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I’m proud to announce that we’ve teamed up with Deltametropolis to host one of the gatherings in their lecture series ‘The International Perspective’. We have invited Stephen Marshall of the Bartlett School of Planning to talk about his ideas about the city as an evolving, self-organizing system. I´m a big fan of his work ever since I read ´Cities, Design and Evolution´ ) review of which is due to appear in Planning Theory & Practice, this fall). His concepualization of evolving systems has great implications for the way the city should be planned – and this is exactly what the lecture and discussion will be about.

We are still busy finishing all the details – watch this weblog for more information or head over to the program website at the Vereniging Deltametropool.

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Are people living in urban residential towers a different species from people who live elsewhere? I don’t know but perhaps we will know more about this in the near future. As I’m typing this I’m carrying a small GPS-transponder that tracks my whereabouts for a week or so, as part of a research project by the Delft University of Technology. This device will map my destinations and the routes I follow (e.g. walking, cycling etc.). Meanwhile, I will have to tag the points where I have been. Because I do this together with some 50 other people, the researchers should get a tentative idea about our whereabouts. The main reason for this research is that the city council would like to know how the high-rise people go about in town in order to know which areas should be improved to attract more people to live in the city center. Despite looking spacious and somewhat empty, this city lacks space for large-scale residential areas. The easiest solution is to develop residential high-rise. But such apartments are only bought by a particular group of people (and generally don’t sell as well as e.g. semi-detached town houses). By knowing and understanding their daily urban pattern, it may become possible to cater for their specific needs. Personally, I’m even more interested in what ‘we’ do than in where we do it. I’ll keep you updated when research results become available.

Open Street Map by Tom Carden and Steve Coast

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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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As the effects of the global economic cooling spreads to the public sector (where earlier bailouts, measures to dampen unemployment and special financial incentives to keep industrial sectors going are now being felt in the governmental budgets), the questions rise whether the contemporary city can stay out of trouble and how it will affect the city. The answer to first question is that no one escapes the consequences of the greatest economic depression in almost a century. The second question is much harder to answer. I had a number of discussions with experts recently and all had different ideas. But there was one thing they all said: the prolonged period of post-war growth will be replaced by a prolonged period of zero-growth or marginal growth – very alike the current Japanese situation. Again: what does that mean for the city? I try to get my head around the idead that in many cases (in Europe and the US, that is) we have seen the zenith of the city and that things go downhill from here. Let me try to explain that (from a European perspective, that is).

Source: The Economist, September 16th, 2010

The graph I think is important is the one on the right, taken from The Economist. It relates the number of cities to population growth. What it shows is that more and more people live in cities but that they are not moving towards the traditional city centers. Rather, the trend is towards the polycentric city, i.e. the conurbation of cities that are appearing everywhere. This (well-known) trend has caused the edge city where urban life is slowly creeping outside, leaving the downtown areas empty and devoid of life. The extent of this change varies but invariably urban planners have struggled with the consequences. There are two potential causes for a change: (1) population growth that needs to be accommodated by  the city because of lack of space elsewhere; (2) push factors that make the city more attractive in comparison to suburbia. As for (1), this is not going to happen. Western Europe and perhaps even the US will experience a declining population in twenty or thirty years time because of demographic change and a popular blocking of immigration. As for (2), it is clear that it is very, very hard to make the city look like a more attractive alternative than suburbia. There are very few instances where the flight to the suburbs was successfully curbed and channeled back into the city. A more recent Economist report shows that it is the suburbs themselves who are now subject to the developments that were thought unique to the city: poverty, mortgages that are not being repaid, lack of maintenance etc. This may act as a push factor away from the suburbs towards the city. But altogether I think that this is unlikely. So here it is: all recent urban plans I saw where based on the assumption that some sort of growth (demographic, economic) would propel the city back into the limelight. Now that this assumption has been slashed we need to rethink our urban strategies. What will the city look like in a contracting world? I would be happy to hear your thoughts!

Are we witnessing the evening of the city? Skyline of Rotterdam, picture by me.

Disclaimer: my view is obviously Euro-centric because Asia shows very different patterns and cities will continue to grow. But even there the main growth is not achieved in the traditional cities but rather in the ‘anonymous’ cities that have not claimed world fame (yet).

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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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