Keeping Amsterdam small

On 16 juli 2015, in ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in Het Parool of 2 July 2015:

On Friday we would meet. Thursday he published his strong opinion in the local newspaper Het Parool: ‘Maak van Mokum geen megastad’ (‘Do not turn Amsterdam into a megacity’). Friso de Zeeuw, professor at Delft Technical University, always prompts his readers to use more common sense. His approach is mostly temperate, stolid. He loves to warn for eggheads, and yes, he’s very conservative. So my proposal to double Amsterdam made him furious.  “It is a very bad idea’. In his article he calls a city of only two million inhabitants a ‘megacity’. Worse even, he thinks Amsterdam just should not grow (sic!), “our relatively small scale urban structure has huge advantages.” Then he praises the Dutch landscape of water, cows and villages, which he thinks is favorable in terms of climate change. To proof that urban density is not a precondition to mass transit, he mentions the buslanes north of Amsterdam (Mr. De Zeeuw lives in the village of Monnikendam). The system functions all very well, he states. He also warns for social inequality: ‘Our small-scale  urban structure prevents social segregation, so from a social point of view this is a great thing’. Lastly he thinks a new governance structure will be needed if Amsterdam doubles. That will only cause trouble, he knows, so keep Amsterdam small.

It is not easy to reflect on things if somebody tries to ridicule your argumentation, exaggerates your thoughts, simply does not want to change anything at all. I only wish Mr. De Zeeuw would study the Dutch ecological footprint, which is one of the worst in the world, and would consider a more sustainable way of living. And maybe – no less important – he would enter the discussion on the agglomeration economies, where it all started. He simply missed it. Those agglomeration economies are considerably higher in dense urban structures than in networks of small-sized cities and villages, at least that is what I’m trying to proof. But what irritates me most, is Prof. De Zeeuw accusing me of a lack of scientific argumentation. Mentioning the Territorial Review 2014 of OESO in his view is not enough. Did he read it? Mr. de Zeeuw, who is also director New Markets at developer BPD (Bouwfonds), gives no scientific argumentation himself. He only scatters strong opinions. I need a break now. Let’s fly to London.

Not an airport

On 9 juli 2015, in kunst, by Zef Hemel

Heard on IJburg, Amsterdam, on 8 July 2015:

Mrs. Ruf comes from Singen, Germany, which means she’s born close to the Swiss border. She studied in Vienna, not in Berlin. Until recently she was the director of the Kunsthalle in Zürich, now she’s the new director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. And she bikes. Beatrix Ruf (1960) told us she bikes every day, without a helmet, from her new home in Amsterdam South to the Museumplein. She has looked for a house on IJburg, the latest extension of the city, but decided to buy one as close to the museum as possible. So now she can bike. She thinks the centre of Amsterdam is very crowded, more than the centres of Vienna, Zürich or Berlin. Lots of tourists, sure, but it also has to do with public space and the way all those people behave. The most dangerous, though, is not the anarchistic behaviour of the Amsterdam citizens, making their own rules, but the tracks of the tram. Not easy to avoid them with your bike.

It was a great introduction of Beatrix Ruf, speaking to the international audience of participants of summer school Thinking City. With a twinkling in her eyes she talked about modern art, the museum, the Museumplein, the way people use the square, the field (?), the plans she has with putting sculptures on it, the building itself, the first thing she did: making the entrance public by removing the portals. ‘It’s not an airport’. She seemed to have no particular interest in architecture, but planning and urban design fascinate her. She could not name an iconic building in Amsterdam, a particular building she likes very much. Looking from the top of the Hilton Hotel on the urban plan of Berlage, the view exites her though. She compared Zürich with Amsterdam. Both cities are rather small, but they are at the centre of an extended urban field, which make you feel you are living in an urban environment somehow. Also the openness to the world, the international, cosmopolitan atmosphere is what strikes her in both cities. What is unique in the Stedelijk case, she told us, is the way the citizens of Amsterdam feel like they’re owning the museum. It is THEIR museum. Everything that happens in the Stedelijk is controversial, worth a battle. She likes that very, very much. Great observation.

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Next mobility

On 2 juli 2015, in infrastructuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Nieuwe mobiliteit’ (New Mobility) (2015) of Arie Bleijenberg:


Reveiling long term trends. Important news. They sent me a copy of ‘Nieuwe Mobiliteit na het autotijdperk’ (New Mobility After the Car Based Era), written by Arie Bleijenberg, TNO’s Business Director Infrastructure in Delft. They thought I would like it. Sure I do. It’s exactly what I think. The book is a kind of leaflet, easy to read. Here are the dominant trends: car use will stop growing, planes will take over, cities will grow bigger, so more biking, walking and mass transit. To boost the economy, down town areas should be connected with metro, far better public transport than there is serving them now. Of course public transport is more sustainable, but Bleijenberg thinks the economic benefits will be much bigger. So shorter distances, more density, all fitting a knowledge based economy. In order to be prepared, infrastructure budgets should be radically decentralized. From now on city-regions should decide on the spending of the public money, not the Dutch state any more.

Bleijenberg suggests the region close to the Amsterdam airport (Schiphol) should become the biggest urban hub. “More urbanisation of the Amsterdam region is needed in order to profit from the international hub function of Schiphol airport.” At least he thinks that would be the most sustainable, the most comfortable, the most promising solution. Travelling by air will become the new normal. Being connected to the airport, and at the same time walking in the middle of the crowds, is what we need. Intracity networks therefore should be reinforced. Because all this will become reality within thirty years, governments should change their policies now. In infrastructure planning it takes time – thirty years is nothing. That’s why budget spending on infrastructure should be radically decentralized. We need networks, but far different from the ones the Ministry of Infrastructure is still building now. So it’s urgent. 350 billion euros have been invested in infrastructure in the Netherlands; every year 6 billion euros is needed for maintenance. Bleijenberg’s booklet gives you food for thought. Not only planners. Hope the Dutch politicians will read it too. Especially those in The Hague.

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The soft side

On 25 juni 2015, in innovatie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘The Regional Knowledge Economy’ (2009) of Otto Raspe:

 Hightech-onderzoek bij Philips.

The discussion on agglomeration economies, innovation clusters and regional economic growth is a difficult one. Why? Well, because it all has become very political. So what does science tell us? In ‘The knowledge economy and urban economic growth’ (2009), Otto Raspe – a regional economist working for the National Planning Bureau for the Built Environment in The Hague – tried to relate R&D, innovation and knowlegde workers to regional economic growth in the Netherlands. His paper was published in European Planning Studies. “This paper does not open the entire black box of agglomeration economies – but contributes to the discussion by determining different kinds of localized knowledge densities within economic growth clusters.” Governments and institutions, Raspe points, always focuss on R&D as sources of growth, because this input factor can be stimulated by subsidies. But there are more spatial knowledge indicators: knowledge workers (ICT-sensitivity, educational level, creative economy, communicative skills) and innovation (technological and non-technological). R&D in the Netherlands differs from the rest: south and east are in front of R&D-employment specialization.

But in terms of innovation and knowlegde workers, the highly  urbanized Northern part of the Randstad area – Amsterdam and Utrecht – is leading. ‘The rural regions and the regions in the national periphery of the Netherlands are lagging behind in intensity of this employment.” Most spatially concentrated are the knowlegde workers. Also in terms of innovation, “municipalities in the Randstad region, larger cities and central areas of urban agglomerations still come to the fore as the foci of innovative activities.” Then he concludes: “High R&D-levels are not a sufficient growth condition for economic growth in urban clusters – the knowlegde workers and innovation dimensions are significantly better linked to localized economic growth in the Netherlands.” The ‘soft’ side seems to be far more important than the ‘hard’ technological side. But governments always stress R&D. They love technology. Better focus on industrial and distribution activities (which they already do) and on localized clusters of producer services in big cities (which they do not). Although not opening the black box of agglomeration economies fully, Raspe did a great job. Now let’s wait for new government policies.

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No growth

On 24 juni 2015, in economie, politiek, by Zef Hemel

Read in FD of 1 March 2015:

Why does nobody wants to know about shrinking cities in The Netherlands? Because Dutch municipalities still own 75% percent of all the land available for building homes, office space and business parks. They paid far too much for it: 13 billion euros. They all should reduce their land prices with at least fifty percent, Het Financieele Dagblad calculated. This they will not do, the newspaper wrote on 1 March 2015, because then they will go bankrupt. With buying all that land in the nineties and beginning of 2000 they hoped to make big profits. No way. Worse even, they lack the money now and there will be no growth at all. Their debt is big, so their losses will be big too. Only 20 percent they amortized. The provinces of Flevoland (Almere), Overijssel and Zeeland cannot sell their land without making heavy losses. Instead of amortizing, they boast they will grow bigger. Even cities like Rotterdam and Delft are in big trouble. Two thirds of the land they will keep, hoping to sell it in de future. 

So this makes the discussion on the spatial future of the Netherlands at this moment rather awkward. The Ministries of Finance and of Interior Affairs know it. I’m afraid the Dutch government will have to clean up the mess and hold the twelve provinces responsible for this fiasco. But they wait. Why? Because they are responsible too. No policies in VINEX for shrinking cities. There was a political ban on red and green contours in the Fifth Report on Spatial Planning. Worse even, they skipped the Fifth Report. It’s VINEX and its successors that made local government dream, and made them hope for more and speculate on growth. Friso de Zeeuw, director at Bouwfonds, first introduced the concept of the ‘rompertje’ on Dutch television in December 2008. This infant bodysuit projected on the map of the Netherlands illustrated the area around Greater Amsterdam and Utrecht that continues to grow; all the rest would shrink. Even this ‘rompertje’ is shrinking. Its nucleus is Amsterdam plus its rich, hilly landscapes on both sides: Utrechtse Heuvelrug in the east and the coastal dunes in the west, the urban region where alle the knowledge workers live. So blame the person who tells them they will gonna shrink. And hate the biggest city that will gonna win.

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Making a mess

On 23 juni 2015, in ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in Het Parool of 20 June 2015:

Felix Rottenberg is a former political leader of the Dutch Social-Democratic Party (PvdA), also an anchorman on Dutch television. In his weekly column in the Amsterdam based newspaper Het Parool he reacted on my proposal to double the size of the Amsterdam agglomeration by building in higher densities. It reminded him, he wrote, of Joop den Uyl, a powerful alderman in Amsterdam in the beginning of the sixties, who wanted to transform Amsterdam into an efficient American city. While most of my collegues ridiculed me after publication, Rottenberg tried to understand. “Hemel learned all the books on urbanism by heart. He doesn’t speak nonsense, he thinks eclectically and analyses the development of megapoles, de biggest urban regions – key players in the global economy.” So Rottenberg took me seriously. But he has doubts. High rise, he states, is not livable, suggesting nobody in Amsterdam will gonna live in those apartment buildings. To illustrate his point he referred to the ‘Wolkenkrabber’ (Skyscraper) in Amsterdam, built in 1933. At first nobody wanted to live in those apartments on the top floor. Too windy. Too dangerous.

Striking how Rottenberg plays the old man, looking back on history. “Urban planning in Amsterdam has always been decided on by great designers.” Then he mentions Berlage and Van Eesteren. “His successor as the head of the department for public works, Mrs. Jacoba Mulder, who had to stop Den Uyl in his ambition to add more high rise in the Bijlmer, admitted that one had lost view on the human scale over there.” So that’s his point. Rottenberg is fearing a professional error of judgement of urban designers. “Does Hemel hear the echo of her (Mulder’s) meaningful words?” Yes, I remember Jacoba Mulder and I know what happened to the Bijlmer. I’m though not an urban designer. My concept of ‘open planning’ is based on a ‘wisdom of crowds’. Hemel fears Dutch government and provinces. This government and those provinces might keep on promoting new infrastructure, distribute ever more low density housing, office parks and shopping malls along the highways, making a terrible mess of this once beautiful country. Young people will leave if the babyboomers continue their destructive spatial-economic policy. By the way, what’s wrong with living in a comfortable flat in a city of two million inhabitants? People even love Kleiburg, de Bijlmermeer! Fifteen million can stay where they are, growing old in VINEX. No problem.

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Polynuclear nonsense

On 19 juni 2015, in ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘The World Cities’ (1966) by Peter Hall:


Dutch planners love polynuclear patterns of urbanisation. They think these patterns are the most sustainable. Polynuclearity, they say, is the best you can get. The Dutch became world champions in developing polynuclearity and are still proud of it. It became part of the Dutch planning paradigm. It has to do with planning history. The Golden Age of Modernist planning were the sixties, when the young Peter Hall praised the socalled Randstad concept in The Netherlands. In his ‘The World Cities’ (1966) the Randstad is one of the seven ‘World Cities’, next to London, Paris, New York, Ruhr Area, Moscow, and Tokyo. Mind you! The little country next to the big Germany was praised by a young teacher from Birkbeck College London, who described it as a planning paradise. It made Peter Hall world famous, at least in The Netherlands. Problems of a world city in general, Hall declared, were its sheer size, its fast growth and complexity. Big cities would become too crowded. The biggest problem by far was the city-centre. So Hall advocated solutions he adopted from his hero-pioneer Ebenezer Howard. These were all utopian ideas – nineteenth-century schemes which were very anti-urban, something of a fusion of city and countryside. It was all nonsense of course, but Hall became the evangelist of decentralization: build new towns! Add green belts! Develop new centres! Dismantle the exisiting city! The Dutch promised to do all this. They were full of good intentions.

Polynuclearity fitted remarkably well in the existing Dutch geography of small cities, lacking real urban centres. So ironically the only thing Dutch planners had to do was avoid the coming of a big city. Which they did with fervour. Postwar planning in The Netherlands became vehemently anti-urban from the start. Polynuclearity is not wrong of course. If only you develop it within an existing agglomeration. The Dutch polynuclear pattern is different. It isn’t sustainable. The ecological footprint of The Netherlands is one of the worst in the world. Congestion though isn’t evil either, on the contrary, it is admirable, something really to aim for. And megacities are, in fact, the best and the most sustainable you can get. If only you keep them livable. For that, you don’t need huge amounts of countryside, but parks, not highways, but public transport, not many centres, but one big city-centre with many subcentres. Peter Hall thought the megaregion was not social. Again he was wrong. He just hated heterogeneity, diversity, chaos, density, and he was afraid of complexity. So are the Dutch. And the problem is: they all agree.

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. Vacant 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 vacant 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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Being honest

On 4 juni 2015, in demografie, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Economist of 30 May 2015:

So many cities will decline. Not because of suburbanisation, but for demographic reasons. People are getting older. The younger ones are getting mobile. In Japan 20 cities with more than 300.000 inhabitants are already declining, so do 60 out of 107 German cities. In The Economist an article was published on this new global trend. People think urbanization is the dominant trend now. In a way, it is. But at the same time many cities are shrinking.  And, in the near future more and more of them will. Only the biggest cities will keep on growing. This trend holds not only for rustbelt cities in America and Europe. Even Asian cities like Seoul are shrinking nowadays. The Economist: “A city can lose people and barely notice. It might even have to build more homes, since in many countries more people are living alone.” I think it is not only not noticing. You are not allowed to talk openly about decline. Cities are proud things, they all think they will keep on growing. Most cities simply do not want to know.

In the Netherlands most cities are already shrinking for the same reasons. The Dutch are ageing, the young generation is moving to great places, immigration has almost stopped. And cities in the Low Countries are far too small. However, no one talks about it yet. Only the postwar ‘growth towns’, demographers admitted in a recent study, will become ‘grey towns’. And the shrinking process happens only in the periphery, they say. No way. Considering that cities are economic powerhouses, this means that the Dutch economy already is lagging behind. Now you know why. The Economist: “Persistent decline is harmful, especially if the population is ageing as well as shrinking. As factories and homes are abandoned, the local economy can spiral downward.” It’s not that bad yet. But time will tell. What cities, confronted with decline, most often do is developing bold schemes to counteract the downward trend. Iconic buildings, big plans, new museums. Those projects should be a warning. Most of them will be futile. Worse even, investing in them could speed up the devolution. It is time to be honest. Some reading advice: ‘Villes et régions Européennes en décroissance: maintenir la cohésion territoriales’, M. Baron et. al. Paris 2010.

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Learning from the UK

On 1 juni 2015, in bestuur, wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Independent of 29 May 2015:

So that was reveiling news. In The Independent of 29 May 2015 Jon Stone wrote on poverty in London and Great Britain. Its message: "The most wealthy areas in Wales and Northern Ireland are on average poorer in terms of disposable income than the most deprived areas of London." The Office for National Statistics had released figures for household disposable income in different regions of the UK. Barking, Dagenham and Havering in London showed a disposable income more than double poorer the richest area in the capital, but the wealthiest areas in Wales and Northern Ireland still had lower incomes than London’s poorest areas. Of course, housing costs in London are significantly higher, so higher incomes here go to expensive rental and property markets. So how inequal are Great Britian and London then? It’s difficult to say. The picture gets disturbing, inequality should be judged more and more locally. So here it is: “The Government has brought forward plans to devolve power to cities and metropolitan areas in a bid to give regions more control over their local economies.

In the Netherlands the same process of rising local and regional disparities is discernable. Poverty in Amsterdam is not the same as poverty in Groningen or Drenthe. Even without powerful global cities like London or New York the economic landscape of the Low Countries is showing traits of the same growing spikyness. Even though the Dutch love sameness, which they think is democratic, (and the Dutch always used to fight differences), they can no longer deny its existence. What the Dutch government therefore should do is radically decentralise the fiscal system. That’s what also Jaap Modder, Jeroen Saris and Wouter Veldhuis pleaded for in De Volkskrant of 2 February 2015. “The main spatial issues are no longer national, but European and local.” Regional VAT, they wrote, would give city-regions the means to invest in their own economy, more than in the existing system where the Dutch state distributes huge amounts of money according to principles that are no longer just. The regional disparties have grown already too big, the power of the Dutch state too weak.

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