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I reviewed Friedrich’s ‘Before the Deluge’ about the relationship between art, politics and the urban in Berlin between the two world wars for the PAUME website. Click here to read my review of this amazing book.

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This book by Patricia van Ulzen received much attention and a good press when it was first released in Dutch in 1999 (Dromen van een Metropool: de creatieve klasse van Rotterdam, 1970-2000; 010 Publishers). Van Ulzen argues that there is a symbiosis between the creative class of Rotterdam and the development of the city as an imaginary metropolis. This book is the English version of Patricia van Ulzen’s PhD. thesis in which she tracks the origin and development of the creative class in this hard-edged port city. Mind you, this is not the wine-sloshing, salmon-eating elite that hang around in some other places. This is about punk, resistance, stubbornness, DIY, concrete and neon-lights.

Van Ulzen’s original idea was to analyze the coming of age of Rotterdam as a metropolis. That was, in her own words, not a good plan because Rotterdam doesn’t compare to cities such as New York or London. Statistically speaking, the Rotterdam Metropolitan Area is about the size of Helsinki or Zurich or Lodz. That is far removed from the urban powerhouses in this world. However, many seem to agree that Rotterdam has a distinct metropolitan feel to it, despite the fact that it is not a metropolis if measured by demographics or economic clout or other variables. Van Ulzen attributes this metropolitan feeling to the influence of the creative class in Rotterdam, which can be seen in all aspects of urban cultural life such as photography, music, architecture and film. Most importantly, she analyzes how images of metropolitan life have influenced the portrayal and design of the city. In other words: by defining Rotterdam as a metropolis through pictures, stories, movies and architecture, it actually becomes one. Van Ulzen uses plenty of comparative material to show how the portrayal of Rotterdam focuses on metropolitan features. Going through this material shows that nice 17th century facades, canals, small shops and overall coziness are very much absent from the way Rotterdam is presented since World War II. Basically, Van Ulzen demonstrates that the old Thomas-theorama (if men define situations as real, they become real in their consequences) has been and still is at work in Rotterdam.

This is an interesting book for those who would like to know how a city can punch above its weight. One thing that I found particularly interesting is that the city’s modernist ambitions of urban renewal and metropolitan feel is rooted in the pre-war period. Before the war, administrators, planners and politicians visited the USA to find inspiration to design a city of the future. Especially Chicago turned out to be a great source of inspiration. It is therefore not surprising that plans for reconstruction were developed immediately after the full-scale destruction of May 1940 and that the chosen designs were much more modernist than the original city looked like before the bombs were dropped.

Van Ulzen does a great job of showing the dynamics of Rotterdam as an imaginary metropolis. It caught much attention when it was released and that closes the loop: by describing how the cultural class has developed and contributed to the city, her own work has become input to that very process!

The book can be found here.

[previously published on PAUME]

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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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Little known fact: besides research I’m also running an independent record label Betontoon, together with my good friend Zeno van den Broek. We have been running Betontoon for a bit more than a year now and things were going well. However, we felt we had to scale things up a little. When we met Sven Schlijper (of Kindamusic, Noise Central, Salon D’Esprit, and much more) we quickly developed a whole range of new ideas, from organizing concerts to publishing books. The more ideas we developed , the more we understood that the Betontoon brand didn’t fully capture all the things we intended to do. We therefore established the Platform for Avant-garde & Urban Media Explorations, or PAUME in short, last week. With PAUME we intend to explore the avant-garde of art in the broadest sense, especially where it concerns the urban.

Our debut as a curator was when we organized a one-off performance of the legendary Z’ev – in the Merkaz synagogue in Utrecht last month. It turned out to be a very special evening with many heartfelt responses from the audience. VPRO’s 3voor12 alternative channel reviewed the evening and did an interview with us.

Putting posters up on a rainy evening in Utrecht to promote the Z'ev event in Markaz. The start of something new. Picture by me in downpour whilst trying to keep other posters and ductape dry.

New events are coming soon. We are curating an evening with The Tapeworm during the Le Guess Who? Festival in Utrecht and ‘Urban Narratives‘ in Theater De Kikker, with Machinist and Audrey Chen, again in Utrecht. Other things are on our to-do list include a CD with field recordings from different cities, a book exploring the urban in all its dimensions and an exhibition of contemporary urban art. Updates will go through our PAUME website and the Betontoon website but I will do quick updates here, too.

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Here is a book that is very hard to get but that I still want to discuss because it symbolizes a lot for the city I grew up in. ‘Rotterdam: de geschiedenis van 10 jaren wederopbouw’ (published in 1955, in Dutch only) reviews the progress of the city of Rotterdam 10 years after the full-scale destruction of World War 2. I found it at a second-hand book market, sold by foundation Ons Rotterdam. At 5 Euros it is a real bargain. The book was published by Ad.Donker and was written by a team of authors. There are several reasons why this book needs a mention on this weblog. First of all, it acts as a time warp in history and it is very interesting to see the how progress, urban planning and public policy was looked at back in the olden days. Comparing the ambitions of that time with what has been achieved nowadays is also a treat and shows that development is essentially non-linear: much of what was expected and planned in 1955 never came true (and surprisingly, some things actually happened). One fine example is overlooking the great impact of the automobile and the establishment of considerable suburbs and satellite towns. Indeed, it was expected that Rotterdam would soon house 1 million inhabitants. As it stands nowadays, the city itself has a population of approximately 600.000 inhabitants, with a total of 1 million for the whole region, and congestion is a much greater problem than density. This is not to blame the policy makers of 1955, it just shows that things will rarely go according to plan.

Rotterdam: de geschiedenis van 10 jaren wederopbouw. Published by Ad.Donkers but not available anymore.

A second, perhaps more serious reason why people should try to get this book is that it shows that considerable contemporary issues with the city are not at all unique or, as some populist rhetorics state, a result from left-winged bias. The book discusses how cheap housing was the only possible answer in a time when raw materials were scarce and when most people found employment in low-paid jobs. There was no way people could afford to live in better houses and there was no way these houses could be build without considerable extra funding. Another lasting issue is that of having plenty of work in the trade, industrial and port sector but much less in the financial and services sector. This is not something new, as some policy papers suggest, but rather a historic path dependency that is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to break away from. Other examples include the possibility of upward social mobility through well-designed neighborhoods and lack of openness in shops and house at ground level (something which is still an issue as witnessed in the recent policy paper on high-rise). If anything, this book gave me some surprising insights that let me reflect on my own perception of current policy issues. Perhaps it is time that Rotterdam comes to terms with its role in the Dutch society: providing an entrance, both physically (the port and distribution) and socially (people from the lower classes getting their first chances for upward mobility here). From that perspective it becomes clear that Rotterdam doesn’t need to become another Amsterdam or Frankfurt. It has a specific and essential role in the Dutch urban landscape and that is not something that needs to be erased.

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I received this book a while ago as a present and ever since it has been close at hand in my office or at home because it is such a treat to leaf through its pages. ‘Redes Metropolitanas / Metropolitan Networks’ by Jordi Julià Sort is a bilingual book (Spanish and English) that explores the evolution of metropolis, urban planning, administration and metropolitan networks in the shape of metro’s, light rail, and (to a lesser extent) trams through time. There is an obvious connection between these elements in making the city but this book is the first (as far as I know) that presents that co-evolution in a very clear way. The main reason d’etre for this book is a surprising one. The author, as a member of the Agencia Metropolitana Barcelona Regional, is participant in the development of the Barcelona metro and suburban networks. It is from that work that he became interested in how other cities have dealt with the questions Barcelona was dealing with. That curiosity evolved into a large comparative study, resulting in this book.

It is not at all easy to map the development of metropolitan networks in relation to the city, urban planning and the way the administration dealt with the challenges, especially because the author covers the time span between the time that traffic first became a problem to the contemporary state of the network. Not only does the book cover a wide time span, it also covers a wide range of topics in a wide range of cities. Although there are commonalities in the cities he investigated, there are also numerous local differences and peculiarities. Still, Sort manages to present his argument in a clear, concise and convincing way and although each case is big enough to fill a separate book, he seems to have captured the most crucial aspects of each case. The case selection includes some of the usual suspects (London, New York, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, and for obvious reasons Barcelona and Milan) but also cities that provide a counter-jig (Los Angeles because of its car domination, Mexico City because its network has just started to develop, and Singapore because of the comprehensive land-use development and restrictive public policies).

Sort discusses each case from the early beginnings, the growth of the city and the rapid expansion of the networks, to the rise of the automobile, the changes to urban planning following the car and the decline of public transport in the 1970s and 1980s.  He then also points at how many of the (semi or fully public) transport companies reinvent themselves to return as one of the keys in solving the enormous car congestion that plagues each city. Although the author (rightly) states that a full analysis of the metropolitan network couldn’t do without an analysis of other means of transport (including walking), it was impossible to fit it into the book. Nevertheless, he complements the book with a chapter on airports and their impact on the cities in this book, and a chapter on high-speed trains and their impact on the same cities. The final part of the book covers all sorts of statistics and maps and provides additional material to the earlier chapters. The book is full color and is abundantly illustrated with (historical) maps, pictures and promotional materials from the past. Actually, the illustrations alone justify getting this book.

Redes Metropolitanas / Metropolitan Networks by Jordi Julià Sort

The conclusions of the book are interesting and though-provoking. Sort asserts that the history of metropolitan networks show a pendulum movement. We have seen the how the first rail networks were set-up to serve the suburbs, how rail was extended to the city center through tunnels, how cars and roads take over the services to the suburbs and inner city and how the railways reappear again but this time in the shape of light-rails or ‘suburban’. Sort: “The reappearance of the railway at the end may surprise us, but now it is a different system […] the suburban railway as a transport system at the scale of the metropolitan region and the high-speed railway as a transport system between cities and metropolitan areas” (pp. 7) . I support Sort’s thesis but would like to add that his view on the future is essentially European-centric because the rails for passengers is still an uphill battle in the US and Asia, despite a few good examples, is still struggling with car domination and lack of funds to build good metropolitan railway networks. My only complaint about this book is that the translation is sometimes a bit shaky and in some cases funnily wrong (e.g. talking about ‘organisms’ when it should be ‘organizations’) but who am I to complain as a non-native speaker? I really recommend this book to people who would like to understand the coming of the city in relation to its railway network (or the other way around, but that is exactly the point).

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I received a large book from Randstad Urgent, a policy program initiated by several Minitries to develop the competitiveness of the Randstad Holland in the ongoing competition with other city regions all over the world. The book is a good moment to reflect on the Randstad itself. The idea has been in use since World War 2 but appeared in the international thinking about planning when Sir Peter Hall included it in his seminal work ‘The World Cities’. To quote him: “It is only from the air, or from the map, that you can appreciate the real change that has come over Holland. The cities […] are recognisable today but have grown so close that they form, in an important sense, one city, though a city of particular form. The Dutch call it Randstad Holland: the Ring City. It has the shape of a great horseshoe.” (1966: 96). It launched the Randstad as a planning concept and it has ever since remained important in Dutch urban planning. But despite all well-intended planning efforts, its global importance is gradually declining. The OECD says: “[…] even though the Randstad had high growth rates over the 1990s, it performed less well in the 2000s. In particular, the Randstad has witnessed relatively low labour productivity growth over the last decade – much lower than cities such as Munich or Stockholm for instance.” The Global Urban Competitiveness report even ranks Amsterdam as low as 74 out of 116 most competitive cities. Yes, the Randstad is more than just Amsterdam but it is a tell tale sign of where the Randstad is headed. Much of this is down to the rise of other cities (China provides a relatively big amount of newcomers in the ranks) but it leaves Dutch urban planners with the feeling that things could be better.

Logo of the Randstad Urgent policy program

Enter the Randstad Urgent policy program in 2007. As a program it was relatively innovative because rather than specifying the spatial and economic tasks for each Ministry, Province and Municipality, it was recognized that task specification was not going to help. Consequently, the program managers focused on projects and on what was needed to get things done within the projects. Essentially, it applied network management on a very large and complex scale. From a planning and governing perspective, Randstad Urgent promised much change in the way spatial issues are usually dealt with in The Netherlands. It employed unconventional methods and it was understood that there was no need for yet another change in the planning structures but rather a need for people, rule benders sometimes, to act as change agents. Projects were accelerated by what became known as ‘duo-administrators’, linking a Minister with a provincial Deputy or municipal Aldermen in order to make sure that concrete ambitions and national policies and resources were constantly aligned. So far so good. Come 2010, however, the government resigned and called for new elections and the program was terminated. A bit early.

The book I received this week reviews the projects that were included in Randstad Urgent. It arrives at the conclusion that Randstad Urgent was a success. Well, yes, that’s not unexpected. The authors are correct to some extent. Quite a few things have been started or even completely delivered. And yes, the unconventional approach meant quite a change to pace to the development process. Moreover, I find it very healthy that thinking in terms of conurbations rather than competing cities has become common within the administrative ranks. Still it is a bit too early to call everything a success. Complex spatial development always takes a lot of time and rarely gets completed within a few years. If anything, the book shows that the program was killed prematurely.

Reconstruction and extension of the A15 highway was one the projects in Randstad Urgent. Its purpose is to improve the connections between the port of Rotterdam and the hinterland. Work is currently in progress.

Where to next? There is no denying that the Randstad can only remain successful if it is developed as a whole and there is no denying that metropolitan regions are the future. Unfortunately, fear of the metropolis is common too (as documented and discussed in issue 6 of the Hollandblad) and it will remain difficult and sometimes controversial to develop this conurbation. Still, the Randstad has survived many changes so the future is not that bleak. It just takes some courage. That is both a small and a big step.

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