Read in ‘Urban Utopias of the Twentieth Century’ (1977) of Robert Fishman:


So much fun reading the old stuff again. Last December I started writing a book on cities, what they are, why they exist and what they are heading for. So it’s a book on the past and future of urbanization. The publisher is Amsterdam University Press. It will be launched in May 2016, in the People’s Industry Palace. You will be amazed. So while writing my book, I took some old stuff on cities and planning from the shelves of my private library again. One of them was Robert Fishman’s ‘Urban Utopias’. I wanted to know more about Ebenezer Howard, the evangelist of the Garden City movement in the first decades of the twentieth century. Fishman describes how middle-class Londoner Howard discovered a true goal in his life: dissolving monstrous London by building hundreds of new towns in the countryside. It fascinated me because Howard’s thoughts became a true gospel in Dutch planner’s circles after the Second World War, his view leading in postwar spatial planning.

As a planner I wanted to know how the radical Howard imagined his dream would come true. They always told me he was a very practical man, his schemes and diagrams flexible, his approach open minded. Not Edward Bellamy’s centralized planning approach was his favorite, because as a London Radical he loathed state intervention. He was convinced his ‘peaceful path to real reform’ could only succeed if small communities were embedded in a decentralized society. People would then start cooperating spontaneously, everything based on independence and voluntary action. Howard was a true anarchist. Fishman: “The Radicals devoutly believed in Progress, and they held that mankind was evolving toward a higher stage of social organization – the cooperative commonwealth – in which brotherhood would become the basis of daily life.” In Dutch postwar planning I cannot mark off any of these values. It was centralized state planning pur sang that led to the dissolvement of the big cities. Is the result a higher stage of social organization? I don’t think so. I’m afraid Bellamy has won.

Postmetropolitan University

On 5 januari 2016, in innovatie, onderwijs, by Zef Hemel

Read in De Omslag of 2015:

Christoph Lindner is professor of Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He wrote an article on ‘Six Discourses on the Postmetropolitan University’. Because I just finished a masterclass on New York City and its universities I read his article with more than just fraternal interest.  You should read it too. It’s on the website of  the UvA community of critical professors, de Omslag: What is a postmetropolitan university? According to Lindner it is a university that fits in the postmetropolitan era, which is an era of intensified globalization and urbanization processes: a so-called neoliberal epoch. His six discourses are: the Disembodied Campus, the Global Campus, the Speculative Campus, the Creative Campus, the Fortress Campus, and the Corporate Campus. None of these is favorable. Just like cities, he thinks that all universities will become corporate enterprises. They are entrepreneurial already. “The overarching trend that connects all of the campus formations outlined above is the neoliberal corporatization of the university and, as part of this process, its de-democratization, precarization, and (for public institutions) privatization. Universities of the immediate future, like the cities they inhabit, are likely to be more corporate, not less corporate.” He thinks a discussion on the value system is needed.

That’s exactly what we discussed in the masterclass. In New York we studied the universities of  Columbia, Cornell-Tech and CUNY, their plans for the future, their campusses, and their business models. We related all the information to the city,  to its plans for the future and its policy towards higher education. We visited New York and spoke to many stakeholders, civil servants and professors at the universities. The eighteen participants – all professionals working for cities or universities in the Netherlands – made proposals for each of these three universities. The team on Columbia University developed a concept for a university that is profitable in terms of city building and gentrification, without a negative impact on the neighborhood (West-Harlem). The second team on Cornell-Tech developed a concept for a university that fosters innovation, as a component of a true urban innovation ecosystem (Queens). The third, studying CUNY, developed a concept for a decentralized university that taps on local talent, trying to emancipate young people in the back streets of its city-region. Sure, we heard some neoliberal newspeak, but at the same time we found many opportunities to maximize the profits and enhance positive outcomes of new campus building. Instead of criticizing, we tried to develop new models that will help cities to thrive. For cities, universities and colleges are key!

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Bad news, bad report

On 9 december 2015, in demografie, economie, ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in NRC Handelsblad of 1 December 2015:

There was some news on the future last week. Bad news. Hope you didn’t read it. In ‘The Netherlands will look like this in the future’, NRC Handelsblad reported on a scenario study of the Netherlands in the year 2050. The two long term scenario’s were made by the Central (economic) Planning Bureau (CPB) and the Dutch National Planning Office for the Environment (PBL). In ‘Toekomstverkenning Welvaart en Leefomgeving’ both Planning Bureaus are forecasting a slowing down of economic growth in the future in each scenario. It’s all because of demography: the Dutch population will shrink.  Whether there will be any economic growth, will depend on technology, the planners in The Hague think. Some of them have high expectations of smart machines and robotization, others are more sceptical. In most parts of the country there will be no growth at all. Some regions will shrink even by 10 or 25 percent. “This can change the streetscape completely.” In the scenario ‘High growth’ the Amsterdam region will show the best results, in the scenario ‘Low growth’ all of the country will cope with high unemployment, vacant buildings, administrative crises, budget cuts. So in the low growth scenario even in Amsterdam the streetscape will change completely. For worse.

The surprising fact is that the experts think the Randstad will lose power in each scenario compared to Overijssel, Gelderland and Noord Brabant. Why?  Because the big cities in the West, they write, have already too many one-person households. It’s a typical demographers view. They even advise to build new dwellings all over the country, especially in the East and the South, where they think these houses will be needed. There is no lack of space over there! And Amsterdam, one of them adds, “will certainly not explode,” referring to the heated discussion on recent extreme fast growth in Amsterdam. No discussion on the poor outcome of the scenario’s, on the lack of agglomeration economies in the Netherlands, on strange local effects of globalization. No thinking even on why all this slow or no growth in the future is expected and how we could boost our national economy instead, other than blaming demography and our open economy. Just a lousy, old fashioned report of some experts in a The Hague bureaucracy again. Don’t read it. Just forget it.

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Immigrant city

On 30 november 2015, in politiek, by Zef Hemel

Seen at the IDFA, Amsterdam, on 29 November 2015:

‘In Jackson Heighs’,  the new documentary of Frederic Wiseman, opens with muslims praying in mosques, garages, sheds. Welcome to Queens, New York. On the last day of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2015 I went to see the three-hour movie in a cinema at the Muntplein. Great movie! In Jackson Heights, a multicultural neighborhood in Queens, more than 170 nationalities and languages live closely together: Colombians, Mexicans, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, you name it. This district in the outskirts of New York City is far more divers than the whole of Amsterdam. The film is about diversity, identity, immigration, city life, politics, gentrification, empowerment, democracy. Democracy not at the federal level, or at the state level; not even at the city level – we see the mayor, Bill de Blasio, speaking only once, at the opening of the Gay Parade. This great American urban democracy is a democracy at the ward level: a struggling open democracy of immigrant people building their own communities from the bottom up. I think the sociologist Robert Putnam is wrong. After seeing this documentary we should be far more optimistic about social cohesion, inclusiveness and the future of democracy, in big cities. Even though all these people – mostly former illegal immigrants – live in their own communities, they are learning to live together somehow.

After reading the article of Richard Brody in The New Yorker of 3 November 2015 I wanted to see Wiseman’s view on globalization. In ‘Finding the American Ideal in Queens’, Brody warns it is a non-spontaneous documentary, a documentary by design. “What Wiseman found in Jackson Heights is people talking, mainly in organized, formalized settings that have their pretext and their agenda defined. He finds civic life taking place in public and quasi-public places—houses of worship, stores, storefront offices of non-profit community organizations, and local governmental offices, including the storefront office of the neighborhood’s City Council representative, Daniel Dromm.” Sure. So is it still alive? Brody: “Wiseman’s subject is political life in the most classical sense—the polis, the life of the city—and his emphasis on urban dwellers’ struggle for a part in the political process, his vision of what surpasses the boundaries of the self-defined community and reaches far beyond local neighborhood, is the idea of equality under the law, fair treatment by the law—in short, the political ideal of the United States.” Nothing wrong with that. So we can be hopeful. And it is a bottom-up process within a more or less fair constitution, in a great metropolis.

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Crisis, what crisis?

On 27 november 2015, in politiek, ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Economist of 7 November 2015:

Yesterday evening I had to give a short presentation in Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam, on ‘Growing cities, shrinking regions’ (Groeiende steden, krimpende regio’s). The meeting was organized by the journalist Floor Milikowski of De Groene Amsterdammer on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, celebrating its ‘Space Year 2015’ (Jaar van de Ruimte). My opponent was Pieter Tordoir, an economic geographer, who showed his elaborate work on recent mobility- and migration patterns in the Netherlands. His slides showed familiar, reassuring images, his policy advise was affirmative for those in power. My contribution on the other hand, was on the future and was far more alarming. My speculative research I based on globalization, fractal patterns of spatial localization, long-term trends, disruptions. The reaction of the audience on my presentation was rather negative. I think people still do not understand. So I tried to explain what globalization means: complexity, extreme interdependence, modern information technology making everything transparant, all resulting in extreme spatial concentration on the one hand, brutal expulsions on the other.

To clarify I told about the chaotic Facebook riots in Haren, a sleepy suburb of Groningen, in September 2012: thousands of young people gathering one night after viral messages on Facebook, announcing a great party, all started to drink and fight with the police. It was breaking news all over the world. The other example was the exponential growth of Airbnb in Amsterdam, while in the rest of the Netherlands nothing happens. The third I wanted to give but didn’t because of lack of time, is on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. In The Economist of 7 November, Charlemagne wrote about the late French decision to put on a show of European solidarity. “French bureaucrats, armed with Arabic translators and loudspeakers, chartered three coaches and set off for the German city of Munich. The idea was to fill the vehicles with refugees and drive them over the Rhine to France, thus easing Germany’s load.” What happened? No one wanted to climb on board. The refugees from the Middle East and Africa were too well informed. They only use Paris as a transit to the far stronger London economy. Most prefer to stay in Munich. Just have a look at the interactive map of Lucify on those thousands of migrants flooding Europe, searching for great cities to live in (picture). It’s the rise of the network society!

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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 great novel on the French revolution in 1859. His own 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 Dickens had no programme for an ideal society. What he critized were the wrong moral attitudes of people. We have the moral choice between changing society and changing oneself. Better change 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 difficult 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 finance the buying of dwellings in the city centre in order to prevent rich foreigners to become the property owners and prevent overheating. He hopes to 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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