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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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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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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International solidarity

On 14 oktober 2015, in demografie, geschiedenis, by Zef Hemel

Read in Historisch Nieuwsblad nr.9 2007:

On an excursion last week, my students visited the Spaarndammerbuurt, Amsterdam. There, in museum Het Schip, they listened to the story of the Great War. The neighborhood, our young guide explained, was built in 1914-1920. In 1914 one million Belgian refugees had fled to the Netherlands in only a few days time. The Great War had started, with the Germans occupying Belgium. The city of Antwerp was evacuated. What did the Dutch government do? Not much. Mr. Cort van der Linden, the Dutch conservative prime minister, kept quiet for more than six weeks. It was Queen Wilhelmina who asked the population to help their neighbours and welcome them with open arms. In Amsterdam, a national committee – the ‘Amsterdam Committee’ – was installed by citizens. At last the government decided to build concentration camps all over the country, but mostly in the southern provinces. The refugees, it decided, should be imprisoned and leave the country as soon as possible. From then on, the Belgians had to live behind barbed wire, waiting for the moment to be sent back. To make things worse, the Dutch government started negotiations with the Germans in the hope to get rid of the Belgians as soon as possible. The Germans decided to build a fence of electric wire on the northern border of Belgium to stop the Dutch implementing their evictions.

The guide – a master student Social History at the University of Amsterdam – was telling his story with passion. The architects of the Amsterdam School, he told my students, were ordered by socialist deputy mayor Mr. Floor Wibaut personally to keep on building, thus creating new dwellings for the Belgian comrades. The magic architecture of Michel de Klerk was a political statement: socialist Amsterdam voting against conservative The Hague. The beautiful tower in the building of ‘Het schip’ – now a museum – is a symbol of international solidarity. Afterwards I asked the young guide why he told us all this. He said, “Well, because the same is happening in our country right now.” Mr. Rutte doing nothing. Even the king is holding his tongue. The refugees from Syria, Iraq and northern Africa have to stay in asylumseekers camps on the countryside. We should build dwellings in Amsterdam for them now. With beautiful architecture. And towers! We need Wibaut again!

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Dutch enlightenment

On 13 oktober 2015, in economie, filosofie, geschiedenis, by Zef Hemel

Read in NRC handelsblad of 9 August 2015:

Early August this year, some thousand historians gathered in Rotterdam for the 14nth ISECS conference on ‘The Long Eighteenth Century’ (1650-1815). A long report of the conference proceedings I read in the science supplement of NRC Handelsblad, written by Dirk Vlasblom. Fascinating stuff. It was about how capitalism and freedom were being invented and promoted, and how they were to be seen as ‘natural’, thus building trust among traders in order to foster trade. “Capitalism is also a product of imagination,” professor Inger Leemans from the Free University Amsterdam stressed in his lecture on ‘The Nature of the Economy’. Vlasblom: “A wide variety of concepts is needed in order to let the capitalist system look ‘natural’, to build trust amongst merchants in the economic process and to serve them with a compelling self image.” An enormous engraving of the exchange building of Amsterdam (1693), made by Casparus Commelin, accompanies the newspaper article (picture). The exchange was the first building in the world where bond shares were being traded, a true ‘beehive’ according to the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel.

The Dutch Republic was a special case. It was a unique confederation of city-states in a sea of mighty kingdoms, led by multicultural Amsterdam. Till 1720 the decentralized urban republic was an intellectual space where radical new thoughts could be published, exchanged and freely discussed. It ended, when conservative powers started dominating the Low Countries. The balance of power was no longer favoring Amsterdam, but the countryside. The urban population started shrinking, immigration was no longer possible, an intellectual braindrain was being felt, nationalism marked a narrowing space of thought, centralisation of power became the new political trend. The proclamation of the Dutch kingdom in 1815 was the outcome of this conservative, anti-intellectual and anti-urban national trend. The closing lecture of professor Wijnand Mijnhardt from Utrecht University (‘The Swansong of the Dutch Enlightenment’) I found reveiling, utterly relevant too. In what times are we living?

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Social entrepreneurs

On 7 oktober 2015, in sociaal, wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Guardian of 20 July 2015:

In Amsterdam it’s bad. In San Francisco it’s even worse. Yesterday we made a walking tour with policymakers of the municipality of Amsterdam who want to promote local startup ecosystems. We crossed the eastern part of the inner city. How to attract new tech-jobs?, they asked. Amsterdam is as big as San Francisco: bit more than 800.000 inhabitants. Why attracting tech-jobs when housing prices are steeply rising and neighbourhoods get filthy expensive? Do they want even more gentrification? It made me think of the problems in Tenderloin, San Francisco. More than 10.000 technology workers from Twitter, Spotify, Zendesk, Yammer and other companies have moved into the Tenderloin and the adjacant Mid-Market district. Rory Carroll wrote about this part of town in The Guardian last summer. “Tenderloin is filled with impoverished families, homeless people, drug addicts and the mentally ill. You don’t need an app to figure out who usually wins such contests.”

Tenderloin is host to an influx of tech companies. Social problems and tensions in this district could be solved if the technies would integrate. Will they? Some 78% of housing in this area is still affordable and 54% is rent-controlled. Office vacancy has dropped from 25 to 4%. The tech arrivals are co-existing with the Tenderloin people. At least so far. Tenderloin will not gentrify like Williamsburg in New York City, but it is certainly changing. “It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.” So why promoting startup ecosystems if they develop spontaneously, even invade poor city districts? Once a city starts burning, it easily gets overheated. Of course, as a city you have to be successful first. Amsterdam is doing well. The city should be careful now. It better protects its affordable housing stock and keeps its system of rent-control. And why not asking the techies to become a kind of social entrepreneurs?

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Go West

On 6 oktober 2015, in demografie, internationaal, by Zef Hemel

Read in NRC Handelsblad 0f 21 August 2015:


The number of expats in Amstelveen , the southern suburb of Amsterdam, has doubled over the last ten years. You could read it in NRC Handelsblad last summer. The newspaper quoted a research report of CBS, the Central Statistical Bureau in the Netherland. In 2005 there were some 250 Indian families living in Amstelveen, in 2015 there were 2.500, ten times more. Most of them work for Indian IT-companies in Amsterdam – Tata, Infosys, Wipro. Even the Japanes Canon company in Amstelveen has lots of Indian IT-specialists working nowadays. They play cricket, eat Indian food, have their Hindu festivals. Still, most of the expats in the Netherlands come from Gemany and the UK. The Germans work in education and government, the British in producer services. Their total number is now 57.000; two thirds are men; many of them are high educated and earn quite lot of money. Their growing numbers are striking. Half will stay no longer than five years at most, they all work on the South Axis (Zuidas) in Amsterdam, the majority in IT. The Asian community is growing fastest.

Another striking outcome: 70 per cent of the expats in the Netherlands live and work in only twenty municipalities. Most of these municipalities are in and around Amsterdam, along the dune coast, near Leiden, and along the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, near Utrecht. This is the rich northern Randstad area. The newspaper quoted experts who told the journalist that there are 1,25 billion Indians, IT is one of the most popular studies in India, there is a lack of IT-specialists in the Netherlands, so the Dutch Silicon Valley needs them. Amstelveen knows it, and tries to attract them. Amsterdam itself has become too hot now, even for expats. Three per cent of the Amstelveen population now is of Indian birth. Unlike the migrants from Syria and Africa they do not have to live in asylumseeker centers somewhere in the woods,in the Dutch periphery. They can live where they want, so they all prefer concentrated, densily built urban areas in the western part of the country, in their own communities. Except Amsterdam.

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Strange, ironic

On 22 september 2015, in economie, wetenschap, by Zef Hemel

Heard in the Volkshotel, Amsterdam, on 17 September 2015:

Theme of the first Ruimtevolk College last week at the Volkshotel (People’s Hotel) in Amsterdam was ‘Foreign capital in the city’. Two professors of the University of Amsterdam, Ewald Engelen (financial geography) and me (urban planning), were asked to give a lecture on the subject. Engelen spoke first. His tone was agressive, angry, mad. It was, he told us, a lecture he had given in Antwerp last summer, his slides were just for him, for not getting lost in his anger. Between good and evil, for him there was a clear distinction; unlike a scientist he lacked any doubts. He accused the bankers, the entrepreneurs, the planners and the politicians for not stopping the madness of globalization. His tone was fiercely anti-urban: Amsterdam should stay small and successful cities are plundering the countryside. Now and then he raised his voice. His rhetoric and temper moved me. The hall was sold out, the air inside was hot and humid. You almost could feel the floor trembling. At a certain point I imagined there was Karl Marx standing in the middle of the Volkshotel (ironic name: People’s Hotel), an intellectual rousing the proletariat. Or was it Max Havelaar? I thought revolution might be coming.

I myself felt like Bakunin. My lecture was less clear. The title I had chosen was ‘Strange’, because the spatial trends I described are very obscure indeed. What we observe at this very moment is an extreme kind of spatial concentration of certain scalable phenomena: tourists, Airbnb, capital, expats, migrants, all global things, at the same time very localized. Some cities are growing fast, others are shrinking. It’s the process of globalization we’re in. Cities are being hit as if by thunder and lightning. What’s happening in London has nothing to do with the rest of the UK.  The same holds for Amsterdam (on the picture: number of Airbnb dwellings in the Netherlands 2014). That’s why the world is looking more and more unequal, spiky, everything seems to be totally out of control. Mayors like Boris Johnson and Michael Bloomberg are pleading for devolution. They are right. You have to solve problems at the local level. But my lecture was to no avail, the audience just didn’t want to know. And Ewald Engelen started stirring up the masses again. When at last I got the chance to speak I tried to explain what is the difference between Engelen and me: Engelen thinks globalization is a project you can stop, while I think globalization is a process you have to deal with. Marx and Bakunin. I’m afraid Marx will win, again.

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A wider world

On 14 september 2015, in kunst, by Zef Hemel

Seen in the Stedelijk Museum on 13 September 2015:

Enjoyed seeing ‘ZERO: Let Us Explore the Stars’ very much. The exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum is just great. At the time, when the young avant-garde artists from Düsseldorf, Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, dived with their Amsterdam friends  Henk Peeters, Jan Henderikse, Jan Schoonhoven and Armando into the future, they really thought it was a new beginning. Starting from scratch again. President J.F. Kennedy promised a new beginning, people flying to the moon, astronauts, plastic, television, plenty. The young artists had their Italian hero: Lucio Fontana, they invited Jean Tinguely, Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri, Piero Manzoni, Yayoi Kusama to join them and to collaborate. “Artists collaborated on artworks, performances, happenings, multiples, magazines, and other publications.” There were sparkling exhibitions at the Stedelijk in 1962 and 1965. I wish I was there. But unfortunately, I was only 5 years old then, 8 years at most. Too young, too shy, too innocent, and not living in Amsterdam by the way. Nevertheless, it was nostalgic to see all those artworks again.

They were really utopian and anarchistic, not admired by Willem Sandberg, the director of the Stedelijk, at all, who just gave them a chance: ‘OK, you can have it as long as you pay for everything.’ Their works were a kind of countdown to the future, but for the elderly, who survived the Second World War, they must have lacked seriousness, or were too radical. What did Otto Piene write in 1961? “A wider world. Yes, I wish for a better world. Should I dream of a worse world then? Yes, I wish a wider world. Or should I long for a tighter one?” Their performances were like Provo’s protests and provocations. What I liked the most? Their attempts to make interactive art, to involve the audience, to collaborate, to work outside the institutions, to let things happen, to be passionate, to be optimistic, to experiment, to be authentic, to reject compromise, to step into the future. Like planners should.

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