The Netherlands of 2041

Published on: 12 April 2021

How will we live in 2041? We outline the Netherlands of the future in a series of six articles. How rich will we be? How will we consume? How will we work? How societal will we still be? And how will we spend our leisure time? In this first episode we wonder: how will we live?


Looking down from the airplane, the Netherlands of 2041 still is that yellow & brown blanket of agricultural land. But when we examine the dark seams between those patches of land a little bit closer with architect and former Flemish Government Architect, Leo van Broeck, we can also see that the spread of boxes, distribution centers, mega-stalls, datacenters, solar parks, ribbon development and other landscape clutter has come to a standstill. Everything that's still there, is overgrown with vegetation. And what about our beloved church towers, ditches, bridges? All still there. The monotonous lands sprayed with poison have been replaced by more diverse agriculture and much more open nature – but wait a minute. Didn't we suffer from a housing crisis in 2021? An acute shortage of 331,000 houses according to ABF Research? The Dutch population has increased since then by 1.5 million people. Where do all those people live? “Not here, that's for sure”, says Van Broeck. “Not in the open space.”


In the rural areas

Back to the year 2021. The ‘game’ of musical chairs is ongoing on the housing market with less and less chairs and more and more participants. Ever since the central government abandoned the issue, slum landlords force the prices of housing up, foreign investors, project developers and municipalities only build expensive, profitable apartment complexes and social housing has disappeared to make way for the private sector. People with a median income move away from the cities. Starters are forced to live with their parents. The number of homeless people is increasing. And because seniors have to live independently for longer, they grow lonely in way too big family homes.

Everyone agrees on one thing. One million houses extra in ten years’ time. But where are those houses to be built? Outside or inside the city limits? Heated debates have been going on for years now. “I believe we have to leave it to the people”, says Co Verdaas, dike reeve, former state secretary for the PvdA and professor in area development. “According to my data, one-third of the people wants to live in the city, one-third just outside the city limits and one-third in a rural area. A mixture of everything. We have no other choice but to build outside the city limits. We make an exception for nature and good agricultural land, but along the radials A2, A12, A28 are still plenty of hectares to be found for at least 700,000 new houses.”


Ghost towns

It's a horror scenario for architect Van Broeck. “The Netherlands used to laugh at Flanders because of our chaotically built-up landscape. It is indeed true that you once gave consideration to the open space, but that has changed in a short period of time. You are now establishing entire ghost towns in the polder meadows. I visited Lelystad once, horrible. Not a living soul in the streets. You are asphalting everything to damnation.” According to Van Broeck, the Dutch worry way too much about the housing shortage. “You should be worried about the destruction of the eco-system instead. Expansion in the region emits twenty times more greenhouse gas than incorporation in the city. Global warming is caused by people who live outside the city centers. So, clear the rural areas and free up agricultural land. Nature becomes a reserve, a protected area.”

It is no longer possible to live bigger and bigger. We turn it around. Don't focus on more houses, but on more people in every house

Self-supporting residential towers

Is it possible to find enough meters outside the ring for those extra houses? “That number is highly exaggerated”, says Van Broeck. “The population growth is about to decrease in a couple of years. Let's start with the transformation of vacant offices and retail premises and building on residual lots. No more tiny houses in open fields, focus only on urban counterparts: micro-apartments in sky-high flats. Self-supporting towns on its own.”

According to the numbers presented by the Brinkgroep, half of the demand for housing can be solved by densification within the city limits. So, how about we start there? Verdaas doesn't believe that’s something the people want. “No Hong Kong or Singapore. Unlivable. People always look down on it, but most people are just looking to find a row house with a small garden, situated in the suburbs.” That's no longer feasible, says Van Broeck. “People have to adjust their housing preferences and fast. Over the course of one century, we shifted from 8 to 65 square meters per person. It is no longer possible to live bigger and bigger. Time's up. We turn it around. Don't focus on more houses, but on more people in every house.”


Concrete stop

As a Flemish Government Architect, Van Broeck once invented the ‘concrete stop’ that caused quite a commotion in his country but that was still implemented recently. Only build city-inward by decree, does that work? “Of course it works. But it merely is the start of a process. A realization. We will also stop building detached houses. Building villas is outdated. Do you insist on rural living? That's only possible in densified villages, compact micro-cities. But nothing in between anymore. Something in between means we will be covering even more land with asphalt. Commuter traffic already costs us billions of euros in traffic jams every year. You don't have to have a green heart to realize that. Being stuck in traffic for one and a half hour every day causes divorces and obesity. Lease cars will therefore also be prohibited and people get a house matching their salary in exchange. Teleworking will become the default option anyway.”

Can we really ask people to be confined in smaller areas? “Anything else is irresponsible. Surely, you also don't allow your child to make a fire in a dry forest?”

By 2041, it will be more comfortable to live in the city than it is to live outside the city limits

In our city

What does the city of 2041 look like? A human bio-industry? Near the metropolis Randstad, our plane is flying lower and through the streets. In between the mature trees, thick bushes and public, shady terraces on top of the roofs of residential towers and parking garages, the stacked and jam-packed houses don't stand out. Climbing plants are growing freely along anchor cables, facades and nest boxes. The streets are car-free. Cyclists on meander avenues are guests in low-traffic residential areas dominated by pedestrians and feral parks, the cooling elements of the city. Clinkers and tiles are removed everywhere to guard the city even more against heat and flooding due to global warming. The grass is allowed to grow high on water permeable little squares. The damp wetlands and the area surrounding city rivers are swamped with biodiversity. During extremely hot summers, the temperature here is lower than on the open land.

“And also worth to mention is that everything is located just around the corner: facilities, hospitals, schools, culture”, says Van Broeck. “By 2041, it will be more comfortable to live in the city than it is to live outside the city limits.”


Sensors and cameras

But doesn't this have a detrimental effect with so many people living together in such small areas? We don't see it but behind the social, green paradise a whole other world is hiding. Sensors and cameras are incorporated everywhere. These tools measure the hustle and bustle, peaks in pollen, air pollution, waste containers, throughput in the sewage system and the behavior of road users. In control rooms, algorithms are converting the gathered data. Residents use their watches to read the possibilities for action and adjust their behavior. They are the ones reporting a hole in the road and other irregularities. Digital violation of privacy by the government? This is unfortunately the order of the day. Plenty of issues still need to be improved. It is a laboratory in which we try things together and in which we safeguard our safety together. “Urbanites start dreaming and do things at their own initiative again”, says Van Broeck.


Inside our home

We penetrate a residential area of 2041 deeper. How do we live? “Flex housing, self-build groups, neighborhoods consisting of multiple generations. Plenty of living concepts to choose from”, says professor Housing Institutions & Governance Marja Elsinga. She uses the project 1M Homes to boost innovation and focuses mainly on quality and affordability. “Just take a look at the spartan portacabins for starters, students and people with a residence permit on vacant lots. The scattershot solutions of 2021. The emergency is serious and municipalities get away with it. Stackable, relocatable, but has it been made with circular materials? Does it have a minimum of comfort?”

Or what about the skewed living. Elderly people who, according to the CBS, keep 140 m2 occupied and young families 35 m2. Both groups are stuck in their situation. Realtors are already trying to tempt seniors in order for them to free up their space and to move to courtyards for the elderly, attractive living arrangements with company, care and shared facilities. “But better would be: elderly people and young people who enter into housing forms together, communities in which people look out for one another”, says Elsinga. “As long as the final meters are not allocated to project developers. That would mean even more expensive apartment buildings. Let the residents take control again. Build strategically, facilitate initiatives and encourage flexible living.”


Open building

Building strategically, in practice, comes down to ‘open building’. This is an idea from the sixties, raised by the Dutch architect John Habraken. Large, firm bearers of concrete and the layout is flexible. This means we will come across the same styles in many places, but as long as the construction is of high architectural quality and furbished differently, it doesn't get boring. Studios can be disassembled easily and assembled again somewhere else. Apartments can be split or merged by moving a wall. You turn the outside into the inside and vice versa. Regardless of your stage in life, you no longer have to renovate or to move, because your house changes along with you.

“Living”, says Elsinga, “is a lifelong fundamental right. We have to get rid of housing as an object of speculation. In a country in which everyone participates, living is a stable long-term investment. Really something to consider for pension funds. Especially for my pension fund, ABP. As you grow older, you are not only entitled to pension but also to a life worthwhile living. To community and joyful moments.”


Making each other happy

In the living complex of 2041, the people together are generating power and storing excess water. Nobody has his or her own garden, but we cultivate our own vegetables and herbs in vertical vegetable gardens and meet neighbors in numerous, connected parks.

And what if we'd rather be on our own? If we want to enjoy our own company in the house of the future, something the scientists of this century are trying to enthuse us about? In our kitchen where the coffee machine is already on when the alarm goes off to wake us up, where the fridge sends us a list of groceries and where a machine prints food in 3D? The bathroom that is checking our health, the toilet that analyzes urine, the toothbrush that shares conclusions with the dentist?

Van Broeck believes that, by that time, it is more important to us that our shower reuses 100 percent of the water. That our stuff is made from fungi and can be disposed of on the compost heap. That our residential complex is equipped with a party room where children can invite their entire class and with a crafts corner including professional tools. “The selfishness is gone. My neighbor is not allowed to build any higher? My sun should not disappear? Living closely together in the city means making each other happy. We just don't have any other choice.”