Resident-Owned Dutch River Area

Turning the threat from water into something positive for residents

Rijn and Ijssel Water Board

Alongside the river Berkel in the Dutch province of Gelderland, is an area of land that should absorb water if the river floods.

The chance of flooding is realistic as a lot of water comes down regularly from the hilly German countryside situated just behind the river. The so-called absorption area is one of the many clever ways the Dutch keep their feet dry in their low-lying country. The area is also part of an ecological connection zone which allows fauna and flora to spread through the country. These are useful functions for water and nature conservation, but the benefit was far from clear to local residents. This resulted in questions and dissatisfaction about the design of the area and its management. And because of the specific way the area was designed, it was not greatly used for recreation. A missed opportunity in a country as small as the Netherlands where almost every metre of land needs to have a multi-functional purpose.

Let the residents decide

Rijn and Ijssel Water Board

The river bank of the Berkel at Eibergen is managed by a water board, which is normal practice in the Netherlands.

The water board is a government institution which is responsible for good water management and purification. It is responsible not only for the implementation of activities but also policy. The management of a water board is elected by residents and in this case the Rijn and IJssel Water Board decided to take democracy a step further.

Instead of a formal consultation process to determine the design of the area, the water board wanted to hand over the area completely to the residents. It wanted to see if this far-reaching form of self-governance would result in added value. With just two conditions: water security and the ecology must not be compromised. In this way everyone who lives in the area has a say on what recreation opportunities there are and, in some cases, even what the view from their homes will be. The main aim of the water board was to give residents the feeling that the river bank was their own back garden so that they could, in a responsible way, enjoy the area more.

A lot of talking to build trust

Rijn and Ijssel Water Board

Various residents with an affinity for recreation and nature management seemed prepared to take up the challenge.

They created the Marke Mallem project. Marke is in the Netherlands a management system from the Middle Ages in which a collective of users manage an area and Mallem is the ancient name of the region. Ideas from the collective direct the policy and implementation. And this is also where the process started: collecting ideas for the area (a so-called charrette: an intense period of collaborative design or planning). But before this could happen, inevitable resistance to the Marke Mallem concept had to be overcome.

Because wasn’t the water board just looking for savings by making residents do its work? And wasn’t it true that members of the board of Marke Mallem would just suddenly impose their ideas without consulting anyone? It was a jump into the dark for the professionals too: would the relatively untrained residents be able to do the right thing for nature? Coming together and brainstorming in various groups clarified this situation. The founding fathers succeeded in their collective approach to the area. The maintenance budget was transferred in its totality to the new management, without cuts or conditions.

The water board’s experts remained available to the Marke Mallem for advice and assistance when needed. Initially this was intensive, but increasingly the experts faded into the background as time went on. Today the Marke Mallem makes a maintenance plan every three years which is checked by the water board and there is a sort of inspection in the area itself. According to all involved, trust and giving each other room to manoeuvre are essential for the success of this process. For the water board this means it has learnt how to embrace its responsibilities in a different way.

Security, recreation, nature conservation and enjoyment through tailor-made solutions

Rijn and Ijssel Water Board

Ten years after the first meeting, Marke Mallem is a special nature area with walking and cycling routes and information on the landscape’s history.

Responsibility for the management of the area is with the Marke Mallem board, implementation is done together with partners such as farmers who own land in the area, nature associations and even a local shepherd. The special form of management makes custom-made solutions possible. For example, residents of a new housing estate were very keen to have a better view of the river. This was possible only with a more intensive form of management. The water board, which has 3,000 kilometres of waterways to manage, would not be able to arrange this separately for a single area. The Marke Mallem management board sat around the table with residents and a more intensive form of management was agreed on condition that the residents themselves would help.

Everyone is happy.

The comprehensive discussions at the start of the project are still reaping benefits today. When it appeared that Berkelland council’s budget for culture and recreation had some cash available, the parties involved with the Marke Mallem checked in their charrette book for ideas for which in the past there had been no money. In this way an extra footpath was laid which protected ecological zones and so-called ‘Marke stones’ were laid to explain the historical background of various spots. For example there is a stone by the Mallem mill which is surrounded by the Marke area. This has been a special place in Berkelland since the Middle Ages. The Marke Mallem management board is very aware of its responsibilities for water management and ecology and takes them seriously. But because board members are also residents, their explanation as to why certain ideas are not possible are more easily accepted. After ten years of self-management, the area has developed its own character. Residents from all over Eibergen are proud of this and enjoy the area. And that is infectious: elsewhere in the province, in Lochem, the water board is now working on a request from residents for a similar project.