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Archive for January, 2011

In my previous post I talked about the possible decline of European cities. Now let´s focus a bit on Rotterdam, my home town. The city´s economy is strongly rooted in port and maritime industry. Despite many attempts to turn the local economy towards one based on alternative sectors, e.g. the creative cluster or the service economy, the main economic basis is still the port. The port is doing very well. In fact, the global downturn turned out to be a blessing in disguise as companies rearranged their business and in some cases could be persuaded to concentrate activities in Rotterdam. Altogether, the port emerged stronger from the downturn and further ahead of the direct competition. That is all good news.

However, things look less good upon closer inspection. The port may do well but it employs fewer and fewer people as automation becomes widespread. Unloading a ship required many people in the 1950s but today it takes a few men and a joystick to do the same work with a ship multiple times bigger than in the 1950s. Moreover, the main companies in the port are non-Dutch, which means that the profits don’t end up downtown but in e.g. Hongkong (in the case of ECT, that is owned by  Hutchison Port Holdings Group). The port authorities are ahead of the field by putting land and terminals out to tender and while this means that it becomes stronger in the world economy, it also means that the port is barely local despite its geographical location. A complaint that is heard often is that the port is just a large channel for throughput with very few gains locally.

Looking at the way the local economy develops, it is clear that much more is needed to turn it around.  Employment has always been below the national average and has suffered relatively more than the national average in recent years (note that the statistics cover the Rotterdam Metropolitan Region, not only the city itself). The recovery is slow, much slower than elsewhere. Again, this provides a striking contrast to what happens in the port.

The city’s reliance on the port and related industries is not going to diminish and I don’t really believe in the government’s attempts to create new sectors. Rather than pumping more resources in e.g. creating creative clusters, it should be good to see whether the port industries can be made more relevant for the city. This is not a matter of investing money as a government but it is something that can be steered by smart tendering procedures. And with the new port extensions becoming available in the coming years, there are plenty of opportunities available.

The years of unlimited growth. Picture taken at the location of the Euromax terminal, here under construction in March 2006. Picture by me. The enormous Maasvlakte 2 port extension is nearing completion in 2011.

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Earlier, I wrote about how Europe may have arrived in a period where its cities will be in decline because of economic and demographic developments. The two major Dutch cities Amsterdam and Rotterdam have policies to attract people to live and work in the cities in order to maintain momentum, or in the case of Rotterdam: to win the battle with the suburbs. This is all well as long as there is population growth, i.e. as long as there are enough people to keep pressure on the housing market. This pressure is now disappearing. The direct cause of this is the credit freeze that affects mortgages and the house prices. In the long run, demographic change will mean that there are fewer people available to live in cities or suburbs or in the countryside. So far, this looming trend was countered by the fact that the average number of people living together in one house has gone down considerably since World War 2. But that trend will also reach its end. It is simply impossible to have <1 person per house! The need for office space is also in decline but the number of offices being build in e.g. Rotterdam still exceeds demand considerably (and by that I mean: 30% or more).

So, we should brace ourselves for an urban economy that is no longer based on expansion. Now, the question is whether this is a bad thing. The Economist run an interesting debate where it was argued that bigger cities are not necessarily better cities. As exemplified elsewhere in the world, many cities are enormous conurbations of urban sprawl that still grow at enormous rates. With that (almost unmanageable) growth comes a host of problems: air, water and soil pollution, long travel distances and associated traffic and grid locks, bad sanitation and general lack of quality of life. There is an argument that growing cities are as unstoppable as declining cities, but in both cases there is a necessity for managing the trend. However, the core question is whether a small city is preferable over a larger city. Large cities still hold many advantages for people who do not yet live in a city. But yes, they come at a price. So here is the main question for Dutch urban planners: should you focus on urban expansion or focus on managing an endurable scale? Your call.

Crying over a city that never was? Picture by me.

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In the final weeks of 2010, Rotterdam, and indeed much of north-western Europe, was covered in a blanket of snow. Snow and ice disrupted public transport, caused slippery roads and subsequent accidents. Depending on your media of choice the country was ‘paralyzed’ by ‘snow terror’ that caused ‘massive failures’ of railway companies or bus companies or the ministry of transport and public works or… etc. Casual observations (i.e. me being outside) suggest that there are basically two types of response. The first type encompasses frustration, anger and blame. People scolding staff nearby, the weather, anybody in charge of anything, capitalism and socialism and the rest of the world for disrupting their schedules. They run around platforms and streets trying to find an alternative way to meet their undoubtedly tight meetings and deadlines. The second type of response is all about acceptance. People displaying this response were seen to be wandering off to get a cup of hot coffee or chocolate, going back home to work there or simply just deciding that this is a good opportunity to have a day off. I’m in second group of people, as you may have gathered from my wordings. Alright, so we started our lectures a little later than scheduled and some meetings were rescheduled and yes, it took a little longer to get back home. But did that disrupt my life or that of others fundamentally to the extent that we were unable to continue it? Surely not. It was just a good opportunity to do something unplanned but fun.

Disrupted life or a beautiful morning? Picture by me.

A little snow and even the bleakest city looks good. Picture by me.

New brutalism given a romantic touch of white. Picture by me.

So, here is my wish for 2011: take it easy and enjoy life. Life is way too unpredictable to be fully planned so accept that surprises will spring up continuously. And when it happens: enjoy it. There is fun and good humor in everything. Accept the inevitable: that things will always go a bit different from what you expected. So perhaps we should expect a bit less and be a bit more open for life’s erratic course. Have fun.

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