained with reference to these medieval roots” (40). The video of the schoolchildren protesting the traffic and use of space reiterates the significance of the polder model’s role in Dutch culture and its influence in Dutch politics. Although the polder model emerged in the eleventh century, the idea that groups of people can govern as a collective, in the best interest of the city, remains pertinent today.  

 Betsky writes that, “[the Dutch] fought back

[against architectural mediocrity]

because the public cared that their cities were being disfigured and because the discussion about the qualities of urban space was picked up by critics and their readers. Making a collective space had always been a central part of what the Dutch did, and they knew when something was going wrong”. Although Betsky is talking about mediocre architecture, I believe he reinforces this sentiment that the public will come together in face of a collective space issue and make a change. Meyer delves into this more, in his discussion on the history of spatial planning politics.

According to Meyer, “in 2004, the [Netherlands] government formalized its new stance in the Nota Ruimte (“Memorandum on Space”), which states that many planning responsibilities will be handed over to the municipal and provincial authorities, stimulating the role of the market in spatial development” (Meyer, 90). It’s possible that as policy making shifted to the hands of local government, citizens grew capable of affecting real change within their space. Meyer suggests that the government supports a hands-off approach in urban planning, and prefers to allow the local groups to take on the task of city planning and development.

Betksy discusses how his city of Rotterdam reflects the nature of urban planning in the Netherlands. In his explanation of the rationale behind Rotterdam’s urban design, Betsky explains, “it turns out the traditionalists fought the modernists in every committee and every political meeting that decided the nature of post war Rotterdam. This being the Netherlands, these debates were not violent and were solved not by one party or the other proclaiming victory but through the integration of features from both schools of design into the final plan” (Betsky, 38). In other words, the result of open political forums led to a uniquely diverse urban plan for Rotterdam, which incorporated both traditional design and modern structures. It seems as though the inclusion of both modern and traditional elements in Rotterdam’s cityscape not only reflects the collaborative decision making process, but also reveals culture open to tolerance, compromise, and development.  


Aaron Betsky, False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good (New York: Phaidon, 2004), ch. 1.

Discovering the Dutch : On Culture and Society of the Netherlands, edited by Emmeline Besamusca, and Jaap Verheul, Amsterdam University Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/gwu/detail.action?docID=649963.

Han Meyer, “Composition and Construction of Dutch Delta Cities,” in Han Meyer, et al., Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands (APA Planners Press, 1990), ch. 4 (65-99).

Özdemir, Esin, and Tuna Tasan-Kok. “Planners’ Role in Accommodating Citizen Disagreement: The Case of Dutch Urban Planning.” Urban Studies, vol. 56, no. 4, Mar. 2019, pp. 741–759, doi:10.1177/0042098017726738.


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