Archive for the ‘Personal musings’ Category

All good things must come to an end and so it is with Cityness. I started this weblog over a year ago, as an experiment to see if I could connect the realm of the urban with the realms of science and arts. Whether that has been successful, is up to you to decide. For me, it was interesting to the extent that it brought me in contact with other people. But on the whole, it required considerable more energy than it returned. Some Internet-savvy people told me that the posts were too long to be published on the Internet. That may be so but I refuse to give in and join the great amounts of shallow tidbits that are strewn across the Internet. Also, the most popular posts on the website are about subjects that I will cover in an upcoming book. I think it is better that I focus my writing efforts on getting that book out instead of posting incomplete work here. So I’ve decided to stop Cityness but will continue to write contributions for the PAUME-website. Do you like to read about the urban, arts and sciences? Be sure to check out the ‘Featured’ section of the PAUME-site!

One of those pictures that I took for this weblog, without having a real story about it. It is a quick snapshot of Rotterdam, which captures the dynamics of this town nicely.

Some stats:
Cityness attracted about 10.000 hits in one year. The top three most popular single posts were the ones about Peckam, my thoughts on the role of railway stations in European cities and a discussion of the work of architect Maarten Struijs. The most popular review was the book review of Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Some popular posts will be reposted at the PAUME website, as long as it fits the PAUME framework. This blog will remain online as long as it keeps attracting readers.


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December and November are notorious for their workload and deadlines. However, much fun was to be experienced. Here are some pictures instead of words.

A different context for academic work: lectures in the old Lantaren-Venster cinema give an entirely different atmosphere and improved interaction between audience and speaker. We will return here! Picture by Fred Ernst

Urban planner and author of the great book 'Cities, Design and Evolution' gave a great lecture about conurbations and urban planning as an evolutionary process. A great evening and a fully packed house, i.e. a definitive success. Picture by Fred Ernst

Meanwhile, storms and full moon tested Rotterdam's defense mechanisms against high water levels. Things got a bit wet but not to the extent that the Nieuwe Maas had to be closed off. The problem with good water management is that you rarely get the chance to test how good it is. This was one opportunity. Picture by Andres Dijkshoorn

BJ Nilsen was our guest last Thursday and he performed an extended version of 'The Invisible City'. It was a truly inspiring performance. For those who wonder what Mr. Nilsen does during a performance: here is a view from his office space, as seen during the sound checks. Picture by me.

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What a great but busy week it was at our department! First we prepared a lecture on the work of Niklas Luhmann about social systems for our master students. They coped surprisingly well, given that this is a topic many scientists don’t even dare to touch. Then David Byrne (Durham University) came over to talk about this book ‘Applying Social Science’ and about complexity in general. I think that David is one of those rare people who write books that are really ahead of their times. Another great thinker was our guest on Thursday and Friday. Stephen Marshall gave a great lecture to a fully packed house (hmm, make that overly fully packed…) on Thursday and gave very useful input to our workshop on Friday. It was a week of intellectual challenge, glad to be doing this work.

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It has been relatively quiet at Cityness. I’ve been awfully busy with teaching and research, and there was not that much to report in terms of all things urban. But a few things happened here and there, and some comments are deserved.

The main news this month was that the government proposed to merge three (or two) Provinces into one metropolitan region around Amsterdam. This is an incarnation of a debate that is going on ever since sir Peter Hall added the ‘Randstad Holland’ to his list of world cities. This time, the provinces of North-Holland, Flevoland and Utrecht would merge to create one big administrative unit. The proposal was barely out or parties started a public fight about many issues, including whether Utrecht should be considered part of Amsterdam or not. It all sounds a bit too familiar. The most noticeable point was the absence of Rotterdam or Den Haag or South-Holland in the whole debate. And as it happened, the mayors of both cities announced their own plan to form a metropolitan region. Call me a cynic but I find it highly suspicious that Rotterdam and Den Haag rarely agreed on anything for the past decades and would change their stance overnight. Surely not. And to those who think that redrawing administrative boundaries accelerate decision-making: if people don’t want to cooperate they will not cooperate, regardless of hierarchies or boundaries.

Meanwhile, public organizations are quietly working on the intergration of the public transport in the Randstad. That seems sensible.  There is much going on in this part of the country. Public transport covers a bewildering range of means and ends, ranging from ultra-short tramlinks (former Utrecht-Houten) to international high-speed railroads (Amsterdam-Paris, and possible a direct link to London in the future). Old railroads have been converted to new light-rail, bus services have been put out to tender and quite successfully so. Attempts are now made to integrate the system, which will help to increase its attractiveness and make traveling the Randstad a whole lot smoother. I find this way of thinking better than abstract discussions about who is Amsterdam and who isn’t. Click here for a marvelous map of the Randstad and its current and future public transport links.

Other news: the Rotterdam Economic Development Board published a report in which it assessed the state of Rotterdam. Its main conclusion is that much is needed to get Rotterdam back on track. I felt tired reading the same thing over and over again and I think that it is time to judge the city in its own right rather than repeating the same mantra (not enough high incomes) and medicine (build houses for high incomes). I read the report and felt a creative vacuum. Sure, the city could do with more people and higher incomes but no one mentions the main real issues that will prevent this from happening: (a) the municipality is not in the position to build housing for another 30.000 people, and (b) where would these people come from in a country whose population is already shrinking? And even if that magic wand was found and 30.000 people and houses were conjured up… would that change the city considerably? Path-dependency suggests it won’t. Live with it. But my main complaint is that it really doesn’t help anybody to suggest the city council to build more. There is no money, there are no legal instruments that can do that, there are no people to live in those houses. It makes one eager to develop a counter-plan…

I like my city rough and tough. It has been like this for centuries, it won't change. It is good in its own right. Picture of the Maassilo by me.


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I had a discussion with a number of project managers of the municipal planning department. They expressed their concern about how difficult it was to plan the city if one is not in full control. I’ve tried explaining that full control is a fantasy and that, if you manage to obtain it, you wish you rather didn´t. To me, this is normal stuff and not a very novel insight. See e.g. Van Gunsteren’s ‘The Quest for Control’, published in 1976. But the wish to be in control is very persistent in urban planning.

Ok, there must be other ways to experience the stress of being in full control. Enter Cities XL 2011. It is a game or better: a simulation. The chief aim of this game is to build a city and make sure it doesn’t collapse. As a player, you are offered almost full control. This ranges from generic tools such as land use zoning and infrastructure to tweaking trade, businesses and demographic development. To make the right decisions, a bewildering range of information sources is available, again ranging from macro-trends to the state of individual businesses and homes. So, we got everything we need to build the perfect city.

My first city was bankrupt in about 20 minutes; the second didn’t last much longer.

So, what happened? Lots of things went wrong. Luckily, it is a game so I didn’t get ousted as a planner (although I should have been). I learned very quickly that planning a city means considerable patience, low ambitions, and moderate and targeted investments. Trying to build a large city as once is asking for a quick bankruptcy. I managed to build a stable city with a population of around 10.000 people. Anything bigger required more patience, and much incremental growth. The game offers a dynamic balance between growth, taxes, facilities, income and expenditures. It is up to you to maintain that balance without exhausting your budget, whilst still promoting growth. That is quite difficult because the equilibrium is dynamic, which is somewhat different from stability. I’ve seen people on the Internet discussing which formula would work best in maintaining balance, such as the number of houses against the number of shops and all that. The result of following such formula is a boring city derived from continuous calculations.

Building a city quickly may be quite difficult, at least it is somewhat manageable. Shrinkage, however, is not. Once some inhabitants decided to leave my town, it quickly spiraled out of control. Oh yes, I did borrow a big amount of money to reinvest but that only hastened my demise. I thought that this was pretty much similar to what happens in real-world urban planning in rural areas that are subject to shrinkage. I experienced that there is very little one can do except for aiming for a soft landing. Perhaps it is possible to turn it around but I’ve not managed to that in this game.

Other things I noted included that it was tempting to build modernist cities based on raster-like streets. It turned out to be efficient and easier to control but the result was probably not a happy place. I also noted that there are many, many mutual dependencies between everything a city has to offer, ranging from a local school to large-scale stadiums. Neglecting those dependencies is possible, but only to some extent. Bankruptcy is always somewhere waiting for you. Meanwhile, the player is flooded with statistics about how the city develops. You know you want to take that all into account, you know you will need to do this, and you experience the sheer impossibility of this. Great.

Playing this game was more fun than I expected. It was both unreal (it is a game) and real. Although it is a game, it still shows some things that are surprisingly real, especially the dynamic equilibrium and the erratic changes that punish you for not maintaining that equilibrium. And if anything, it hammered home the message that being able to control everything is a real pain.

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Sunset over Rotterdam, June 2011. Picture by me.


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From winter to spring

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