Water and subsurface based planning and design

The Netherlands is a densely used, water-rich country built on soft soils. We have a long tradition of managing and adjusting our natural systems to make all land uses possible almost everywhere. We have created deep polders to live in, drained wet areas for agriculture, and fertilised land to optimise crop yields. We are now seeing the downside of this approach: our natural systems have been adapted and exploited for too long, losing their ability to contribute to a safe, healthy and productive environment. A new approach that has been nationally adopted gives water and subsurface a leading role in our spatial planning and design. This will vitalise our natural systems, prepare us for a changing climate, and help to make major investments in a smart way.

The urgency of putting water- and subsurface based planning and design into practice is greater than ever. Climate change is faster than expected; at the same time, societal challenges and spatial transitions are putting increasing pressure on spatial planning. Deltares first addressed this need for change in the essay On Water Basis’ (Op Waterbasis). Shortly after it was implemented in the Dutch national Coalition Agreement. In November ’22 the Minister of Infrastructure & Water Management send a Letter to Parliament on the implementation of Water and subsurface based spatial planning. Deltares led the scientific review of the policy document.

Our approach

With our partners, we develop knowledge and provide information to help governments, knowledge partners and companies to make the right decisions in order to implement water and subsurface based planning and design. In this approach we recognize three main aspects:

  1. Restore condition of the water and subsurface system, so that the system becomes more resilient and can better absorb shocks;
  2. Adjust land use to water and subsurface conditions and align spatial planning with the carrying capacity of the system;
  3. Improve spatial design in a way that contributes to a sustainably resilient water and subsurface system.

'Water and soil is the basis for our land-use. In the DNA of spatial planning we have to readopt this principle. It should become the way of thinking again.'

Jaap Slootmaker, Director-General Water and Soil Affairs, Ministry of Infrastructure & Water Management

Realising impact

Water and subsurface are being given a role in decision-making and policy-making processes. The adoption of the leading principle 'water- and subsurface based spatial planning and design’ is a great start that will help to guide spatial planning in the future. Together with a coalition of partners from governments, knowledge institutes and the private sector, we identify the knowledge needed. We are also evaluating and supporting the implementation of the policy in practice with regional authorities.

Some examples of our projects: