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Liveable Communities: project with a sustainable outlook

With the Liveable Communities – Liveable Planet project, Marja Spierenburg, Professor of Anthropology of Sustainability and Livelihood, is showing that scientists are driven by ambition, hope and faith. She is linking Vrouw Vennepolder, a polder in Zuid-Holland, to the UN climate goals.

Spierenburg wants to look at how to create sustainable communities that can help achieve the UN climate goals. It is clear that you can’t tackle the theme of sustainable communities from a single discipline. ‘So many other aspects are involved: governance, economics, biology.’

Liveable Communities - Liveable Planet
Marja Spierenburg: ‘By its very nature sustainability is interdisciplinary.’

Hence the involvement of multiple researchers in the project: fellow professors Eefje Cuppen (Governance) and Jan Willem Erisman (Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML)), along with Maarten Schrama, an assistant professor at the CML. Spierenburg: ‘And at our virtual meetings, I saw different researchers again, for instance from the LUMC and Faculty of Law, and even an astronomer.’

TheLiveable Communities - Liveable Planet programme, which includes the Vrouw Vennepolder project, is one of the university’s interdisciplinary programmes and has receive one million euros. The project was supposed to be launched live at Vrouw Vennepolder in May, but Covid put paid to that. It may go ahead later this year instead.

Research on a polder

Belonging to the village of Oud-Ade, Vrouw Vennepolder is over 33 hectares in size and is in Groene Hart, a more rural area in the Randstad megalopolis. It is a peat meadow area with many farms, and is of major culture-historical and topographical importance. But it is declining in many ways: reduced biodiversity from urbanisation, high nitrogen emissions, subsidence, soil compaction, greenhouse gas emissions and increased salinisation. Life is tough for the farmers in the area.

Liveable Communities - Liveable Planet
The Netherlands still has relatively large peat meadow areas, in the province of Friesland, for instance.

Ideal research area

Spierenburg sought to align the project with what was already happening in the Vrouw Vennepolder, making it the ideal research area. Of the 33 hectares of agricultural land, 21 are now in the hands of Land van Ons, a growing citizen cooperative that purchases agricultural land based on its ideals. The first goals are to restore biodiversity, to secure farmers’ livelihoods and to link the ecosystem to the social system. Land van Ons wants to achieve this together with farmers. And now with Liveable Communities too. That requires a different mindset from farmers. They will produce healthy food in harmony with the environment. Other goals are to improve soil quality, to prevent subsidence through carbon sequestration and to help reduce nitrogen emissions.

Higher water level

Another problem is that the area is drying out. One cause of this is keeping the water level low, which was once the wish of farmers who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to work the marshy land. The pump has now been switched off in one part of Vrouw Vennepolder, so which means the land can become wet once again. Experiments are now being carried out there with growing crops that do well in wet land.

Liveable Communities - Liveable Planet
Old map of the location of the polder in what is now called Groene Hart.

Observations and questions

Anthropologists will make an important contribution to the project by observing and asking questions such as: what is the influence of the outside world on the farmer? The national and international food trade, for example, or legislation, EU legislation in particular. No farmer is an island, and all farmers are subjected to the vagaries of the outside world. The anthropologists also want to find out more about the dialogue with Land van Ons, how decisions have been made and how have things been thus far. Students are already out researching this. But Vrouw Vennepolder does not represent the limits of the project: Spierenburg is also keen to involve the work of biologist Koos Biesmeijer, who is looking to reduce the use of pesticides by bulb growers in Bollenstreek, the bulb-growing area.


Spierenburg has visions of scaling up and an international rollout. But she appreciates that it isn’t always easy. ‘We at least want to be an example to other projects,’ she says. As an anthropologist Spierenburg has spent a lot of time in Africa and is familiar with the agriculture there. ‘I’ve seen how farmers there are also driven into a value chain that is of little benefit to them. But often that a fairly unclear situation has actually proven to be very efficient. Farmers grew crops in different seasons, in alternating groups of alternating products: the land is used for different produce every season.’ Crop rotation prevents soil depletion: African farmers know this, as do their Dutch counterparts.


Are there parallels between Africa and the Netherlands? If you ask Spierenburg, there are. The word ‘values’ crops up frequently in a document about the project, and that’s where it all begins, she says. What are your guiding values? The crux seems to be achieving food and livelihood security in a way that is sustainable for nature. Here, there and everywhere. And in a way that suits that particular area.

Liveable Communities - Liveable Planet
Model in which communities are linked to the UN sustainability goals (SDGs: Sustainable Development Goals). This shows how you can work from two sides to achieve the goals.

Several functions in one area

What they are doing in Vrouw Vennepolder is to combine several functions in one area. Spierenburg is a fan of this idea. It is also forms the basis of the new Environment and Planning Act* that is being developed. In the densely populated Netherlands there are often conflicting claims to land: one group wants to use it for housing, another for nature preservation and yet another for industry.

Spierenburg emphasises that the project has only just begun and that, also from an academic perspective, it is still in the starting blocks. But that doesn’t have to stand in the way of ambition, hope and faith. And of something coming out of this that will gain traction far and wide, perhaps even worldwide.

* Soon after the interview, on 26 May, the news was announced that the new Environment and Planning Act will be postponed by at least six months.

Liveable Communities - Liveable Planet
The polder with the Venner windmill.

Text: Corine Hendriks
Banner photo: 'Kokkie' 

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