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Archive for December, 2010

Urbanites have their favorite spots in the city. Mine is perhaps an unlikely one. I really love being in the main library of Rotterdam at the Hoogstraat, of which I’m a member ever since it opened at this location (1983). The design is by Jaap Bakema en Hans Boot of Van den Broek en Bakema architects. The design was a competition and the final choice was between this one and one by Carel Weeber. The current building is clearly inspired by the Centre Pompidou, with some of the technical installations being positioned on the outer facade and with a large entrance hall and open and large central stair case and vide. It has lots of windows (for a 1980s building) that allow ample daylight into the library.

The entrance and main facade of the building. Notice the 'waterfall of glass' that features the main stair well of the building in the middle. Picture by me.

Actually, the current situation is different from the original situation where the main entrance was much smaller and hidden inside a tunnel passing behind the facade. A rebuild in the early 2000s created the current situation. It was a extended reconstruction to update the building, including new counters, more social spaces, new shelves for books on each floor, new toilets and restaurant and so on. The characteristic facade has been preserved but the inside renovation encompassed almost every bit of the library.

Detail of the facade with the large steel (and yellow) tubes on the outside. Picture by Puangjita.

I like the updated look and feeling, especially at the entrance. I do regret that the high bookshelves have been replaced by lower ones. Yes, it makes the library lighter and more spacious but as a child I found myself often wandering between those endless rows of shelves and it had a sense of mystery and adventure with all those books looming above and around me. But time moves on and even libraries have to adapt to changing wishes and use. Many have doubted the future of the library in the 21st century, what with people surfing the web instead of reading books. How wrong they were. The library (at least this one) has adapted perfectly and by creating many social spaces and areas to study and to work it has transformed itself into a 21st century forum. Less people borrow books, that is for sure. But in return many people now come to the library to meet, to study, to work, and to play.

Playing chess at the library's lounge. Entrance to the left, restaurant to the right. Picture by me.

So the average visitor is not your average bookworm anymore but rather youngsters who have to do their homework, men of all ages and backgrounds playing chess, people picking up newspapers from all over the world and, still, people who like to leaf through the books and search for more adventure. My guess is that quite a few people who can not work, study or relax at home because of various reasons find a place of refuge in the library. The decision to give room for those needs and to stay open until 8pm every day is very wise one. Saturdays often have special events and debates with for example the city council.

The municipality is looking for ways to cut down budgets and this also hits the library. While I understand that cutting budgets is necessary I sincerely hope that this institute is saved from such measures. It is a pivotal part of the social fabric of this town. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to my books…

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Last year I came across this book during a conference in Miami, US. It was the book’s subtitle that attracted my attention because the book promises to present three perspectives on urban development, from economics to sociology, to public policy and administration. Such books are rare and books that do it well are even rarer. Such books have to find a balance between in-depth knowledge and broad scope and are limited by the fact that you can’t cramp three books into one. ‘The Urban Experience; Economics, Society and Public Policy’ is written by Barry Bluestone, Mary Huff Stevenson and Russell Williams and was published in 2008. The book is divided in four parts. Part 1 introduces the main issues of urban development; part 2 presents a historical overview of the growth (and decline) of cities in the US; part 3 discusses the conditions that shape and promote urban growth and prosperity; and part 4 discusses a range of current policy issues. Experienced readers and urban researcher will feel familiar with the themes discussed in this book. It provides a fair overview of many urban issues, but could come across as a bit shallow. However, for those who need a good introduction into urban issues, this book is an excellent starter. Which brings me back to the reason why I bought this book in the first place: I needed an introductory reader for students who enrolled the minor program ‘Cities: People, Power and Money’ (at the Erasmus University Rotterdam), of which I’m one of the founders. The minor lasts for about 6 weeks and it is impossible to move from lay-knowledge (students who enroll haven’t had any education about urban issues before) to advanced knowledge in the traditional sense. This book could serve as a kick-starter for those students.

The Urban Experience by Bluestone, Stevenson and Williams

The course has come to an end now and the students all experienced the book as being accessible, well-written and insightful. Exams (the best way to measure impact…) showed that those who studied the book passed with ease, whereas those who didn’t felt miserably. As an instructor I felt that the book covered all the subjects I wanted to discuss. Where necessary I added a few articles to complement the material from this book. This mainly concerned some more information about spatial and urban planning (this is probably exclusively a European concern where planning as a governmental activity is very important) and about project management (which I personally find very important but is conceivably beyond what the authors wanted to convey). I shared the book with my colleagues from the departments of Economics and Sociology. The economists reported that the book proved easy to use and to cover the essentials. The sociologist complained that the book paid too little attention to gentrification and neglected neighborhoods. I tend to agree with both comments. This book is really an introduction and as such it is really useful. For anything beyond that, I recommend using additional materials.

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