Luuk Boelens in unremitting pursuit of certainty
The June issue of Archis contained a compelling philippic by Luuk Boelens about the failure of forward thinking in Dutch spatial planning. I read it with growing amazement. And I do indeed feel it as a challenge. Not least because of the prominent place in the wastepaper basket accorded to the Nederland 2030 project. Much as I agree with Boelens that there is plenty of room for improvement in the way in which our professional community deals with scenarios (and that includes Nederland 2030!), I have alas been unable to discover in the body of his article the pragmatism promised in the final sentence of the introduction.
The trouble with his article is that it is impossible to detect any system in it and that the messages are packaged in a woolly sort of intellectualism. Time and again Boelens paints a caricature of a certain scenario strategy and then takes up a position diametrically opposed to it; yet one paragraph further on he once again comes down diametrically opposite the next strategy. An example. Boelens sketches the conflict between the projective and prospective methods, demands a new approach and proceeds to castigate the National Spatial Planning Agency (RPD) for combining both approaches in its Nederland 2030 project: that of course is unacceptable in his view. Why, exactly? To begin with, even Nederland 2030’s basic surveys are not purely projective. They are based on an analysis of trends and developments within multiple world views (the Central Planning Bureau’s three context scenarios). So it is not trends that are being projected but different versions of possible (international) contexts. The discussion scenarios are not absurdly exaggerated thematic pictures of the future, but prospective elaborations of an equal number of actual problems (‘what if’ scenarios) aimed at stimulating decision makers’ imaginations. And of the four ‘target visions’ that Boelens sees as dealing with planning issues of the past (concentration or dispersal), two have nothing at all to do with that issue. Nobody, according to Boelens, is sitting waiting for Nederland 2030’s perspectives; whereupon he proceeds to argue in favour of multiple and composite future visions. But that’s exactly what we have produced! What is it he wants!? A glimpse of that promised pragmatism can be discerned towards the end of the article where he emphasizes the role of scenarios as backdrops to strategic policy decisions. Call it the Shell approach. But unfortunately he then undoes this with a complicated plea for ‘a radical reorientation: from vertical, in terms of various hierarchies and discrete levels of planning, to horizontal, in terms of various layers and related issues operating across all levels of planning’. You tell me, if you understand this!
One thing is clear: whether or not you agree with the approach and substance of Nederland 2030 and other studies of the future, there is a great need in the Netherlands for multi-dimensional surveys of the future that transcend the level of debate about large-scale projects but which make connections with it, without there being any need to opt immediately for one or the other future vision. This is something we are trying to do with our Nederland 2030 Discussion Paper (published last month – ed.). Once Boelens has perused it I will gladly speak to him again to find out what is still lacking and what could and should be done better.
Wouter de Jong