Crossing the Netherlands' astonishing Afsluitdijk, a 20-mile-long dike built in the 1920s to span the former Zuider Zee in order to cut off, desalinate and tame its routinely terrifying floods, one gets a tangible sense of the historic ambition and effectiveness of Dutch political and civic decision making.
Likewise, seeing the vast synchronized redevelopment underway of Amsterdam's central station and moribund north side in order to let the thousand year old city grow, illustrates a Dutch kind of modern urban politics that tackles gigantic civic objectives, while managing to bring people together enough to actually finish said civic objectives in a coordinated functional way.
The well-coordinated scope of Amsterdam's civic ambitions takes the breath away, particularly for someone from Seattle. Here, our efforts seem more a civic crap-shoot: fund a billionaire's new arena over here, build a fraction of a floating bridge over there, bury a four-lane road in a tunnel at the waterfront, scatter trains and tracks piecemeal through a few neighborhoods. Some paid for, some not. Let the cranes and 'dozers roll; we'll figure out how — or whether — it all works together sometime down the road.
Travelling through Holland, one perceives cultural aspects of Dutch decision making that could offer contrasting lessons for a young city like Seattle. We are a city that still searches for an enduring, cohesive story about itself, its aims, its politics and its increasing global prominence. And we also still seek ways to make our urban politics work, integrate and align to achieve greater things for the city and the region.
The oft-mocked "Seattle process" has become code for aiming for consensus, but never quite getting there: discussion without decision, tug of war to the point of gridlock. Ours is a surefire recipe for making getting things done more difficult, or for moving in civic lurches, at the least.
So, it is particularly interesting to observe the Dutch civic culture, where the process of reaching consensus is the very essence of how to get big, bold, ambitious things done.
That Dutch process, the "polder model" is the particular way of decisionmaking that is centuries-old, yet enables people, politics and civic momentum to coalesce. It endures as a kind of Dutch cultural DNA in both business and civic affairs. Its essence is both gathering agreement and knowing the limits of trying to make everyone happy — and, at the point where all have been heard, moving forward decisively. Elements of the polder model might be useful in Seattle, where civic factions routinely hunker down to stasis: downtown v. the neighborhoods, north end v. south end, old Seattle v. new economy, ad infinitum.
The Dutch have built dikes, drained swamps, created land out of water for centuries. This "poldering" of Holland required enormous ambition but also demanded relentless practical cooperation: You may disagree with your neighbor about politics, religion or what have you, but when it came to building and maintaining the dikes and pumps on your property you could not "do nothing," no matter the disagreements, or else everyone up and down the line of polders — man, women, child, horse, cow — would drown. Political scientists have dubbed it "the democracy of dry feet."
The landscape imposes a tangible mutual obligation, a compelling clarity for a country where 40 percent of the land is below sea-level. The core of the polder model — not drowning — is so important as to focus all minds on action. But this sensibility spills into lots of other areas in politics and society — creating a presumption to act rather than stall or pontificate. The luxury of "standing on principle" crumples when faced with the imperative of the sea. People have a chance to be heard, to get their ideas in, to be challenged, to respond. With luck and enough patience, a consensus tends to emerge. But everyone understands that ideology alone must not ultimately stop action because, when all is said and done, there is the sea.
The polder model's mark is evident on city founding documents buried in the Amsterdam archives, simple contracts signed hundreds of years ago by family after family, draped with bundles of wax seals and ribbon after ribbon — keeping dike after dike after dike intact. Otherwise, the sea.
Once alert to it, one senses the polder model everywhere in Dutch life. Walk into a Dutch company and you'll see it in the way companies organize their teams and physical offices. Unlike America's ersatz personal space, the cubicle, Dutch offices typically have a large central desk, with an entire team arrayed around it facing one another; six, eight, twelve or more working shoulder to shoulder in continuous conference. It's odd to an American eye, but the advantages come clear watching it in action. Lateral communication is efficient. The decision process produces "buy-in" beforehand, so what the process costs in slowness at the start can be made up for in swifter implementation on the back end.
Catch the news on television and you'll see it in a political landscape dotted with so many political parties that intense collaboration is essential — even beyond voter support — simply to govern. The "informateur" in Dutch politics is the person whose sole job it is to create agreement, bring the parties together to form a governing consensus.
In Amsterdam itself, roughly comparable to the Seattle area in population, you can see a very big consensus in how the city is now developing. Along the city's north side, abandoned factories, drydocks and vacant corporate headquarters are being transformed. A former shipyard is now a thriving arts incubator, a thriving arts culture having been deemed essential to new development. New residential neighborhoods are being built. And across the river, in the old city, the National Monument central railway station is expanding to integrate trains and bus systems into a multi-mode transit hub. A long-delayed (and billions of euros over budget) central subway will run underneath to connect north and south. And the face of the station will become once again a pedestrian plaza, connecting to the city in a way it hasn't since before the automobile took over.
This grand effort has countless parts and phases that will all work together. And on the north side, there is a brand new flagship. Four major arts organizations were merged into a single national Film Institute and housed in a thrilling new building, directly facing the historic city and station as a kind of ultra-modern counterpoint. The stunning result is set to take its place, Sydney Opera House-style, as a global visual icon of the city it represents.
A Seattleite pondering what it must have taken to get this all in motion is struck by a depressing thought: There is no way that Seattle, in its current political state, could pull off anything this ambitious or well-synchronized. Yet we can learn something from the Dutch polder model and perhaps apply it here in our own way.
There are three useful aspects:
- First, the sense of overriding objective; that some things are so important that blocking action for the sake of ideology is — or should be — unconscionable.
- Second, understanding and upholding the idea that coming together over differences is in fact the key to success, not the barrier to it.
- And third, the ability of leaders to bring together all factions; to get everyone in the same room and begin, continue, and insist upon working things through, however long it takes; to remind everyone that in the absence of action, it's the sea for us all, metaphorically.
When it works, the polder model is a way of classifying fundamental issues above and beyond those that are simply important or merely interesting, and then setting a higher bar for how to work through them together — with a lower tolerance for ineffectiveness or inaction.
As Seattle prepares to choose its next round of leaders, mayoral and otherwise, some "polder thinking" would help clarify issues that are bound to emerge in the campaign ahead, not to mention the choices yet to be made.