Royal Dutch …. air pollution?

Schiphol’s status as Europe’s third largest airport often comes as a surprise to many, after all Amsterdam is home to a mere 800,000 people. Its size and growth can be accredited to the successful collaboration between KLM and the Schiphol Group; creating a transfer hub rivaling the likes of Frankfurt and Heathrow. Nonetheless, with the growth of Schiphol came its significance as a nuisance to locals; bringing the adverse effects of noise pollution and environmental degradation whilst putting downward pressure on house prices (Morrell and Lu, 2000).

As Schiphol continued to expand in the nineties with the liberation of air transport, we have seen a correlating increase in complaints by residents as shown below.

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 05.16.31Figure: Aircraft movements, complaints and complainants between 1986-92, Franssen et. al 2002

Being someone who lives near Schiphol myself, I am no stranger to such issues. Air is something that is vital for our existence, however – in a similar way to how the provision of air is ignored as a public good in our daily lives –  the subject of air remains understudied within UPE frameworks (Graham, 2015). National studies have found that fine particulate materials from aviation can reduce life expectancy by as much as a year (Milieu Defensie). Thus, the issue of balancing economic growth with the health of individuals and the environment is a contentious topic.


In an increasingly networked society of glocalized and empowered spaces, airports represent a  divergence between multi-actor and multi-system interest. We often see the instigation of deadlocks between the various interdependent stakeholders involved in its development:

“Schiphol is not socially constructed, but assembled into being, in networks of materialities, bodies, technologies, objects, natures and humans”

– Mol, 2002

The Alders table plan of 2006 (van Buuren et. al, (2012) tries to tackle such problems. In drawing from the Actor Network Theory, the plan seeks to embrace the multi-layered system of relationships that exist in present day societies by creating a mutual commitment between stakeholders. This would allow the facts and values of the social (residents, authorities, businesses) and natural worlds (environmental actors) alike to be put on a level playing field. In incorporating the demands of inhabitants on their social-environmental concerns, the issues of noise and air pollution became intertwined with the complex systems of governance created that Schiphol is based upon. Accordingly, plans were agreed to: improve the noise measuring system; Invest in quality of life of neighboring regions; as well as to regulate traffic movements at the airport.

Although conceptually this would allow Schiphol’s development to break-away from the traditional path dependencies of large-scaled projects, the plan has largely become a Machiavellian exercise (de Jong and Boelens, 2014).  Instead of acting as a mediator of organization between stakeholders, the government instead became a facilitator thereof. Having a contract signed by all stakeholders in development allowed any subsequently plans to in effect be approved by all actors beforehand. It served as a way to get rid of oppositions. We have only seen controversies around airport governance heighten, and underlying problems have still not been addressed.

“The system that supported advice became the advice itself”

– Jong and Boelens, 2013)


Until this point the lack of equal footing in the governance and management of Schiphol has meant that only a small subset of sustainability issues have been addressed. To create a more effective system, we need a complexity reduction where information is collected and organized into a simple agenda that bends both human and non-human around it (Boons et. al 2010). The government should act as a referee, embracing the complexities between various actors whilst allowing them each to take on more responsibilities in implementing policies.

The Alders table represents a step in the right direction. Yet, with Schiphol reaching capacity three years prior to the expiration of the Alders table polices in 2020, there exists lingering uncertainties in the future of the airport. With a contribution of 100,000 jobs and 27 billion in indirect benefits, the significance of Schiphol (4% of GDP) means that expansion is a matter of ‘when’ instead of ‘If’ (RTL Nieuws). Concerns are set to increase amongst suggestions that Schiphol’s environmental effects may span beyond its immediate municipalities: to those living in the ‘green heart’ of the country. Time is running out to create a sustainable framework for all and only time will tell if socio-environmental factors get taken into account in future developments…

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 23.42.45Photo: KLM Plane Taxiing at Schiphol, Jennifer Schuld Twitter 2017 








Boons, F, A. van Buuren and G. Teisman (2010), “Governance of sustainability at airports: Moving beyond the debate between growth and noise”, Natural Resources Forum, 34, pp.303-313.

de Jong, B. and L. Boelens (2014), “Understanding Amsterdam Airport Schiphol through Controversies”, Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 31, pp.3-13.

Franssen, E.A.M., B.A.M. Staatsen and E. Lebret (2002). “Assessing health consequences in an environmental impact assessment: The case of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol”, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 22, pp.633-653.

Graham, S. (2015). “Life support: The political ecology of urban air.” City, 19(2-3): pp.192-215.

Mol A. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Duke University Press: Durham.

Morrell, P. and C.H-Y. Lu (2000). “Aircraft noise social cost and charge mechanisms – a case study of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol”, Transportation Research, D(5), pp.305-320

Van Buuren, A., F. Boons and G. Teisman (2012), “Collaborative Problem Solving in a Complex Governance System: Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and the Challenge to Break Path Dependency”, Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 29, pp.116-130.


3 thoughts on “Royal Dutch …. air pollution?”

  1. Hi Joey,

    As cities become more urbanised and connected, air travel and its associated networks are indeed becoming an integral part of cities and their daily functions. Indeed, the flows that accompanies such developments are not just that of people, ideas and money but air as well (and in this case, polluted air) – something many of us take for granted.

    The visit to the residential and school areas around City Airport really got me thinking about the unevenness and inequality in urban development – I was wondering if the Schiphol Airport is also located amidst a less developed area as well? This makes me think about the airport expansion back in Singapore – something that is actually widely publicized and ‘bragged’ about in terms of it’s increased capacity and amenities available… I wonder why there isn’t much buzz about the potential increase in air and noise pollution…hmmm… Though one reason I can think of is because of how the airport approach is planned such that planes are actually coming in from the sea – hence minimizing such negative externalities to the surrounding residents.

    I totally agree with your point about the need for a diversity of governance approaches (Jones, 2014) when we assess the potential of better managing and implementing policies regarding the environment!

    It was a really informative post, and I have learnt a lot – Thank you!


  2. Hey Joey!

    Your post and thoughts on Actor Network Theory reminded me of an uncomfortable thought I had during Peter Jones’ lecture on individual responsibility and environmental ethics in Environment and Society lecture last year (a thought so uncomfortable I took the easy way out and shoved it aside until now). I wondered if mass travel can ever be sustainable, and whether the globalised nature of travel necessarily means that I, as a frequent traveller around Europe, am in a sense responsible for the bad air quality you have to deal with living in your neighbourhood, given that my consumer choices contributes to the collective demand for this industry, and therefore the pressure felt by Schiphol to develop. I guess the answer is sadly yes.

    Just verbalising and tracing out how my individual choices may be linked to a larger phenomenon with an environmental impact also made me realise that it is precisely the large number of links involved in my relation to this issue that makes this seem like a distant and non-related event. Thanks for forcing me to reflect on this again!


    1. As someone who believes firmly in economic principles, I certainly do welcome more people to use Schiphol, so do not be afraid to come visit more! Although the growth of air-travel has been detrimental to the air quality of local residents in Amsterdam, we have also seen many economic benefits in having an airport the same size as Singapore’s Changi (as you would know :)). The airport is home to over 100,000 direct and indirect jobs and it provides employment for many living in close proximity to the airport. The connectivity that our airport provides has helped Amsterdam compete as an international centre of finance. With the airport being so conveniently situated to the economic core of the city (The “Zuidas”), Amsterdam has been able to gain a competitive advantage over other cities in the region. After all, our strong economy and positive balance of payments has allowed the Netherlands to use its strong trade surplus to invest in renewable and clean technologies that provide for a cleaner environment.

      Furthermore, when compared to many airports including those notably in London (Heathrow, Gatwick, City), I would say that Amsterdam’s consideration for environmental issues is already much better and I have certainly appreciated our better governance relative to many cities in the UK. We already see Schiphol encouraging the use of newer (and hence cleaner) aircraft through its slot allocation schemes, and many smart technologies that facilitate innovative ways in improving environmental standards.

      Liked by 1 person

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