Letter from the Low Lands: GeoFort, Defending our Nation’s Geo Interests

May 19, 2011

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Defending a country which is mostly flat and below sea level is not an easy task. Some 200 years ago the Dutch thought up a military defense line, which was a protective ring of ... water. In case of an attack, land would be flooded to knee-high, just enough to make the land impassible for army and navy alike. At the weak points of the line, fortresses reigned over the countryside.

So what has this to do with geographic information in The Netherlands? How off-topic can you get?

Reviving the defensive line
The Dutch Waterline was taken out of commission in 1940. Reality (e.g. airplanes, new ammunition) had caught up with the line and made its existence superfluous. The fortresses and other military buildings are still scattered across the landscape. This military heritage is situated in many provinces, municipalities and water management areas. In 1999, the government decided to keep the facilities and find a new purpose for them. Some fortresses were given back to nature and now have great flora and fauna. And some are getting a completely new destiny. One of them is GeoFort!

The first time I arrived at GeoFort several years ago, it was fully covered by trees and (admittedly, even for a cartographer) hard to discover in the landscape. GeoFort is a foundation with the goal of providing a geographic experience for children and the general public alike, on/in a fortress which was built in 1878.

GeoFort is about “what is where and how to get there.” I like to add: and why is it there? Center stage at GeoFort will be the GeoExperience, a science center with loads of geographic experiments. Virtual games, expedition earth and geographic mind mapping are just a few of the planned adventures for the general public. A lot of creative geographic thinking went into putting all of this together.

My search for GeoFort’s exact location was nothing compared with the hard work necessary to start the GeoFort endeavor: getting permission from the government, getting the geo-information sector behind the plan, making a business plan, getting it financed, etc. The entrepreneurs behind the GeoFort concept worked with ever-increasing and hard-to-beat enthusiasm for a good cause: offering geography education at a real place in The Netherlands.

The GeoFort crew gave endless presentations at conferences and events. They called upon existing organizations and companies to become partners in GeoFort and lend a hand. “We took that quite literally,” said Mark Herbold, CEO of Esri Nederland and board member of GeoFort. “One day the whole company went out to help get GeoFort cleaned up.” Businesses were welcome at GeoFort, which has converted several military buildings into meeting rooms and exhibition facilities. Partners contributed more than physical work; they also organized events at the GeoFort’s facilities and, yes, gave cash contributions to the foundation, as well.
Starting in May of this year, GeoFort is closed to the general public. Officially, the restoration effort will begin. Many years of thinking and planning are coming to an end; we can now finally see new things being built! Says Jaap Besemer, GeoFort council member, former president of the Dutch Kadaster and professor at Delft University, “This is a big step forward to embed geographic information in a cultural and nature rich environment.” Indeed it is. Cartography and surveying all have strong roots in the military; maybe GeoFort is some kind of payback?

My point of view
Since the earliest days of GeoFort I have supported the idea to find a “clubhouse” for the Geo-Informatie Nederland society and for geography at large. I also like the fact that we are turning military heritage into something peaceful and positive. Additionally, those guarding the GeoFort (Willemijn Simon van Leeuwen and Bart Bennis) lead a nice group of people, who really have reached out to society and geo-education at large. They deserve, beyond our appreciation, our true support.

GeoFort is by no means on the defense, but gaining ground to reach out to students and society alike. The real challenge for GeoFort is to build up a sustainable visitor and revenue stream, once all the government subsidies have concluded. So if you ever visit the “real Holland,” make sure to put GeoFort on your must-see list (starting in 2012)! I am sure you will feel very welcome.

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