WP4.2 – Governance

Land subsidence in the Dutch peatlands: a complex governance issue

Together with several other environmental problems in the Dutch peatlands, land subsidence needs to be governed adequately if we want to make these low-lying delta areas sustainable and livable for current and future generations. However, the immemorial history of land subsidence in the Netherlands has proven that the governance is far from simple. By governance, we mean “a process of — more or less institutionalized — interaction between public and/or private entities ultimately aiming at the realization of collective goals” (Lange et al., 2013, p.406).

Land subsidence as a “wicked problem” and a “creeping crisis”

Informed by the policy science literature, we argue that land subsidence is so challenging for governance because of the type of problem it characterizes, namely a “wicked problem” (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Wicked problems face inherent uncertainties – both cognitive, strategic and institutional. To illustrate, there is cognitive uncertainty about land subsidence with regards to the causes, the effects, and the effectiveness of interventions. Strategic uncertainty results from the “variety of actors and strategies involved” and institutional uncertainty is due to the fact that “decisions are made in different places, in different policy arenas in which actors from various policy networks participate” (Van Bueren et al., 2003, p.193). These uncertainties raise governance challenges, ranging from framing the problem, to finding the appropriate forms of leadership, and the timing of policies. In the context of these challenges, we found three counterproductive governance responses to land subsidence: 1) simplification (e.g. the traditionally narrow framing of land subsidence as a water management problem, and the consequently misplaced trust in technological fixes to “solve” it); 2) “silo mentality” of stakeholders; and 3) paralysis occurring when the wickedness seems overwhelming. The enduring lack of adequate governance of land subsidence has allowed the problem to develop threats with crisis potential (Van den Ende et al., n.d.). However, it is more a “creeping” crisis, with a lack of adequate strategies reflecting the absence of a collective sense of urgency about its damage potential in terms of financial costs, national safety, and ecological degradation (Boin et al., 2020).

Towards workable governance approaches

Our research looks into three different governance approaches that are more adequate to adequately address land subsidence and thereby avert another crisis than the counterproductive responses to date. Upon publication, the respective papers will be shared on this website.

Research Overview WP 4.2

This research is being conducted by Mandy van den Ende under supervision of Peter Driessen, Dries Hegger and Heleen Mees.

Papers published

Van den Ende M.A., Hegger D.L.T., Mees H.L.P., Driessen P.P.J. Wicked problems and creeping crises: A framework for analyzing governance challenges to addressing environmental land-use problems (2023) Environmental Science and Policy, 141, pp. 168 – 177. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1462901123000138

Van den Ende M.A., Mees H.L.P., Hegger D.L.T., Driessen P.P.J. Mechanisms influencing mainstreaming of adaptation in spatial development: case studies in three Dutch municipalities (2022) Journal of Environmental Planning and Management. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09640568.2022.2092724


Boin, A., Ekengren, M., & Rhinard, M. (2020). Hiding in Plain Sight: Conceptualizing the Creeping Crisis. Risk, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy, 11(2), 116–138. https://doi.org/10.1002/rhc3.12193

Lange, P., Driessen, P. P. J., Sauer, A., Bornemann, B., & Burger, P. (2013). Governing Towards Sustainability-Conceptualizing Modes of Governance. Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, 15(3), 403–425. https://doi.org/10.1080/1523908X.2013.769414

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01405730

Van Bueren, E. M., Klijn, E.-H., & Koppenjan, J. F. M. (2003). Dealing with wicked problems in networks: Analyzing an environmental debate from a network perspective. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 13(2), 193–212.