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Towards Building with Nature in TMIJ

This case-study focuses on one of the three sub-programs within TMIJ program, the sub program that focuses upon ecology. This sub-program is of importance for this monitoring project because it is a one of example of an ambition to optimize a substantial ecosystem. The context of applicable Nature 2000 regulations, the obligation to improve the ecological quality and the considerable infrastructure and housing ambitions create an urgent need to improve at system level.  The Dutch administrative court in 2012 interpreted this in an appeal trial as not only the duty to prevent further deterioration: improving the situation is the legally imposed ambition. This court decision was forced by an appealing NGO. Infrastructure and housing ambitions are of course embedded in the other sub-programs of TMIJ that focus upon infrastructure and on socio-ecological ambitions. So far, political agreement has only been reached on the ecological part of the project.

With regard to the ecological impacts the overarching idea was thus to manage these impacts at forehand (ex-ante) at a larger scale, for all socio-economic ambitions together. The traditional approach is to assess whether significant impacts on a habitat are caused by a project, and if so, to think about strategies and measures to compensate them. The sought after strategy now is seeking for the most promising interventions at the larger scale. This larger scale process represents the TMIJ (TBES) case, sub program Ecology.

The actors involved, among which the provinces Flevoland and Noord Holland, municipalities, the central government and NGOs and stakeholders, thus sought progress by developing three themes: infrastructure, economy ( among which housing), and ecology. Among these three sub-programs the Ecology program developed relatively fast. A thorough analysis of the sub-system underpinned a creative learning process in which ideas emerged for for-shores, wetlands (especially a very large one at the Houtribdijk), islands and artificial riffs to reduce hydrological energy, and sand profiles/pits to reduce turbidity. These ideas were researched and some experiments were conducted to test the robustness of ideas and concept-interventions. The world of ecological banking seemed to be born, improving whole ecosystems by embedding human building ambitions in thoughtful interventions in the ecosystem is a perspective that comes close to BwN principles.

Important questions raised were the optimal positions and detail designs for planned interventions in the system and expected effects. The overarching expert question was of course whether this would be enough to absorb negative effects of regional and local infrastructure and housing projects. With regard to the ecological impacts the idea thus was to mitigate these at front and ex ante by developing a master plan at the scale of the ecosystem at stake and carefully embedding every separate project. Seeking for the most promising interventions at the scale of the whole IJmeer and Markermeer anchored thus the sought after strategy. This implies that the aim is not to find compensating measures, however to enrich the area from the system perspective, integrating those interventions that would improve the area considerable. Some of the involved actors refer to this ecological sub-program in TMIJ as creating ecological space that can be allocated to and ‘used’ by subsequent socio-economic and infrastructure oriented interventions in the area. Some consider TMIJ as ‘ecological banking’. This strategy creates an interesting multi scale-multi actor governance setting, individual projects become interdependent with regard to regulatory feasibility, across governance scales and sectors.

The strategy to compensate significant effects per small scale project thus was considered ineffective and inefficient. Of course any individual project should be designed carefully to avoid impacts. For this reason the railway track Amsterdam Almere was planned in a tunnel under the IJmeer and also special design principles were chosen by the municipality of Almere for Almere IJland. However this was considered an insufficient strategy. Still knowing that this strategy might fall short from a legal perspective and thus might endanger the Metropolitan area, another approach route was chosen, which developed into TMIJ (TBES), our second case.

However soon political hindrances emerged in especially the province of Noord-Holland. Governors embraced in their political program the principle to have the shoreline untouched upon as much as possible, blocking any building aspirations. The general storyline was framed by stakeholders, NGOs and grass root organizations in the area that cultural, landscape and recreation and tourism at the Noord-Holland eastern coastline had to suffer in order to facilitate progress in the Metropolitan Randstad area and the western area of the Flevoland polder, especially regarding the municipality of Almere.  Indeed some of the interventions planned and some of the experimentation indeed approached the coast line of Noord Holland (Hoornse Hop, shadow islands and also the wetland at the Houtribdijk was discussed.). Opposition was triggered by small municipalities and local interests. Even small scale experimenting in the context of TMIJ was considered and framed as a major threat to political principles of the province of Noord Holland. Governors of Noord Holland were in a twisted position, being at the intermediate level of a multi scale conflict. While the Metropolitan area including Flevoland were in a ‘mode of development’, Noord Holland aimed at keeping the shoreline as open and wide as they have been. This was also written down in the political multi-year program of the province of Noord Holland. This political fact is the sediment of the voice of small municipalities along the Markermeer coast and local and regional stakeholders in the field tourism. Finally smart operating NGOs and stakeholders that were not included in the central policy arenas exploited this anchor for building an opposing coalition. 

In order to facilitate progress the work in the subprogram Ecology within TMIJ was decoupled from the other programs on infrastructure and socio-economic development. From a political perspective there were no actors that had inherent objections against the effort to push the potential of the ecosystem by an integral system approach aiming at improving the ecosystem. However an opposing coalition emerged against the socio-economic and infrastructure ambitions that would be made possible by this ‘ecological banking’. Opposed also were interventions aiming at a better ecosystem if these interventions were intrusive to the open coastline of the shore of the province of Noord Holland: not always very openly opponents believed that this would touch upon interests of recreation or fishery. The coalition thus combined principle and interest driven actors.

Throughout the process some new issues and events became influential. Among others it became clear that the financial resources might prove a tough aspect. First actors thought that a substantial share of the needed resources for interventions to improve ecological quality could be derived from profits earned from exploiting the housing plans. In a booming housing market, the profits could be substantial and thus contributions for ecological oriented interventions could be substantial. As long as it would not charge the budget of the municipality of Almere as such the local governors were indifferent to such a construction. Perceptions changed when it became clear that Almere IJland was planned at a location where water is relatively deep, increasing building costs. This decreased potential profits and local governors hesitated to contribute from the normal budget. Also the emerging economic and especially financial crises forced a reconsideration of budgets and expenditures. For all plans together there was no financial master plan in sight, it was unclear who should pay what. The issue of the appropriate financial cross scale and cross sector allocation of costs and benefits was not paid enough attention. Now the issue had to be settled under difficult circumstances, The needed measures and budgets were reconsidered. TMIJ was succeeded by WMIJ (Werkmaatschappij Markermeer IJmeer) that performed a down-scaling. The ambitions were downscales considerably with regard to ecology focused interventions, focusing on more benefits and less costs. It was now believed that decision-making should be on a step by step basis with regard to infrastructure and housing and that investment in ecology should follow this new scheme. By the end of 2012 decision making on national level is expected, in line with the complexity of the situation consent with regional organizations and stakeholders is sought.

Thus a process of reconsidering the plans appeared and new foci on problems and solutions were developed, often scaling down or postponing. Some believe that the 60.000 houses will not be realized, at least not on short notice. The concept of building outside the existing levies is discussed. Some claim that there is space enough to build within the existing polder at lower costs, which would match present economic preferences and consumers limited financial capacity. The expected decision with regard to the public transport infrastructure will be essential. Within the case Almere IJland the governor of Almere remains his position of building houses and facilitating the train tunnel. However within the national Randstad Urgent program reorientation tends towards a connection Amsterdam-Almere, located more south, near existing infrastructure, at considerable lower costs. Some advocate stretching the existing metro line from Amsterdam South East to Almere. This might imply that previous plans for the tunnel, ending at Almere IJland become obsolete. Although at local level the firm position is that, if necessary, Almere IJland will be connected by local public transport. This however will decrease the grandeur (and the price?) of the real estates. Economic viability of Almere IJland will be endangered even more.

This reshuffled the political landscape. Some discuss the already scaled down ecological program as developed within TMIJ. Avoidance of costs is the driver for some, while others emphasize that this should also be considered to enhance the ambitions as discussed previously with regard to the open landscape and coastline of Noord-Holland. As always such events are taken as a window of opportunity for some participants.

This exploitation of socio-economic dynamics mobilized nature oriented advocates of the TMIJ ecology sub-program. They feared substantial downscaling of investments in ecology if not cancelling crucial projects all together. Especially with regard to the planned wetland at the Houtribdijk remarkable, unprecedented, dynamics emerged. The planned wetland at the Houtribdijk was already phased during the referred to reconsideration process. This made some proponents fear that it might be cancelled altogether or shrunk to minimal level. Therefore an NGO took the initiative to align with some other organizations, among which a national Dutch lottery. This lottery allocates substantial revenues to project related to society and social responsibility in and outside of Netherlands. The first phase of the wetland, now presented labeled ‘the Markerwadden’, was granted a substantial sum (€15 million) by the so called Postal Code lottery (Postcodeloterij). This lottery anchored substantial money to this project, although only a relatively small share of the total investment. The choice was made to start at a location relatively far from the Houtribdijk, this makes it harder to skip the wetland all together or to downscale. This is seen as an attempt to safeguard some of the gains of the system optimizing strategy as was chosen in the ecology sub-program of TMIJ. Due to reduced ambitions, the black scenario for the involved nature organization was that the needed ecological space will be reduced even further, and subsequently the system approach might be abandoned altogether. This fear is enforced by an additional event: new reports on ecological quality of the IJmeer and Markermeer that indicate that a more positive development, less turbidity, is assessed, the reasons for this are yet unknown. The jury whether these are part of a ‘war on reports’ or that real improvements occur is still out.

Ecoshape in the Markermeer Area

Improvement of ecological quality was a condition in order to realize human building ambitions. NMIJ was created as an arena for designing and testing measures to increase the ecological quality of the Markermeer. The situation was rather tensed: the central government was determined to realize infrastructure, on the other side there was a decentralized initiative to develop a future vision for the area. The provinces of Flevoland and Noord-Holland asked for an assignment for this, which they got in 2006 and they presented in april 2008  the first draft to the State Secretary. Right at that moment she initiated the ‘Natuurfabriek’ (Nature Factory) that later was renamed into NMIJ. In NMIJ proposed ecological measures were evaluated, among others by some pilots, in order to determine if, taken all ecological measures together, this would provide enough ecological space to realize the human ambitions in the area. The future vision of TMIJ was then presented in September 2009.

Efforts to hook on the Ecoshape BwN pilots to NMIJ did not find fertile soil. The situation was complicated already, political sensitive within TMIJ, and given the existing cooperation between parties in fragile coalitions, the NMIJ floor was not prepared to open up to new actors, activities and especially concepts, like building with nature. The program within NMIJ and the ecological sub program within was settled. The development philosophy was labeled Nature Inclusive Design. This at first sight might seem a simple battle between two design discourses, however in reality the NMIJ arena was locked up because letting in new ideas and initiatives was believed to jeopardize the progress in the politically sensitive TMIJ arena. 

After TMIJ presented the ecological sub-program a leading politician was interviewed. In 2010 he acknowledged that building with nature as discourse shows strong resemblances with nature inclusive design, the dominant concept and discourse in TMIJ and NMIJ. The most prominent difference is that building with nature explicitly includes efforts to identify natural processes and then use these processes in order to (1) realize human ambitions and (2) establish a positive trend in ecological quality. After discussing it in a relaxed atmosphere on a calm Friday morning, to a large extent in a rather intellectual and reflective manner, the resemblances were acknowledges and in the steering group of TMIJ Building with Nature was on the agenda. This in order to assess whether measures developed by the Nature Inclusive strategy could be improved by adding the principles of Building with Nature.