What is to be done?

On 25 november 2015, in filosofie, literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘The Christal Palace’ (2005) of Peter Sloterdijk:

Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘In the World Interior of Capital’ (Het Kristalpaleis)  is a must read, especially at this very moment, after the events in ‘Paris’ and ‘Brussels’. Sloterdijk’s philosophy of globalization is based on the story of Christal Palace in London, 1851, the first World Exhibition. The building of glass and steel, designed by Joseph Paxton, was an impressive pleasure ground of Western capitalism, luxury, consumerism and power, a temple of pure commercial and decadent Enlightenment. When the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski visited it in 1862, he was astonished. After years of death camps in Siberia, which he survived, he entered the palace. His awe and loathing got mixed up with his reading of Chernyshevsky’s novel ‘What Is To Be Done?’, published in 1863. An explosive concoction was brewed in his mind. Sloterdijk: “Famous for its time, (and of a resolutely pro-Western tendency), and with consequences that would extend all the way to Lenin, this book announced the "New Man" who, after accomplishing the technical solution to the social question, would live amongst his peers in a communal palace of glass and metal-the archetype of shared accommodation in the East and the West. Chernyshevsky’s culture palace was conceived as a luxury edifice with an artificial climate, in which an eternal spring of consensus would prevail. Here, the sun of good intentions would shine day and night, the peaceful coexistence of everyone with everyone would go without saying.” The Christal Palace became the expression of expansive Western civilization.

So then Dostoyevsky decided to write his ‘Notes fr0m the Underground, published in 1864. The short novel  is about a man living in Saint Petersburg, fulminating against modernity, being very angry with the West. According to Sloterdijk it is the first expression of opposition to globalization, a book on terrorism, hatred, violence and boredom. “The visionaries of the 19th century, like the communists in the 20th century, had already understood that social life after the end of combatant history could only play out in an extensive interior, an interior space ordered like a house and endowed with an artificial climate. Whatever one may understand by the term real history, it should, like its spearheads, sea voyages and expansionist wars, remain the perfect example of undertakings in the open air. But if historical battles should lead to eternal peace, the whole of social life would have to be integrated into a protective housing. Under such conditions, no further historical events could occur, at most household accidents. Accordingly, there would be no more politics and no more voters, but rather only contests for votes between parties and fluctuations among their consumers.” Until 9/11 it seemed this was really the case. Then the terrorists began their attacks. The media loved it. The terrorists know.

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A beautiful city

On 23 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (1859) of Charles Dickens:

Have you read all those newspapers publishing on Paris this weekend? On all those killings, violence in the streets, terrorism, islam. Can’t get enough? I prefer rereading Charles Dickens. Dickens published his novel on the French revolution in 1859. His life was in a crisis. He divorced. In 1858 he decided to write ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, a novel on London and Paris in 1798, the year of the French revolution. Private and public revolution assembled in one book. His favorite source was ‘The French Revolution’ of Thomas Carlyle. The novel we wrote is almost Dostoyevski-like. It’s about Dicken’s obsession with destructive violence. Violence of the mob. “He regarded violence as the necessary end of violence; prison as the consequence of prison; hatred as the wages of hatred. He preached that we must not allow society to take on the condition of frustrated anger in which men become mobs and the world is violently upturned.” Such dangers, wrote George Woodcock in his introduction, could not be removed by repression, but only by recognizing and alleviating the conditions that caused them. So reread Dickens.

Charles had no programme for an ideal society. What he critized were the wrong moral attitudes of the people. We have the moral choice between changing society and changing oneself. “It is in fact by a moral resurgence that Dickens hopes to defeat the threat of revolution, and the idea of such a resurgence is clearly linked with the theme of resurrection that permeates every level of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’  and assumes an almost grotesque variety of forms.” Nothing new. Very sombre indeed. Dickens: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.” (…). Just before the guillotine Sydney Carton thinks these thoughts: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” A minute later he dies. .

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Sick building syndrome

On 20 november 2015, in ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in Het Parool of 7 October 2015:


Foreign investors are buying pied-a-terres, luxury shopping malls, dwellings, office space on a big scale in Amsterdam. The financial crisis seems to be passé. Buying real estate is becoming more and more attractive. The mayor of Amsterdam wants a real estate fund that will buy dwellings in the city centre in order to prevent rich foreigners to become the property owners. He hopes he can discourage global market forces and counteract buying and selling of dwellings like in London, Paris and New York. End of this month, 30 November 2015, an edition of ‘Stadsleven’ (Urban Life) at De Balie in Amsterdam will be dedicated to ‘Big spenders’. Tracy Metz has invited guests to speak about buying and selling real estate in Amsterdam. Is it risky? Should we stop it? Or is it just great? Tracy asked me to write a piece on the subject for her website, which I did, of course. Then I read – a bit too late – the Amsterdam based newspaper Het Parool of 7 October. It said that real estate prices in Amsterdam are booming, while in the rest of the country they are stable. Prospects are unvaryingly detrimental. Detrimental?

In one of the reports on this issue, De Nederlandsche Bank points at the fact that rents in the Netherlands have stabilized as well, even in Amsterdam. That means returns on investments can only drop in the future. For new contracts renters will ask for lower rents because the vacancy rate in the Netherlands is far too high. The national bank is convinced that the situation on the Dutch real estate market will aggravate. “The capacity of office space is dropping, from 16 m2 per person now to 14 m2 in 2030. And internet shopping will steeply rise form 10 per cent now to 25 per cent in 2030, but it could also be 40 per cent.” Forty per cent? Too bad. Conclusion: in the rest of the country there has been a massive overproduction of real estate in the past, while in Amsterdam, where demand is high, overcapacity elsewhere hinders new building projects. Worse even, owners of real estate in Amsterdam who have paid the highest prices, will be confronted with the lowest returns on their investment. Something really to worry about.

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Looking backward

On 18 november 2015, in participatie, planningtheorie, by Zef Hemel

Heard in Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam, on 27 October 2015:

The 740th anniversary of Amsterdam was celebrated this year in Pakhuis de Zwijger, on 27 October. Another ten years to go. Then the city will celebrate its 750 anniversary. What should we add to the city? What’s still missing? A selection of speakers was asked to give their view on the city of the future. The aim of the long-term programme is getting citizens involved in a process that already started two years ago with asking some hundred young professionals working for Amsterdam-based companies to make scenario’s for the future – a process that will continue untill the year 2025. Ila Kasem, Paul Scheffer and Zef Hemel are the initiators of this inspiring ‘planning process’ of long-term engagement of citizens. We think that people should participate more, really contribute to and reflect on their own city as it will develop in the coming years. The format should not be a kind of competition or ‘challenge’, with winners and losers. There are no awards to win at all. We’re just fostering a more optimistic mood, many great new ideas, amazing plans, new entrepreneurship, thrift. Will we succeed?

What I found striking that night was the huge number of people who came up with proposals to add another museum to the city fabric:  for migration, for water management, for modern art, for this and for that. Every round in the Pakhuis ended with the M-word. But Amsterdam already has the highest museum density of Europe! Why adding more museums to the existing 75? And why are the citizens only looking backward? Why not forward? What are the people nostalgic for? It seems the future is too uncertain for them. There is no vision, no shared story, no goal, no hope, nothing to strive for as a civil society. Amsterdam’s Third Golden Age started with the reopening of the Rijksmuseum in 2013. This old building celebrates a national heroic history. Typical. We lack a Samual Sarphati, a visionary entrepreneur who built a People’s Industry Palace in 1864, a space of glass and steel where citizens could experience – almost enter – the future. Thank God it will reopen its doors in April 2016. But not the old one. We will welcome you in the new Public Library on the Oosterdok, where you will enter a brand new People’s Industry Palace, a space where in twelve weeks time more than 500.000 people will gather and dream their city’s future! See you there!

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Bombing does not help

On 17 november 2015, in migratie, politiek, by Zef Hemel

Seen in the Opera house, Amsterdam, on Friday 13 November 2015:

Strange. Very strange indeed. On Friday night, while we were enjoying ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’ of Francis Poulenc at the Amsterdam Opera and were captured by the killing of all those nuns in revolutionary Paris by the mob’s guillotine – the end scene of the opera -, more than hundred citizens were being killed in …. Paris. What a coincidence! The terror and turbulence of the French revolution provides the backdrop for Francis Poulenc’s powerful opera of faith, bravery and redemption. The Dialogues culminate in one of opera’s most devastating final scenes, as Blanche – the timid daugther of an aristocrat – embraces death with her fellow nuns to a transcendent setting of the Salve Regina hymn: sixteen killings. The Canadian Robert Carsen showed us one of the most incisive scenes in the history of world opera, after its premiere in Milan in 1957 almost forgotten by the audience, but now staged in Amsterdam. At the same moment some eight very young islamic fanatics killed more than hundred innocent citizens in Paris. Can you imagine?

Of course, in the streets of Paris in history a lot of killings have been staged. I hope the people in the countryside will not conclude that cities like Paris are dangerous and evil places, where mobs of migrants, refugees and islamists are revolting against the people. Quite the opposite. It’s the countryside that is revolting against the city, or better even: former villagers, now living in cities and feeling disaffected, are the brainchildren of most revolutions. Nothing new. As Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit wrote in ‘Occidentalism. The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies’ (2004): “In Europe, the metropolitan behemoths that swallowed entire rural populations in their glittering maws were often identified with Jews and other rootless moneygrubbers.” Outside Europe, it was the West that was blamed for the metropolitan condition and the vanished rural idyll. The more the East gets urbanized, the more the urban poor in those countries think the West is to blame for their loss of faith, worship, peace, religion, community. Regimes in those countries feed this anger by adopting Western technology without fitting it into the local value system. The result: “The former dream of going back to the purity of an imaginary past: Japan under the divine emperor, the Caliphate under the Islam, China as a community of peasants.” Hopeless, but it happens. Bombing does not help. It makes it only worse.

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The End of Biking

On 16 november 2015, in infrastructuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in Het Parool of 2 June 2014:

The era of Amsterdam as a great city for biking is coming to an end. After twenty years of growth we will no longer cycle that much. Really a pity. The miraculous growth of biking in the Dutch capital was due to many things: high parking tariffs for cars (since the end of the eighties), more young people living in the city (since the nineties), new bike lanes (since the millenium), lots of bike shops, great bike storage, beautiful bike design, urban densification, investments in public transport lagging behind, peak car, the end of suburbanization,  etc. After a slow beginning, the share of biking began to steeply rise: a success nobody could explain. Since 1990 there was a growth of bike trips in the city of more than forty per cent: from 443.000 tot 613.000. Exponential growth. In the modal split, the share of biking is now more than forty per cent. Can you imagine?  But the growth of bikes and biking is decreasing already. You can feel it. Soon it will going to halt. And then it will steeply drop. It’s the pattern Malcolm Gladwell described in ‘The Tipping Point’. Why? Because of all the scooters.

The number of scooters in Amsterdam went from 8.000 in 2007 to more than 30.000 in 2014: a growth of 275 per cent! On some bike lanes in rush hour, the share of scooters is already five to ten per cent. Two years ago there was no scooter parked in my street, last year there were six of them; now I counted at least twelve! My kids can no longer play on the sidewalk because of all those big, lousy machines. This is, again, exponential growth. As a professional biker I can feel it too. I prefer walking now. Yes I will stop biking. It has become uncomfortable, clearly unsafe, far too dangerous. In general, we are reaching the tipping point soon. So an era will come to an end. I’m very, very sorry. I apologise. Nobody intervenes. The mayor can do nothing, he says, he’s powerless. That’s our political system. It all depends on the Dutch government. But The Hague is far away, they’re not interested in Amsterdam problems. As a citizen I feel powerless too. Why voting any longer? That’s the democratic crisis. The system breaks.

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The future

On 13 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Future City’ (1973) of Roger Elwood (editor):

Today I will give a lecture at the conference for teachers in geography of the Royal Dutch Geographical Society (KNAG) in Ede, the Netherlands. Subject: the future. Some 800 teachers will be there. Where to begin? How to end my story? For inspiration, I reread ‘Future City’, offered to me by the Dutch grand old man Fred Zandvoort, and see what writers were thinking about the future of cities in the year 1973. Will cities last? How will they look? Some fifteen novelists wrote wonderful science fiction-stories on cities. Roger Elwood, the editor, noted in his introduction that it was not a happy book. Sure. Frederik Pohl, an American sciencefiction writer, for example is the author of the afterword. Pohl: “The cities I know best, New York and London, are absolute failures in some very essential ways. New York is dirty, noisy, preposterously expensive and essentially unsafe. (…) London is physically safer, but it is also dirty, also noisy and rapidly becoming just as preposterously expensive.” Then he concludes: “And yet they survive.” Pohl was convinced that city life was a failed experiment, that we will never give up on. Sounds familiar, still?

Pohl thought planners were having a problem. “Cities do not like to be planned very much.” He had made a lot of excursions to new towns – all modernist projects – and had come to the conclusion that you cannot plan a new city. “All of them are dreams, and making them come true destroys them.” Then he wrote that cities are accumulations of a diversity of social capital. It is a matter of size, of scale effect, he stressed. Only big cities are real cities; it needs a huddling for a lot of people, you should be able to get a meal at four in the morning, otherwise it is not a city. I think he was right. “They are so needed that they cannot be allowed to fail.” Well, that depends. At least that was the pessimism of the seventies. We are far more positive now. Cities are the best places in the world. Well, at least the big ones. The future will be an urban one. Even in the Netherlands we will build one big city, at last.

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Look east

On 11 november 2015, in wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Ghost Cities of China’ (2015) of Wade Shepard:


People are complaining about the steeply rising housing prices in Amsterdam. They know it’s nothing compared to cities like London, New York City and even San Francisco, which are much worse. Do they know that housing prices in the Chinese cities are the highest in the world? According to the IMF’s house price-to-wage ratio, China’s big cities are, relatively speaking, some of the most expensive in the world in which to buy real estate. The ratio measures median housing prices in relation to median disposable income to calculate the minimum amount of time it would take for an average resident to pay for a property. In ‘Ghost Cities of China’, Wade Shepard explains why. Commodity houses in China are free-market properties that can be bought and sold at will, prices are not capped by the Chinese government. “According to this evaluation method, China, including Hong Kong, has seven out of the world’s top ten most expensive cities for residential property.” In Beijing, it would take 22.3 years to buy a property, in Shanghai 15.9 years. That is twice as high as in Tokyo, three times higher than in London, and four times higher than in New York City.

Fifteen years ago property developers didn’t exist in China. Prior to 1988 land transactions were even not permitted. Shepard explains how the Chinese government has created a market for real estate in the mid nineties. Two years later the Chinese private housing market exploded. “As could be expected, prices surged.” By 2010 its property market was already the largest in the world. In four years time the cost of real estate in China tripled. In 2012 alone people in China spent over US$1 trillion on real estate. The Chinese love real estate, they want property. The house is now the main indicator of status. ‘No house, no wife’, they say. It’s not a bubble, Shepard stresses; the demand is real. China has one of the highest home ownership rates in the world. The faith that the Chinese have in the value of housing is unflappable. Other viable financial options for investing money are extremely risky. That makes the Chinese into the greatest city builders of the world. So the West better stop complaining. Build cities. Look East!

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The end of things-as-known

On 10 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’ (1970) of Saul Bellow:

Saul Bellow’s ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’, published in 1970, is a must read. Mr. Sammler, a survivor of the Holocaust and an intellectual, is the hero of the novel. He lives in New York. His age: seventy-something. Every day he takes the bus from his apartment on the West Side to the Fourty-second street library. Then Bellow’s description of Sammler’s daily urban trip on the bus: “Such was Sammler’s eastward view, a soft asphalt belly rising, in which lay steaming sewer navels. Spalled sidewalks with clusters of ash cans. Brownstones. The yellow brick of elevator buildings like his own. Little copses of television antennas. Whiplike, graceful thrilling metral dendrites drawing images from the air, bringing brotherhood, communion to immured apartment people. Westward the Hudson came between Sammler and the great Spry industries of New Jersey. These flashed their electric message through intervening night. SPRY. But then he was half blind.” New York gives Sammler no hope. Not only the pickpocket at work on the bus depresses him. Also racism, tourism, erotic persuasions, the crazy violence of fanatics. “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice.”

In the novel Mr. Sammler tries to get a grip on New York. In his introduction to the Penguin Classic, Stanley Crouch writes: “We get the feeling of a human being in repose, in grief, in rage, in self-protective contemplation, in unsparing self-examination, in attentive motion through Manhattan, on foot, in public transportation, in chauffeured limousine.” According to Mr. Crouch, Bellow chose New York for his novel as the capital of capitalism, the power of the city over the country was evident. But then, in chapter 6, there is a telephone crisis. In New York! Sammler is at the house of his benefactor Elya Gruner in New Rochelle, who is dying in a hospital on Manhattan. Trains are not running. The servant will bring him in the silver Rolls Royce. There he goes. “It would soon be full spring. The Cross County, the Saw Mill River, the Henry Hudson thick with reviving grass and dandelions, the oven of the sun baking green life again.” They’re getting nearer to Manhattan. So in the end he is positive, isn’t he? “Looking from the window, passing all in state, in an automobile costing upwards of twenty thousand dollars, Mr. Sammler still saw that together with the end of things-as-known the feeling for new beginnings was nevertheless very strong.” He drives from north to south, up Broadway. “And away from this death-burdened, rotting, spoiled, sullied, exasperating, sinful earth but already looking toward the moon and Mars with plans for founding cities.”  There he finds Elya in the hospital at last, dead.

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On 9 november 2015, in economie, stedenbouw, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Ghost Cities of China’ (2015) of Wade Shepard:

Tomorrow I will give my yearly lecture in the bachelor study course ‘Perspectives on Amsterdam’ at the University of Amsterdam, theme: Political Economy. This time I will focus on the Zuidas (Southaxis) project, the new CBD of Amsterdam. Will it be successful? How much will it cost? Why build it? While preparing my lecture, I reread in ‘Ghost Cities of China’ about the building of CBD’s in Chinese cities. The American journalist Wade Shepard describes in the book how all the cities in China are developing their own Central Business Districts. Shanghai was first, with its Lujiazui business district in Pudong; Beijing in the north and Guangzhou in the south followed. Shepard writes that it didn’t stop there: many other Chinese cities started building their own versions of the Pudong model, also the very small ones. “Hence in 2014 the CBD is a near ubiquitous landmark in China’s cities.”

In 2003 the Ministry of Construction tried to get a handle on the CBD building boom. It was a problem, because building a CBD is a very expensive undertaking and might cost each city a fortune. But still it continues. Shanghai plans to have at least even three CBD’s on the east, west and south sides of its urban core, while Beijing envisions four CBD’s. Of course, the model was borrowed from the West. Paris, London, New York all built their CBD’s in the recent past. But the USA has only two: New York and Chicago. All the Chinese cities though hope to become a financial hub of their own region, or even the entire country. Shepard concludes that all those CBD’s are now so common that it is necessary to have one just to keep up. And of course only the business districts in the two biggest cities are prospering. The vacancy rate in many provincial cities is now more than 40 percent. Still, many more will get build in the near future. Shepard: “So it is clear that China’s CBD oversupply can only get a lot worse.” Almost the Dutch VINEX-model, I would add, with every provincial city building its ‘Central District’ near the railway station. Meanwhile, with Amsterdam’s Southaxis competing with La Défense, Paris, and Canary Wharf, London.

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