Images in this story: Wageningen University & Research
What could the Netherlands look like in a hundred years’ time? With that thought in mind, seventeen WUR researchers compiled a map in 2019, dubbed NL2120, showing a possible future for the country. It is an optimistic, green future that shows at a glance what the Netherlands could look like if room was made for nature. What impact has NL2120 had since then?
‘A green picture, not a gloomy picture’ was the motto for NL2120. Features of the map that strike you at first glance are the large forests sequestering carbon, the extra room for rivers and dunes, the use of the sea for food production and the green cities. Having an eco-friendly Netherlands like this is good for biodiversity and people’s well-being, but those are not the only advantages. The map also shows that the solutions to the climate problem are already available. The researchers argue that in addition to the generation of sustainable energy, a key element is the restoration of nature. That helps to combat global warming and also increases resilience to the consequences of climate change.
The map immediately attracted a great deal of media attention in newspapers and on TV, while the report on NL2120 was downloaded more than 10,000 times.
That attention has still not subsided, for good reason. “Every week, I get a request to come and talk to people about NL2120,” says Wageningen scientist Tim van Hattum, Green Climate Solutions programme leader in the Environmental Sciences Group. He had not expected the map to have such a big impact. “It shows how much need there is for an optimistic scenario for the future amidst all the negative news about the climate and nature.” With the recent UN climate summit in Egypt, he saw doom-laden items appear about how it was now too late to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees. That makes Van Hattum all the more eager to continue to spread a more upbeat message.
The map of the Netherlands in 2020 and the future scenario of the Netherlands in 2120.
The map has prompted interesting discussions with a wide range of groups, from ministers and policymakers to schoolchildren. Van Hattum: “Everyone has a similar response. They find it an eye-opener to use the natural system as the guiding principle for how the Netherlands should be arranged spatially. The Netherlands then looks quite different and very appealing. People like that.”
Various regions in the Netherlands have now joined forces with WUR researchers to compile a regional vision of the future. After all, NL2120 is no more than a broad outline of a future Netherlands, as Van Hattum never ceases to stress. “It is not a blueprint. The Dutch living one hundred years ago could never have imagined what the Netherlands would look like in 2022. Similarly, we can’t know exactly what the Netherlands will look like in a century’s time.” Even so, Van Hattum sees the map as an inspiring direction that the Netherlands could aim towards. “We now need a regional elaboration of that vision, which in turn can serve as the basis for policy decisions.”
A possible future for the municipality of Arnhem has now been sketched out based on NL2120, in collaboration with landscape architects in the chair group of WUR scientist Sanda Lenzholzer. In this scenario, the city on the Rhine, located on the edge of the Veluwe, will reserve more space for water. “Large parts of the city will become pedestrianised, which will reduce the noise and improve the air quality. The space that is freed up by this can be used to make the city much greener,” says Van Hattum.
According to this future scenario, Arnhem’s population will be much larger a century from now. “In this regard, Arnhem2120 ties in with the national scenario as presented in NL2120. We are currently facing huge demand for new housing, with a million more homes needed. But given the future rise in sea levels, it would be foolish to invest in buildings on low-lying areas. Arnhem can only grow on the north side where the land is more elevated. That is a Natura2000 area, but I think we need to seriously consider the option of more homes on the Veluwe. We also need more high-rise apartments and floating homes in the river area.”
‘Climate change is seen as the biggest challenge, but the decline in biodiversity is an even greater crisis’
Adjoining the map for Arnhem, a map is also being drawn up for the area covered by the Vallei & Veluwe water board. In the western Netherlands, The Hague region is getting a vision for 2070 as part of the ‘Knowledge Region on the Coast’ project. And another project started last year for the spatial layout of ‘Lowland Netherlands’ in 2050.
Each project draws on the foundation map that Van Hattum and his fellow researchers produced. That makes NL2120 automatically more than a broad-brush national map. It is turning into a long-term goal, an attractive alternative to work towards. Van Hattum: “If you have an idea about what the future should look like, that helps you decide which measures you should take now. In all those regional projects, the guiding principle is the natural system, in other words the water and the soil. That has also become the national policy.”
Over the next few years, WUR researchers will work further on such regional maps of the future. An important point for attention is the socioeconomic aspect, says Van Hattum. “Deprived districts often have less greenery than other districts. If you make them greener, that generates all kinds of social advantages.
Crime goes down, people exercise more and they are healthier. However, the extra greenery also often pushes house prices up. That is a disadvantage, but the social advantages for the local community are huge. But that is also a problem. The groups that bear the costs of the investments in new greenery are not the same people who get the benefits. That is the main obstacle currently preventing this from being rolled out on a large scale.”
The map has raised more questions than it has given answers. That is why Van Hattum applied for a grant, together with nature and environmental organisations, engineering consultancies, science institutes and NGOs, in order to set up a large science programme that focuses on the map of the Netherlands.
In addition to socioeconomic aspects, he wants to work further on the technical and organisational sides. How effective are the nature-based solutions? What can they deliver in terms of broad prosperity? How can we speed up this nature-based transition? “The first map has served its purpose. Now we’re going further in filling in the details and answering more questions.”
Researchers of Wageningen University & Research have sketched an inspiring and positive future for the Netherlands: a country in which biodiversity prospers, nature is given free rein, and water has space to flow.
It is not just the Dutch who find a future in which nature plays the starring role inspiring – other countries feel the same. Van Hattum: “Every country is wrestling with this issue. The Netherlands could be a pioneer, a sort of living lab that helps other delta areas come up with an approach.” In WUR’s new Nature-Based Future Challenge, international teams of students will work on a vision for the future of a delta in Bangladesh. “This is the ideal way of spreading our knowledge among students. I’m very curious to see their ideas,” says Van Hattum. He is also talking to the European Union about compiling a map of the future of the entire continent. Beyond Europe, the Ministry of Agriculture in the Canadian province of Quebec also wants to develop a similar vision of the future.
Even so, a lot of people still have not grasped the link between the climate and biodiversity. “Climate change is seen as the biggest challenge we face this century, but the decline in biodiversity is an even greater crisis,” says Van Hattum. “The two are tightly interlinked and you need to tackle them in combination. The poor condition nature is in could even work against us and speed up climate change. So you need to protect nature and allow natural processes the space they need. Examples are restoring woodland, protecting coastal areas, returning oceans to a more natural state and repairing our freshwater systems.”
If you did this on a big enough scale, you would be able to remove billions of tons of CO₂ from the atmosphere, says Van Hattum. “That could contribute a third of what is needed to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees. In addition, increasing the amount of nature also increases the resilience to the consequences of climate change. We can prevent flooding, retain water during droughts and make cities cooler during heatwaves.”
“These solutions also help restore biodiversity. That is crucially important for the global economy, half of which depends on the natural system. Not just agriculture but many other sectors depend on raw materials from nature areas. Finally, the restoration of nature benefits people’s health and well-being. You could write a book about all this, and that is exactly what I have done. In my book Only Planet, klimaatgids voor de 21ste eeuw (Only Planet: climate guide for the 21st century), I describe seven routes to a more hopeful future for our planet. We hear so many stories of doom and gloom, and far too few optimistic stories about climate solutions. Yet that optimistic story is much needed, because it is not too late to take action.”