The Netherlands as trading country needs major spatial planning rethink. Big box warehouse construction throughout the Dutch landscape is a controversial issue. But how much and what sort of space is actually being claimed by the logistics sector, and how does this stand in relation to economic value and sustainable development? In his PhD research at TU Delft, architect-researcher Merten Nefs is studying the changing nature of the Netherlands as a trading country and the spatial effects this has.

An interactive map based on data gathered by Nefs shows that the logistical complex of sites and buildings has grown hugely in the last 40 years. “It now covers around 3,000 areas and 27,000 ‘boxes, ranging from small to king-sized.” Today warehouses take up four times more space than they did around 1980. How does he explain this growth? “There are of course more of us, and we have started to consume more.” We are buying more cheap products that are quickly discarded and replaced. The shift from local to internet shopping is also associated with a demand for warehouse space. “Part of the increase can be ascribed to the role of the Netherlands as the ‘supplier’ of north-western Europe. And another important factor: investing in logistics warehouses, particularly the XXL distribution centres, is lucrative for investors.”

Fascination for trade flows

Nefs studied architecture in Delft. As a fresh-faced designer, he moved to Brazil in 2003, and spent several years living in the metropolis of São Paulo, where he developed a fascination for how large metropolises function. “How do all those people get their food and things? To what extent is such an enormous community dependent on all kinds of trade relationships? It was there that my interest in the Netherlands as a trading country was awakened.”

Upon his return to the Netherlands, he took up a position with the Deltametropolis Association, where he has worked for the last 11 years, besides studying for his PhD part-time since 2019. “My research comprises four parts, which I am completing one by one. I'm more than halfway now.” The first three parts deal with the question: How was the logistics system developed since the 1980s? “This includes such things as how national policy has promoted the position of the Netherlands as a European supply hub, for example by planning Maasvlakte 2 and the Betuwelijn, while leaving the development of logistics buildings to local municipalities and the market.”

Not the prettiest solution

In collaboration with Erasmus University Rotterdam, he took a close look at the employment opportunities these distribution centres offer. “For decades now, a main argument for developing logistics centres and infrastructure is that it creates jobs in the Netherlands.” Yet Nefs does not totally agree with this view. “Automation is in part responsible for the new centres generating a steady decrease in jobs per square metre. And the anticipated magnetic effect that logistics may have on makers and suppliers is often overestimated.” Moreover, a relatively large number of jobs is filled by foreign labour migrants. And then too: does a purely financially driven multinational create jobs that are relevant to the regional economy?” Added to this, the uncontrolled growth of storage and distribution facilities leads to more transport movements and thus more congestion and emission of pollutants. And the integration of logistics facilities in their surroundings is generally not the prettiest solution. “Is this really how you want to use the scarce land that is available? Despite the evident importance of logistics, the added value of many activities and square metres is limited. In 2021, the Netherlands as a distribution country is only partially a success story.”

Can it be improved? Nefs feels that the tide is starting to turn. Government bodies are moving more and more often to steer the further growth of XXL centres. “Space is simply a scarce resource.” They are also subjecting new developments to stricter requirements. “For example, they must have a favourable effect on the regional economy, be better integrated into the landscape, or install compulsory solar panels on the roof.” During his research into the field of influences at the heart of the uncontrolled growth, Nefs discovered that the parties responsible, such as developers, are also less than enthusiastic about the results. “People are more than willing to meet higher demands aimed at sustainable development, so long as they also apply to the competition.” Revenue models continue to be the decisive factor. “As long as a green roof or façade costs more than a standard one, an investor who has no affinity with local climate or liveability issues will not be motivated to implement such a measure. So this needs to be made compulsory by the government or made a part of the selection criteria for a sustainable logistics complex.”

the agrofood and manufacturing industry near Venlo
Sustainable logistics is better interwoven with regional knowledge and production processes, such as the agrofood and manufacturing industry near Venlo. These logistics promote circular chains by refurbishing and recycling products.

New paradigm

The fourth part of his research, that still needs to be fleshed out, is on the question: What makes a logistics complex sustainable? “I am keen to specify how facilities can, for example, bring more added value by multifunctional use of space, sustainable building design and linking to the regional economy. What buttons can you press to achieve this?” In the past, trading landscapes have enriched the Netherlands in many ways, says Nefs, so why should that not be the case once more? He is convinced that there is a better way to integrate logistics with other functions and with current spatial challenges. “Besides a push for quality, we need a new paradigm that places less emphasis on maintaining global production chains.” Why not start with the question: What types of business fulfil the needs of regional food and material cycles? What activities provide attractive employment for people in the area? “Then you would be more inclined to create space for more small-scale manufacturing as well as product refurbishment and recycling, for example, besides international product flows.”

Examples from other countries show that the combination of logistics activities with, for example, urban agriculture, data storage, housing and working facilities can lead to a profitable development. “Functions can be mixed and stacked. Smart combinations can be made, for example by using carbon emissions from industries in the region in vertical horticulture.” This vertical horticulture can be a shared function of a layered agrologistics complex in which the development of regional food networks – cultivation, distribution and consumption – is stimulated. This is good for both the regional economy and the environment.” Nefs knows from experience that the potential and feasibility of such a concept are difficult for many municipalities to grasp. Nevertheless, plans are being made in various cities for, among other things, a distribution centre with sports fields above it and housing next to it, for stacked distribution centres, and greenhouses on top of agrologistics facilities. “New initiatives that give an urgent signal: it is necessary and possible in the Netherlands to do things differently.”

More information

Merten Nefs is doing his PhD part-time at TU Delft and is supervised by:

  • Wil Zonneveld, professor of Urban and Regional Planning (department of Urbanism)
  • Tom Daamen, Urban Development Management (department of Management in the Built Environment) 
  • Frank van Oort, Erasmus School of Economics

Merten also works at the Vereniging Deltametropool