The Netherlands is known for the never-ending battle against the sea and the flooding of rivers. More than half of the Netherlands is positioned below sea level and large rivers such as the Rhine, Waal and IJssel flow through the country. The danger of flooding makes water management and innovative thinking necessary for the Netherlands. The most famous examples of solutions are the Delta Works (Deltawerken) and the Zuiderzee works (Zuiderzeewerken), which are the largest Dutch hydraulic engineering projects of the twentieth century. Through these big projects, large parts of the Netherlands are now protected against flooding by the sea.

Nonetheless, the battle against the water continues in the Netherlands. Especially when it concerns water management, the concept of ‘megaprojects’ is increasingly popular in spatial planning. Megaprojects are complex projects that cost at least 250 million euros and are transformational in nature. An example is the project Space for the Waal (Ruimte voor de Waal) in the Dutch municipality of Nijmegen, which was developed to cope with the increasing water levels. In the project in Nijmegen, a completely new island was formed in the Waal river, by creating an ancillary channel and moving the dyke land inwards. Another example is the megaproject ‘Waterfront’ in the municipality of Harderwijk, where multiple small islands and a new boulevard are being built.

The permanent risk of rising sea levels has resulted in a highly pragmatic attitude in the Dutch governance when it comes to water management. Dutch municipalities sometimes take unconventional measures to battle the water, in which they ignore the existing protocols. The municipality of Nijmegen went against the plans of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management to create a plan that is not only safe, but also adds to the appearance of the city. This solution-oriented approach to working is characterized by a ‘just do it’ attitude of civil servants.
Generally, the development and realisation process of spatial projects in Dutch municipalities is characterised by a strong focus on cooperation. In order to realise megaprojects, municipalities work closely together with other levels of government, such as the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, Water Boards (Waterschappen) and the Provinces. This multi-level government cooperation guarantees the right level of expertise and finance needed for these kind of complex projects. The project Ruimte voor de Waal in Nijmegen was implemented by the municipality of Nijmegen, while the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat) guaranteed the finances needed. The municipality of Harderwijk received money and know-how from the province of Gelderland to realise their project. Without finances and expertise from other layers of government these projects would not have been possible.

Furthermore, by involving a wide range of stakeholders (e.g. citizens, local businesses, civil society organisations, pressure groups.) in sounding board groups (klankbordgroepen), the municipalities ensure dialogue between parties. In Nijmegen and Harderwijk, plans and ideas are first presented and discussed with relevant stakeholders before putting them into practice, thus creating consensus and higher public support.
Making sure that everyone has the rights and possibility to be heard creates a certain trust in the local government. This is characterized by the stability that underlies the realisation of these projects in Dutch spatial planning and (local) governance. Citizens, civil society groups and associations have many possibilities for public consultation (inspraak), which is a fixed part of the Dutch policy cycle. In the municipality of Nijmegen, public consultation was facilitated in multiple ways so that many citizens were able to voice their opinion and participate in the implementation of the Ruimte voor de Waal project. For example, certain civil servants were available all day, seven days a week, to answer questions of citizens that were directly affected by the project during its realisation. Additionally, citizens were invited to decide on what the new island should look like.

Read more about VNG International's expertise and projects on Improving Access to Basic Services, Involving Citizens in Decision Making and Developing Sustainable and Resilient Cities and Communities

Henk ovink "In the good Dutch tradition our investment projects always try to be comprehensive - connecting across the SDGs - embedded in a culture of spatial planning and a process of collaboration. Bigger projects never come out of the blue but are the result of this longer process of understanding and learning, of innovative, comprehensive and inclusive planning."
Henk Ovink, Special Envoy International Water Affairs

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