What we can learn from place names

19 June 2023, Martin Doeswijk

We live in a densely populated country with a high level of continuous construction to meet the housing demand. That includes the associated facilities, infrastructure and right balance between nature and agriculture. Much has been said about the crises we are dealing with, but not quite everything.

The European Green Deal calls for substantial measures if we are to be climate neutral by 2050. We really have our work cut out for us. Letting the natural system shape the planning choices takes courage and vision, not only by the government but also in developing, preparing, contracting and implementing projects. Instead of pursuing short-term profits, we should be making investments that yield over a longer period (>20 years). So what is the problem with many of the developments we are currently facing?

Since the 1900s, and particularly since the post-war reconstruction period, the development of cities and industrial areas has boomed with accessibility always taking priority over landscape or the natural system. Bu ask yourself how sustainable it is to build houses in the deepest polder in the Netherlands. Or take the care home in Oosterbeemd that had to be evacuated when the Geul river broke its banks and flooded the area. If you know that the place name ‘beemd’ means grassland in a stream valley, would you build a care home there?

Luckily there are examples where the toponym was understood. The ‘Onlanden’ area which lies to the south of Groningen City is a good example. This was originally a wetland area that had been ‘poldered’ and drained over time. In very wet periods, the water was unable to drain away quickly enough, flooding the city. In 2012 therefore, during another period of extremely high water levels, the use of that area as a conservation and water storage area was accelerated.

I myself live on knienenbarge, a relatively common toponym and proper name for rabbit hill. It is a sensible – because elevated – place on which to build a house.

We can make the difference by letting the natural system guide the development and planning of public spaces. Taking a good a look at the place names of the area is often a very good indicator to start with.

Do you have a question about this blogs?

Please contact us below.