Pact of Amsterdam as window dressing

On 31 mei 2016, in politiek, by Zef Hemel

Heard in the People’s Industry Palace in Amsterdam on 30 May 2016:

The EU is in a crisis. And it’s a big one. Something went wrong. Remember, for many years Europe has been a sex object in the world. These times are gone. What happened? Mr. Jan Zielonka, professor of European Policy and Society, gave a dark and gloomy lecture yesterday evening on the future of the EU in the temporary People’s Industry Palace in Amsterdam. The lecture was organized by the Amsterdam Economic Board in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam. That same day the EU had presented its Urban Agenda in the Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam. So what happened? First there was the financial crisis, then the euro crisis, Greece not being able to pay its debts (and it will not either), next the internet revolution, it ended up with the refugee crisis; the whole Mediterranean is now turning into one big cemetery. So there is a crisis of cohesion in the EU, a crisis of trust, and, most important, a crisis of imagination. We don’t know how to fix the crisis. Mr. Junker is a ‘Spitzenkandidat’, a man we should have been happy with, his appointment the greatest triumph of democracy. How sad. We’re not even supposed to criticize.The only real new thing the EU came up with was the national referendum. So now the people in the Netherlands, in the UK, in Hungary can vote on matters of great complexity, with implications for the whole of the EU. How democratic is that? There is no plan-B. “Are we going to wait for Mrs. Le Pen and Mr. Wilders?”

The problem are the nationstates. Some have turned into protectorates, others look like semi-failed states, Germany behaves like an empire. They have become dysfunctional without noticing it. They’re working in a hierarchical way. And so is the whole of the EU, which is a creation of the member-states, with Berlin at the top. “We got more rules, but no governance. In this situation an Urban Agenda doesn’t help. The cities of Europe do not wait for the EU. Life goes on.” Mr. Zielonka pointed at the fact that we’re living in an economy and a society that have become more global and more networked, with powerful multinationals and megacities. Sure, we trust our leaders, but they don’t deliver. No, the situation doesn’t look very well. Mr. Zielonka believed that if you cannot push forward, you will have to step back. Brussels should disperse power. We need more horizontal structures. But this the nationstates will not do. So what happens if institutions become dysfunctional? There will be more ad hoc arrangements, people finding pragmatic solutions; this is probably the only way. What about the EU then? The EU should abolish the monopoly of the states on integration and stop working like an old propaganda machine; instead of territorial integration it should allow functional integration. And it should decentralize governance to a lower level. Back to the nationstates is no option. And just like the Lisbon Agenda, the Urban Agenda – this Pact of Amsterdam – is no more than window dressing.

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Cities Becoming a Luxury Good

On 25 mei 2016, in stedelijkheid, wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read on of 24 May 2016:

In ‘Urban Living Becomes a Luxury Good’ of 24 May, Justin Fox of Bloomberg described how after the financial crisis Americans are flooding the city centres of the biggest cities. The suburbs are still there, but something fundamental has changed. Increase in employment in downtown areas of US metropolitan areas is as big as jobs growth in the urban periphery, but on the housing market downtown is the real winner. True, the share of Americans living in suburbs has continued to grow, but at the same time the real estate prices in the city centres have flipped. Both phenomena are linked to each other. The farther from downtown, housing prices steeply drop. Rich Americans now chose to live in downtown areas, which means a fundamental shift in living preferences. Fox: “The shift toward urban living was also most pronounced among whites, the highly educated and the 34 to 49 cohort.” Which means, Fox adds, that urban living is becoming a luxury good, a thing many Americans can no longer afford.

Fox’ conclusion is the cities must put up a lot more buildings in or near the city centres. Let me add that the same holds for European cities like Amsterdam. It reminded me of the contribution of MVRDV for the ‘Grand Paris’ competition of the French president Sarkozy in 2009 (picture). In ‘Paris Plus Petit’, the Dutch architects advocated more ambition, more optimism, more density, more efficiency, more ecology and more compactness. “Greater Paris needs a strong combination of responsibility and ambition to continue its development, to ensure its consistency and to develop a cohesion that can build a base for a collective enterprise to solve its problems, to enlarge its presence and attractiveness, to create an even more remarkable, exemplary city.” In Paris, after the competition the city chose for densifying the periphery by extending the regional metro-system, not for densification per se. In Amsterdam we should though.

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On 11 mei 2016, in openbare ruimte, politiek, by Zef Hemel

Gehoord in de OBA te Amsterdam op 9 mei 2016:

Centrale vraagstelling van Marieke de Goede, hoogleraar Politicologie aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam, was: wat gebeurt er als overheden private bedrijven vragen om op te treden als quasi-politie in het bestrijden van misdaad, corruptie en terrorisme? De Goede sprak de derde Amsterdamlezing van dit jaar in het tijdelijke Paleis voor Volksvlijt aan de Oosterdokskade te Amsterdam, een serie lezingen van de Wibautleerstoel over de toekomst van Amsterdam, Europa en de wereld. Haar onderwerp: speculatieve veiligheid in Europa. Ze vertelde over 9/11, de bevindingen van de 9/11 Commission, allerlei nieuwe vormen van terrorisme en de EU-samenwerking die hierdoor een impuls heeft gekregen. In dit nieuwe veiligheidsbeleid wordt veel verantwoordelijkheid gelegd bij bedrijven: banken, vliegmaatschappijen, Twitter, Facebook. Zij moeten de overheid tijdig waarschuwen, wet- en regelgeving dwingt hen om uiterst alert te zijn. De richtlijnen buitelen zelfs over elkaar heen. Bedrijven investeren fors in zoek- en speuracties. Er ontstaat een ingewikkeld landschap, hele complexe regelgeving waarin de publieke ruimte steeds meer wordt afgebakend.

Het veiligheidsbeleid krijgt zelfs speculatieve trekken omdat overheden tegenwoordig voorbereid willen zijn op het onverwachte. Veiligheidsdiensten willen nieuwe vormen van terrorisme als het ware kunnen voorspellen. Vooral 9/11 heeft in dit opzicht veel betekend. Van preventie gaat het naar ‘preemption’, het willen ingrijpen nog voordat het kwaad is geschied. De Goede noemde dit ‘een nieuwe veiligheidsutopie’. Dit nieuwe toekomstgerichte veiligheidsdenken, vertelde ze, zet in op fantasievol omgaan met gegevens, op nieuwe vormen van scenarioplanning en zelfs oefeningen in de realiteit, daarnaast op het onderling verbinden van allerlei databestanden, waardoor alledaagse transacties ineens in de frontlinie komen te liggen. Hoe verhoudt het nastreven van deze utopie zich tot privacywetgeving en tot de vrijheid van meningsuiting van individuele burgers? De EU, vertelde De Goede, heeft op dit laatste altijd de nadruk gelegd, maar ze liet aan de hand van voorbeelden ook zien dat de Europese politici na elk incident verder opschuiven. Bedrijven en banken krijgen hierdoor steeds meer macht. In Groot-Brittannië heeft Barclays zelfs rekeningen ingetrokken van klanten omdat deze bedragen overmaakten naar Somalië. Wat moet je als burger wanneer je bankpas wordt ingetrokken? Kortom, onderzoek naar dit complexe en dynamische veiligheidslandschap is dringend geboden. Graag wilde ze weten of er ook bankiers waren in de zaal. Die waren er niet, helaas.

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15 Years of Amsterdam School

On 25 april 2016, in kunst, by Zef Hemel

Seen on 24 April 2016 in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam:

Great exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam on interior design of the Amsterdam School artists De Klerk, Kramer, Krop and Van der Mey. On the top floor of the museum, over 500 objects are on show in some fifteen rooms, each one with its own theme and atmosphere, all chronologically organized. Each room captures the visitors, together they let people experience a unique history of Amsterdam urban art. Indeed, it’s an explosion of exuberant works of very talented sculptors, designers, and architects. Why Amsterdam? How come? The movement of the Amsterdam School, now hundred years old, emerged after the New Art and Art Nouveau schools, it began in 1916, when the phantasmagoric Scheepvaarthuis at the Prins Hendrikkade opened its doors,and ended in 1928 with the celebration of the Olympic Games in Berlage’s Amsterdam South extension. Then Wall Street crashed, which ended all building not only in Amsterdam, but in all cities of the world. A depression followed, nation-states took over, a war seemed inevitable. Cities burned.

Pity that the organizers didn’t tell the whole story of Amsterdam’s Second Golden Age. All these great works of art were only made possible thanks to the fast economic growth of Amsterdam, which began after 1864, symbolized by the opening of the Amsterdam version of Crystal Palace – het Paleis voor Volksvlijt. True, there are historic films to be seen at the entrance. These fragments show a vibrant city life at the beginning of the twentieth century, the new port and the tramways, new buildings, still slums and poverty, but mostly optimistic people walking, driving, going to the movies, recreating in their new neighborhoods. Clocks are symbols of the new times. They seem  to emphasize a bright future, no looking back as if people forgot that all this great art was built on the Dutch colonies, the Great War, Sarphati, human thrift. So only after fifty years of hard work and city expansion the citizens could harvest. Amsterdam doubled in size. Amsterdam South is the fruit of this grand era. In 1929, when it ended, Berlage was halfway implementing his plan. It ended when the Dutch government intervened and started cutting the municipal budgets because of the crisis. Do visit the South expansion and experience a true urban renaissance! It lasted only fifteen years. Afterwards it never happened again, at least not in this city. Amsterdam became a sleepy, provincial town.

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Angst, sensatiezucht en idealisme

On 19 april 2016, in geschiedenis, by Zef Hemel

Gehoord op 18 april 2016 in de OBA te Amsterdam:

Christianne Smit, universitair hoofddocent Politieke geschiedenis aan de Universiteit Utrecht, vertelde afgelopen maandagavond een prachtig verhaal over de tweede Gouden Eeuw van Amsterdam in een volgepakte theaterzaal van de OBA, tijdelijk omgetoverd in het Paleis voor Volksvlijt. Het was de eerste Amsterdamlezing van dit jaar, georganiseerd vanuit de Wibautleerstoel aan de UvA, een reeks deze keer gewijd aan de derde Gouden Eeuw. Aan de hand van haar historische onderzoek, opgetekend in ‘De Volksverheffers: sociaal hervormers in Nederland en de wereld 1870-1914’ (2015), schetste Smit een tamelijk onrustig beeld van Amsterdam, toen de kloof tussen rijk en arm snel groter werd, veel migranten naar de grote stad trokken, het platteland leegliep en de samenleving uit elkaar dreigde te vallen. De parallellen met het heden waren opvallend. De Amsterdamse elite van destijds, vertelde ze, wilde de boel bij elkaar houden en het waren de liberalen die daartoe tal van initiatieven namen; veelal betrof het jonge juffrouwen, ongetrouwde dochters van rijke burgers, wier idealistische werk deels werd ingegeven door optimisme, deels door angst. Ze trokken de arme buurten in, vaak uit sensatiezucht, maar vooral om gewone mensen die achterliepen vooruit te helpen; ze wilden de arbeiders iets leren, iets bijbrengen, zonder dat deze tot de middenklasse konden toetreden, “want dat kon gewoon niet.” Zo begon de tweede Gouden Eeuw – door het creëren van een grootstedelijke gemeenschap, het ontwikkelen van sociale cohesie.

Opmerkelijk was dat veel van die initiatieven rechtstreeks afkomstig waren uit Londen, dat niet alleen in de ernst van de maatschappelijke problemen Amsterdam verre overtrof, maar dat ook aan de lopende band innovaties produceerde.  Want zo zijn metropolen: hun oplossingsvermogen is veel groter dan die van kleine steden. Smit noemde het echtpaar Barnett dat met Toynbee Hall in East End het eerste buurthuis ter wereld stichtte. Ze organiseerden er leesclubs, cursussen, concerten, debatavonden en lezingen. Rijke studenten uit Oxford en Cambridge konden er aan den lijve ondervinden hoe het was om als arme stakker te leven. Toynbee Hall, een robuust Brits landhuis te midden van krotten, was niet minder dan een sociaal laboratorium dat ook in Nederland de aandacht trok. Smit noemde het Volkshuis in Leiden (1899), de Toynbee Vereniging (1895) en Ons Huis in de Rozenstraat in Amsterdam (1892). Ook Floor Wibaut zou na zijn verhuizing naar Amsterdam aangestoken worden door het virus en een Toynbee vereniging oprichten. Smit wees erop dat nog steeds overal in Amsterdam buurthuizen bestaan, net zoals er nog talrijke openbare bibliotheken functioneren. De sociale innovaties van destijds waren dus buitengewoon succesvol. Ze horen bij een infrastructuur die het idee van democratie moest helpen verspreiden en het pad effenen naar emancipatie. Nee, de socialisten liepen in deze niet voorop. Die wilden hun eigen buurthuizen, maar ze wilden bovendien een schietbaan om de revolutie voor te bereiden, echter een vergunning daarvoor kregen ze niet. En toen de buurthuizen en bibliotheken iets te succesvol bleken, nam de overheid het van de weldoeners over. Maar dat was veel later, zo rond de Eerste Wereldoorlog.

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Dream your own future

On 5 april 2016, in economie, participatie, by Zef Hemel

To be visited from 12 April till 3 July 2016 in the Public Library Amsterdam:

On Tuesday 12 April 2016, the People’s Industry Palace (Paleis voor Volksvlijt) in the Public Library of Amsterdam will open its doors. Twelve weeks long, citizens, young and old, from different backgrounds, from all neigborhoods and neighboring cities, can visit the exhibition and experience the economic future of the Amsterdam metropolitan region: not as consumers, but as makers of their own future. Moreover, the twelve installations that will be on show in the seven-story public building at the Oosterdok are the result of many workshops over the last year, when hundreds of citizens discussed with twelve artists the future of food, health, industry, media, logistics, entertainment, tourism, ecology, circular economy, smart city, sustainable development, selfsufficiency, in their own city. Based on the people’s ideas, knowledge, and personal experiences, each of the artists then developed his or her own speculative concept on the future for the exhibition. Volksvlijt is a project of collective imagination. Adults becoming children again. ‘Dream your own future’. 

The concept of Volksvlijt more or less is based on the 19th century phenomenon of Christal Palaces, a European movement of optimistic and progressive city exhibitions, which started in London, 1851. These city exhibitions were organized not only for bankers and rentiers to persuade them to invest in industry and urban infrastructure, but also for citizens, inviting them to become entrepreneurs, get educated, start reading, embrace technology, thus fighting hunger and poverty. The result of this powerful social-economic movement was a great new civic institutional infrastructure in our cities of public libraries, public schools, universities, concert halls, housing corporations, etcetera. In his masterpiece ‘Cities in Evolution’ (1915), the Scottish planner Patrick Geddes painted it  as a promising Neotechnic world. So this could happen again. Volksvlijt is an experiment in testing a new kind of open planning in a city like Amsterdam at the beginning of the 21st century by using an old, extensively tested concept. Feel like ‘Alice in Wonderland’, enter the palace, and forget Dostoyevski’s ‘Notes form the Underground’. If we’re not optimistic, we all will fail. Let’s celebrate our cities!

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Spatial horror scenario’s

On 25 maart 2016, in toerisme, by Zef Hemel

Experienced by driving on 24 March 2015:

Got a phone call of a researcher. She wanted to know my opinion on a campaign Amsterdam Citymarketing is starting to bring tourists to unknown neigborhoods in Amsterdam. They’re aiming at relieving the pressure on the inner city with all its museums, theatres, shops and hotels. People living there are complaining. And yes, tourism is booming business. I told her you don’t have to campaign, because it is already happening spontaneously. Tourists are renting bikes nowadays. Better leave it, because the next problem will be nineteenth century neighborhoods like De Pijp becoming tourist destinations too. With tourists flocking in, all these neighborhoods will lose their creative, gentrified ‘authentic’ character. By campaigning, you will only speed up this process. Moreover, Amsterdam as a total will become even more a tourist destination. Tourists from all over the world will think: it’s such a great city, with so many opportunities in all these neighborhoods, which means they will stay even longer. The result will be that tourism in the inner city will not decrease at all, but will double instead, no triple, will profit from these campaigns anyway. She said she had never thought it that way. I think she was perplexed.

Such an ingenious thinking of those city marketeers. It reminded me of post-war planning in the Netherlands. Planners thought it would be better to distribute housing and business more evenly over the country in order to relieve the pressure on the biggest cities in the Western part of the country (Amsterdam and Rotterdam). The state took the lead and started building new towns and industrial growth poles, favouring peripheral regions, subsidizing culture, companies, infrastructure and municipalities in poor and outlying  provinces. Now let’s see what has come out of it. Drive through this small country and be honest: it has become one big mess, one big traffic jam, congestion everywhere, even in Groningen and Drenthe. And no problem whatsoever has been solved. Policies aiming at dispersing activities always result in the opposite.  In the end they are no less than spatial horror scenario’s. Better concentrate things, better build great cities, focus on great inner cities, add more quality, and enjoy!

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Winners and losers

On 12 maart 2016, in economie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘De verdeelde triomf’’ (2016) of Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving:

The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in The Hague published its yearly spatial report last week. This year’s theme is urban inequality and justice: when economic inequality between cities and between cities and regions is growing, is it good or bad? The title of the report refers to Edward Glaeser’s ‘Triumph of the City’ (2011), but its content is largely inspired by Enrico Moretti’s The New Geography of Jobs (2012). The American neoliberal triumph of cities in the Netherlands is much milder, but an unequal one too. The winners are Amsterdam and Utrecht, but the report does not highlight this too much. In a subtle way the autors even seem to critize the triumph (it is unfair) or should I say, their approach is a Calvinist one in the sense that they think it is almost sinful to celebrate the economic success of some big cities, and that we should always keep in mind that there are other cities that lack this potential and stay poor. We live in an egalitarian country. So their conclusion is: it’s up to politics to decide whether it’s troublesome or not. And don’t forget, in policy terms it is best to focus on people, their capabilities, not on geography.

An intermezzo in the report is on four major inner-city projects in the Netherlands: Zuidas and Wibautstraat in Amsterdam, and Kop van Zuid and Weena in Rotterdam. It is worthwile to study this chapter closely because it is meaningful. In the Fourth Report on Spatial Planning (1994), Zuidas ànd Kop van Zuid were to become two new, ambitious Central Business Districts in the two biggest cities of the country, like Canary Wharf in London and La Défense in Paris. The government didn’t dare to chose, so it promised to support both cities in their efforts to develop a costly CBD (so do it half). The conclusion after twenty years is that Zuidas is booming, but that Rotterdam’s Kop van Zuid is primarily a public-oriented development: almost 50 percent of all the jobs there are government-related, while in Amsterdam this is only 4 percent. Meanwhile, Weena and Wibautstraat had to reinvent themselves. In terms of new jobs Wibautstraat is extremely successful, with a great mix, while Weena is in a danger zone. The amount of vacant floor space there is alarming: 25 percent (on Wibautstraat only 5 percent). What does the government agency conclude? You really should read the full report.

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Capital of the Internet

On 9 maart 2016, in economie, energie, technologie, by Zef Hemel

Read in FD Morgen of 5 March 2016:

Its special last weekend on innovation, leadership and technology ‘Morgen’ was on ‘Cooling down’. Het Financieele Dagblad published a beautiful map on page 6 and 7 of its special which showed all the datacenters in the Netherlands as gleaming stars. According to the journalist, Bob de Lange, thirty percent of all the new datacenters of Europe of 2015 were built in the Low Countries, most of them you can find in and around Amsterdam: some 180 ‘data-hotels’, with a total floor space of 240.000 m2. Really? After London and Frankfurt, Amsterdam is number three now. So yes, that would be amazing and a real big success! But the fast growth of these datacenters is becoming an issue these days. The problem is one of sustainability, because these buildings consume a lot of electricity. More than half of their costs are for cooling. Some 10 percent of all the electricity consumption is for the internet, 50 percent more fuel than for air transport. And its share is growing fast, because ever more datacenters are needed. The newspaper introduces a new concept: ‘software footprint’. How to make software smart and sustainable, that’s the question. Why, then, such a tempting cartography?

There are at least 40 datacenters is Amsterdam, consuming 11 percent of all the electricity consumption of the 22.000 Amsterdam-based companies. In an agreement the centers promised to cut their energy use by 68 million kWh the coming years, that is 15 percent. This local policy, three years ago introduced, was not undisputed at all. Why would Amsterdam go green on its own? Why undermining its strong market position? But now I read in FD: “Amsterdam follows a more strict policy on CO2-emissions that stimulates all parties to intensify the search for new concepts, that could be interesting for other countries. This strengthens the export position of Dutch builders of datacenters.” So the policy was clever and now it’s profitable too. One drawback: the newspaper qualifies the whole of the Netherlands as ‘the capital of the internet’. A country is not a capital. Besides, the map shows different.

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Let’s suburbanize!

On 23 februari 2016, in demografie, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Guardian of 9 February 2016:

While the Dutch newspapers reported that people are leaving the Dutch cities again (‘Meer mensen verlaten de grote steden’, in NRC Handelblad), thus suggesting the revival of suburbanization, the city center of Amsterdam is coping with the biggest crowds on its streets in history. Crowd management is badly needed, the city center is flooding, the city thinks it can no longer accommodate all those visitors. It proofs that Dutch demography as a discipline is outdated. Demographers simply work with statistics of households and inhabitants, they do not reflect critically on what they find, and the new data are only on domestic migration, it ignores internationalisation. At the same moment the British newspaper The Guardian published a far more intelligent article on dynamic urban demographics in the UK. In ‘Is Britain full?’, Andy Beckett writes that the British population is growing unusually fast. In 2030 it will house more people than France, in 2047 more than the whole of Germany. In the near future Great Britain will be the most populous country in Europa, its economy is booming. It is a trend nobody had expected. And yes, London is the epicenter of this exciting trend. The cities’ infrastructure is almost collapsing. Lack of resilient planning?

People do sense the crowdedness in and around London nowadays, The Guardian observed. “Doom-mongers warn that schools, hospitals, roads and housing are overstretched.” They don’t like it at all. The Guardian: “Our expanding population is almost always talked about in negative terms.” But imagine, the newspaper adds, all the problems you would have to deal with if the population was shrinking! London was a shrinking city in the sixties and seventies. For those who lived there it was a horrible time. People wanted to leave. So people should be happy instead! Population growth makes austerity less painful. But most people don’t want the disturbance of large numbers of people coming. The newspaper quotes experts explaining that population is not well discussed in Britain. They think it is because England is an old and constrained country. “We’ve forgotten what depopulation feels like.” For the Netherlands the situation is a bit different. Most of the people in this small provincial country hate thrilling, high-density 24-hour cities. They do not want to be disturbed. They think that those leaving the cities hate the crowdedness or prefer suburbanision. They do not. They simply cannot enter the cities. Too small.

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