Dutch Dialogs, Take 3

By Ruth Eckdish Knack, AICP
Executive Editor, Planning

The third workshop in the ongoing "Dutch Dialogs" took place at APA's Chicago office on November 17, 2010. The topic, "Building Green, Planning Green, Living Green," was a nod to the U.S. Green Building Council exposition, which was held in the city that week and which drew many Dutch visitors. The APA event was cosponsored by the council and the Royal Netherlands Embassy.

In introducing the workshop, APA CEO Paul Farmer, FAICP, referred to the Dutch expertise in water management and sustainability, both topics of particular interest to American planners.

A highlight was the joint appearance of two ambassadors: Renee Jones-Bos, who represents the Netherlands in the U.S., and Fay Hartog-Levin, her U.S. counterpart.

Ambassador Jones-Bos noted that for a small country like hers "learning how to deal with sustainability and climate change is a no brainer." The Netherlands is the size of New Jersey and two-thirds of its 17 million people live at or below sea level. The country is also the U.S.'s seventh largest trading partner.

Ambassador Levin, a Chicagoan, noted that she and Jones-Bos share many things in common, "including our commitment to a green agenda" and the belief that sustainability results from the "critical interplay between government and business." At the moment, she added, the greatest momentum in both countries is coming from the private sector.

Henk Ovink, one of the keynote speakers, spoke about the economic and social dimensions of sustainability. Ovink is the director of national spatial planning in the Dutch Ministry of Environment. The global financial crisis is a wake-up call, he said, "because it hits us in our wallets."

Describing urbanization as the world's greatest challenge, Ovink talked about the vulnerability of large cities and the need to make them sustainable—and competitive. "Design can make a difference," he said, and so can investments in new energy sources such as geothermal power, wind turbines, and photovoltaic panels.

Johann Peter Rehwinkel, another keynoter, is the mayor of Groningen, a university town of 190,000 in the northern part of the Netherlands. It is known for its melding of new and old buildings and for being a particularly bicycle-friendly city. It is also an energy center. It sits on a major natural gas field and is a major energy supplier to other European Union countries.

Groningen's goal is to become an energy-neutral city by 2025. To meet that goal, said Mayor Rehwinkel, existing buildings must be retrofitted to make them energy-efficient, and that must be done at 10 times the current rate. Groningen's approach to energy efficiency is a practical one. "Our energy program includes 10 feasible projects," said the mayor, including installing "smart" thermostats, adding solar panels to schools, and building energy-efficient playgrounds (and a solar-heated public swimming pool).