Flanders 2055

On 9 oktober 2015, in duurzaamheid, by Zef Hemel

Read in Het Parool of 3 October 2015:

He was the last speaker at the conference last week, in the House of Lords (Eerste Kamer) in The Hague, just after me. The journalist who interviewed him was in the audience. Jonathan Holslag (1981) is professor at the Free University of Brussels, he’s an expert in China. Like all the speakers that day he focused on the future of the Netherlands. His theme: geopolitics. He was very pessimistic, I remember. Next Saturday I read the interview with him in Het Parool. Pessimistic too. What I didn’t know is that he had just published a book on the future of Flanders, Belgium. In ‘Vlaanderen 2055’ he presented his dream of future Flanders. When I met him in The Hague we discussed his view on cities. According to him, megacities are horrible inventions, inhuman, not sustainable. He had read my blog, he told me. He wanted to discuss why the hell I wanted to double the size of Amsterdam. He simply could not understand. But interesting though it was. What did he say in the interview? “The only possibility is to return to a society where we can improve ourselves en live together on a human scale.”

Is his view utopian, romantic? “I think we feel better in communities that are small, where buildings are not too big. There is a big risk that cosmopolitan people project their wishes and ideas on the rest of the population.” So yes, Holslag is romantic, antiurban, like most European thinkers through history. But what he stands for is also unrealistic, simply not true. Holslag: “Innovation and scientific breakthroughs mostly come from university-cities that have no more than een few hundred thousand inhabitants. Campusses of Google and others look like villages, not megacities.” Nonsense of course. Holslag is a European romantic, living in one of the most unsustainable economies of the world. Why? Because Belgium is one of the least densily built, one of the most suburbanised, oil-consuming countries, the country is a horrible scenario come true. Like the Netherlands, Belgium would better build a megacity now.

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Subtle thinkers

On 8 oktober 2015, in theorie, wetenschap, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Superforecasting’ (2015) of Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner:

Superforecasters don’t have special genetics, or uncommon luck.

Today, in Noordwijk on the Dutch coast, I will give my view on the long term future of the Amsterdam region for a small group of people. They invited me. Can I predict the future? Of course not. But according to Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner some people can. These ‘superforcasters’ are so-called ‘foxes’.  The writer and philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who wrote ‘The Hedgehog and the fox’, made a distinction between people whose understanding of the world depends on one or two big ideas (hedgehogs) and people who think the world is too complicated to boil down into a single slogan (foxes) (http://www.zefhemel.nl/?p=6556). Only foxes, Tetlock and Gardner write, can really predict. Tetlock is psychology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Gardner a Canadian journalist. “Humility in the face of a complex world makes superforecasters subtle thinkers”. Subtle thinkers? Superforecasters are not statisticians, although they feel comfortable with data. Their greatest ability is to synthesise material from sources with very different outlooks on the world. They think in fine gradations. They are willing to learn from mistakes. Am I a fox?

Those who stood out as superforecasters were anything but experts: one was a retired pipe installer, another a former ballroom dancer. Groups of people can also forecast. Again, not specialists or experts, people who think they know more than amateurs. According to Tetlock and Gardner, the average expert is “roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee.” No, you need an eclectic bunch of people: housewives, unemployed factory workers, homeless, professors of maths. Superforecasters are clever, but not superintelligent. They are less interested in whether they are right or wrong; they always want to know why. They are cautious, sceptic people, searching for nuance. Eminence and confidence are less relevant to them. “Superforecasters make for bad media stars.” Sounds familiar.

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Social entrepreneurs

On 7 oktober 2015, in sociaal, wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Guardian of 20 July 2015:

In Amsterdam it’s bad. In San Francisco it’s even worse. Yesterday we made a walking tour with policymakers of the municipality of Amsterdam who want to promote local startup ecosystems. We crossed the eastern part of the inner city. How to attrackt new tech-jobs?, they asked. Amsterdam is as big as San Francisco: bit more than 800.000 inhabitants. Why attrackting tech-jobs when housing prices are steeply rising and neighbourhoods get filthy expensive? Do they want even more gentrification? It made me think of the problems in Tenderloin, San Francisco. More than 10.000 technology workers from Twitter, Spotify, Zendesk, Yammer and other companies have moved into the Tenderloin and the adjacant Mid-Market district. Rory Carroll wrote about this part of town in The Guardian last summer. “Tenderloin is filled with impoverished families, homeless people, drug addicts and the mentally ill. You don’t need an app to figure out who usually wins such contests.”

Tenderloin is host to an influx of tech companies. Social problems and tensions in this district could be solved if the technies would integrate. Will they? Some 78% of housing in this area is still affordable and 54% is rent-controlled. Office vacancy has dropped from 25 to 4%. The tech arrivals are co-existing with the Tenderloin people. At least so far. Tenderloin will not gentrify like Williamsburg in New York City, but it is certainly changing. “It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.” So why promoting startup ecosystems if they develop spontaneously, even invade poor city districts? Once a city starts burning, it easily gets overheated. Of course, as a city you have to be successful first. Amsterdam is doing well. The city should be careful now. It better protects its affordable housing stock and keeps its system of rent-control. And why not asking the techies to become a kind of social entrepreneurs?

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Go West

On 6 oktober 2015, in demografie, internationaal, by Zef Hemel

Read in NRC Handelsblad 0f 21 August 2015:


The number of expats in Amstelveen , the southern suburb of Amsterdam, has doubled over the last ten years. You could read it in NRC Handelsblad last summer. The newspaper quoted a research report of CBS, the Central Statistical Bureau in the Netherland. In 2005 there were some 250 Indian families living in Amstelveen, in 2015 there were 2.500, ten times more. Most of them work for Indian IT-companies in Amsterdam – Tata, Infosys, Wipro. Even the Japanes Canon company in Amstelveen has lots of Indian IT-specialists working nowadays. They play cricket, eat Indian food, have their Hindu festivals. Still, most of the expats in the Netherlands come from Gemany and the UK. The Germans work in education and government, the British in producer services. Their total number is now 57.000; two thirds are men; many of them are high educated and earn quite lot of money. Their growing numbers are striking. Half will stay no longer than five years at most, they all work on the South Axis (Zuidas) in Amsterdam, the majority in IT. The Asian community is growing fastest.

Another striking outcome: 70 per cent of the expats in the Netherlands live and work in only twenty municipalities. Most of these municipalities are in and around Amsterdam, along the dune coast, near Leiden, and along the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, near Utrecht. This is the rich northern Randstad area. The newspaper quoted experts who told the journalist that there are 1,25 billion Indians, IT is one of the most popular studies in India, there is a lack of IT-specialists in the Netherlands, so the Dutch Silicon Valley needs them. Amstelveen knows it, and tries to attract them. Amsterdam itself has become too hot now, even for expats. Three per cent of the Amstelveen population now is of Indian birth. Unlike the migrants from Syria and Africa they do not have to live in asylumseeker centers somewhere in the woods,in the Dutch periphery. They can live where they want, so they all prefer concentrated, densily built urban areas in the western part of the country, in their own communities. Except Amsterdam.

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Wat ons te doen staat

On 3 oktober 2015, in duurzaamheid, politiek, by Zef Hemel

Gehoord in de Eerste Kamer der Staten Generaal op 1 oktober 2015:

Vooruit dan. Nog eenmaal in het Nederlands. Omdat dit de toekomst van het Koninkrijk betreft. Over die toekomst organiseerden het Ministerie van Binnenlandse Zaken en de Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid (WRR) afgelopen week een uiterst boeiende dag in de Eerste Kamer aan het Binnenhof. Zes wetenschappers en journalisten gaven elk een kort college, waarna studenten reageerden. Ochtend en middag werden afgesloten door een paneldiscussie. Paul Scheffer was de dagvoorzitter. Minister Plasterk hield de openingsrede door te zeggen dat hij vrij snel na zijn openingsrede helaas verstek moest laten gaan en dat dit hem zeer speet, waarna hij zijn agenda van die dag oplepelde. Geen leuk vooruitzicht, gaf Scheffer toe. De bewindsman kon maar beter blijven, want een hele dag nadenken en praten over de toekomst van het Koninkrijk was echt zinvoller. Waarna de minister in de pauze ijlings verdween.

Waarover ging het die dag? Alles kwam voorbij. Dominant in alle bijdragen bleek de globalisering: het islamisme, het gevaar van de totalitaire staat, het democratische tekort, de problemen in de zorg, de verwarring, het internet, de technologie, de crises, de urbanisatie, de klimaatverandering, de bevolkingskrimp. Vrijwel alle sprekers waren somber gestemd. Het slotdebat ging over de vraag wat te doen als het kleine Koninkrijk (die dunbevolkte, allerminst duurzame stadstaat van 17 miljoen inwoners) in de mondiale dynamiek dreigt te verdwijnen. Aan tafel zaten Pim van der Feltz (directeur Google Nederland), Hella Hueck (RTL), Erik Stam (UU) en ondergetekende. De scherpste vragen kwamen van Andreas Kinneging (ULeiden) en Henk te Velde (ULeiden). Alle vier panelleden waren min of meer eensluidend in hun repliek. In het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden moet veel lichter worden gestuurd, met minder regels en grotere vrijheden op lokaal niveau, alle instituties moeten soepeler meebewegen, uiterste wendbaarheid is vereist (Stam gebruikte de metafoor van de tango). En we moeten elkaar beter vasthouden, goed naar elkaar luisteren en elkaar opzoeken door inspirerende toekomstverhalen te vertellen, want verhalen kunnen ademen, zijn open, kunnen ons motiveren, brengen ons tot samenwerking. En bouw nou eindelijk eens een echt grote stad, voegde ik eraan toe. Niet dat de zaal was gerustgesteld. Allerminst. De heer Plasterk heeft het allemaal gemist.

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Keep it light

On 2 oktober 2015, in politiek, by Zef Hemel

Discussed in the House of Lords (Eerste Kamer) in The Hague on 1 October 2015:

The conference was about ‘Contours of the Third Century of the Dutch Kingdom’ in the House of Lords (Eerste Kamer) at the Binnenhof in The Hague. The seminar was organized by the Scientific Advisory Board of the Dutch Government (WRR) and marked the end of all the festivities of ‘Two hunderd years Dutch kingdom’. My presentation was on globalization, the retreat of the nationstate and the future of Dutch cities. Most of the lectures in the morning were about democracy, citizenship and the Dutch constitution. Many complaints were heard, but I really felt a lack of imagination; it was almost depressing. Andreas Kinnegin, professor philosophy of law at Leyden University, was quite pessimistic (he warned for the tyranny of the state and the disappearance of the protestant ethos), so was Kustaw Bessems, historian and journalist of de Volkskrant (who warned for islamic antidemocratic acts). His message: we are living in the best possible world, it will get worse. Even Jonathan Holslag of the Free University of Brussels was negative in his analysis of the international geopolitical situation. Nothing to be proud of. Scary even.

It reminded me of the lecture of Peter MacFadyen at the ‘Flatpack Democracy’ event of last Saturday in Brighton, UK. Peter had told us about creating independent politics in Frome, Somerset, south of Bath. After years of missed opportunities, a group of residents had taken control of their town council and had set about making politics relevant, effective and fun again. Frome counts 26.000 inhabitants. Its political system lacked vitality, people didn’t feel represented any more. Peter: “Britain today has a dysfunctional political system. Many politicians are making decisions to meet their own needs or those of their party, not the needs of the people they serve.” In detail he described how citizens took control of the system and searched for a radical democracy, without making use of political parties.The underlying ethos of all our actions is to build confidence and facilitate opportunity.” MacFadyan’s speech inspired many in the audience who apparently do not feel represented after the last election too, when most of the UK turned ‘blue’. MacFadyen gave a manual of how to develop a political system from the bottom-up. Essentials: work as a group, agree your ways of working together, use facilitators, friends, experts, people with skills, keep it light, decide on a good name. He told us it works. Why not?

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The next age

On 1 oktober 2015, in ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Prepared on 30 September 2015 in Amsterdam:


This week the Dutch government commemorated two centuries Royal Dutch kingdom in Amsterdam, the capital city (1814-2014). Today I will give a lecture in the House of Lords (Eerste Kamer) in The Hague on ‘the third age of the Dutch kingdom’ (2014-2114). How will the next age look like? Six professors were asked by the Scientific Advisory Board of the Dutch Government (WRR) to give their view on the future of the small, densily populated country at the Northwestern periphery of Europe. My subject: urban dynamics. What is my view? First of all, I will tell the audience that the Dutch government will no longer be in control when it comes to spatial-economic dynamics; globalization, information technology and localization wil decide on future urban patterns, not its national centre The Hague. Megacities will grow all over the world. Agglomeration economies will be powerful. However, no World City status for the Netherlands. Amsterdam could become one, but seems not to be willing, Rotterdam is willing, but cannot be. The Randstad as a total is a lame duck. My conclusion is that in the future there will be a substantial brain drain.

Then I will focus on the popular concept of the Dutch city-state. Some ministers in The Hague seem to like the idea.What does it matter which town you live in? They use it to invoke collaboration. I will compare the Dutch city-state of 17 million inhabitants with other cities of the same size: Los Angeles, Istanbul and Moscow. All these global cities have bigger economies, their productivity is growing faster than the economy of the Netherlands and their ecological footprint is much smaller (the Dutch citystate only a bit less destructive than Qatar!). How come? I know. The Dutch city-state is the least densily built urban field in the world. Add to that the shrinking population in the periphery and the high vacancy rate of the real estate, which has doubled over the last five years, then you get the full picture: the Amsterdam region is growing fast, the rest of the country will be given back to nature. Amsterdam arrogance? The first wolve has been spotted earlier this year in the province of Drenthe. 

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Building green belts

On 30 september 2015, in wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Economist of 26 September 2015:

population density.jpg

Something’s badly wrong. On my way back from the UK, I read an article in this week’s edition of The Economist on the booming housing market in and around London. Despite stagnant incomes, Britons have taken on masses of cheap debt. All this demand has run up against ‘sluggish supply’. People think foreign ownership of London real estate is the problem. It is not. That problem concerns only certain parts of inner London. Demand from within Britain exerts much bigger effects, according to The Economist. The magazine thinks this is partly due to strict planning laws. Green belts are protecting the landscape around cities; these belts now cover 13 per cent of England. How sacred are they? The conservative government wants to get rid of those planning schemes and, by doing this, make it easier to build. The Economist thinks cheap debt is not the problem, but spatial planning. The magazine quotes Paul Cheshire of the London School of Economics, who thinks London could build another 1,6 million houses in the Green Belt around the capital city. The magazine agrees, because much green-belt land “is far from green”.

So that’s the end of planning, even though everybody knows that when planning permission is forthcoming, housebuilders have held back. Why? Because builders try to sell new-builds at a price in the upper decile of those prevailing in the local market. “Since coming to power in 2010 the Conservative government has done more to boost demand for housing than increase its supply. Labour, meanwhile, talks about rent controls, which could flatten supply still further.” While reading this, I had to think of the recent study of Greg Clark, senior fellow of the Urban Land Institute, who gave a lecture in Amsterdam last week on the lack of density in our cities. In ‘Density: drivers, dividends and debates’ (2015) he demonstrates the great value of density, “to advocate for the best practices that can produce it, to bust the myths, and to start the process of informing and supporting new leaders to put density at the heart of long term planning for the future.” We should densify our cities now! Would be a great read for the editors of The Economist.

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Fun Palace

On 29 september 2015, in kunst, by Zef Hemel

Read in the Guardian of 19 February 2015:

The other conference I visited this weekend was ‘Flatpack Democracy Brighton’. They made me member of a forum. I told the audience about how to build local platforms of citizen-amateurs that can generate collective intelligence. Just when I was leaving the conference, Daniel Bernstein of The Synergy Centre told me my plan to erect a People’s Industry Palace in Amsterdam next year with the help of artists reminded him of Stella Duffy’s Fun Palaces initiative. Duffy is a British writer and theatre-maker. In the Guardian of 19 February 2015 she wrote about her Fun Palaces network: “At Fun Palaces we want to do away with the idea of excellence and experts altogether, especially around subsidy, and demand instead an excellence of engagement and participation.” All the Fun Palaces are local, embedded in their own communities. Artists are working with neighbours, local councillors and public buildings, to make great, inclusive work – and making it locally. “There’s a real joy in contributing to our communities, right where we are.” In 2014 more than 3.000 people across the UK signed up to make local Fun Palaces.

Just that morning Jenni had showed me the Royal Pavilion of the Prince Regent, which she had called a ‘party palace’. Striking. Back home I read new writings of Duffy in the Guardian. She announced that on 3 and 4 October in more than 130 locations across the UK locally led, community-driven, arts and sciences events will take place. Instead of new buildings, these cultural events will be focused on people. “Bricks and mortar will never replace dialogue.” Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price had inspired her. In 1961 these two architects had made designs for a venue where you could “choose what you want to do or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up …. sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening.” While reading the text, I could only think of ‘Volksvlijt’. By choosing the new public library in Amsterdam as a pop-up People’s Industry Palace we are aiming exactly the same: truly welcoming everyone to participate in the cultural and economic life of the city. And yes, “those running our buildings might have to give up a little control for it to work.”

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On 28 september 2015, in wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Argus of 24 September 2015:


Samer Bagaeen, teaching planning at the University of Brighton, showed me the local newspaper. In The Argus of last Thursday there were at least three pages on new high-rise initiatives in Brighton, UK. In ‘Building upwards is the way to go to meet housing crisis – but it can still look good’, Bagaeen is interviewed on the local housing crisis. He is one of the experts telling the readers that ‘the only way to go is up’. Geoffrey Mead of the University of Sussex adds: “The Dutch put something like five times as many people in their cities.” Some seven years ago the American architect Frank Gehry proposed a series of new tower blocks near the waterfront, worth 300 million pounds, but because of the financial crisis nothing came out of it. Bagaeen thinks projects like these are still needed. Brighton, south of London, is growing fast. There is no land for extension, but people need affordable housing. There are more than 20.000 households on the city council’s waiting list and an estimated housing need of 24.000. Brighton should be densified.

Brighton is a city of 250.000 inhabitants on the South coast of England, not far from London. The coastal region has beauty, the climate is gentle, everything looks nice. In many ways Brighton is a small version of the British capital city: low density, large parks, attractive neigborhoods, and a booming economy. You might compare it to Haarlem near Amsterdam. As a touristic beach resort it is transforming itself into a creative high-tech hub. Lots of people have moved from expensive London to Brighton, many are commuters now, the housing market is overheated, traffic congestion on the roads to London is an issue. Brighton, experts say, should densify. At the ‘Connect’ conference, organized by Austen Hunter and Jenni Lloyd, some eighty citizens focused, instead, on the identity of Brighton. They asked me to give a lecture. The outcome? Brighton’s identity should not get lost. But there is room for improvement. Many things can be done. People are willing to help. Let them. Connect them. Empower them.

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