Inaugural address by Co Verdaas: Urban area development has never been so complicated (and cool)
Planning specialist Co Verdaas knows the world of spatial development like the back of his hand. As a former researcher, politician, public administrator and consultant, he knows the extent to which views on a project can vary and how important it is to transcend the interests of individual sectors. For Verdaas, who assumed the role of professor of Urban Area Development in 2018, the main focus is on sharing and enabling access to knowledge that is relevant for a specialisation particularly rooted in the practical world. “The question of how we structure and organise the Netherlands seems harder to answer than ever. This chair exists in order to help government bodies and market players to interpret the underlying complexity.”
What exactly is urban area development?
“First and foremost, it’s a way of meeting the needs of society on a manageable scale. It’s a relatively recent concept, partly ushered in by the decentralisation of spatial policy, but, of course, we have been working on the spatial development of areas for centuries. Seen simply, the main focus was originally: how do you ensure that residential construction is planned in an orderly way? This is still an important challenge, but we now also have to deal with the need for a renewable energy economy, a different approach to mobility, a climate-proof environment and a circular economy. Focusing solely on one challenge in society is a thing of the past.”
How would you describe the specialisation?
“It’s not an area in which you develop knowledge by repeating the same experiment ten times in a laboratory. It’s more about sharing and analysing experiences. That also makes the specialisation vulnerable and we often have to play second fiddle to disciplines with a long history and a theoretical basis, such as law, economics, environmental sciences, civil engineering, architecture and urbanism. But urban area development is also about behaviour and organisation. Organising collaboration and finances, for example. It is no coincidence that the chair is part of the department of Management in the Built Environment (MBE).”
“My predecessor, Friso de Zeeuw, and the team that supports the chair on behalf of the Urban Area Development Knowledge Foundation (Stichting Kennis Gebiedsontwikkeling), placed the specialisation firmly on the map after 2006 as an ongoing analysis of a highly dynamic playing field that encompasses functions, disciplines, parties and flows of funds. I am happily adding a thematic focus to that: the link to the issue of climate, energy and mobility. How that link can take shape in projects that can be implemented in practice is the area we are researching.”
What does this mean for your chair?
“For all stakeholders, the planning of an area has become more complicated and more difficult to manage. The partners in the Foundation, who include both government bodies and market players, are familiar with this dilemma. A sectoral challenge, such as building energy-efficient houses, is something everyone understands. But then you have to take account of peak rainfall and heat stress. Combining all of this is not easy. The chair aims to systematically free up and provide knowledge at system level. The question is not how to ensure a project runs smoothly. It is actually about how you arrange and structure the collaboration needed to make a project a reality.”
“During the last year, the first doctoral candidate associated with this chair started work. She is focusing on social sustainability in area development, a good example of a subject about which there is still very little in-depth knowledge. Besides, knowledge transfer is about more than just publishing academic articles. In this specialisation in particular, a conversation between representatives of different sectors often quickly involves a lot of knowledge sharing. As well as research, our output also consists of meetings and dialogues. Our digital platform gebiedsontwikkeling.nu has already become a very popular and valued channel for everyone involved in the specialisation.”
This chair is a part-time position. You are also a member of the Council for the Environment and Infrastructure and became Chairman of the Rivierenland Water Authority on 28 March 2019. How important is this practical experience?
“This discipline gains meaning through what I call ‘real-world’ action. As the Water Authority Chairman, I experience that reality on a daily basis. Water authorities have become players in area development. Water management, such as protecting against floods and dealing with drought, can have a major influence on the development of an area. Water authorities are also instrumental in helping to make an area climate adaptive or in achieving a sustainable energy supply by facilitating water-based geothermal energy. Everyone needs each other.”
Spatial development has never been so complicated?
“Yes, it is complicated but, – and I hope to make this clear in my speech – what we are doing in the Netherlands is also quite cool: organising our limited space. We occasionally forget how good we are at working on the future. Take a look at the river widening at Nijmegen. Excavating a side channel created an island in the Waal on which a wonderful urban design programme has been realised. New bridges have linked the banks of the Waal even better than before. This project initially faced fierce opposition, but everyone in Nijmegen is now proud of the result.”