Participation 4 min. reading time

Collaboration that energizes you - PART III/III

In the final article of this triptych, Joshua van Middelkoop explains how participation works in practice and why sensing is so incredibly important. Continue reading here

How do you realize a solar park that is locally embedded? Our answer: by getting residents to participate in its development as much as possible. Project manager Lylian Dwarkasing introduced Novar's participation philosophy in Part I. In Part II landscape designer Anne-Mette Andersen shares the latest insights on participation. And in this final installment, project manager Joshua van Middelkoop talks about the practice of participation. 'It's a matter of sensing. How hot or cold is the water?'

'The Molenwaard solar farm in Hoogezand was one of my first projects in 2016. An important question was how we were going to involve local residents, because the 35-hectare solar farm would be surrounded on almost all sides by houses. About 250 households were involved. We decided to first inform a wide circle of local residents, 750 households around the planning area, so that we would not skip anyone. In addition, we felt it was important to time the letter well. We wanted it to reach local residents on the same day that the city council was informed about the plan. In order to inform everyone at the same time.

Not cast in concrete

'About 150 people came to the first residents' evening, the largest turnout to that point. That was only good. People could walk around the space, where there were signs with information about the plan in all sorts of places. We literally wrote in the letter, "our plan for the solar park is not set in stone." That's why, for example, there was no central microphone. I feel that this came across well at the time. Those present looked around calmly and could ask questions; no heated discussions arose.

Predominantly positive

'The mood was mostly positive. With every project there are of course people who don't like a plan. But here the general feeling was: we understand that something has to happen in the world. What helped was that for most people the solar park would not be in front of their house, but behind it. The site is on the railroad tracks and was once intended for housing development but had been lying fallow for ages. Construction had never gone ahead because Hoogezand was in a shrinking region at the time. Many residents saw the advantages of the solar park: at least now the space would be used. And at least a solar farm as a neighbor would not cause any nuisance or inconvenience in the form of noise, dust, smell or movement.'

Think tank meetings

'Then there were think tank meetings for the residents. It turned out that there is some difference in wishes. The people living on the southern edge wanted a buffer between their homes and the solar farm. On the western edge, most people believed so. The eastern edge was the toughest; we had considerable discussions with these residents about the best solution. In four think-tank sessions we came up with three possible designs for each edge. In the end, all local residents chose the same design. With first a water strip, then a natural bank with a maintenance strip, and further on a ground wall with evergreen native plants. From the backyard, residents would then overlook greenery. People agreed to that. Residents had no need for a walking path or observation tower.

Keeping the conversation going

'You often remember the most awkward conversations, for example, one man was quite fierce. I continued the conversation. He was upset that his view would be disturbed. The fact that he could express his opinion helped. No views were submitted thanks to the participation process. What also worked very well: I made an extensive report of the participation process and that was part of the permit. That put in black and white what the participation had yielded in terms of added value for the environment.

Careful process

'Another solar farm in Hoogezand, owned by a fellow developer, resulted in proceedings before the Council of State. In the meantime, we were able to start building without any objections or legal proceedings. Whereas our project involved many more local residents. I spent a lot of time calling, emailing and visiting people. We even organized a final evening where we presented what was finally agreed upon.

All this has resulted in a careful process. Such a thorough participatory process is important to possibly get the permit. Eventually I was asked by the municipality when we would submit that permit now. On the back end, we saved a lot of time. Developers who put less energy into participation have to spend much more time to get permits irrevocable.'

Giving opportunity

'I really took the time to listen to people. Giving people a chance to express concerns or opinions. It's a fragile process. We very carefully opened the conversation with that first letter. With so many local residents, we have to. That's really a matter of sensing, how hot or cold is the water? I made a lot of effort to get in touch with people. Later I got questions from them about when the solar park would be finished. People want to know what steps are being taken - you have to tell them that, even if it is not exciting or if there are no relevant developments for a while. That's part of a perfect participation project. Quite a lot of interest actually arose, I noticed. An elderly lady from Hoogezand set herself up as an ambassador for the solar park, she wanted it so badly. A gentleman became very enthusiastic about the diversity the plan would produce. He drew a complete picture of the plants he envisioned. I really liked that: people came up with their own ideas for energy transition, landscape integration and biodiversity.

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