Future Randstad 2040 An International Perspective

Vincent Nadin


In December 2008 TU Delft in collaboration with VROM and the Vereniging Deltametropool organised an international review of Randstad 2040. Eleven guests with leading academic and practice backgrounds in other countries accepted our invitation to engage in debate with representatives of Dutch government, agencies and NGOs. The purpose was to give critical but constructive criticism of the Randstad 2040 Structuurvisie from a cross-national comparative perspective, so as to inform further action and to assist in developing a research agenda on strategic spatial planning and design at TU Delft.

Our international guests were invited not because of their knowledge of the Randstad, but because they are experts on certain aspects of regional strategic planning and design in their home countries. Insights from experience in Belgium, France, Germany, the US and the UK (among others) gave rise to an intense debate – a flavour of which is given here. [[1]] The visitors were asked to focus on four key questions:

   How does the Randstad 2040 planning process compare to approaches in other regions especially in dealing with fragmented governance?

   Is the Randstad 2040 strategy convincing in it analysis strengths and weaknesses of the Randstad and how it resolves competing objectives?

   Should strategic key projects remain central to application of the vision and if so, what form should they take?

   What are the priority knowledge requirements for complex urban regions like the Randstad, and is there benefit in cross-national comparisons and benchmarking? 

It goes without saying that our visitors understood the tensions and frustrations involved in the complex relations between strategy and project. They stressed the role of the Netherlands as a pioneer in strategic spatial planning and inspiration for other countries – a role that is perhaps less appreciated in the Netherlands than elsewhere. But they also emphasised that changing conditions require a shift in planning style and process. The Netherlands shares these challenges with many other places, not least the greater reliance on the private sector in the development process; rapidly increasing demands for space and; and critical environmental problems, if not potential crisis.

These and other challenges are recognised in Randstad 2040. Ideas about a change in the style of planning are much less evident. Instead, it tends to reaffirm, perhaps not intentionally, the strong legacy of government-inspired and public sector-led spatial development. Government is creating new policy ‘alliances’, but the international reviewers questioned whether Randstad 2040 gives sufficient consideration to how future patterns of spatial development can be influenced in today’s very different context. There is a sense of uncertainty about how planning can be used to ensure that the market is harnessed to deliver on public goals; and only passing attention to some of the sectoral interests and drivers that are critical in shaping spatial development, including, for example, health, education, research and leisure. The reviewers saw a role for Randstad 2040 in reviewing the style of planning and challenging outdated mindsets.

Randstad 2040 is unequivocal about the importance of planning at the ‘Randstad region’ scale (whilst not ignoring linkages beyond the Randstad). To the surprise of our guests the debate in Delft exposed old and rather tired arguments about ‘the very existence’ of the Randstad. The international reviewers had little time for this question. They recognised that Amsterdam is an important centre (in some benchmarks an ‘alpha city’) but the evidence is heavily weighted towards the growing importance of polycentric regions and the role of the network of ‘second cities’ in the competitiveness of regions. In 1966 Peter Hall included the Randstad in his seminal review of The World Cities. The many changes since then have made the notion of a polycentric Randstad region more, not less, relevant. But this is not a question of choosing between the cities or the Randstad, or choosing between the Delta or Randstad or wings, but about recognising the value of different scales and dealing with the linkages between them.

The argument was put strongly that the worst outcome for ‘Future Randstad’ would be one of polarised and compartmentalised cities or wings. The governance question keeps returning – but this is not special for the Randstad. It is commonplace. The key problem is not about creating new government or allocating competences to levels, but about designing mechanisms that encourage, indeed require, collaboration and shared decision-making. 

So the international reviewers were convinced of the continuing value of the Randstad concept – an urban region with complex and dynamic relationships like their own. But they were less convinced that the explanation of the strengths and weaknesses of the Randstad was sufficiently distinctive. The ‘Future Randstad’, they argued, looks like the proposed future of many other metropolitan regions. They asked if this is sufficient to mobilise the breadth of support that is needed to tackle the critical challenges of climate change, mobility and urban development. Power to change things is now dispersed among many interests that need to be enthused by and engaged in the Randstad 2040 programme.

The reviewers agreed about the principles in the document but found it difficult to identify an unambiguous and distinctive goal for the spatial form of the Randstad. Government representatives defended this position citing, for example, the programme of concentrating housing first in the cities. Nevertheless, there was a strong view the spatial structure of the Randstad was undervalued. The guests called for more bold proposals for the Green Heart, and questioned the partially hidden and weakly explained proposals to relax development regulation in open land the interests of low density ‘green residential and working environments’.

The debate ranged across widely varying understandings of the notion of ‘strategic project’. There was some agreement that they should focus on triggering further private investment and existing strengths such as water management, but they could include modest local interventions possibly developed through a bidding process, as well as major investments in integrating infrastructure networks. The reviewers also proposed low-cost ‘process projects’ intended generally to strengthen the ‘software’ of civic society and shape attention to critical issues, and specifically to build a sense of common purpose and collaboration around the Randstad project.

In answer to questions, VROM gave assurances that evaluation of past and current interventions is high on the agenda, though it does not figure prominently in Randstad 2040. The research community in universities and funding agencies can help by sharing relevant research agendas and working around a common knowledge agenda. TU Delft intends as a first step to work with other partners to provide a compendium of relevant research, information and analysis of the Randstad.

There is much more that could be said. The Dutch hosts had to exercise some patience with the international guests who lacked detailed knowledge of the Randstad. But our reviewers had a strong grasp of the big picture. They were at times provocative but also constructive. The result is a strong foundation for further collaboration on strategic planning in the Netherlands and internationally. We will be working with out partners to take this work forward in research and further international meetings including a major conference on strategic spatial planning in Delft in 2010.  

Vincent Nadin is Chair of Spatial Planning and Strategy in the Department of Urbanism, Faculty of Architecture, Delft University of Technology.

[1] Only a flavour of the discussion can be given here. A fuller summary of the debate is available from the Department of Urbanism, Faculty of Architecture, TU Delft, PO Box 5043, 2600 GA Delft, email: H.J.Rosenboom@tudelft.nl.


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