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Doing something good for the landscape

23 January 2024
picture of Theo Spek
Theo Spek

Professor of Landscape History Theo Spek delves into the stories that are hidden behind Dutch and European landscapes. His expertise – and that of his colleagues and students – is in high demand. ‘Our kind of knowledge is incredibly useful for all sorts of current issues.’

Text by: Lieke van den Krommenacker / Photos: Henk Veenstra

He is the only professor of landscape history in the Netherlands: Theo Spek. He works in Groningen at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen, lives in the Drentsche Aa National Park and ‘reads’ landscapes all over Europe. If you ask him what that means exactly, he instantly starts talking, without pause, and with an enthusiasm that is highly contagious. Except to his family, that is. ‘They don’t want to hear these endless stories about landscapes all the time,’ he says with a big smile on his face. ‘And I think that’s actually very healthy, to be honest.’

The Go-to expert

Those ‘endless stories’ have made Spek into the person he is today: the go-to expert on a whole range of current societal issues. One example is climate change and water management. ‘We are currently experiencing a terribly wet period,’ Spek says. ’Many areas in the Netherlands are on the verge of bursting; there’s much too much water, and it’s almost impossible to get everything dry again. At the same time, we’ve had a couple of extremely dry summers in recent years, which means we have to come up with ways to store the water that falls in the winter for use in the summer. As a landscape historian, we can think about which areas are historically suitable for this because we know the structures of the landscape and how people came up with smart solutions to this problem back in the day.’

picture of theo spek with his dog
'As a landscape historian, we can think about which areas are historically suitable for harboring excess water, because we know the structures of the landscape and how people came up with smart solutions to this problem back in the day.’

The biography of a landscape

Spek and his colleagues map out all sorts of things: what a landscape looks like, how it came to be, who lives and works in it, what grows in it, the structure of the soil, and how all of this changed over time. All these data together form what Spek calls the biography of a landscape. Far more often than you would expect when you hear the term landscape history, future and current landscape historians constantly operate on the intersection with other fields of expertise. Spek’s students, PhD students, and project staff members conduct soil research, study vegetation, dive into archives for source research, interview residents, farmers, and nature managers, and much more. All these findings are then strung together into one cohesive whole.

Weekly excursion

Indispensable to the degree programme is also the weekly excursion, which starts at Groningen Central Station every Friday morning at the crack of dawn. The train takes them to the hills of Limburg, the shifting sands of Brabant, the coast of Zeeland. Somewhere along the way, Spek will give a lecture, at a café, a visitor centre, or a castle. And once a year, he and his students visit Italy or England. The programme includes walking and cycling: through the woods, over slopes, past remarkable buildings. Spek: ‘This is the best way to research the landscape: to look around you and think: what is going on here?’

picture of theo spek
Spek's academic insights can be applied ‘in the field’ relatively easy and often directly.

Generalist disposition as a trademark

During and after his studies and work in Wageningen and Amersfoort, Spek went on many outings and wanderings, also intellectual ones: he studied soil science, forestry and nature management, geology, and ecology – to name but a few topics. ‘Against the advice of my supervisors in Wageningen, I have always broadened my knowledge.’ Spek says. Their advice: Just become really good in one field, or you will never find a job. ‘But this broad approach was just in me,’ Spek continues. ‘And now everyone says: huh, you are able to hold a proper conversation with a biologist, an archaeologist, a forest ranger, and a director... How do you do that?’ Well, by making your generalist disposition your trademark. And by making it the starting principle of the degree programme in Landscape History he would later set up. The programme is unique in the Netherlands – and even in Europe. What is also unique is that all 200 students that have obtained their degree so far found a paid job in their study field. Thanks to the interdisciplinary set-up, the gap between theory and practice is small. In other words, academic insights can be applied ‘in the field’ relatively easy and often directly. Spek: ‘Our type of knowledge is incredibly useful for all sorts of current issues so I really want that knowledge to be used in practice.

Centre for Landscape Studies

In 2010, Spek and two of his first students, Anne Wolff and Jeroen Zomer, founded the Centre for Landscape Studies – a mini-research and consultancy agency within his department. By order of and in collaboration with governments, societal institutions, and nature organizations, staff members work on all sorts of assignments. Only recently, the Municipality of Groningen came knocking after residents of the recently annexed municipalities of Haren and Ten Boer accused the mayor and the municipality’s portfolio holders of having too little interest in the green areas outside the city. Spek: ‘To this, the Municipal Council said: well, then we’re going to change that.’ And so, the Municipality requested the Centre for Landscape Studies to draw up a landscape biography of the outer areas. ‘Based on that, civil servants can proceed to assess what is valuable to keep, what requires change, which locations are suitable for new residential areas and climate adaptation measures. This is a very direct way for us to help by showing the value of a landscape and making decisions.’

Concerned citizens

Over the years, Spek has built such an extensive network through ‘his’ institute that his calendar is permanently overflowing. He teaches, supervises 17 PhD students, runs the Centre, organizes excursions, and has 12 consultancy positions in advisory boards and related committees, all of which also want to have a meeting every once in a while. When he comes home in the evening, there are about 150 emails waiting for him. Spek can laugh about it. ‘Because I know a couple of thousand people, there’s always someone thinking: today, I’m going to call or email Theo.’ He is often on the phone with a concerned citizen who disagrees with the plans of the municipality or province, such as the intention to place a new wind turbine somewhere – or several. Spek: ’That person will say: Theo, they are destroying a beautiful landscape here. I’m sure you are very upset about it as well? Could you possibly help our working group of residents with providing the municipality with a written response?’

Delivering reliable results

And that’s exactly where it gets tricky: on the edge of where Spek’s potential interference becomes political. ‘I always try to stay outside of political discussions,’ he says. Not because he doesn’t have an opinion though. ‘Take the whole nitrogen discussion, for example. I actually have a ton of ideas about how to solve that, but as a professor, I try to stay neutral. I want to improve what I can together with people but I don’t want to be used as a pawn in a conflict of interest.’ What does he do in such cases? Delivering reliable knowledge and give advice on where people can find useful information. Or act as expert witness if a dispute should lead to a court case where his expertise is desired by the judge. ‘I’m usually still able to do something good for the landscape like that.’

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Theo Spek

Last modified:23 January 2024 3.22 p.m.
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