Places to care for (2) Westerkwartier

landschap_zevenhuizenThe modernization of Europe’s agriculture and rural areas has been uneven, also in the Netherlands. As Han argued (13 of March) rural regions subject to the Dutch spatial modernization project have become non-places, striped from ‘constraining landscape’ interchangeable, not worth to care for. Those areas which escaped this process are now heralded for re-discovered values beyond economic rationalization. The neighboring area to the Frisian Woodlands, the area Westerkwartier, located in the province Groningen is also one of those areas which escaped modernization through spatial reconstruction. Collective farmers opposition and rejected spatial plans in the 70s led to a voluntary and much diluted plan in 1989 which preserved farming and landscape structures.

Landschape and Identity

In the southern Westerkwartier, the small-scale landscape with hedgerows, belts and alder trees is a strong symbol of local identity. The landscape reflects the soil structure with sandy ridges in north-west direction where many villages are located and in between lower peat moors and peat-clay soils. A poor soil in terms of farming and historically it was an area where living conditions were tough and where people sought their own diverse ways of sustaining their livelihoods often effectively resisting state intervention. From a modernization perspective the area/landscape was seen as ‘lagging behind’, from a local perspective the landscape symbolized resistance and a headstrong mentality.

Over the last decade the landscape received more and more attention and care by collaborations between farmers in agri-environmental trusts (Agrarische Natuur Verenigingen) and between those trusts and the Forestry Commission (Staatsbosbeheer). Ways have been explored to combine a viable farming practice with preservation of landscape and biodiversity. The meaning of the landscape slowly received another symbolic layer; that of an asset to be explored for cultural and educational purposes and for diversifying the local economy.

Action Research

Students from Wageningen University, amongst others, have contributed to this development through a project called “Brug Toekomst”. Based on a local problem definition, master students of Wageningen University and the colleges of Van Hall Institute and Larenstein conducted research based on questions articulated in a local group/ network which emerged as a consequence of the project. Over the five years around 50 students visited the area for action research, leaving behind many reports and recommendations. But more importantly, the project evolved into a Community of Practice, a learning community in which different types of knowledge, experience and energy developed on the basis of equality. On the 2 of April a book, in Dutch, will be presented in the area which tells the story of this five year project and the local dynamics around it.