From common land to water land

How can we create a sustainable landscape with space for nature, farming, living and recreation? That question was the focus of the first co-creation session about the Zaanstreek-Waterland region, organized by the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam.

To make the landscape in Zaanstreek-Waterland future proof, the original peatland in the area must be significantly rewetted. Due to years of dewatering, the soil has dried out and collapsed. If nature, residents and dairy farmers alike are to have a future in the area, the groundwater level must be raised in the short term. But how do you do that properly? And what does that mean for the landscape, the entrepreneurs and the community?

The first co-creation session, on Feb. 22, 2024, focused on the following questions:

– How can we adapt to rewetting the soil?
– Where can we build 20,000 – 25,000 homes?
– How can we accommodate the increasing number of recreants from Amsterdam?
– How can we combine nature, agriculture, housing and recreation?

To answer these questions, you need as many stakeholders and knowledge partners at one table as possible. Therefore, in addition to a large number of policy officers from the municipality, there were also people from the water board, a nature expert, two dairy farmers and several researchers.

Dare to dream
The first co-creation session begins somewhat neatly within the lines. The nineteen participants struggle to let go of the regulatory frameworks. But once the first pitches for a future-proof Zaanstreek-Waterland have been made, the participants cautiously dare to dream. So this is the moment to develop a clear and shared vision with respect to the four main themes: Nature, Agriculture, Housing and Recreation.


To make an area future-proof, water and soil must be guiding factors – after all, they form the basis of the landscape. As mentioned earlier, the soil in Zaanstreek-Waterland has to become wetter. But how do you do that?

The participants’ first suggestion is to fill the existing polders with water and deploy it during droughts. This would involve rainwater or fresh water from the Markermeer for agriculture and brackish water (fresh water mixed with salt water from the IJsselmeer to save fresh water) for natural areas. However, that remains a short-term solution because it does not structurally wet the soil. Moreover, brackish water is not desirable for agricultural activities, for example for drinking water for the cattle and for growing specific crops.

Water culture
A second – more daring – option is to flood pieces of land to create a water culture to which agriculture, housing and recreation can be adapted. Think: growing biobased crops like cattail and elephant grass, building houses on stilts and recreation on the water. The Purmer, the area with the most dairy farms located next to the two Natura 2000 areas along the Markermeer, would be ideally suited for this.

By flooding part of the area, you can save the other part. On that dry part, the current nature with its open landscape and many meadow birds would be preserved and, in addition, a few (small-scale) dairy farms could continue to exist. For the participants in the first session, however, that vision of the future still seems a step too far.


Rewetting the soil decreases the bearing capacity, making the land less usable for dairy farms in Zaanstreek-Waterland. In the future, only a small proportion of current dairy farmers would remain who must produce more extensively. This fact raises three important questions: Are we going to keep doing it this way? Are we going to grow biobased crops on dairy farms? Or are we going to radically change agriculture?

Continuing in the old way is not an option, the participants agreed on. So if parts of the landscape would be flooded, could biobased crops be grown there? According to the participants, in that case the identity of the landscape would be lost; which is an open landscape with meadow birds and not with four meters high elephant grass.

But that is not the only identity that worries the participants. The identity of the farmer also plays a role. “A lot of people think that as a dairy farmer you can become an arable farmer, but that’s a completely different business,” said one of the dairy farmers present. “I then become someone else.” None of the farmers is against nature measures, but giving up your identity is something else. In short: farmers are quite willing to change but why do they have to go into a completely different profession? This raises the question: in the long run, might dairy farmers have to move?

Nature manager
Relocating is one option. But there are others. Natura 2000 areas adjacent to the Markermeer, for example, experiments are done with farmers who have become nature managers. They were allowed to stay in the area, on the condition that they (partly) stopped farming. Instead, they could become nature managers and get paid for it.

There is also excellent cooperation between farmers and nature in the area in the successful “Meadow Bird Program.” In that program, dairy farmers get paid to manage the land so that meadow birds can live there.

This vision of the future in which farmers become (partly) nature managers is very well received by the participants in the co-creation session.

Working together in coalitions
A third option is to connect farmers with citizens so they can sell their products directly. “The price I receive for my milk is very low so I have to keep expanding,” said a small local dairy farmer. “But if I can sell directly to consumers, I can stay small. Then I can tell my customers that I want to be a small (organic) farmer who cooperates with nature and that’s why I charge a different price.” Perhaps it is possible for farmers to work together in some sort of coalition? The participants promise to look for connections to make this concrete.

Farmer’s bid
The fruitful ideas coming out of the session bring up the so-called “farmers bid.” Instead of imposing something on farmers from a policy perspective, you can ask them: what is your proposal? The policy-makers’ ecological frameworks, such as rewetting the soil or lower nitrogen and/or CO2 levels, are the starting point. The great advantage of such a farmers proposal is that as a policy maker you enter into dialogue and can take into account the sentiment among farmers.


The enormous housing task of no less than 20,000 – 25,000 homes in Zaanstreek-Waterland came as a surprise to many participants. Before those figures were clear, the participants still talked about building within the existing urban cores such as Purmerend, Edam and Monnickendam. Once the numbers were known, for a brief moment the discussion turned to topping, or building up. But it soon became clear that high-rise construction is not an option because of the peat soil. Conclusion: it will be necessary to build outside the urban cores. The participants agreed that then it could not be traditional construction. Preserving the open landscape is essential because of its history, identity and the meadow birds. What can be done are, for example, floating homes, houses on stilts and houseboats built as sustainably as possible and with local materials.


When the topic of “recreation” comes up during the session, one thing quickly becomes clear: tourism from the Randstad, especially from Amsterdam, cannot be stopped. Recreation in the Twiske nature reserve has been on a larger scale for some time now, including the necessary (music) festivals. That is well organized, according to the participants. But now that more and more recreants are arriving in the other nature reserves, a vision must be developed on how to deal with this. Participants’ opinions range from “Biking, hiking, supping and whisper boats are fine, but I don’t want any loud music” to “The Netherlands is already overregulated, so we don’t want too many rules.” The right vision probably lies somewhere in between. Either way, the first step has been taken: from “No recreation in my backyard” to “Recreants are welcome, but under certain conditions.”


“I didn’t know it was all so connected,” is perhaps the most valuable conclusion of the first co-creation session for Zaanstreek-Waterland. This participant tells us that he is working on housing, but had never realized how much housing and water are connected.

It would be even better if housing, water, agriculture and recreation could come together. Because if you consider all the themes as separate components, you need a lot of space to allow all the functions to coexist. It is therefore important to link all the themes – nature, agriculture, housing and recreation – together, for example in the form of a nature reserve managed by the farmer, where people live in water houses and where people recreate quietly on foot, by bicycle or sailing in whisper boats.

In short: it is time for Waterland to live up to its name again and start living with the water on all four themes. Turn ordinary-land back into water-land!

Text: Merel van der Lande

Made by Biobased Creations for This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under Grant Agreement No 101081464.