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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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About a year ago I wrote how Peckham (UK) was regenerated through community development. There are good reasons to promote community-driven urban renewal. Some will argue that it is a democratic right to do this. Well, perhaps. On a more pragmatic level I think that communities bring in more local knowledge than the planning departments can generate. Also, involving communities now can be cumbersome but reduces the risk of long legal procedures. And as a final point: (local) governments are not fairies who can make everything happen by magic. Too often, citizens have come to expect a form of magic and many local governments have felt it necessary to respond with the promise of magic. Inevitably, much disappointment follows. I think that it is necessary for communities to feel in charge again and to know that urban development is not about putting ones wish list up to administrators but to be responsible for decisions and trade-offs and to feel responsible again for the urban. This responsibility can’t be fully handed over to administrators.

The interaction between governments and community is fascinating. For that reason I often find myself in cramped rooms full of people debating the future of their street and the color of the pavement and other prosaic things. I did so again recently. The local municipality intends to reconstruct a road running through a residential area in the city. This road is 240 meters long. Keep this length in mind if you continue reading.

The evening was started by a project manager who explained what they intended, which is about narrowing the road so that cars will slow down when they go through this area. Also, trees will be planted alongside the road and some other changes will be made. The overall impression was that of a friendly street with more room for pedestrians. The plans were the result of a series of meetings with community leaders. This is were all the fun begun. For example:

“Why haven’t you removed some parking space, to give more room for pedestrians?”
“Well, because last time you protested against having them removed since you were afraid of having people park their cars outside the parking zones.”
“Right, perhaps it is better if you remove the parking space here and put them somewhere else.”
“Where else?”
“How would I know, this is your job isn’t it?”

It went on like this for about 45 minutes. It was amazing how the discussion was really not about the street but more about who could shout down who. An old lady behind me whispered “isn’t this exciting?” in my ear. I’m sure she didn’t catch my astonishment. After a while I suggested that the main complainers could present their own plans. They rebuked that this was not their task. That was not a surprise.

As the evening progressed, we came to the bit about planting trees. As gesture, the municipality had allocated 300.000 Euros for trees and plants, provided that the locals would help in keeping the green stuff alive and growing. This met approval. The most interesting part was the woman from the municipality who was not afraid of saying “shut up for now” to some of the most vocal complainers. They would then make theatrical gestures but they were ignored for a while. It seems to me that community involvement is not only about listening to the community and trying to do something with their wishes but also about being very clear about the limits to involvement.

I left before the end of the show. Outside, I met one of the municipal planners who was just taking an aspirin against headaches. I asked him why they went to such great lengths for a street that is only 240 meters long. He told me that it is a good way of avoiding mistakes. At the same time he agreed that it was necessary because this was a very vocal community and that the municipality had promised this change 10 (!) years ago. So, there was a real need for some diplomacy. The furious discussions made more sense now that I knew this. I think the people from the municipality did well to engage those people and to face the fact that the relationship had not improved over those ten years. The question remains: how did this situation emerge in the first place?

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A while ago I posted that I participated in a research to track the behavior of people living in residential towers. The final results will be published later this year but some preliminary results have already been presented by the TU Delft and Veldacademie. These first results suggest that people in residential towers enjoy their views and lives. However, they lack green spots in town for recreation (e.g. walking, sunbathing etc.). The emphasis on cars and car parkings receives a negative evaluation. No surprises here, then. More detailed and elaborate results will be published later on.

A map of GPS trackers of people living in the Coopvaert Building. Picture generated by the Veldacademie

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The Dutch passenger railway system is organized around one national carrier, i.e. the incumbent Netherlands Railways or NS. The NS has performed quite well given the complex infrastructure it operates and the number of trains it moves around each day. However, some feel that other companies can do this more efficiently. As per EU-regulations, some other railway companies have been given access to the Dutch network, such as Arriva, Veolia, Syntus and Connexxion. They operate on secondary lines at the edges of the core network. The nation-wide concession that was handed to NS is nearing its end and those other companies have now launched a plan to create a level playing field that will allow them to compete with NS to win concessions everywhere in the country.

A Stadler GTW as operated by Veolia in the south of the Netherlands. Picture by Janderk1968

They presented this proposal to the Minister of Transport who, in return, asked them to make a quick-scan about the financial, economical and institutional consequences of this plan. I was part of the research team that carried out this research. The report (in Dutch only, sorry) can be downloaded at the website of the Parliament. The full package of documents can be downloaded here.

The research found that, under certain circumstances and assumptions, money can be saved when the operation of the railway network is put out to tender. Institutional changes will be necessary. However, we argue that this doesn’t add to the institutional complexity of operating the railways and supervising the companies. Instead, it makes the existing complexity more transparent and manageable.

Whether the operation of railways should be put out to tender is a political decision and I’m not making a stance here. All that I can say is that it is not impossible and that its possible negative side-effects can be managed. Those of you who by now have memories of British Rail and its collapse: there is an interesting report available called: The Restructuring and Privatisation of British Rail: Was it really that bad? Let’s get the public debate going!

Connexxion runs these lovely Protos trains. Only 6 of them were ever built. Picture by me at station Amersfoort

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A few days ago, prof. dr. Frans van den Bosch of the Rotterdam School of Management presented his research report on the strategic value of the Port of Rotterdam for the international competitiveness of the Netherlands*. This report was commissioned by the Port of Rotterdam Authorities as part of the development of the strategic vision of the port for 2030. It is a most interesting report and prof. Van den Bosch presented some thought-provoking conclusions. Yes, the Port of Rotterdam is important but contrary to popular opinions, it is not really important for the city of Rotterdam itself. This is something that fascinates and bothers me simultaneously.

First some facts, taken directly from the report. The combined (direct and indirect) value added amount to around 22 billion euros annually (or about 3,7% of the Dutch GDP). It provides direct and indirect employment to 90.000, respectively 55.000 persons, totaling 145.000 persons. The researchers expect that the total volume of investments in the coming years is around 10 billion euros. Impressive numbers indeed, but one should not get blinded by such numbers. To put things in perspective, the Port of Hamburg, much smaller by many accounts, employs between 60.000 to 150.000 people, depending on the definition (see Gerrits, 2008).

The report identifies three important strategic contributions the port generates for the country as a whole: [1] functioning as one of the most important and biggest goods hubs in Europe; [2] development and dispersion of knowledge through cooperation with other ports and logistic hubs; [3] strengthening of the port and the Netherlands through international cooperation and control of logistics, e.g. through acquisitions and participation in feeder ports. The researchers then elaborate further and conclude that the strategic value of the port is much higher than the employment and investments associated with the port.

The petro-chemical cluster at Pernis, Rotterdam. Picture by the Rotterdam Port Authorities

The relationship between the port and the city of Rotterdam is mentioned where it concerns the question of whether Rotterdam and its surrounding areas offer an attractive location for corporate headquarters. The picture is rather bleak. Of the top 100 headquarters in the Netherlands, only 14 are located within the Rotterdam greater area. This is almost insignificant if compared to e.g. Hamburg. Anybody who has ever walked around the Binnenalster will know that the city has a great collection of corporate headquarters. In the words of the researchers: “In order to be acknowledged as ‘world maritime city’, the presence of corporate headquarters and/or regional offices of container shipping companies and container terminal operators is essential.” (2011: 19). This seems not to be the case for Rotterdam. The remainder of the report only talks about the city where it concerns the availability of land for port expansion.

I found it particularly interesting that much of the port’s development is driven by international competition. Prof. Van den Bosch quoted a respondent saying his company was not competing with local firms but with other similar firms elsewhere in the world. It is an indication that the port’s relations are with other ports, companies and hubs elsewhere in the world. Its relationship with the city does not matter for this competition and adaptation and survival in this competition. Of course, the city benefits from the port and the profits from the Rotterdam Port Authorities but it also has to bear its negative externalities such as congestion, noise pollution and emissions of particulate matter to name a few.

To illustrate all this, prof. Van den Bosch run an interesting though experiment with us. He asked the question what would happen if, in a hypothetical case, the Port of Rotterdam would stop working. His conclusion: if surrounding ports are able to increase their capacity to accommodate the port of Rotterdam, nothing much would happen. In other words: the port has no proverbial anchor. Strategically, it could be anywhere. The city doesn’t really matter in this.

There is much more to say about this, which I will do soon when I will post a review of the strategic vision of the Rotterdam Port Authorities, as published recently.

*) Van den Bosch, F., Hollen, R., Volberda, H., Baaij, M. (2011). The strategic value of the Port of Rotterdam for the international competitiveness of the Netherlands: a first exploration. Rotterdam: INSCOPE: Research for Innovation. ISBN: 978-90-817220-2-5

Container transfer. Picture by the Rotterdam Port Authorities

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Last week I mentioned that was participant in a research conducted by Delft University of Technology. Local television channel TV Rijnmond found out and wanted to cover the research. Here is their report with interviews of project leader Frank van der Hoeven and yours truly. Notice the high-quality acting performances of the respondents, obediently but casually walking and cycling past the camera…

There was also a quick interview on the local radio channel. However, the interview was much shorter than planned because the equipment failed. Go to Rijnmond’s website to see and hear it all.

The first results from this research will become available in two months and will also be posted here.

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