On the road

On 18 juni 2015, in infrastructuur, technologie, by Zef Hemel

Heard in B.Amsterdam, Amsterdam Slotervaart, on 4 June 2015:

The evaluation of the Highspeed train public tender by the Dutch politicians has ended last week. What a disaster. Big mistakes were made. Market failures. Technical failures. The Dutch state failed. Still missing those fast trains in The Netherlands. More lucky we are on the road. Jelle Vastert, of electric-car manufacturer Tesla, gave a great lecture on the EU Super Charger Programme at the Catch-Up session of the Amsterdam Economic Board on 4 June 2015. Theme: start-up ecosystems. How to develop them successfully. The audience were mostly young people, hackers, students, friends, some fourhundred of them. The corporates were a minority this time. So the discussions were a kind of battle between the corporates and the hackers: beat them! Destroy them! The only alternative seems to be: buy them!, as in the case of Marvia, a start-up that was bought by PostNL. Moderator was Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten of TheNextWeb. Vastert gave a great show on how his company is developing a network of electric charging stations all over Europe. It was about how advanced the European Union really is.

So where to go with your electric car this summer? Vastert asserted that it would be possible for the first time to drive with your Tesla car from Rome to the North Cape. At an interval of a three-hours drive you would find another charging station. A stop of only twenty minutes is needed to drive to the next station, although for a full charge it takes at least 75 minutes (Super charger works twenty times faster than a regular charger). The use is for free. A year ago there were only 14 Supercharger stations spread across Norway, Germany, Switzerland and The Netherlands. August 2014 there were already 50 stations opened. Every day, Tesla claims, they open one somewhere in Europe. Now you will find them also in the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Denmark, and Sweden. The Supercharger stations have been planned strategically: between the biggest cities. Why? Because the use of electric cars started in metropolises, not on the countryside. And how lucky Europe is! So many cities. Compare it with Asia, where Tesla is also developing a Supercharger network. Just a coastal road. So what about those highspeed trains?

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Winner takes all

On 17 juni 2015, in bestuur, economie, politiek, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Economist of 12 June 2016:

In the UK, just like in many other countries, regional inequality is growing fast. London is the big winner, cities in the North are the big losers. As Richard Florida already forecasted years ago, the world is getting pretty spiky. The principle is simple: ‘success breeds success’. The winner takes all. This feels uncomfortable, to say the least. But in ‘Time for a civic surge’ The Economist writes about “the best opportunities for Engeland’s regional cities for a renaissance in decades” – opportunities they must not waste.  The Economist: “Britain is absurdly top-heavy: whereas half a dozen German cities have economies three-quarters the size of Berlin’s, no English city’s economy is even a quarter the size of London’s.” But can you do anything about it? How to stop London being successful? This is what governments always do: embracing distributive justice by relegating public money from successful cities to struggling cities in the hope markets will follow. Also London-based The Economist thinks the other cities in the UK should grab their chance now. George Osborne, the chancellor in the Cameron administration, has offered to cede billions of pounds of public spending to clusters of cities that agree to join together and be run by an elected mayor. So do it! I’m afraid more countries will follow his model.

Will it work? Surely not. Jane Jacobs was clear about it. In ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’ (1985) she dismantled all existing economic theory and argued that a nation is an inadequate unit of analysis for understanding economic life. Differences between cities – some rich and some poor – in one country simply cannot be balanced by redistribution. The point is, countries and also economists, she stressed, do not understand how cities work. Only local production can create wealth, wealth cannot be bought or acquired by loans or grants. The Economist also hesitates, but the magazine only points at some practical objections. It thinks the conditions under which the British government will redistribute taxpayers money will be too troublesome for many cities. They will not collaborate. The editors also point out the danger of incompetence and corruption. They’re right. Nevertheless, “This deal offers a chance to claw back power, make savings and reshape English governance.” I don’t think so. It will only harm the British economy. Trouble is on the road again.

Wall of Money

On 16 juni 2015, in economie, vastgoed, wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in NRC Handelsblad of 9 and 12 June 2015:

Alarming news. Empty real estate in the Netherlands since 2010 more than dubbeled. The total amount of square meters empty office space is now 9 million, of m2 empty retail space it’s 2,7 million. And it gets worse, even after the crisis. Why? Because a ‘wall of money’ is flooding the real estate market since the financial crisis ended. That was the alarming news in NRC Handelsblad of 12 June 2015. Edwin Buitelaar, researcher at the Planning Bureau for the Built Environment in The Hague, gave a serious warning. However, no one seems to listen. While planning restrictions get less and less tight (spatial planning in general seems to be hampering economic growth), money flows in. The coming years the real estate market will grow on a massive scale, because there will be no profitable alternative to invest in. So empty buildings will become the standard soon. Buitelaar thinks especially new shopping malls will have a devastating effect. Whole shopping streets could become ghost areas. Capitalism could destroy our heritage and our communities.

However, economists think the building industry is key for the recovery of the national economy. Especially the housing market is crucial in their eyes. Maarten Schinkel wrote on this new dogma on the front page of NRC Handelsblad of 9th of June. In ‘Optimism about the Dutch economy thanks to the housing market’ he explains why. Over the last twenty years the Dutch economy and the housing market have become heavely intertwined. In fact, VINEX (National Policy on Spatial Planning) has become a part of the Dutch national monetary policy. It means that the value of all the housing stock should be rising permanently, otherwise the economy will not grow. Still many dwellings are ‘under water’, (which means: the actual value is lower than when they were bought). And we all know that it takes a long time before dwellings will be abandoned. At this moment many Dutch households already stick to their place, because they cannot sell their real estate. With this ‘wall of money’ coming in it will even get worse. It may cure the economy, but it will destroy the Dutch landscape. Capitalism without planning is a horrible scenario. (photo: RAAAF, Vacant NL)

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Big mistake

On 15 juni 2015, in technologie, wetenschap, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Red Plenty’ (2010) of Francis Spufford:


What’s wrong with Russian society? Also with the West? Only after reading ‘Red Plenty’ of the British writer Francis Spufford I really understood. It’s the withering of social sciences. Spufford’s book, which I can recommend everybody, is a lively, dramatised history of the postwar years of the USSR, partly facts, partly dramatized. In part III he explains what happened with universities and science after Stalin took over. In 1930 the Soviet emperor abolished all universities in the country. Research and education were split up. Research moved to secret science cities, education, taught in Moscow, Leningrad and the other soviet cities, was from that moment on mainly focussed on technology. The curriculum became ‘fiercely utilitarian’. No liberal arts anymore. No social sciences. “Philosophy died, anthropology died, sociology died, law and economics withered: the Party regarded ‘social sciences’ as its own private technology, to be taught to cadres within the Party itself, and dispensed to college students in the form of compulsory courses in Marxism-Leninism.” Poor country. But wait.

The result we still can feel. More than we think, Russian society is still soviet based, due to a lack of social researchers, which means: thinking “of culture as something operating top-down, an enlightenment spread to the many by the educated few: and what was the Bolshevic mission but an elite’s twentieth-century effort to raise lumpish Russia high?” The spirit is one of engineering a society. “It has always been prone to believing in panaceas, in ideas that could solve every problem all at once; and what was Bolshevism but the ultimate key to open all locks, the last and best and greatest system of human knowledge?” So after reading and rereading this great book, I not only understood the enduring problems in Russia, but also the coming problems in het West. More and more we, in Europe and the US, are also thinking technology is key. Engineers are our new magicians.  Humanities and social sciences wither. Research wins, education loses. We think we can find solutions top-down for everything. We are becoming fiercely utilitarian. ‘Comrades, let’s optimise!’ It is a big mistake.

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Soft Bijlmer

On 12 juni 2015, in openbare ruimte, participatie, sociaal, by Zef Hemel

Heard in Amsterdam Southeast on 8 June 2015:

The fourth guest lecture in the urban planning studio on Paasheuvelweg, organized by the University of Amsterdam, was given by Augusto de Campos Neto. Augusto coordinates safety issues in the Southeast district of Amsterdam. His Bijlmermeer area, with a dominant Afro-Caribean population, has a bad reputation and is known as a criminal zone, because of its drugs traficking, its many day light robberies and street murders in the past. Nowadays the climate has changed, radically, though. There are no hotspots in the neighborhood anymore. The youth is using almost no drugs any longer. Nowadays you can move safely in any direction. De Campos Neto, who was born and raised in the neighborhood, stressed the importance of subjective safety feelings among the population, more than focussing on the police statistics, which do not really tell the truth. He insisted that influencing the personal safety feelings is preferable, more than getting more favorable statistics.

De Campos Neto advocated a more soft approach of fostering public participation, of listening to citizens and of supporting local initiatives, also of promoting positive news in the media. He didn’t think a ‘broken windows theory’ is key, even though cleaning public space on a continuous base might be very helpful. He stressed repetition and, more so, open communication. For sure, all the methods he promoted were communicative in a way. Nowadays, he stressed, the Bijlmermeer is one of the safest neighborhoods in Amsterdam. Can you imagine? Only some of the Bijlmer youth – which consists of a third of the population – still does some pickpocketing in shops or steals smart phones at festival grounds. Sometimes guns are used. De Campos Neto: "They are not criminals like those in Amsterdam South who do the murdering on purpose. They do it emotionally, in a rather stupid way." The students loved his speech. A soft approach like his may lead to better urban planning.

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Happy tunnel

On 11 juni 2015, in infrastructuur, by Zef Hemel

Seen in Amsterdam Bijlmermeer on 5 June 2015:

Ondertekening contract

This August the builders will start their amazing construction works. The Gaasperdammerweg – a six lane freeway cutting throug the Bijlmermeer – will be enlarged and tunneled. Roy Berents, an urban planner of the city of Amsterdam, gave a lecture on the engineering of this project in our studio in Amstel III. With its three kilometer underpass, he told the students, the road will be the biggest of its kind in the Netherlands. The Dutch state still thinks it is needed because of forecasts of growing car use in the zone between suburban Almere new town and Amsterdam airport. But this was in 2004. Now it all is questionable. And the real need for the tunnel in this urban zone was because of the opposition of rich people living in Het Gooi, east of Amsterdam. They didn’t want a new highway in their backyard, even if it was in a tunnel.  So then the State decided to extend the existing road right in the midst of the poorest neighborhood of Amsterdam. With a tunnel, though. Everyone thought the poor would profit.

In the end it means less noise and better air quality. So is everybody happy? We spoke with people in Holendrecht, a poor neighborhood in the Bijlmer area. Their answer: why the hell this project? Holendrecht is already surrounded by big projects, it never stops. The works will be finished in 2022, so another seven years of uncertainty for those living in the area. And what will the planners do with the 18 hectares on top of the tunnel deck? Nobody knows. Building on it is not allowed. The road is part of an External Security Regulations Zone: dangerous traffic by trucks and rail (LPG, chemicals, NH3) already cuts through the built environment. It might become an urban park, although there is no money for landscaping and there are already two huge parks in its vicinity: Gaasperplaspark and Nelson Mandelapark. Landscape architects keep on designing though. A team of students has to find out how to involve as many stakeholders as possible. We need collective intelligence. In the meantime, the rich in het Gooi keep on enjoying their unspoiled gardens.

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Landscape of Consumption

On 10 juni 2015, in Geen categorie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Landscapes of Power’ (1991) of Sharon Zukin:

Do you remember? One of the first critical papers on gentrification was written by Sharon Zukin, the Brooklyn based professor of Sociology at City University of New York, in 1991. Long before Amsterdam planners noticed the urban phenomenon, Zukin wrote about the destructive character of gentrification. It was ‘a landscape of consumption’ that developed during the 1970s. In detail she described how a population was socially and economically displaced from older cities, especially its city centres. “There could be no more devastating indictment of the effects on place of market power.” The new organization of downtown was now based on cultural capital: places that claimed to be unique, with new products, new practices of consumption, a new labor force that could deal with cultural capital, ‘loft living’ and saving a historic built environment. “Artists, actors, and graduate students are often mobilized to fill these roles.” They staffed the new service careers in publishing, restaurants, advertising, and cultural institutions on which downtown’s economy more and more depended. She noticed it related to a new culture of cuisine too. “While it becomes harder to feed a low-income family a nutritious diet, more affluent, choice-ridden consumers are increasingly preoccupied by new means of consumption – and new anxieties about how to choose between them.” Zukin described how even tourism invaded the gentrified neighborhoods.

Amsterdam based municipal planners are still advocating the process of gentrification, simply thinking it is healthy and economically sound. They even hope it will cross the A-10 highway zone and infect all outlying neighborhoods, destroying the cultural heritage of postwar neighborhoods (?) and turning these suburban zones into densified profitable ‘cashcows’. Thus they are creating new ‘landscapes of consumption’. They refer to Jane Jacobs, who they all adore and who was very much against Modernism. Zukin warned them, but they seem not to listen. “For developers, centrality is a geographical space; for gentrifiers, it is a built environment. But for a population that is socially or economically displaced from older cities, centrality is a struggle between their own segmented vernacular and a coherent landscape of power.” Let’s recommend the planners to re-read chapter 7 of ‘Landscapes of Power’ and remember quotes like this: “The notion of gentrifiers as ‘urban pioneers’ is properly viewed as an ideological justification of middle-class appropriation.” The artists emerged as victors, also in Amsterdam.


Alternative approach

On 9 juni 2015, in planningtheorie, by Zef Hemel

Seen in Amsterdam Southeast on 4 June 2015:


Bas Hissink Muller, San Verschuuren and me are running a studio for some forty students in urban planning of the University of Amsterdam in Amsterdam Bijlmermeer. We’re practicing platformization in this Modernist neighborhood dating from the seventies. A month long we’re staying in an empty office building on the Amstel III estate. So no university campus site this time. The building – 30.000 m2 – was owned by a German investor. It was a fraud. So the investor went bankrupt, the bank took over. Expensive building on the wrong spot. Royal Bank of Scottland left the building some five years ago. Since then it has no tenants. They think it could become an incubator for startups in life sciences. Not a bad idea. Next to the plot is one of the biggest academic hospitals of Europe – the AMC. Ten minutes from the airport. Fifteen minutes from city centre by metro. This month we and the students are staying in the abandoned restaurant on its first floor. For free. Strange place.

What we learn? Some 23 percent of all the office space in Amsterdam southeast is standing empty now. That’s about a million square meters. (Hey, thirty buildings like the one we’re staying in). Can you imagine? One group of students is researching it. Is it hopeless? It depends on the location, it seems. Other teams are working on students housing, reuse of a big green park dating from the eighties, sustainable waste management, safety issues, (lack of) orientation, future functionality of a new overpass (oh no, not another park!), strategies for densification, etcetera. The students interview people in the streets. They also meet civil servants. One of them told us about the problems with the zoning plans. They were made flexible in the financial crisis in order to keep things going. Now that the pressure is back no investor can be refused because of its flexibility. It’s difficult to secure the spatial quality now. Other problems stemmed from lack of participation. They also gave examples of questionable privatisation of public space. It were all problems generated by the planning procedures. Would the students notice? Will they understand that the alternative is platformization?

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Global consolidation

On 8 juni 2015, in internationaal, theorie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Global City-Regions’ (2001) of Allen Scott (ed.):


One of the students protested. My question on consolidation and which three factors explain this consolidation according to Saskia Sassen in her paper ‘Global Cities and Global City-Regions: a Comparison’, was false according to him. Her consolidation was not spatial, while I suggested it was. Sassen wrote that at the end of 1998 twenty-five cities accounted for 83 percent of the world’s equities under institutional management, that only London, New York and Tokyo accounted for 58 percent of the foreign exchange market and that these three cities, together with Singapore, Hong Kong, Geneva, Frankfurt and Paris accounted for 85 percent in this, the most global of markets. “This trend towards consolidation in a few centers also is evident within countries.” As an illustration she showed that New York is a winner in the US, Sydney in Australia, Toronto in Canada, London in the UK, Bombay in India, Sao Paulo in Brazil, Amsterdam in the Netherlands. So what’s the problem? Not spatial?

The right answer was, of course, very simple if you would have studied the paper carefully. Social connectivity and clustering of central functions in one big city, where information is being exchanged and analyzed by talented, well informed people, is one dominant trend. Another trend is collaboration of cities in cross-border networks, strategic alliances, division of labor, and also competition, all fostering a new urban hierarchy. Sassen: “What we are seeing now is yet a new pattern, where this cooperation or division of functions is somewhat institutionalized: strategic alliances not only between firms across borders but also between markets.” Third, deregulation and privatization lead to denationalization of institutional arenas. Economic globalization, she explains, is making countries less relevant. Agendas en corporate elites are formed in major cities now, not capital cities per se. So the world has changed. “Global cities and global city-regions have emerged as major new scales in this dynamic of territorialization.”  Planners and geographers have to think in a different way. You might say it’s nothing new. Through history cities have always played this role. You’re right. The only thing is, the scale, the intensity, the speed, the impact, we’ve never seen it before.

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Urban Sapiens

On 5 juni 2015, in boeken, geschiedenis, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Sapiens’ (2015) by Yuval Noah Harari:

Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind

Fascinating book. The Israeli world historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote a history of human beings that will thrill you when you read it. He explains how horrible the Agricultural Revolution really was for sheep, pigs, cows and chicken, and how disastrous industrial agriculture nowadays is. It is de sacrifice we have to make for developing our cities. “Without the industrialisation of agriculture the urban Industrial Revolution could never have taken place.” But he also explains how weak homo sapiens is. Only through cooperation can he survive. What makes us cooperate? Stories! “Myths, it transpired, are stronger than anyone could have imagined. When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links.” Most human cooperation networks, he adds, were forced, they were geared towards oppression and exploitation. “All these cooperation networks – from cities of ancient Mesopotamia to the Qin and Roman empires – were ‘imagined orders’. Capitalism is a myth. Even human rights are myths. Beliefs and religion are at the core of our society. “There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running in to the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.”

Harari shows how money, empires and religions spread in order to realise a global vision. Only partly he plays the true historian; in fact he loves to stirr and to forecast. So, what is our imagined order in 2015? Are there any shared stories left? We’re among strangers now. Harari thinks the state and consumerism are the new narratives. “The nation does its best to hide its imagined character.” Thanks to the state we are living in peaceful times. But consumerism takes over. Peace is profitable now. So why bother? “But are we happy?”, he asks almost desperately.  And all those animals being killed? No? What’s the benefit of capitalism if it does not make people (and animals) happier? Capitalism has no ethics. The result of capitalism is the collapse of family life and local communities. Now people are living in states and in markets. Then Harari enters the domain of ancient old wisdom, of ‘knowing thyself’, of buddhist meditation practices, etcetera. The last chapter is about the future, biotechnology, singularity, science fiction. He is afraid human being are behaving irresponsible, he thinks they feel like gods. What do we want to want, he tells us, is far more important than what do we want to become. No words on cities however, or wealth and fortunes of city life. Harari missed that one.

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