The value of the Dutch ‘polder model’

Jan Vogelij’s PhD research looked at the factors that make for effective strategic spatial planning, which is becoming increasingly relevant as it influences the competitiveness and innovation of cities and regions.

The ‘polder model’ is the idea of solving problems via dialogue, with every party having an equal say. This approach can create synergy, he concluded.

Vogelij successfully defended his PhD thesis on September 11, 2015, but he was not your average candidate. Having graduated from TU Delft in 1971 with an MSc in Urban Planning, he proceeded to work in the industry for 40 years, and was also president of the European Council of Spatial Planners. After publishing a book entitled ‘Fifteen Steps towards Territorial Cohesion’ in 2010, written intuitively from his practical experience, he decided to check whether the content would hold scientifically, so he returned to TU Delft to commence his PhD.

What made his approach different was his perspective. “In a lot of academic literature on the subject many clever things have been analysed and concluded. But this is often naïve, too theoretical and far from reality and practice. I wanted to bring lessons from practice to the scientific world, to connect the two,” he explained. “I looked at practices in Europe and decided that what was missing was the aspect of how people interact during the decision making processes.” He carried out a comparative study of strategic plans in five European cities: Drechtsteden (The Netherlands), Bologna and Val Gardena (Italy),

Glasgow/Clyde Valley (Scotland) and Meetjesland (Belgium). He conducted 41 interviews in the course of his research. What were his findings? According to Vogelij, there are several important factors that make for effective planning. A simple administrative structure is one of them. In Meetjesland and Bologna there were so many institutions and authorities with their own agendas, political and otherwise, that the plans were unsuccessful. “The role of a planner is converging people and their ideas. It has to do with all factors, sectors and interests of society. For all parties, if you are creative, there are more solutions that can serve their interests than they originally thought. What you need is openness from preconceptions in decision making,” he said. Further, don’t have a single person make the root plan. “If you have an interactive co-creation process you build support during the time that you are making your strategy. Co-ownership was already a recognised idea, but what I did is take it further to co-authorship. You need a relation and connectedness to the results. Plans can have time horizons of 30 or 40 years, and a lot can change,” he explained. “Success is never a guarantee in the end of course, but success is then more likely.”

To internationals, the ‘polder model’ is often an alien and frustrating concept. “The idea is not so bad,” said
Vogelij. “Circling around a problem helps society to see what their interests are. Collaboratively coming to creative solutions is one of my messages. I hope I’ve also shown that strategic policy making in cities and regions needs people educated and trained as designers, which is not currently seen as normal,” he concluded.

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