Building debt

On 1 september 2015, in boeken, vastgoed, by Zef Hemel

Read in NRC Handelsblad of 28 August 2015:

Prime minister Li Keqiang of China is in a difficult political position. For more than seven weeks now the Chinese exchange is in a crisis. Li Keqiang, the Amsterdam based newspaper NRC Handelsblad reported, has an agenda of restructuring the Chinese economy, but will he succeed?  His biggest problem is a national debt of 28.000 billion dollars, that is 282 percent of Chinese Gross Domestic Product. Cause of this huge debt is a policy of stimulating the national economy for so many years. How? By building ghost cities. At least that’s more or less what I read in Wade Shepard’s ‘Ghost Cities of China’ (2015). It is “the story of cities without people in the world’s most populated country.” Shepard, from New York, has made a living as an archeologist, a geographical researcher, a journalist, a farmhand and an independent blogger. In 2005 he ended up in China for the first time. Chinese cities and their fast growth fascinated him from the start, that’s why he decided to write a book on the subject. Something was going wrong. Next to his book he also produced a website on ghost cities:

On page 48 of his book Shepard mentions the prime minister for the first time. In 2000 Mr. Li Keqiang was governor of Henan province. His speciality: promoting economic growth by urban development. Zhengzhou, Mr. Li Keqiang decided, should be the new economic hub of central China. That’s why he started building Zhengdong New District in 2003: a modern, better functioning, car-friendly complement to the existing city. In 2015 Zhengdong New District was already bigger than San Francisco. By 2020 the new city will contain more than 5 million inhabitants. Li Keqiang invested 25,8 billion US dollars on the urban scheme. Shepard: “It is often said that he (Li Keqiang) is the architect of China’s broader new city movement. This ascension is partially due, no doubt, to his role in Zhengzhou.” Zhengzhou now has more than 11 million inhabitants and is growing at a rate of 9,4 per cent per year. Mr. Li Keqiang moved to Beijing and became prime minister. His task is fighting debt. It’s a pity his speciality is building new cities. They cost a fortune and take a long time before they thrife. He should transform old, bustling cities: the real economic powerhouses.

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Alternative models

On 31 augustus 2015, in boeken, voedsel, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Food and the City’ (2015) of Dorothee Imbert (editor):

New Publications

A new book about “the complex interrelationship between urbanization and food production” through time and space, in fourteen chapters. Great read. Dorothée Imbert, who holds a chair in landscape architecture at the Ohio State University, is editor. Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University, Washington DC, published the book. The monumental volume contains the proceedings of the 2012 Garden and Landscape Studies symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC. Architects and historians contributed with essays on food production in highly urbanized regions in the US, Japan, Israel, Europe, China, Africa, with a special role for the cities of Tokyo and Paris: two distinguished culinary centres with a global impact on food consumption and food production. Here you find articles for instance on the invention of sushi and the unique market garden system of 19th-century Paris. I wrote an essay on the regional food supply system of Amsterdam 1930-1969, focused on the IJsselmeerpolders.

Margaret Crawford wrote an essay on ‘’Urban Agriculture in the Pearl River Delta’. Crawford is professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. In her article she describes the rapid urbanisation of the fertile delta landscape in China’s South, in and around the city of Guangzhou, a city-region of some 60 million people. Crawford focusses on the fragmented peripheral counties lying outside of Guangzhou’s urban core, a landscape she describes as a desakota landscape: a spatial form of mixed  urban-rural interaction you find around major urban centers in developing countries. More than thousand administrative villages or 4,300 natural villages, she thinks, will soon disappear if urbanisation continues in this pace. She hopes urban agriculture will survive as community gardens or in any other form, “which would help legitimate them in the eyes of planners and officials.” Growing concerns about food safety among affluent consumers could be a trigger. Crawford thinks France and regions in central and northern Italy might be worthwile studying. I found many similarities with the Dutch situation, although Guangzhou, Dongguan, Macou, Hong Kong and Shenzhen are dense urban centers, while Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht are rather small, not densely built at all. The Dutch farmland survived, that’s true, but is it sustainable? Which spatial model is the best?

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Delicious liquorice

On 28 augustus 2015, in infrastructuur, internationaal, by Zef Hemel

Read on CityMetric on 1 July 2015:

There is a fierce debate going on in Great Britain about the future of its London airports. BAA wants to expand the capacity of Heathrow, west of London. The mayor of London, Mr. Johnson, is favoring the building of a new hub on an artificial island in the Thames estuary in the east: a four-runway airport, called ‘Boris Island’. This Thames hub was added to the list of possibilities by the national Airports Commission in 2014. Tom Forth published an analysis on the website of CityMetric, defending another option: Amsterdam airport. Forth gave “six very big reasons to think that Heathrow isn’t the UK’s hub airport at all.” It’s a great read, illustrated with convincing maps. What are his reasons? 1. You can’t get a train to Heathrow from any UK city other than London. 2. you can fly from Heathrow to only seven other UK cities, 3. Manchester is better connected, “but there’s an airport that easily beats them both.” Which one? Amsterdam airport, good for 24 connections to British airports. “They speak great English, the liquorice is delicious, the airport is efficient, and you can buy tulip bulbs and cheese while you wait for a connection.”

4. Mr. Forth even found data on international flight connections. In a huge majority of cases, the best option was a flight via Schiphol. 5. True, the cheapest flights for citizens of the UK is Heathrow, but Manchester, he found, is only a bit more expensive and, surprising, half of the flights from Manchester go via Schiphol, 6. and Norwich, he added, gives the fastest connection to the world, but that is thanks to the fact that it is the closest airport to Amsterdam. Forth, who is from Leeds, used all these arguments and data to make clear that subsidizing Heathrow is unfair, his aim was not to come up with the proposal to accept Amsterdam airport as a major hub, also for British passengers. And yes, Heathrow is a London hub, not a national hub. And Schiphol is an international hub, not an Amsterdam hub. By the way, the alternative of Schiphol would have helped the Airports Commission. But: again a national debate, not an urban one.

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Startup delta

On 27 augustus 2015, in regionale planning, technologie, wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Economist of 25 July 2015:

The valley of kings - To fly, to fall, to fly again | The Economist

It’s called a ‘briefing’. Subject: Silicon Valley. In The Economist of 25 July the message was: “the tech boom may get bumpy, but it will not end in a repeat of the dotcom crash.” It was a description of how the Greater San Francisco region is doing, a metropolitan ensemble of more than 5 million inhabitants on America’s Westcoast. It’s doing just great. One of the entrepreneurs in the valley confessed: “Living in San Francisco today, with its bustle and big ideas, feels like living in Florence during the Renaissance.” Florence must have been a great place, for sure, but also an expensive city at the time. The journalist admitted: “In every coffee shop from downtown San Francisco to Palo Alto you hear complaints about eye-watering property prices and unbearable traffic.” The bay area on the map – ‘valley of the kings’ – looked more like the Egyptian Nile valley during the reign of the pharaos than the valley of the Italian Arno, at the time of the Medici family. The map shows the biggest companies are located south, near San Jose: Apple, Google, Facebook. But north, in the city center of San Francisco itself, there are the new headquarters of Uber, Dropbox, Pinterest, Airbnb, all young and private companies.

Even techies prefer to live in the city now, in an urban environment. Property prices in San Francisco are soaring as a result. “Districts that were once affordable, like Soma and the Mission, are being overrun by engineers and entrepreneurs, pricing out people who have long called them home.” Even venture-capitalist firms have left the suburban neigborhoods and highway-locations near Stanford University or Palo Alto; they all moved north, “to be near the young, urban entrepreneurs who find the Valley distant and boring.” What’s happening in the valley, is what you also see glimmering in the Dutch delta. If the Netherlands want to become a ‘Startup Delta’, which the Dutch government seems to be after, then the spatial configuration that fits this ambition is an urban one, highly concentrated, in Amsterdam. Property prices are steeply rising there, so that means the government should build more houses as concentrated as possible, in the city where the technies and entrepreneurs want to live. And stop facilitating spatial dispersion.

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No progress

On 26 augustus 2015, in landschap, by Zef Hemel

Seen on Dutch television on Sunday 16 August 2015:

The Dutch landscape architect Adriaan Geuze (1960) was guest in last week’s edition of ‘Zomergasten’ (‘’Summer Guests’) on Dutch television. The long interview, inlivened by video and short films, took almost three hours. Geuze showed fragments of documentaries on the Oosterscheldewerken, the building of the Afsluitdijk, the dust bowl in the Mid-West, his study of the transformation of the landscape along the A4 near Leiderdorp, the paintings of Piet Mondriaan, the music of Al Green, Ayaan Hirshi Ali, the Dutch poet Ter Balkt, dolphins. He complained about the loss of the unique Renaissance polders south of Rotterdam, he was furious about the ‘undemocratic’ transformation of the exurban landscape along the A4 motorway near Leiderdorp. “It is not possible to recreate in those zones any longer”. No one had asked for it, he snorted. No one agreed on it. It was all the fault of planners with their stupid procedures. Leave it to engineers, he pleaded. The Dutch created their own land. So let’s create new land! (Let’s become heroic again!) His calvinist background made him deadly serious about all this. Good and evil, there was not much in between.

It was exactly the same story he told us some twenty years ago, in 1997, when Geuze was the curator of an exhibition in the Groninger Museum. In ‘90.000 pakjes margarine, 100 meter vooruit!’ the young architect had built a real showpiece, a panegyric on the heroic designing of the Dutch landscape, while accusing the Dutch planners of spoiling the countryside. Especially the huge pile of planning reports somewhere in the middle of the exhibition was telling in that sense. The babyboomers, the angry young man complained, had lost themselves in endless deliberation. Paper, procedures, nothing had come out of it. Let’s design the new landscape! Let’s draw new land and stop those planners. That’s why it was really disappointing seeing ‘Zomergasten’ last week: that after all those years, Geuze, now 55 years old, had made no progress in his thinking. Twenty years of neoliberalism in the Netherland in which planning had been abolished (and with his blaming the planners, Geuze had showed himself a true advocate of neoliberalism in the Netherlands). Why still accusing those planners? Or is it ‘the edifice complex’ of an ingenuous designer? Geuze: “The world has become very, very complex.”

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On 25 augustus 2015, in ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in Forum (VNO NCW magazine) of 20 August 2015:

Bingo! Three in two days: first ‘Alle kaarten op Amsterdam?’ (‘Amsterdam only?’) in Forum, magazine of Dutch employers union VNO NCW, second, on saturday, the Vonk-special of de Volkskrant on ‘De verhipte stad’ (‘The kinky city’) and three: ‘Rotterdam is hot’ in the Amsterdam based newspaper Het Parool. Which city wins? (Which city do you hate?) You get the feeling a national battle between cities is going on, between Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the first place. Forum journalist Paul Scheer comes from Rotterdam, so his interview with me was very much biased. Headline: ‘Alleen Amsterdam kan meekomen’ (‘Only Amsterdam has a chance’). Stupid of course and, yes, something to feel sorry about. De Volkskrant made fun of it: ‘Dure huizen, rijke mensen, koffietentjes en yoga. Veel yoga’ (‘Expensive houses, rich people, coffee shops and yoga. Much yoga’). Message: Amsterdam works like a magnet (picture: Jasper Rietman). According to the national newspaper there are two categories of people nowadays: those who are living in Amsterdam, those who are not yet living there.

De Volkskrant presented five statistics that illustrate there is something going on in Amsterdam: fast growth of the Amsterdam population, local workforce is becoming international, lots of immigrants from western countries, housing prices steeply rising, housing market becoming a buyers market. These are all facts you cannot deny. The difference between Amsterdam and the rest is growing bigger. Amsterdam should double its size. In Het Parool though the Rotterdam marketing machine behaved in an agressive way: ‘Amsterdam thinks it is happening there, but that will change. When I see Amsterdam news, it is often negative’. How sad. This national battle between the Dutch lilliputter cities is pitiful and lacks the global dimension. By the way, Rohan Silva warned Mr. Cameron that London could follow New York and lose its creative class. “In New York, people are decamping to LA and I think we’ve really got to be careful in London that people don’t pick another city and choose to go there. Because the moment a city starts to lose its artists, things can fall apart and the city might lose its edge." (Dezeen 23 May 2015). But Rotterdam is not LA and Amsterdam is not New York. It made me think of Christopher Clark’s ‘The Sleepwalkers’, in which this Australian historian described the confrontational attitude of European nations and empires on the eve of the Great War: cities behaving irresponsible, like nation-states.

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Dark Sky City

On 24 augustus 2015, in kunst, by Zef Hemel

Seen in De Pont in Tilburg, the Netherlands, on 6 August 2015:


The exhibition on the American artist James Turrell in De Pont, Tilburg, was exciting. Thursday two weeks ago we visited the museum, but I have to admit I didn’t know his work when I entered the place. There were some four installations. Most extreme and impressive was the video on Roden Crater, Arizona. You can find it on Youtube. It was amazing. Turrell, who works with light, found the crater in 1974 on a trip with his plane flying over the desert, and then he bought it. More than forty years now he’s building an obersvatory and tunnels in the crater, which is situated near the city of Flagstaff. Flagstaff is called the ‘Dark Sky City’, because local government tries to keep the sky over the city absolutely dark at night. It is an excellent condition for Turrell’s obervatory. The first room he built is the Sun and Moon Space. He added a tunnel to it, which works as the biggest telescope on earth: 854 feet long. Turrell wishes to bring astronomical events and objects down into your personal life, because you live in space. “We drink light,” he says. In the end he hopes the volcano will contain twenty spaces, each reveiling different perceptions of light.

What I like in his work is his notion that knowledge in itself  is not enough. “It is one thing to know these things, and another is to see them happen.” All his installations are built in a way that visitors experience light personally, with their body. He’s after this primary relation to light. “You come to this room and discover these things yourself, you go through these things, it’s your discovery.” I became conscious of the fact that, in a way, the same holds with all the projects I developed as a planner over the last thirty years: Nederland Nu Als Ontwerp (1986), Creatieve Steden (2002), Vrijstaat Amsterdam (2009), De Nieuwe Wibaut (2011), Volksvlijt (2016): these were all installations in which thousands of people could experience and discover the future in a most personal way. Why? It is their future. I think this is the most powerful planning approach. You need a space where these things can happen. Roden Crater is that kind of space. I hope the Amsterdam Public Library will gonna be a sort of Roden Crater in the first half of 2016, when Volksvlijt (The People’s Industry Palace) is staged right there.

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Loopy policy

On 21 augustus 2015, in demografie, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Economist of 25 July 2015:

Once people start living in cities, the fertility rate of women (a measure of births per woman) drops. This happens no matter where, no matter who, no matter how. A level of 2.1 is required to keep the population stable. In Seoul the fertility rate is just 1.2. In Singapore it is the same. In Japan it is 1.4. These populations are shrinking. Even Turkey (Istanbul!) and Russia (Moscow!) are no longer delivering enough babies to sustain their populations. For a sustainable planet this is great news, but for governments it is worrysome. Migrants are needed to keep de workforce at a certain level and ensure the economy keeps growing. Cities try to attract migrants, but governments try to keep those people out. They prefer births. In The Economist this summer I read an article on ‘Breaking the baby strike’: how governments try to convince their inhabitants to raise more kids. As birth rates decline, more countries are turning pro-natalist. “And the baby-boosting is becoming fervent, even desperate.” It is a dangerous trend that threatens the whole planet.

Some governments even think this justifies becoming anti-urban again. While big cities are saving the world because they make the fertility rate drop, presidents and prime-ministers turn their backs on cities, trying to harm them, even if this means they are damaging the economic engines. “In many countries, fertility is highest in rural areas, middling in small towns and suburbs, and lowest in the cores of large cities.” The Economist gives the example of Japan. “The Japanese government is convinced that big cities are actually causing infertility, and wants to prevent young people from moving to them.” No wonder the Japanese economy is shrinking. For growth you need big cities. The newspaper calls it a ‘loopy’ policy. Nevertheless, it concludes: “It could be that a combination of urban redevelopment and restrictions on housing supply have created streets that are lovely, wealthy, exciting – and childless.” So yes, better build more houses. Enlarge your cities.

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Highrise is coming

On 20 augustus 2015, in wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in Het Parool of 1 August 2015:

So we spent a week in London. We booked an Airbnb in Hampstead Heath, London North. An excellent appartment, though rather small compared to Dutch standards. We met friends, all living in London now. Why did they chose for London? Because, they said, here are the jobs. Sure, they admitted, London is an expensive city. Even for a small dwelling you have to pay a fortune. The average housing price in London is 650.000 euro now. You have to earn at least 100.000 euro a year if you want to buy one. But there are lots of opportunities. And don’t forget all the amenities. Dutch newspapers love to write about ‘ghost streets’ in Kensington and Mayfair, where billionaires buy real estate from paper, without seeing it. The Amsterdam based newspaper Het Parool even headed ‘Londen staat leeg’ (‘London is vacant’), which is nonsense of course. In reality, London is heading for a population of 10 million inhabitants. In 2040 Great Britain will have a bigger population than Germany.The newspaper quoted David Galman, director of the new Maintower on Canary Wharf. All appartments in his tower were being sold without mortgage. Buyers came from China, the Middle East, India and Greece. “It proofs that the world puts trust in the housing market of London.” But the Dutch prefer their small cities with their cheap houses.

The London housing market is overheated, for sure. The situation fits in a global pattern. Cities are back on stage again, but certainly not all cities. Many are shrinking, becoming cheaper (which is a problem in itself). But all successful cities, worldwide: Sydney, San Francisco, London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, New York, Amsterdam, are fighting against a lack of affordable houses. If you want to live in one of those dream cities, you will have to earn a lot of money nowadays. What is happening in Mayfair and Belgrave is exceptional though. Rich people are speculating there with (exceptional) real estate. The task of local government is making developers to build as many houses as possible in a very dense setting and providing mass transit all over the place. This will reduce the average price and will keep people coming. London is not a densely built city at all. I had a look at Nine Elms, Old Street, Battersea, Canary Wharf. Highrise is coming to town.

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On tour

On 19 augustus 2015, in ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Seen in the Netherlands in August 2015:

Because the Dutch Minister of Interior Affairs, Mr. Plasterk, wants us to consider the Netherlands “as one big city of 17 million people”, I decided to make a two-weeks tour in my own city, after having spent a full week in London. What a strange city Holland is! I visited Rotterdam, Middelburg, Domburg, Tilburg, Den Bosch, Valkenburg, de Hoge Veluwe and Maastricht – say, the south part of the Dutch megacity. I walked, biked, drove a car.True, the province of Noord-Brabant looks like one big industrial estate: agro food, horticulture, pigs, poultry, construction firms, logistic halls, infrastructure, chemical plants. Also Limburg seemed to me one big entrepreneurial zone. Only the valley of the Geul has been saved. All provincial roads were filled with cars, the highways loaded with trucks. Tourists find their own zones: the inner cities of Middelburg, Den Bosch and Maastricht were crowded with shoppers and regional sight-seeers. People looked rich, prosperous, many were fat, with their white skins far from being members of a multicultural society. Now and then I saw some asylumseekers in the woods, who felt lost. Wherever I went the sky was filled with airplanes, the noise: there was always an airport nearby (Schiphol, Luik, Düsseldorf, Eindhoven). Remarkable trend: tourists renting scooters in hilly Limburg. And yes, public space is great everywhere, in every village the lampposts and benches are brand new, facades have been painted in fresh, bright colours. All thanks to VINEX (Dutch national spatial policy 1994-2015).

But what a strange city it is! If this is a city, it is the least densily built city in the world. It’s also a noisy city, full of cars, scooters and planes, unhealthy, stinking (after gas and manure), rich. But not sustainable at all, to say the least. The most astounding fact is the high vacancy rate of the real estate, all recently built. Even in the successfull inner cities of Den Bosch, Middelburg, Tilburg and Maastricht shops were left vacant, high rise was standing empty, there was simply too much office space. I could not guess why this building boom has found completion in this mass of houses, malls, stables, boxes, office parks, bricks and mortar, all spread out over the countryside. Does the apparent prosperity of the Dutch have anything to do with it? Was our booming economy based on building a maximum of dwellings, offices, shops, all to be furnished with junk we would consume? My tour ended in the national park of De Hoge Veluwe. An oasis. What a relieve!

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