This is what Dutch cities will look like 100 years from now

Natural conditions are the guiding principle when drawing up future scenarios. Image: Wageningen University & Research

Climate change will have a big impact on life in the Netherlands in the decades to come. WUR researchers came up with scenarios for the city of the future to help Dutch cities prepare for the new, often more extreme conditions they will have to deal with.

When landscape architect and urban planner Sanda Lenzholzer suggested four years ago that people living in the western Netherlands should think about moving to higher-lying, drier areas, the main response was puzzled looks. Of course, the planet is becoming warmer and this is making sea levels rise. But we have strong dykes here in the Netherlands so surely we’re not at any real risk?

That attitude is rapidly changing. At the end of 2021, the Rotterdam scientist Jan Rotmans published a map showing part of the Netherlands under water. A few weeks later, the Delta Programme Commissioner gave a warning, saying we should stop building homes in areas that are not climate-proof. The map of ‘The Netherlands in 2120’, published two years ago by WUR researchers, presents some possible scenarios.

Just to be clear, these experts are not doomsayers. They just understand the natural processes and their impact, explains Lenzholzer, who is professor of Landscape Architecture at WUR. “Climate change is a fact. Even if we were to become completely carbon-neutral as of tomorrow, temperatures will continue to rise further over the next century. And that has major consequences for how and where we live in the Netherlands. One way or another, we are going to have to migrate out of the west. That means we need to prepare for this.”

Detailed maps

WUR scientists in various fields of research are working on this preparation. Experts in a range of disciplines are collaborating to find solutions. The project ‘The City in 2120’ is one such example, which Lenzholzer is closely involved in for the Wageningen Institute for Environmental and Climate Research (WIMEK). In it, a team from the Landscape Architecture chair group at Wageningen University and experts from Wageningen Environmental Research addressed the question of smart designs for the city of the future.

In our design we use natural processes and technology to enhance the landscape

A design scenario of the potential river area in Arnhem. Image: Wageningen University & Research

‘Smart’ here means taking the natural landscape as the starting point, adapting it to the new climate and preventing further global warming. The project resulted in a report that outlines the future, titled: ‘De stad van 2120: natuurlijk!’ (The city of 2120: naturally!). This accessible publication tells the story using detailed maps, illustrations and 3D visualisations.

The researchers took Arnhem as an example to show what a Dutch city could look like in the future. The natural environment is the deciding factor in the design, explains Lenzholzer. “That means not just the climate but also the landscape in and around the city. Is the city located on a river, for example? What soil and water systems are there, what are the height differences? We take all those features as the starting point for the design task.” The city of Arnhem covers two types of landscape that are both very common in the Netherlands. “In the north, you have the push moraine of the Veluwe with its sandy soil. That land is higher. South of the city centre, you have the river area with the Rhine and Waal rivers flowing through.”

Nature and technology

In their brochure, the researchers and designers show how humans can work with the landscape rather than constantly trying to fight it. The researchers focus on six topics: homes; transport; the urban climate; energy; water and biodiversity; and agriculture. “Rather than exploiting natural systems, we use natural processes and technology to enhance the landscape.”

If you leaf through the brochure, you will come across all kinds of innovative ideas: new lakes in the Veluwe nature area, floating homes on the rivers, cool-air corridors with waterfalls, underground motorways, self-driving cars, strip cultivation and vertical agriculture. Raised mounds are built in rings around old villages located near the rivers. In the cities, greenery replaces tarmac and bare brick facades. “We want to show that you can still build cities that are prosperous and pleasant places to live in, even with climate change.”

Living on the Veluwe in 2120, a balance between nature and life. Image: Wageningen University & Research

Floating homes on the river in future Arnhem. Image: Wageningen University & Research

Excess water is pumped upwards into newly created lakes. Image: Wageningen University & Research

Climate adaptation is only one facet of the task when designing such a future scenario, emphasizes Lenzholzer. “Essentially it is about having a deep understanding of the landscape and its processes: the water, soil, and seasons with the position of the sun and direction of the wind. Making use of smart connections between those processes lets you arrive at innovative design solutions.” Take the example of water. The low-lying river areas suffer from frequent flooding whereas the higher sandy land is plagued by drought. To resolve this in the Arnhem scenario, surplus river water is pumped upwards into newly created Veluwe lakes. The lakes function as a ‘water battery’. If solar and wind power are not producing enough energy, the water flows downwards underground to a hydroelectric power plant. “You make use of the height differences in the area to tackle several problems at the same time.”

Getting people’s support

WUR’s landscape architects regularly use visualizations of scenarios for the future in other projects as well. What are the benefits of this? “People don’t like change — that’s human nature”, says landscape architect Rudi van Etteger. “We prefer the world we know. You can only break that psychological barrier if you can make the alternative tangible. That lets you get people’s backing for a change — get them feeling this is great and something we are all going to aim for.” Make no mistake, these landscape drawings are not just a pretty picture. Van Etteger: “The ideas only become concrete once you start drawing the design scenario. Only then do you discover what you really think of a particular solution. When you describe something in words, you can often avoid the specifics, but when you begin drawing, the dividing line has to be here, or there. That forces you to pay attention to the details.”

You can only get people’s backing for a change if you can make that alternative scenario tangible

The landscape in and around the city is becoming more important. Image: Wageningen University & Research

The design scenarios are not just about high-tech solutions. “We also make extensive use of older technologies that have fallen into disuse in recent years. Over the past century and a half, we have been able to work against nature thanks to the use of fossil fuels. But our fields are only this large because that’s handy when you’re driving a tractor across them. Smaller fields will become a lot more practical when that is no longer possible.”

Starting today

As landscape architects, Lenzholzer and Van Etteger are real generalists. “We’re familiar with the worldviews of both natural scientists and social scientists. That lets us build a bridge between the various disciplines.” That overall view is necessary as you can only find the optimum design if you take all the relevant aspects into account. Lenzholzer sums them up: “You need to think about the energy issue, biodiversity, climate adaptation and agriculture with its nitrogen problem, as well as how to deal with our cultural heritage. We have to consider all these aspects because our interventions affect the world around us, whatever choices we make.”

To be honest, the city of the 22nd century still seems a long way off. But as the WUR landscape architects point out, Rome wasn’t built in a day. You need to mark out your dot on the horizon now, otherwise you will be too late. Van Etteger: “If a municipality has plans for a large new building, you have to be sure that building will be functional for a good hundred years. That means when you put the contract out to tender, you mustn’t select a design that relies on fossil fuels. And you should opt for a building that stays cool naturally during hot summers.”

The story of the city in 2120 was published recently. Of course, the first question city councillors ask is how they can translate the lessons in this narrative into specific actions. In other words, if this is where they want to end up, what do they need to start doing tomorrow? Lenzholzer: “We call that backcasting: working backwards from that dot on the horizon to figure out what small, attainable steps need to be taken to get there. Our colleagues in urban planning and design will soon be able to use this to tackle these issues.”


Read the report (in Dutch): ‘De stad van 2120: natuurlijk!’

Read more about the research of the Wageningen Institute for Environment and Climate Research (WIMEK)

Any questions about this topic? Ask our experts

prof. dr. Sanda Lenzholzer Professor and chair holder in Landscape Architecture

dr. ir. Rudi van Etteger Assistant professor of Landscape Architecture

Share this article