The Noordoostpolder: Then and Now

Aerial view of the town Nagele.

Historically, the biggest threat to the Netherlands has been water. The rivers, the lakes, the sea- all have their grip on the Netherlands and as a country and a people they’ve been very adept at building and maintaining walls and dams and dikes and moats and lakes and windmills and pumping stations and sluices and bridges and canals and polders: it’s a bit exhausting- thinking of all the efforts that have been made to keep the water exactly where it’s wanted. For as far back as the Bronze age (Feddes, 12), people have been settling along the rivers in the Dutch delta area and ever since then the Dutch people have been moving the water that surrounds them to meet their own needs and they’ve been very good at it for hundreds of years. One of the largest successes in Dutch engineering and urban planning has been the creation of the North East Polder, or Noordoostpolder- both physically and societally.

In the 1700’s the Dutch first created polders (Feddes 12). Polders are land that used to be water until the water was intentionally drained. They are usually surrounded by dikes, are of varying size and can be the product of multiple water types- sea, rivers, or lakes. According to Bobbink and Nijihuis, two of the authors of the book, “Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands, “more than 4,000 man-made polders are part of the Dutch delta area.” Apparently if you physically create the land you stand on, you care a lot about what goes on that land, how it’s laid out and who lives there, or, at least the Dutch do. The creation of large polders like the Noordoostpolder, in the 1940’s and ‘50’s led to very planned societies.

According to the website of Canon de Noordoostpolder, a historical society in the North-East Polder, architects like Dr. Granpre Moliere, Gerrit Rietveld, Mien Ruys, and Aldo van Eyck designed the villages that surrounded the main center of Emmeloord in the village plan as designed by Walter Chrisaller, creator of the central location theory which theorizes that the larger cities should function as the central location to the surrounding towns or villages.

Map of the Noordoostpolder with labeled villages.

The Central Location Theory and subsequent village plan, there is a central location with five small to medium sized villages and then surrounded again by a couple more even smaller villages forming two rings around the central city in the middle. The villages were connected on a single ring-like road and contained only the necessary resources and services- for anything else folks had to travel to the large central city of Emmeloord. At the time these villages were touted as “modern utopias”- they were designed to have everything you needed- jobs, school, markets, and churches with your less frequent services like furniture stores and dressmakers not too far away (Joppes). Even the people who got to live on the new land were planned, proportioned, and decided. Most of the farms went to polder workers and “pioneers” who had been living and working to make and design the new polder already. Other farms and parcels went to people who had been displaced and a few went to folks who just applied for the firm- or parcel- and were accepted. The polder board was looking for an equal distribution of Catholics and Protestants, for people with needed skills and the financial aptitude to take on a new firm (Canon de Noordoostpolder).

This specially designed society seemed to work well for years. Most of the Noordoostpolder has been mainly agricultural for decades but recently, with the digital revolution and post-industrial society of modern Europe, the villages in these small polders are going the way of ghost towns. Netherlands native and architectural historian, Joppe Schaaper, says that young people are moving out of the villages- and even away from the polder itself, to larger cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam and also to other European cities. Despite the polder’s ability to attract new industry and companies, people aren’t putting down roots in these more rural polder towns, preferring instead to commute from nearby cities of Lelystad, Almere and even Amsterdam (Canon de Noordoostpolder). For a country that is almost synonymous with innovative problem solving, it seems like redeveloping the north eastern polder towns to fit the new modern Dutchman would be a priority, but according to Schaaper, there are no major voices in the Netherlands advocating for such a thing. The Netherlands has the highest population density in all of Europe it has been so meticulously planned because it doesn’t have space to loose. With rising housing costs, especially for young Dutch citizens and the efforts by the Noordsoostpolder towns to attract citizens and new sector jobs, the country should be trying to help the municipalities make the most out of the space that already exists (Canon de Noordoostpolder).

Saskia Heins is the director of research at the Van Hall Larenstein University of Allied Sciences and has conducted a variety of research into rural and urban living in the Netherlands. According to her 2004 paper, 57% of Dutch people prefer to live in a rural area and only 26% of those 57% actually do (397). Furthermore, 90% of people who currently live in urban areas in the Netherlands, who are hoping to move, wish to do so to a more rural area (Heins, 397). There is clear evidence that the Dutch people value rural living, probably mostly due to a vision of a rural idyll. So why don’t all these people move? According to Heins, the biggest reason is housing; rural areas don’t have enough housing (405). “Developers try to respond to the demand for rural housing by creating an appropriate supply as well as by marketing rural residential environments, but spatial policy restricts their actions.” (Heins, 40).

Another factor is for rural development in the Noordoostpolder is transportation. Heins found that the majority of people in the Netherlands don’t want to live in a very rural place. They are interested in having room and gardens and space, but still value being close to a city and having easy access and transportation to that city. Heins calls this the pseudo-countryside, places with rural elements, like detached houses, larger plots of land, close to water sources, mature plants and trees- while also being close enough to a city (406). Most of the Noordstpolder towns are an hour or less to Amsterdam’s center, and even closer to cities like Almere. It seems like a good place, with ample land, to expand on the pseudo-countryside idea. There is a need for increased public transportation but in recent years plans for a new rail to the Noordoostpolder have lost fervor. In 2007 the national government cancelled plans for the construction of the Zuiderzeelijn, a proposed rail line that would connect the northern provinces, including the Noorddoostpolder, with Amsterdam (Canon de Noordoostpolder). As you can see in Figure 2, the North East polder does not currently connect to the rest of the country via rail.

Map of railway lines in the Netherlands. Noordoostpolder is the circular peninsula directly south of Leeuwarden.

The Netherlands have spent so much time, money, and energy in literally creating the Noordoostpolder itself. It would be a shame to see the creation all of that labor not used as efficiently as possible, especially when the country is dealing with large scale problems, like the housing shortage. In order to meet sustainable development goal number 11- sustainable cities and communities and number 9- industry, innovation, and infrastructure, the national government of the Netherlands should put forth as much innovation, consensus building, money, time, and labor into keeping the people in the Noordoostpolder, as they do keeping the water out.

Citations

Heins, Saskia. “Rural Living in City and Countryside: Demand and Supply in the Netherlands.” Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, vol. 19, no. 4, 2004, pp. 391–408. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41107275. Accessed 7 June 2021.

Andrews, Roger. “Do the Netherlands’ Trains Really Run on 100% Wind Power?” Energy Matters, 15 Apr. 2018, euanmearns.com/do-the-netherlands-trains-really-run-on-100-wind-power/.

Feddes, Fred. A Millennium of Amsterdam: Spatial History of a Marvellous City. Bussum: Uitgeverij Thoth, 2012.

Meyer, Han & Bobbink, Inge & Nijhuis, Steffen. Delta Urbanism. The Netherlands. Routledge, 2012.

Canon De Noordsoostpolder , Canon De Noordoostpolder , http://www.canonnoordoostpolder.nl/en/. Accessed 6 June 2021.

 Joppe Schaaper, “Amsterdam Architectural History Crash Course”, video lecture #5, Amsterdam: City as Work of Art, GW, Summer 2020.

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