A Social-Constructivist Analysis of Cultural Heritage Preservation in the Netherlands



Sara de Boer



Junior Research Fellow, Department of Public Administration, Nijmegen School of Management, Nijmegen University, the Netherlands

Address: Thomas van Aquinostraat 5.01.62, P.O. Box 9108, 6500 HK Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Telephone: +31 (0) 24 361 23 44







In 1999, the Dutch government published the policy document ‘Belvedere’, which offers a new perspective on the relationship between cultural heritage and spatial planning. In this paper, it will be argued that the Belvedere-document is in fact the representation of a new ‘policy discourse’ in the field of spatial planning and cultural heritage preservation.





Globalization, Fragmentation, and the Cultural Heritage


During the twentieth century, two remarkable developments have been taking place in society. On the one hand, as a consequence of new information and telecommunication technologies, new corporate strategies, and new institutional frameworks, one universal, ‘USA-oriented’ culture or lifestyle has been conquering the world. Coca Cola, McDonalds, Microsoft, CNN, and Oprah Winfrey are the frequently mentioned symbols of this ‘globalization’ process. At the same time, within the context of national societies, the diversity of cultures and lifestyles has been increasing – a process that is referred to as ‘fragmentation’ or ‘individualization’. For example, people have been attaching greater value to their cultural identities and their specific spatial settings or ‘homes’. For “… the more universal the diffusion of material culture and lifestyles, the more valuable regional and ethnic identities become …” and “… the faster the information highway takes people into cyberspace, the more they feel the need for a subjective setting – a specific place or community – they can call their own.” (Knox, 1998) And as a consequence, there is a growing attention for the preservation of the cultural heritage in public space. “There is a growing consciousness concerning the importance of the cultural historical factor in order to obtain cultural diversity and a cultural identity for local areas and regions. The cultural heritage – the entire complex of archaeology, historical landscapes and historical architecture – has the function of creating and stimulating the local and regional identity: the feeling of a typically unique character of an area or an object for its inhabitants.” (Nelissen and Bogie, 2000)


In the Netherlands, the growing concern for the preservation of the cultural heritage has had a substantial effect on the governmental policies on culture and spatial planning. For instance, in the early 1990s, the subsidy scheme for restoring and maintaining historic buildings was revised radically and, in addition, the budgets were substantially raised. Furthermore, an ambitious project of inventorying, selecting, and registering historic buildings, objects and complexes took place. Finally, in 1999, the Dutch government – that is, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Spatial Planning, and the Ministry of Nature Management – published the policy document ‘Belvedere’. With this policy document, a remarkable new approach towards cultural heritage in public space has been introduced. In this paper, it will be argued that the Dutch Belvedere-policy is in fact the representation of a new dominant policy discourse in the field of spatial planning and cultural heritage preservation. The social-constructivist concept of ‘policy discourses’ will be set out in the following paragraph.




Social-Constructivism and the Concept of Policy Discourses


In everyday speech, discourse is understood as a ‘mode of talking’. However, from a social constructivist point of view, it makes sense to reconsider this common-sense understanding of discourse. The meta-theoretical position of social constructivism is based on the assumption that ideas, concepts, stories, or ‘truths’ are socially constructed. This means that ‘the truth’ or the general perception of ‘reality’ is the result of social interaction between people; it is an ‘inter-subjective’ construction on which people have reached a general consensus. However, the basic assumption of ‘the truth’ or ‘reality’ being a social construction does not imply that it could be just about anything. “The perception of ‘reality’ is not completely fluid nor completely solid” (Zwanikken, forthcoming). According to Hajer (1995), a discourse is “… a specific ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categorizations that are produced, reproduced, and transformed in a particular set of practices and through which meaning is given to physical and social realities”. Then, the concept ‘policy discourse’ refers to an ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categorizations that are produced, reproduced, and transformed within the context of a particular policy field and through which meaning is given to policy problems.


In the attempts to develop theories of discourse that can be applied to policymaking, two different perspectives can be distinguished: a Habermasian and a Foucauldian perspective. While Habermas’ ‘communicative rationality’ postulates an idealized consensual discourse of critical rationality, played out by equal actors, ‘Foucauldians, like Hajer, are concerned with an oppositional “… struggle against power, a struggle aimed at revealing and undermining power when it is most invisible …“ (Richardson, 1996). A Foucauldian view of the relationship between truth and power suggests that questions about the ultimate truth of arguments are misplaced. We should instead ask how, why, and by whom truth is attributed to particular arguments and not to others. “Discourse analysis primarily aims to understand why a particular understanding of … (a specific policy) … problem at some point gains dominance and is seen as authoritative, while other understandings are discredited. This is taken on to analyzing the ways in which certain problems are represented, differences are played out, and social coalitions on specific meanings somehow emerge.“ (Hajer, 1995) This insight is of particular relevance to the understanding of the policy process as a political, rather than rational, form of decision-making.


In conclusion, policy is shaped by arguments, or discourses, based on knowledge claims that may be rational or irrational, reasonable or unreasonable. The shaping of policy, however, depends ultimately not on these ‘surface’ characteristics of rationality, but on deeper dynamics of power and knowledge within and between discourses. ”Therefore, the focus should not be on objective truth – on proving or disproving arguments – but on the way in which power appropriates knowledge, and weaves it into discourses” (Richardson, 1996). In my research project, the focus and tools that both Foucault and Hajer have provided are being used to analyze the developments in Dutch cultural heritage preservation.




Developments in Dutch Cultural Heritage Preservation


In Dutch cultural heritage preservation, since the 1990s, the main policy goal has been to strengthen the relationship between the cultural heritage and spatial planning and to use the cultural heritage more efficiently and conscientiously as a qualitative factor in public space. This means that cultural-historical aspects should be considered when decisions on spatial planning are being taken and that the coordination and cooperation between spatial planners, landscape designers, and heritage preservationists should be optimized. However, in the Netherlands, the responsibilities with regard to the cultural heritage in public space are divided over three ministries:


1.     the Ministry of Culture (responsible for archaeology, historic buildings, and historic sites),

2.     the Ministry of Nature Management (responsible for the ancient cultural landscapes in the rural areas), and

3.     the Ministry of Spatial Planning (responsible for the quality of public space and the physical environment in general).


Therefore, for these ministries, it is an important task to formulate a coherent, consistent, and comprehensive cultural heritage policy.


The way in which policymakers appreciate the cultural heritage has changed as well during the 1990s. For example, it has been argued that the preservation of cultural-historical qualities and their integration in spatial developments is ‘functional’ or ‘useful’:


-         as a source of identity: cultural heritage is essential for the characteristic identity of towns, cities, or regions and provides inhabitants with a sense of familiarity and commitment;

-         as a source of information: cultural heritage is an important source for scientific inquiry and history education;

-         as a source of inspiration: cultural heritage is a source of inspiration for architects, urban planners and landscape architects;

-         from an aesthetic point of view: the aesthetic value of cultural heritage is an intrinsic one;

-         from an ecologic point of view: the conservation of cultural-historical elements and patterns in both the urban and the rural landscape may also contribute to the conservation of the biodiversity in those areas;

-         from an economic point of view: cultural heritage offers great possibilities for recreation and tourism.


A third development in Dutch cultural heritage preservation since the 1990s has been the decentralisation of tasks and responsibilities to local authorities and non-profit organizations. For example, local authorities and non-profit organizations play an important role nowadays in the selection and registration of historic buildings and sites, and in the distribution of subsidies for the restoration and the maintenance of those buildings and sites.


Against the background of these developments, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Nature Management, and the Ministry of Spatial Planning published the policy document ‘Belvedere’ in July 1999. The main motto is ‘conservation through development and development through conservation’. This might appear to be a paradox, but it is explained as follows. On the one hand, ‘conservation through development’ refers to the fact that, through the search for and the application of new functions for historic buildings and sites, those buildings and sites are actually being preserved. ‘Development through conservation’, on the other hand, refers to the fact that the conservation of cultural heritage is an investment in the development and reinforcement of identity, knowledge, the quality of the living and working environment, and recreation and tourism (Ministries of OCenW, LNV and VROM, 1999). According to Belvedere’s authors, this connection between cultural heritage and spatial planning, between conservation and development, should be given a structural character. In spatial planning practice, this should lead to, for instance, one of the following three alternatives:


a.     the careful adjustment of land uses that are to be developed in a certain area to the specific cultural-historical qualities of that area;

b.     the embedding of new land uses in their specific historical surroundings in such a manner that the new developments are a continuation of the specific cultural-historical qualities that are already present;

c.     the use (“recycling”) of cultural heritage for new spatial developments, such as recreation and tourism.


An important part of the Belvedere-document is the so-called ‘Cultural-Historical Value Map’, which shows, from a cultural-historical point of view, the most valuable cities and rural areas in the Netherlands. Remarkable starting point for the Belvedere Cultural-Historical Value Map was, first of all, the focus on entire cities, areas, or landscapes instead of single objects, buildings, or complexes, and, second of all, the assumption that no city, area, or landscape in the Netherlands is cultural-historically ‘worthless’. In the Belvedere-method, the specific archaeological or architectural value of cities and rural areas has been assessed on the basis of criteria such as:


-         exceptionality: how exceptional is the particular archaeological or architectural quality;

-         authenticity: how genuine, original and valuable is that archaeological or architectural quality;

-         representation: how typical is the specific quality for the particular area or region.


As the result of this assessment, 70 so-called Belvedere-areas and 150 Belvedere-cities are indicated with high cultural-historical values. In these areas and cities the main focus will be on the preservation and reinforcement of those values. Here, both local authorities and non-profit organizations have an important responsibility (Ministries of OCenW, LNV, VROM, 1999)




Belvedere: the Representation of a New Policy Discourse


In conclusion, the Belvedere-document represents three major developments in Dutch cultural heritage preservation. First of all, several new ideas have been institutionalised through the publication of the Belvedere-document: the Belvedere motto ‘conservation through development and development through conservation’, the appreciation of the ‘functionality’ or ‘usefulness’ of cultural heritage preservation, and the need for ‘a comprehensive and cooperative approach’ towards cultural policy and spatial planning. Furthermore, through the publication of the Belvedere-document, the Dutch government has introduced a variety of new concepts into the policy field of cultural heritage preservation. Examples are the concepts ‘cultural planning’, ‘Belvedere-cities’, ‘Belvedere-areas’, and ‘Cultural-Historical Value Map’.


A third important development in Dutch cultural heritage preservation that is institutionalised by the publication of the Belvedere-document is that many old categorizations have become outdated. For instance, the Belvedere-policy deals not only with individual buildings, objects, and sites, but also with entire cities, areas, and landscapes. Moreover, the Cultural-Historical Value Map is based on the assessment of both architectural and archeological values, in both cities and rural areas. As a consequence, in the implementation of the Belvedere-policy, no longer a distinction is made between individual buildings and larger complexes, between urban and rural areas, nor between architecture and archeology.


Considering these new ideas, new concepts, and new categorizations, the Dutch Belvedere-policy could be seen as the representation of a new policy discourse in cultural heritage preservation. For, through those new ideas, concepts, and categorizations, a new meaning is given to the role of the cultural heritage in public space and a new perspective is offered on the way in which Dutch spatial planning could deal with the cultural-historical qualities of the physical environment.


Some important questions remain unanswered, however. What is the explanation for this shift in policy discourses in Dutch cultural heritage preservation? Does a similar development take place in other countries? And how does this new policy discourse affect the everyday-practice of cultural heritage preservation? In fact, to answer these questions is the main goal of my research project.






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