Published on 16 March 2021

Looking for balance in the Dutch countryside

The natural system in the Netherlands’ rural areas is out of balance. We have reached the limits of that system and are experiencing a decline in biodiversity, water shortages in the summer, crop failures, polluted water resources and flooding in times of heavy precipitation. We cannot keep on stretching ecological frameworks for short-term economic gain. And that opens the search for a revival of the natural balance in our rural area.

Natural basis
The approach of the Rural Area group at Witteveen+Bos takes the natural system as its basis. This system consists of abiotic (i.e. water, soil) and biotic (i.e. organic, ecological) factors. By first looking at the relationship between these factors, we find the principles that cause a natural balance to become unbalanced. This approach  offers a focused, action-oriented perspective to restore the natural balance. Based on this, we make predictions about how an area will develop naturally. All human adaptations that disrupt this natural process ultimately cost energy (time and money).

For example, suppose an area suffers from recurring water shortages (drought). In that case, the problem can be solved by pumping water from elsewhere (energy, time, money). However, the cause is not addressed, the natural balance remains disrupted, and the costs will continue to increase over time. It is better to look at:

  • the water flows (Where does the water come from? Where does it flow to?)
  • soil vitality (What is the organic matter component of the soil? What is required for these soil types to retain water?)
  • the ecosystem (Which plants grow here and do they match the soil and water system?).

Finding a balance between these systems offers sustainable long-term solutions against water shortages and flooding. It also helps with the problems of soil subsidence, CO2 and nitrogen release, decline in (meadow) bird populations and other protected animal species and crop failures. By weighing human adaptation (pumping up water) in advance against a ‘restoration’ of the natural system, you give the latter a greater chance of existence.

Area-oriented system approach
A balanced natural basis has many advantages: by restoring and strengthening the natural system, we can, for example, allow the soil to retain more water, store CO2, increase biodiversity, replenish drinking water supplies, increase water safety, produce food, et cetera. On the other hand, if a balance in the natural system continues to be disrupted, the area will also become less attractive and profitable. Therefore, our approach facilitates a change perspective for current functions and the use of rural areas for more sustainable and climate-robust solutions. Many challenges are now at an impasse, a system and area-oriented approach offers an opening for solutions.

A system-oriented approach also requires something from governmental organizations and their representatives. Think of a focused story about the sustainable design of rural areas, cross-sectoral and integrated partnerships that bring together financial flows, and administrators’ support to facilitate this. The Dutch new environmental law (Omgevingswet), new nitrogen regulations and continuing drought problems offer opportunities to act on this.