Interview Zef Hemel

Interview Zef Hemel: On Visionary Spatial Planning & Researching Healthy Ageing in the Dutch Northern Provinces

What are the members of Spatial Planning & Strategy up to? In this series of interviews we meet various members of the section and discuss their work and who they are, and have a look behind the scenes. Today, we meet Spatial Planner Zef Hemel (1957), Professor of Spatial Redevelopment and Revitalization of Rural and Urban Regions, with particular attention to the provinces of Groningen and Friesland. Zef Hemel is the first holder of the Bonnema chair at TU Delft and the University of Groningen. In this capacity, he will conduct research on the future of non-metropolitan regions with a focus on healthy ageing, using his unconventional techniques of ‘visionary spatial planning’…


Zef Hemel has an impressive resume as a spatial planner. He has worked on major projects in the Amsterdam metropolitan area, both for the municipality and as a Professor at the University of Amsterdam. He has also worked on the national level for the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment (VROM). Now, he will turn away from the big city to focus on rural areas. “The initiative for my Chair came from the Abe Bonnema foundation,” he explains. “They wanted to focus on the regions, the non-Randstad areas, since so much research has already been done on the Delta Metropolis – the entire discipline seems to have already focussed on that!” The idea behind his newest research is combining Delft-style designing with research from Groningen. “In Groningen, I work with historians, here I’m with designers, so I’m going to connect the past and the future through design.”


Researching and designing healthy ageing in Groningen and Friesland

Zef’s research starts with observation and experience. “I always work this way as a spatial planner,” he says, “because, in essence, everything is already there.” For this research he has already defined his starting points, one of which is the existing physical environment. “I want to focus on landscapes. I came rather quickly to this conclusion because I believe they are a great strength in the north,” Zef says. “When talking about Groningen or Friesland, you’re talking about medieval landscapes and an awful lot of them remain to this day. I feel this aspect is not valued enough; I think landscapes are not valued enough in general.” A second, and most important ingredient for his research comes from the region’s demography. “Apart from the landscape, I see a rapidly ageing population. All projections predict progressive ageing, that’s why I concentrate on healthy ageing.” Zef has already found one intriguing effect of healthy ageing: “A lot of inhabitants in these regions live to be one hundred years of age or older; I find that very interesting.”

These two focusses intersect in the concept of the bloeizone (zone of flourishing). “The idea is: healthy ageing also depends on spatial qualities, the landscape, the physical environment, the places where people live. This environment is even more important than the famous Blue Zone aspects because it entails much more than eating healthily, being active, and socially connected. These aspects occur spatially, within an environment! A lot of local initiatives are already taking place, ones that work with the bloeizone concept; I will study those initiatives.”

Zef has built a famous reputation for his unorthodox mode of operation. This project is no exception. “For this research, I will be walking through Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe for five years. I will investigate the environment by walking, by connecting with reality. So, I won’t concentrate on statistics. I want to experience the great diversity of the north with all my senses.” He summarizes his research as follows: “As a spatial planner, you make future narratives that are persuasive. My focus is on healthy ageing, so that will be the final point of the narrative, but the ingredients will come from the landscape and the people who live there, especially those who live to be a hundred.”


Reflections on the discipline of spatial planning

Zef then goes on to explain how his narrative of healthy ageing is not entirely new to spatial planning. “In focusing on health, I am actually going back to the start of our discipline. Spatial planning was invented in the nineteenth century by Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford and the like, who started with narratives on health. This was the time of cholera and tuberculosis; the discipline was developed with the hygienists who advocated sewage systems. Here the narrative of technical interventions in the built environment was started, with ideas of light, air, and space. Recent decades, however, has seen the discipline concerned only with economic growth. So, in fact, I’m going back to the nineteenth century, so to speak. Once again, I will take health as starting point.”

Another important aspect of spatial planning is the political dimension. “In fact,” Zef states, “spatial planning is politics.” And he explains: “Everything in our field is about power relations. Spatial planning directs enormous amounts of capital. The balance of control over territories between governments and private parties is in constant tension. Spatial planners should be well aware of this, not be naïve.” Zef experienced this personally when working on a project near Schiphol. “The way things are done in the Haarlemmermeer, it’s absurd. The amount of land that has been bought there. You’re King Midas, everything you touch turns to gold! Everyone is anticipating this; everyone is watching for where development can take place. Thus,” he says, “it just goes to show how much responsibility spatial planners have.”

This dogmatic focus on economic growth and the balancing of the political dimension has, until recently, deteriorated the field of spatial planning, Zef thinks. “My complaint about the discipline is that it has become way too technical, too bureaucratic. Hopeless and anaemic.” As mentioned above, he is already planning on changing the status quo. Creating a narrative of health and healthy ageing in the northern provinces is just way of doing this. Zef also has a broader vision for changing spatial planning. “We have made the discipline tedious and boring by staying in our offices and by overregulating. We have, in effect, turned sour. My strategy is to create a parallel universe, one that is informal and more exciting.”


Visionary spatial planning

The future of spatial planning – conducted in a way that is not boring but exciting – lies in “visionary spatial planning”, according to Zef. “It would be a more effective approach for planners than sticking to the more usual formal ones.” In his latest publication (link below) he extensively elaborates on this idea. The core of visionary spatial planning lies in the creation of future narratives. His reasoning comes from an inherent difference between words and images. “In the end, words are more effective than images. Maps, for instance, are hard to read, that’s why you resort to renders and references. But then you need a lot of images; in the end you’re completely exhausted and not a lot happens. Narratives can be repeated over and over, and if it’s a good narrative, then it can become very dangerous, it can become very good. We might live in a visual culture, but words still matter.” Then, this future narrative should be handled well. “We should not only popularise these narratives, we should hold on to them, retell them again and again, transfer them from generation to generation. That way, narratives can become very strong.”

The idea of visionary spatial planning comes from studying one of the greatest Dutch urban planners in history, Cornelis van Eesteren. “I started my career investigating how he worked, how he created narratives.” So, is this the van Eesteren method? “Yes!” replies Zef. “Although he was a Modernist, and I’m not. I was still educated as a Modernist planner in the 1970s, but the famous Club of Rome report [The Limits to Growth, 1972] was just published. I remember this well, my parents bought this report and discussed it. It had a huge impact on me. And I still think this discipline has to change.” He elaborates: “We need to stop the narratives of growth: more, faster, better. We need more balanced stories, and need to search for stories that bring us further. Currently, I see that most stories are either dystopian or still Modernist. I try to find another way, and I think the northern Netherlands is a great region to test how this works.”

His research in the north will not result in a top-down narrative imposed on the region. “You develop these future narratives together with people. I will be walking for the next five years, but not alone: I am asking all kinds of people to walk with me. We are going to have all kinds of conversations, and everywhere I can, I will lecture on parts of the future narrative. This way, we can test the narrative, and let it grow in an organic way. I am using the collective intelligence of the north to build the narrative of healthy ageing and place it in the world.” And not only inhabitants are invited, students, researchers, and academics too. “Everyone who wants to join is invited. We sleep in little churches, participate in the Wadden Triënnale, there are all kinds of events planned. It really is a fantastic way to practice spatial planning!”


More information

If you are interested in joining Zef in his research, walking through Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe, feel free to reach out via!

On December 10th, Zef will give his ‘Bonnema Lecture’ at the Rijkmuseum Amsterdam starting 14:00. You can join the lecture by registering via!

[Dutch only] In het NRC is recentelijk ook een artikel verschenen over de visie van Zef en zijn project in Groningen. Check het via!

[Dutch only] De laatste publicatie van Zef, ‘Er was eens een stad – visionaire planologie’, is in 2021 verschenen bij uitgeverij Pluim. Het boek is o.a. te bestellen via