Discovering the Rhine-Scheldt Delta

The Rhine-Scheldt Delta (RSD) is the area on the Dutch - Belgian border roughly between the North Sea coast and the global mainports Antwerp and Rotterdam. This region contains next to eight seaports of different sizes and the related variety of economic activities, a series of historic towns, and a differentiated landscape of natural and agricultural areas in the estuary of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt.

Within the next pages this cross-border area, whit its cross-border organisation and activities will be presented. AML and RSD are partners in the project DeltaNet, a Network of European Deltas on sustainable Delta government.

Photo Rhine-Scheldt Delta


The Rhine-Scheldt Delta from a bird’s-eye view

Water and land

When seen on satellite photos the Rhine-Scheldt Delta clearly appears as a low-lying zone where sea and land twist and turn in and out of one another. Around this boundary zone there are various canals to be distinguished that link the adjacent higher flat land with the blue-green delta.

The fact that three major rivers converge at one point and flow out into the sea is quite unique in the world. The landscape of the Rhine-Scheldt Delta is made up of a complex system of three estuaries of the Rhine, Scheldt and Meuse. From an ecological standpoint it is a very dynamic system and landscape, with rich and markedly differentiating ecosystems. In the transition from land to sea there are many variables: from low to high tide, from saltwater to freshwater, from dry to wet. The unique brackish marshes and mud flats could only be created in this dynamic environment. In addition the delta landscape is formed by the mouths of three river catchments areas, which together cover almost the whole of North-West Europe.

The Rhine-Scheldt Delta from a bird’s-eye view

People and nature

If one looks at a population distribution map of North-West Europe the Rhine-Scheldt Delta area immediately stands out. The heart of the delta is one of the most thinly populated areas, surrounded by heavily industrialised and urbanised landscapes; a blue-green lung in the middle of a ring of urban development. The delta is encircled by large urban agglomerations: the northern portion of the Dutch Randstad area, the Brabant urban chain (of consecutive cities) and the northern edge of the Flemish Diamond (Antwerp-Ghent) and Bruges. The peripheral zone of these agglomerations is regarded as being part of the Rhine-Scheldt Delta considering that the canals, ports and cities are heavily orientated towards the delta which they are part of in the respect of function and landscape.

Large cities and concentrations of population often form around the mouths of major rivers. This is different in the case of the Rhine-Scheldt Delta: the heart of the delta area is thinly populated though it is surrounded by a crescent of urbanisation, whose development is closely linked to that of the delta itself.
The edge of the Rhine-Scheldt Delta is marked by a number of important seaports, including the two largest ports in Europe. The economic importance of RSD for Europe is large. The combination of the mainports, that each separately play a global role, makes the region by far to the largest port in the world. This concentration of flows of goods is one of the specific assets that makes the region an economic engine of Europe. The ports and cities form a radial pattern around the delta, seeking the best links from the sea to the hinterland.
There is also a strong synergy between the periphery and the central area in the question of recreation. The character of the landscape, the cultural history and natural wealth of the Delta area offer many possibilities for the residents of the surrounding cities in terms of recreation.

Rhine-Scheldt Delta population distribution map

The Rhine-Scheldt Delta typified


There are two characteristics, which expressly identify the Rhine-Scheldt Delta as a comprehensively cohesive landscape. Firstly there is the omnipresent relationship with water. Of course water is a dominant phenomenon present in the blue-green heart of the delta. The North Sea and the large expanses of water in the delta estuaries constitute magnificent landscapes. Cities such as Antwerp, Rotterdam, Bruges, Ghent, Dordrecht and Flushing take their identity as well from the presence of watercourses as part of the typical image of their town centres.

A second feature of the delta landscape is the shared historic wealth. There are examples of historic grandeur to be found dispersed all over the Delta. Take for example the historic market places of Antwerp or Bergen op Zoom; market places that continue to mirror the wealth of the middle ages and the Dutch Golden Age. This also applies to the harbours of little cities and the medieval centres of Bruges and Ghent. One can also encounter reminders of the rich history of the area in the most unexpected corners of the blue-green delta. Apart from anything else, there are historical defensive lines that mark the landscape and which can still be seen to this day, though they no longer mark the national borders but are nevertheless easily recognizable as landscape structures that cut across national borders.


There are also stark contrasts to be observed in the area. Not only is there a great difference between the landscapes of Flanders and The Netherlands, but also strong contrasts between the polder landscapes and the sandy soil areas. This contrast in geology and relief is expressed in the different ways that these areas have been developed: there is a clear difference in terms of landscape and development between the urban crescent of the area and the blue-green open spaces at the centre of the Delta. Rather than splitting the area in two these contrasts actually add to its distinctiveness; a uniqueness that transcends national boundaries. The distinct identity of the Delta is based on the exciting cultural relationship between the highly-dynamic town and the slow pace of life in the countryside, between the mental hustle and bustle of the city and the tranquillity and scenery of the rural environment, between areas where there are hectic constraints on time and space and areas where time and space are of little concern.


Aims of the partnership

The Rhine-Scheldt Delta Co-operative Organisation is an example of cross-border co-operation between the Flemish and Dutch governments (Benelux, central government, provincial and city authorities), Chambers of Commerce, the private sector and environmental organisations in developing the land and waterways in the delta area of the rivers Rhine, Maas and Scheldt.
This co-operation is mainly aimed at the economic, ecological and multi-modal development of the Delta area. Co-operation takes place as a result of jointly harmonising policies and developing planning viewpoints, schemes and projects. In the participation in this co-operation no distinction is made between partners from the public and private sectors.

Co-operation in this region came about because the partners were of the opinion that the geographical area covered by the delta exhibits a high degree of cohesion both ecologically as well as economically. Within this delta area of roughly 100 x 120 kilometres is a resident population of about 6,5 million as well as 8 major seaports, including the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp. The largest port conglomeration in the world! This is where the largest flow of goods to and from the European continent originates.
Due to this economic imperative it is extremely important that there is (cross-border) agreement on harmonisation and an integrated outlook on planning with regard to urbanisation, economic policy, mobility, nature and water management.

The ambition of the organisation is to work towards realising symbiotic harmonization, shared choices and a joint vision for the entire delta area. The execution of activities is project-orientated and results-based being manifested in concrete plans and activities. The organisation and its representatives support the results through an active network.

An important part of the objective of the co-operation in relation to the Rhine-Scheldt Delta area is to keep each other well informed - of developments and resolutions- by establishing and maintaining good lines of reciprocal communication from an early stage. Within the scope of the Co-operation such communication is an objective in itself. It must provide a clear insight into cohesive information on the entire Delta area and the broad external dissemination of such information.

Cross-border activities

The aim of the different RSD-activities is to enhance territorial cohesion. This includes for instance
restoring the natural and landscape coherence in the coastal zone as well as land inward. At the same time the attention goes to a more coherent, optimized and integrated urban and traffic infrastructure. The different RSD-activities intend to show a balance between at the one hand cultural, natural and environmental values, and at the other hand economic considerations.

Mobility and economy

With regard to the matter of ‘mobility’ the “Cross-border Perspective RoBrAnT+” (Rotterdam, Brabant, Antwerp, Ghent) was put together by the RSD Co-operative Organisation back in 2005. At the beginning of 2006 this planning perspective was signed up to by all the relevant RSD-partners and the respective ministers concerned from the Netherlands and Flanders also subsequently gave their approval.
An indication was given in this Perspective of just which functional roles the different infrastructures would have to fulfil, for the modalities of road, rail and waterways on a Delta wide scale, with regard to the urbanisation policy and multi-modal policy. This classification of the infrastructure would have to be carried through into the policies of the relevant governmental authorities concerned.

This Perspective was the starting document for several current mobility activities:

  •  The periodic monitoring of infrastructural developments with a cross-border impact: to inform the partners about each other’s projects and on the other hand to make sure that the various plans are attuned tot the cross-border perspective RoBrAnT+
  • The generation of cross-border traffic and transport data: to provide a measure of quantitative insight into developments relating to traffic and transport within the Rhine-Scheldt Delta. The aimed result is a traffic model that will be able to perform planning projections, which will serve to exhibit the international effect of possible measures.
  • The organisation of multi-modal mobility plans and infrastructure plans on the European agenda: promotion of a modal shift in the transportation of goods, a larger proportion of inland shipping and of rail cargo at the cost of road transport.

These mobility activities are at the same time important supports to the economic potentials of the regions. RSD furthermore supports sustainable economic development by the following activities:

  • The organisation of a cross-border platform of the seaports in the Delta, where common economic policy themes are discussed both on the policy and operational level.
  • The development of a joint GIS-databank for the available industrial and trading estates within the RSD-area, accessible on the internet. This application is a promotional instrument for the region as a whole.

Spatial development and environment

This second issue of the cross-border co-operation is tackled in three different projects: Delta Landscape, Delta Coast and Culture Track.

In the Delta Landscape project a cohesive scheme for the landscape of the delta area was drawn up that makes it possible to consider future options and decisions in a cross-border context. The vision of Delta Landscape offers a joint framework for existing initiatives and serves as a necessary point of contact for the execution of follow-up projects on the operational level. In November 2007 the RSD-partners agreed on the Landscape Manifesto of the Rhine-Scheldt Delta. This means that the partners subscribed the cohesive scheme for the Delta Landscape and that the following activities are planned during the coming years:

  • The initiation of operational cross-border projects (interreg) based on the Landscape Manifesto, such as the joint redevelopment of defensive works established during the Eighty Years War in the ‘South Netherlands’ and Flanders, where aspects of cultural history and natural history merge.
  • The periodic monitoring of spatial developments with a cross-border impact: to inform the partners about each other’s projects and to make sure that the various plans are attuned tot the cohesive scheme for the Delta Landscape
  • The organisation of two workshops each year dealing with actual policy themes described in the Landscape Manifesto, such as integration of great scale developments and infrastructural landscape design.

The Delta Coast project provides a cross-border exchange structure for a sustainable and integrated management of the coastal zone. This co-operative work results in various annual activities (workshops, seminars, excursions and generation of European projects) on environmental planning, tourism, and ecological conservation of beaches.

Photo Rhine Meuse e Scheldt    Photo Rhine Meuse e Scheldt

© DeltaNet Project