Close to the Dutch airport a roadside restaurant spans the breath of the multi-lane motorway, the A4. While drinking my coffee and having apple pie, I looked down at the oncoming cars passing under the building with tremendous speed. It was rush-hour and the road was busy, trucks, buses, small sports cars and sedans carrying people to work on Monday morning. I imagined the people in those cars. People still sleepy still, or late for work, hungover people who had spent the night before drinking and those rushing to bring their kids to school. I was struck by the order in which all these different people with their different worries and temperaments all travelled the road with seaming ease. This piece of road carries 150.000 cars daily and they all reach their destination safely unless accident happen. They rarely do though, remarkable, when one considers that one wrong wrong move of the wheel or one dangerous manoeuvre missed by another driver might be fatal. 

What enables the safe journey of so many people driving over a tiny strip of land and neck breaking speeds? In addition to the prudency of the drivers, it is law. Every piece of the road is meticulously regulated and these regulations are transmitted to the road users in the form of exams and tests before being permitted to drive. These pervasive rules determine where you can overtake and how you can do it, how you can enter the road and leave it, at what speed you may drive and under what physical condition you are allowed to. Rules determine the standards of the car and the place your car should be in. Enter the freeway and you are encapsulated by rules. These rules are transmitted to the drivers by signs and lines. Every line on the road is the physical manifestation of a rule. Over time the rules become ingrained and following them becomes a second nature for the drivers, so much so that they might not even be aware that they actually following rules. The drivers expect one another to follow these rules as well and that causes this highly dangerous activity to proceed in an orderly and safe manner. While they are unaware of it, traffic rules structure the expectations and the behaviour of the drivers towards their fellow road users.

When people think of law they think of the spectacle provided to us by series as Law and Order, Better Call Saul or Suits. However, law is decidedly unspectacular. It does its work in silence, structuring our behaviour to keep societal processes functioning orderly. The spectacle only occurs when the law is broken. Breaking the law is far rarer though than law abidance. In order for law to do its work effectively, there needs to be a certain permanence and constancy. People need to internalize the rules and to start expecting the same from his or her fellow men in order for patterns of behaviour to arise. When suddenly the lines on the roads, the signs and the lights would acquire different meanings, the relative calmness I watched behind a slice of pie would quickly vanish. Traffic would become slow and hesitant as drivers would need to get used to the new rules. Near collisions could well ensue because it would be hard initially to predict the exact behaviour of the other drivers. Law therefore is necessarily conservative and resists rapid change, not only in regard to traffic law, but in all areas.

Here a conundrum looms, because from various different an often competing perspectives, people started questioning the efficacy of law to handle the problems of the 21st century. Climate change prompt activists and scholars to demand legal reform. The restrictive corona measures have led to the spectacle of lawlessness when riots took place in Dutch city centres and the economic crises of the last decades have created a demand for more flexible regulation, less restrictive to economic activity. 

In Dutch spatial planning law, these reforms are taking shape. A new law, the Environment and Planning Act should bundle and harmonize 26 individual laws into one and incorporate many more lower regulations such as ministerial decrees and general administrative orders. This regulatory shift is considered the most drastic regulatory operation after the second world war. Interestingly, the law does not only seek to harmonize existing spatial planning law and make it easier for the citizens to use it, but is also aimed at inciting a change in mentality. Spatial planning should become more market driven and regulation should facilitate initiatives from the private sector and from citizens collective. The job of the regulators would become more facilitative instead of prohibitive and rules should become more flexible in order to stimulate innovation instead of stymieing it. The mentality shift is characterized as a change from the old adage of ‘no, unless’ to ‘yes if’, indicating that plans and projects should be facilitated, if they conform to the necessary environmental standards. It indicates an approach less governed by rules and bureaucracy and more by values and objectives.   

Spatial planning is less of an immediately palpable subject than traffic, however, the function of spatial planning law is the same. It structures our living environment and regulates how citizens; market parties and the government may alter it. It orders the competing claims on the use of scarce land and structures the way citizens and in the government as well deal with one another. In that respect, it works in a similarly invisible way as traffic regulation does. Without being noticed, it makes sure cities and the country side develop orderly, infrastructure is constructed without jeopardizing the rights of citizen and the environment in a broad sense is protected through air pollution, noise and water pollution rules. The new law promises drastic changes and therefore there is controversy. However, it is scheduled to be enacted in July next year. This means the signs on the road of spatial planning will change, the lines will acquire different meanings. For scholars of conflict a time to take notice. How will the drivers react? What collisions or near collisions may ensue and will this new law manage to substantially alter the relationship between the different parties involved structuring our living environment? For sure there will be friction as new expectations between parties have not crystalized yet. The lessons we will learn in CONTRA will be invaluable when stakeholders will navigate the new legal highway of Dutch spatial planning.     

Text by Tobias Arnoldussen


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