Changing Planning Culture in Flanders, third time a charm?

Guest author:  Clemens de Olde, University of Antwerp

Lion GDJ on Pixabay
A truly new spatial planning framework for Flanders? The lion is emblematic of the Coat of Arms of Flanders. Art credits: GDJ on Pixabay. CC0 Creative Commons, no attribution required.

Shifting paradigms

It is an interesting time for planners in the Belgian region of Flanders. The spatial planning system that was introduced in 1997 is about to be replaced by a new one which has been a long time in the making. First initiatives date back to 2011 and work continued under two legislations and different ministers. A white paper was approved by the government in December 2016, but rumour has it that the Flemish government intends make the final decision this coming spring. The question remains however whether this new planning system will be able to change the dominant planning culture (Othengrafen, 2012) rooted strongly in a system of land use planning.

Fragmented landscape

Flanders is the northern, Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. Counting 6,5 million inhabitants, its population comprises 57,6% of the Belgian total, on a regional surface that is 44,3% of the whole country. Flanders is therefore more dense than the southern Walloon region, and what’s more, with a built-up area of 32,6%, it is one of the most densely urbanized regions in Europe (Poelmans, Esch, Janssen, & Engelen, 2016). While sharing a language and a comparable landscape type with The Netherlands, the built environment of Flanders has little in common with the “rule and order” characterising its northern neighbour as both visitors and locals are quick to point out when the topic arises (Faludi & Van der Valk, 1994). In the 1970s, a land use planning system zoned the entire Belgian surface area in a bid to stop the ever-increasing unguided urbanization. It had an opposite effect however of making urbanization follow land ownership patterns instead of guiding it by strategic planning decisions. Weak policy implementation, lax permit control, municipal localism and clientelism also played a role in creating a fragmented landscape characterised by urban sprawl and ribbon development along roads connecting the urban and rural cores.

Flanders: open and urban

The academic literature observes three phases of urban growth management strategy (Bae, 2007; Chapin, 2012). In a first mid-twentieth century wave, development controls are fairly straightforward such as urban growth management and zoning. A second wave consists of comprehensive plans that combine boundaries with development strategies, and third a smart growth paradigm which focuses more on (dis)incentives for growth.

Following this pattern a new strategic Spatial Structure Plan for Flanders was introduced in 1997. With the slogan “Flanders: open and urban” it contained a comprehensive growth strategy which was to freeze the division of urbanization over rural and urban areas at the situation of 1991. Demarcations of urban and rural areas with prohibitive regulations and targeted supply policy of residential and commercial development were to safeguard the landscape. One of the planners who worked on the plan voices the spirit of the times:

‘That was the first time in the history of urbanism, of planning in Flanders that we thought a scale beyond that of the municipality, on a larger scale of a cohesive area for which a vision was developed.’ (E5)

These ambitions collided however with the dominant planning culture shaped by the land use system that provided property owners with legal certainty of development opportunities. Therefore the legal reality often trumped strategic planning considerations. After thirteen years, an evaluation of the planning framework concluded that its goals have only been realised to a limited degree (Voets et al., 2010). One practitioner phrases the problem succinctly:

‘So that entire dream of a separation of urban and rural space becomes meaningless when translated into the juridical instrument of the spatial implementation plan.’ (E8)

One of the main gains however is that the framework increased planning capacity in Flanders and has at the very least led to greater awareness of the need for strategic planning.

New horizons

The shift currently about to be realised in Flanders can be characterized as one from comprehensive to smart growth. The white paper for the new Spatial Policy Plan proposes to judge developments on their “spatial cost-effectiveness” defined broadly as ‘doing more with less space’ through strategies of intensification, interweaving, temporary and re-use. The white paper does not propose concrete instruments yet, but the policy framework as outlined focuses on promoting initiatives that benefit the spatial cost-effectiveness and discouraging ones that do not through financial incentives and flexible regulations. Furthermore it aims to support early-adopters of exemplary spatially efficient projects and to sensitize and promote behavioural change as regards land use. All the while monitoring the total amount of land use in various zoning categories but no longer speaking of comprehensive planning led by the regional Flemish Administration.

Third time’s a charm?

Though the government intends to remove the worst development locations from the market by compensating owners and setting up a system of transferable development rights, it lacks funds to remove all of those areas zoned for development back in the 1970s. Criticasters (especially those instrumental in producing the previous framework) are afraid of a regression to a past when planning regulations were interpreted very loosely and mostly depended on local actors with their particular agendas. Most of them agree however that it is time for a new planning system. The question now is whether the third attempt at producing a planning framework will prove to be a charm and can transform Flemish planning culture with its focus on land use and legal certainty to one that is amenable to pursuing the goal of countering fragmentation.

This article is part of a feature anticipating the replacement of the planning system in the Belgian region of Flanders in 2019. In the next contribution I will go into how the term “concrete-block” turned into the popular moniker for a 200-page spatial development plan.


Clemens de Olde studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam where he developed an interest in cities and space. Currently he is PhD researcher in sociology at the University of Antwerp. His PhD research focuses on urbanization and the transformation of Flemish and Dutch planning culture.

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Bae, C.-H. C. (2007). Containing Sprawl. In G.-J. Knaap, H. A. Haccoû, K. J. Clifton, & J. W. Frece (Eds.), Incentives, Regulations and Plans: The Role of States and Nation-states in Smart Growth Planning (pp. 36-53). UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Chapin, T. S. (2012). Introduction: From Growth Controls, to Comprehensive Planning, to Smart Growth: Planning’s Emerging Fourth Wave. Journal of the American Planning Association, 78(1), 5-15. doi:10.1080/01944363.2011.645273

Faludi, A., & Van der Valk, A. (1994). Rule and order : Dutch planning doctrine in the twentieth century. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Othengrafen, F. (2012). Uncovering the Unconscious Dimensions of Planning. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Poelmans, L., Esch, L. V., Janssen, L., & Engelen, G. (2016). Indicatoren Ruimtelijk Rendement. Retrieved from Mol:

Voets, J., De Peuter, B., Vandekerckhove, B., Broeckaert, D., Le Roy, M., Maes, P., . . . Blummel, P. (2010). Evaluerend onderzoek naar de effectiviteit van de uitvoering van het ruimtelijk beleid in Vlaanderen. Retrieved from Leuven:



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