--> No. 08

Platteland / Countryside

Periode 2003–2004 / Project Platteland / Countryside / Opdrachtgever OASE / Locatie Nederland / Belgie / Met Marcel Musch


This Oase examines the transformation of the countryside of the Low Countries.

The Countryside 

 

The culture and the status of the countryside will undergo dramatic changes over the next several years. The most significant cause of the transformation is the changes in agriculture, which is under pressure from all sides. Answers will have to be found for such diverse issues as animal health problems (swine fever, avian flu, mad cow disease), environmental problems (soil acidisation and depletion), intensified competition from other countries as a result of globalisation and the reduced readiness of the European Union to subsidise (over) production. Because of steadily increasing efficiency in agriculture and with it shrinking chances for survival for the small farm, the number of farmers has been dropping for decades. The expectation is that this process will accelerate in years to come. The Agricultural Economics Research Institute (LEI) estimates that the number of farmers will drop in the next 10 years from 90,000 to 75,000. Beyond the reduction in cultivated land, this will entail significant consequences for the apportionment and the use of the countryside. In this issue of Oase we examine the history and the future of the countryside as a cultivated as well as an inhabited landscape.

 

In parallel to the shrinking of the area devoted to agriculture, the authorities and many nature organisations in Belgium and the Netherlands are working to develop large areas of land for recreation and 'new nature'. In the Netherlands, the Fifth National Policy Document on Physical Planning assumes that the quantity of agricultural land will drop by 7 to 20 percent. Developing nature and recreation areas on the lands that are opened up would meet a great 'societal need'. This seems to mean mainly the need of urban dwellers for 'another kind' of space. The countryside is not considered for its intrinsic qualities and potential, but as an 'empty land' that can be laid out according to the needs of the urban consumer. This process usually ignores the history and dynamics of the countryside. In the Dutch situation, this approach dovetails seamlessly with a centuries-old tradition of large-scale, systematic interventions such as the land reclamation projects and land consolidation. In these interventions, both the old and the new land were considered as a tabula rasa. The situation in Belgium is in many ways the opposite of that of the Netherlands: no large-scale interventions here, but rather small-scale transformations, no systematic projects but rather private initiatives, no 'creation' of an empty space that must then be filled but rather a process of continual accumulation and condensation.

 

For a long time, agriculture developed in the Low Countries in comparable ways. Starting in the early Middle Ages there was an enormous rise in agricultural productivity. This was based on a number of factors: the availability of capital for investment in the agrarian economy, the development and distribution of know-how and technology and the expansion of the market. Belgium was consistently in the forefront of this. The growth of the cities in the Low Countries created a market for farm products and stimulated a more intensive agriculture. The intensification of agriculture was made possible by means of fertilisation, which was stimulated by an abundant supply of manure from the cities. The development of city and countryside were thus closely linked, and the distinction between the two, especially in the early Middle Ages, was not absolute. There was a flourishing industry in the countryside very early on, while within the cities, for a long time, all manner of crops were still being grown and a great deal of cattle being raised. The ongoing development of technology and the growth of commerce in agricultural products resulted in a steadily increasing specialisation in agriculture and the industry related to it. As a result, the city and the countryside both specialised as well. Each of the two domains acquired a role of its own in the emerging agrarian economy. The processing of milk, meat, leather, flax, wool, hops, et cetera took place in factories inside the city walls. High-grade production in particular took place in the city, and the city obtained monopolies on many of these production processes. The specialisation of the city and the countryside was the beginning of a dichotomy which we now take for granted. Paradoxically enough, this dichotomy was in fact the result of far-reaching economic interweaving of the city and countryside. 

 

In the twentieth century the parallel development of Dutch and Belgian agriculture came to an end. Agricultural modernisation resulted in a specialisation of agricultural operations and optimisation of production and soil yields. This was made possible by the expanding market and by government interventions. Starting in the 1930s, Dutch agriculture was able to make a huge jump in scale as a result of large-scale interventions – the Zuiderzee polders and land consolidation. These large-scale interventions in the Netherlands are part of a long tradition of systematic interventions. Seventeenth-century impoldering projects such as the Beemster, financed with the help of a share issue, and the allotment of parcels in the peat and heathland reclamations areas starting in the eleventh century are examples of large-scale, systematically structured projects. A spatial design often played an important guiding role here. The history of large-scale land reclamations culminated in the Noordoostpolder, where the designers were able to dictate everything, from polder structure to buildings and farmyard layout. In Belgium, on the other hand, there was hardly any systematic approach in the countryside. From the Middle Ages onwards there was a continuous process of condensation and intensification. This creeping urbanisation resulted in a highly layered landscape in which each period has left its mark. The countryside was defined to a much greater extent by private initiatives as Demeulder and Vandenbroucke put it, it is a theatre of do-it-yourself. What defined the appearance of the Belgian countryside was not the design, but the process. 

 

In both countries the time seems to be ripe for a different approach to the countryside. The Netherlands will have to get used to the idea that, despite legislated nature 'contours', the future of its landscape will be defined by condensation, intensification and blending. The development of the Dutch landscape will be increasingly determined by the processes that have defined the Belgian countryside for centuries. The Dutch situation, however, is still not comparable to that of Belgium. In Belgium, thanks to a laissez-faire policy and a deeply rooted culture of private initiative, there is great dynamism in the countryside. These programmatic and spatial dynamics take place mainly at the small-scale level at the large-scale level the structure of the landscape is fairly constant. In the Netherlands, there is great dynamism at the large-scale level, while at the smaller-scale level, because of greater planning restrictions and the absence, for the most part, of a culture of particularism, there is far less dynamism. Is this a curse or a blessing? The effort to control the spatial development of the countryside in the Netherlands has resulted in an open landscape. On the other hand, it has also resulted in the loss of accessibility, of small-scale structures and diversity, of a 'lived-in' atmosphere. The countryside in the Netherlands needs the introduction of dynamism through the introduction of 'intelligent processes'. In Belgium, problems are concentrated in the silting up of the landscape as a result of 'spontaneous' processes. This begs the question of whether there is any remedy for the culture of 'particularism' and whether this form of countryside dynamism should not be treasured. At the same time, in an increasingly urbanised countryside, which can be labelled neither city nor countryside, there will be increasing demand for an 'other' space, a space which contrasts in scale and form with the endless do-it-yourself landscape. In Belgium, therefore, the challenge for the countryside will mainly consist of introducing carefully designed contrasts. The preceding is a brief summary of the processes and projects that have defined the appearance of the countryside in the past and will define it in years to come. Against this background of partly autonomous processes of transformation, the question will have to be what spatial characteristics should be developed and maintained in the countryside. The extensive 'urbanisation' of the countryside and the advent of new programmes are making the public space the focus of the design challenge. The numerous spatial claims on the countryside make the question of which form of public character is desired an urgent one. The perception of the countryside is vital to this. 

 

The countryside is defined by a number of evident characteristics: great structural elements such as rivers, woodlands, moors, avenues, brooks, et cetera, the open space between them and their relation to agriculture. The great landscape elements are highly defining for the visual perception and the public character of the landscape, and therefore it is understandable that they are the focus of most of the attention in landscape plans. The most important characteristic of the countryside, however, is that it is an inhabited and cultivated landscape with a private character. This distinguishes it from 'nature'. It is the busy, lived-in countryside, first revealed in the pastoral landscapes of the seventeenth century. Although the countryside is idealised in these landscapes, this pastoral quality, in spite of all the changes, is still recognisable in many places in the Netherlands. Alongside this there is a much more everyday, far less Arcadian variant of the countryside. The perception of this countryside is mainly defined by generic elements, the farmyards and farmhouses, the paths, the small woodlands, farmyard borders, et cetera. Of these generic elements, the farmyards are the most stable factor. All these elements are part of a specific typological family. The interaction of these different typological families results in a 'structure' imposed on the landscape and as a whole defines the specificity of the countryside. The interaction of generic elements and the landscape defines the local character of an area.

 

The structure of generic elements emerges 'from the bottom up' a network logic applies here. A characteristic example is the relationship between farms, farmyards and access roads. The original, complex patterns are the result of a limited number of typological dictates. These dictates come from a combination of two factors: the culturally determined organisation of the farmyard and the specific characteristics of the landscape in a particular area. The organisation of the farmyard is based on a universal principle: it is divided into a feminine and a masculine side. This division comes from the original division of labour on the farm. The masculine side of the farm is always called the rear, the feminine side the front. In the rear is where the barns are and where the farmyard and the land are connected. It is dependent on the landscape structure in which the 'rear' is located. In the old lands the rear is oriented to the access way on the new land (reclamations, polders) the rear is oriented to the parcel. The organisation of the farmyard and the specific landscape structure together determine the accessibility of the countryside and the relationship between the private and the public (or collective) domain. It is precisely this accessibility and specific relationship between the public and the private domains that have to a large extent traditionally defined the perception of the countryside.

 

In the countryside, accessibility has traditionally been based on informal, implicit rules that have been created within a collective, such as the intricate access structure of the hub farmsteads in Twente, for example, or the church paths that linked the countryside populace with the churches and villages. As a result of all manner of programmatic and socio-cultural processes and because of spatial changes as a result of land consolidation or the construction of new infrastructure, many of these networks have fallen into disuse, become fragmented or disappeared. These informal networks, or fragments thereof, can be put to use in new situations. This does not entail developing these networks as an autonomous structure imposed from above. The challenge in the countryside is to develop a form of public character related to everyday life, not increase penetration per se. This is a contrast to the public character of recreational walking and cycling routes, which are being laid out as an autonomous world in the landscape, alongside and across the farmer's land. This involves a remarkable turnaround. The urban consumer expects the countryside to be entirely open and accessible. This ignores the fact that the landscape is for the most part in private hands. In this regard, it is remarkable that in the Netherlands the government is proposing an ambitious transformation of the countryside, even though its authority over it is marginal. The result is that the countryside is becoming part of a recreational landscape entirely attuned to the demands of the urban consumer. The consumer sees himself, as it were, reflected in the recreational landscape and this suddenly lands him in an empty space. The landscape has not been brought closer but rather put at a distance. Instead of this, the challenge for the countryside should be linking the development of the public domain to the development of the countryside as an inhabited and cultivated landscape. 

 

Willemijn Lofvers and Marcel Musch

with thanks to Greet Bierema and Joks Janssen 

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