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Modernization of rural regions clashes with urge to restore historical amenities

Busy roads push return to trail system

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

ZUTPHEN, the Netherlands - Drawing new straight lines in old Dutch landscapes is generating much discussion and even strong opposition. Many such rural districts over the past seventy-five years were the subject of debate involving a ‘ruilverkavelingsplan,’ the contemporary redesign of history-laden landscapes. Rural areas needed to increase competitively-priced agricultural output, hence the need for greater efficiency and higher production. This process, while ongoing, has become a harder sell as new stakeholders such as environmentalists and city-based nature lovers are joining deliberations.

North Americans visiting the Netherlands often wonder how the country, which in numerous ways seems to be a mixture of a giant museum and a grand garden, at the same time in many other ways also can be so modern and industrial. They need not wonder. The country’s urbanites by the tens of thousands turn to (political) activism to ensure that no more roughly-drawn lines are pulled straight in rural areas and that areas deemed of cultural-historical value will be preserved.

Villagers in rural districts too at times have joined the fray, often to restore lost cultural-historical treasures as part of a practical solution to a local problem. Case in point is the restoration of ‘landweggetjes,’ wagon trails in the vicinity of the eastern Dutch village of Zieuwent. A redesign of farmsteads and the landscape did away with such lanes for local traffic, such as bikers, strollers and horse-drawn farm wagons. The emphasis of the 1970s redevelopment was on easy access for motorized traffic. The risks soon became apparent.


Population growth and larger schools, among other reasons, put more traffic on rural roads. Problems soon appeared on the horizon. A number of tragic accidents in which fast-moving vehicles hit bicycling elderly and youth, raised serious concerns over road safety. The public had enough when a child on its way to school was killed in an accident. A local community group initiated a survey, which in 1992 resulted in a call for the return of a network of trails. Within a year, the Department of Agricultural promised a pilot project to revive such trails as the ‘boerenpad’ plan.

A dedicated non-profit group since with the help of various government agencies has built over 10 kilometres of boerenpad, connecting busy roads and the village via the safety of (scenic) trails. Supported by numerous volunteers, the group also maintains the trails.

Similar concerns prompted people of the Frisian villages Ferwoude and Gaast to restore what they call a ‘kerkpad,’ a trail which once linked the two villages. Again, the initiative came about because of the lack of road safety. A busy dike road had become too dangerous for Gaast children commuting to school in Ferwoude. The villagers’ campaign for the trail took ten years before all layers of government had approved the plan. Originally, a trail used to walk to church, the ‘kerkpad’ had served the villages for hundreds of years and had never caused a headache. The restoration delays however partially were caused by today’s need for environmental impact studies and right of way issues. The Ferwoude and Gaast trail is just one of many such restored links in recent years although in many other instances there was a stronger cultural-historical agenda.


Another example highlights a situation in the scenic, history-rich East Gelderland region known as the Achterhoek. A small, but dedicated group in Voorst, a village near Zutphen, moved fence posts, cleared brush, and rebuilt a trail where people for centuries had walked to church. The Voorst ‘kerkpad’ cut across meadows and ditches (a sturdy plank would do just fine), greatly reducing the walking distance for Sunday foot traffic. The trail later also connected villagers with the Zutphen market. Another trail at some point became a popular leisure route for an evening stroll around the village.

The Voorst trails restoration effort also paid attention to the area’s plant life and cultural-historical features. The ‘kerkpad’ follows an elevated ridge locally known as an ‘oeverwal.’ Such ridges developed as successive flooding deposited layers of silt. Viewed as an example of an area’s cultural-historical treasure, they usually are protected and must be left intact. Bordering the trail is a ‘meidoorn’ hedge (haag), for small birds a particularly hospitable place for nesting and one predators find difficult to penetrate. The hedges also served as a barrier for cattle. Many of such hedges were planted alongside a fence woven with willow branches. Once the hedge overtook the fence, they together were impassable for farm animals. As part of the restoration project, such a hedge also was recreated. The Voorst trails are lined by decades-old willow trees which add an authenticly historic feel to newly rejuvenated paths.

Straight lines

Redesigning the rural areas through ‘ruilverkaveling’ is no longer feasible. The viability of farming in the Netherlands has significantly diminished. The numerically stronger urbanite groups who want cultural-historical landscape preservation – which excludes land from such realignment, a case in point is a plan for an area near Den Bosch in Noord-Brabant - and nature lovers who rather see the biodiversity of a nature parks frustrate farmers who are striving to remain competitive through greater efficiency. Unfortunately for the farmers, they largely have failed to make their case in the public realm that their aim to remain competitive is driven by the very fact that urbanites are unwilling to pay more for food (they say, for example that the consumer now works less time to earn money for a litre of milk than they did in the 1950s).

There are other developments as well in the country in which groups want a return to yesteryear and beyond. In some cities efforts are underway to recreate canals that were filled in over the post-WWII decades to build roads and parking spaces. Other efforts in step with UN proposed initiatives aim at recreating a type of pre-historical situation by returning meadows (and sometimes) marginal farmland to the dictates of nature, hoping for a greater diversity of animal and plant life.