Long-term thinking as inspiration, stability and guidance

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Students from the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture designed the distant and near future of a piece of the MRA (Metropolitan Region of Amsterdam) on assignment from their lecturer, Mathias Lehner. The results are a fireworks display of design power for the development location NoorderIJplas: after gloomy scenarios in the short term, the apotheosis comes in the long term: everything will be different, but there is room for people, nature and ecosystem recovery.

The seven-week-long design project (the P3, for those in the know) functions as a pressure cooker. The students designed the future for the NoorderIJplas between Zaanstad and Amsterdam North. For decades, this area has been a place where what also had to come somewhere is placed: Sand extraction, highways and bus lanes, high-voltage power lines and depots for (contaminated) soil; more cables and pipes, transformer stations, windmills and almost a metro line on legs right through the area are on the cards. But what is the NoorderIJplas itself asking for in the long term? And who owns this eternal residual space on the edges of two rapidly growing cities: how does this no-man's-land become 'someone's-land'? Excellent questions for the new generation of designers!

The students got to work with design tools such as scenario and transition thinking: What will this area look like in 100 years, in 2123? Every 20 years, through a speculative postcard print, they looked at what developments are taking place here incrementally: The consequences of climate change, energy and mobility transition — the changes in biodiversity, the water table and the further polarising and ageing population.

The nine students came up with various viable visions of the future: sometimes, the area is completely underwater, but occasionally the new Delta Works simple manage to keep it dry. The neighbourhoods developed at the beginning of the 21st century have mostly proved not future-proof; they are underwater because of a lot of paving. Water is embraced for good in the distant future: Students' visions see new neighbourhoods floating on the tides like prefabricated islands. Today's highways have long been written off, and the individual car has disappeared. Sometimes, the national roads become a network of nature and city parks, and other times, they welcome development space along hypermodern public transport. Nature gets all the space it needs in the form of unprecedented wilderness. Future human residents look out on that landscape from their modern, self-sufficient mounds connected by bridges. One plan envisaged a blue nature reserve containing old North Sea oil platforms: not demolition sites, but nodal points in a climate-proof urban network. On the platforms, living, working, food production and sustainable energy generation go hand in hand with a 100% circular economy.

What can we learn from all this creativity? If we let the young generation look to the distant future beyond the current miseries and everyday grind, it does not produce doomsday scenarios. The new generation of designers realises that things must and can be done differently. Students are designing hopeful futures in which people think, dare and act differently. They are the heroes and athletes of the future: we would be well-advised to give them all the space they need to think about the future because the necessary transitions take a long time.

About the author
Guest tutor Mathias Lehner is an architect and co-founder of nextcity.nl. As a strategic consultant, he is also working on the Zaanstad Environmental Vision: Making Space for the Living/Working City of the Future.