Five questions for Harry Boeschoten

Nature as a utility

Creating nature reserves used to be a sideshow for builders and developers. As a result, many nature reserves are difficult to reach from cities and villages. Harry Boeschoten at Staatsbosbeheer (the Dutch forestry commission) is, therefore, lobbying for an ongoing green network of natural reserves. It is his mission to get every Dutchman to connect to this web of nature.

September 12, 2018

Urban green areas are not Staatsbosheer’s responsibility, right?

“We do not only maintain large and renowned nature reserves, for instance, at the Veluwe or the Oostvaarderplassen. We also take care of green areas nearby or in cities, such as the nature reserves in Midden-Delfland, located between the Hague and Rotterdam, and the Haagse Bos. Especially the recreational areas, most of which were created forty years ago, do not meet the current needs anymore.

Maybe, recreational users were less demanding at that time. You could go for a walk in the woods, a picknick in a sunbathing area and a swim in a pond. Nowadays, people walk, cycle and run a far greater distance than they used to do in those times. They are out to find a variety of activities and interesting areas. That is why we need to connect all those big and small nature reserves to one another. In order to achieve this, we established the Groene Metropool programme three years ago.

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It is our mission to connect every Dutchman to this green network. In line with this vision, we examine people’s needs and how we can fulfil those with our existing green areas. To do so, we need to collaborate with other parties, both inside and outside of the city. When we first spoke with municipalities and project developers, we got off to a slow start, as we took a mainly supply-driven approach. Focusing mostly on the classic vision on nature and recreation. That is why I decided to drastically change our course and start thinking demand-driven, from the city’s point of view. As a result, we did get an enthusiastic response to themes such as flooding, heat stress, mobility, health and their link to nature.”

A green network. Please explain?

“If we want to succeed in redesigning the nature reserves on our city boundaries, they need to be part of a green (nature) and blue (water) network. A network that spreads throughout the inner cities and subsequently the country as a whole. A new utility, which, just like electricity and water, is used to serve every household. After all, a green environment is in the general interest of society and contributes to our health.

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This ongoing, barrier-free nature network, consisting of ‘capillaries’ of both larger and smaller areas, is where you will be able to take a stroll, get your groceries and cycle to the station. In an ideal world we would start by constructing green roofs, green facades and planting trees in streets. These ‘capillaries’ create a link to public gardens and parks slightly further outside of the city centre. These, in return, form a link to natural and recreational areas and sport grounds on the outskirts of the city.”

What effect does vegetation have on our health?

“A green environment encourages us to exercise more and longer. Furthermore, it awakens our senses and improves our wellbeing. The drawback is that these health values are difficult to measure and differ per person. We are now striving for confirmation that these soft values are important too. After all, not everything is about money, your wellbeing and health are just as important. That is why we are also speaking with health care specialists and policy makers. Luckily, we are noticing that more and more people are embracing the relationship between a green environment and health, including authorities and construction companies.”

And the hard values?

“For instance, reducing heat stress. Vegetation cools the city, it can make the temperature drop by several degrees. It does not only absorb warmth, but also water. This makes it an efficient medium to reduce flooding. And planting results in lower concentrations of pollutant substances, such as fine particles.

To conclude, there is also an economic case. Research carried out by the Vereniging Deltametropool shows that vegetation plays an important role when deciding on a good living environment. It turns out that the value of a house in a green urban environment is about seven percent higher than a similar house that is not located in such an area. That difference in value will provide you with an instant source of financing.”

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What task would you like to pass on to authorities, developers and builders?

“Incorporate nature in the complete development process. The fact that this is not done at the moment, is not because of reluctance, but due to a lack of knowledge. At the last Provada in the RAI Amsterdam, I heard someone say that the natural value of cities does not amount to much. That is nonsense. Urban ecology is actually quite a thing! In fact, I believe nature in the city has great potential. Unfortunately, agricultural lands bring less nature than they used to; sometimes, there are hardly any wild animals or plants living on them. The facts are right there. Look into them.

Make a habit of it. Embed it into your DNA, like the use of ecoducts and wildlife corridors in the seventies. No one believed in them: too expensive and too much hassle. By now, these structures have become a standard feature of the Rijkswaterstaat programme.

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Awareness is growing, but, at the moment, we are in the middle of a transition between a good story and realisation. The next step is deciding on how to integrate existing green urban areas into the green network. At the same time, you can already start working on the green network by making very small changes. Plenty of low-hanging fruit! For instance, a city council can decide to include in the building code that when large-scale sewer construction works are being carried out, additional vegetation will be added during the redevelopment of a street. Simple procedures which will not cause disturbance to anyone.”