The future

On 13 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Future City’ (1973) of Roger Elwood (editor):

Today I will give a lecture at the conference for teachers in geography of the Royal Dutch Geographical Society (KNAG) in Ede, the Netherlands. Subject: the future. Some 800 teachers will be there. Where to begin? How to end my story? For inspiration, I reread ‘Future City’, offered to me by the Dutch grand old man Fred Zandvoort, and see what writers were thinking about the future of cities in the year 1973. Will cities last? How will they look? Some fifteen novelists wrote wonderful science fiction-stories on cities. Roger Elwood, the editor, noted in his introduction that it was not a happy book. Sure. Frederik Pohl, an American sciencefiction writer, for example is the author of the afterword. Pohl: “The cities I know best, New York and London, are absolute failures in some very essential ways. New York is dirty, noisy, preposterously expensive and essentially unsafe. (…) London is physically safer, but it is also dirty, also noisy and rapidly becoming just as preposterously expensive.” Then he concludes: “And yet they survive.” Pohl was convinced that city life was a failed experiment, that we will never give up on. Sounds familiar, still?

Pohl thought planners were having a problem. “Cities do not like to be planned very much.” He had made a lot of excursions to new towns – all modernist projects – and had come to the conclusion that you cannot plan a new city. “All of them are dreams, and making them come true destroys them.” Then he wrote that cities are accumulations of a diversity of social capital. It is a matter of size, of scale effect, he stressed. Only big cities are real cities; it needs a huddling for a lot of people, you should be able to get a meal at four in the morning, otherwise it is not a city. I think he was right. “They are so needed that they cannot be allowed to fail.” Well, that depends. At least that was the pessimism of the seventies. We are far more positive now. Cities are the best places in the world. Well, at least the big ones. The future will be an urban one. Even in the Netherlands we will build one big city, at last.

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The end of things-as-known

On 10 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’ (1970) of Saul Bellow:

Saul Bellow’s ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’, published in 1970, is a must read. Mr. Sammler, a survivor of the Holocaust and an intellectual, is the hero of the novel. He lives in New York. His age: seventy-something. Every day he takes the bus from his apartment on the West Side to the Fourty-second street library. Then Bellow’s description of Sammler’s daily urban trip on the bus: “Such was Sammler’s eastward view, a soft asphalt belly rising, in which lay steaming sewer navels. Spalled sidewalks with clusters of ash cans. Brownstones. The yellow brick of elevator buildings like his own. Little copses of television antennas. Whiplike, graceful thrilling metral dendrites drawing images from the air, bringing brotherhood, communion to immured apartment people. Westward the Hudson came between Sammler and the great Spry industries of New Jersey. These flashed their electric message through intervening night. SPRY. But then he was half blind.” New York gives Sammler no hope. Not only the pickpocket at work on the bus depresses him. Also racism, tourism, erotic persuasions, the crazy violence of fanatics. “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice.”

In the novel Mr. Sammler tries to get a grip on New York. In his introduction to the Penguin Classic, Stanley Crouch writes: “We get the feeling of a human being in repose, in grief, in rage, in self-protective contemplation, in unsparing self-examination, in attentive motion through Manhattan, on foot, in public transportation, in chauffeured limousine.” According to Mr. Crouch, Bellow chose New York for his novel as the capital of capitalism, the power of the city over the country was evident. But then, in chapter 6, there is a telephone crisis. In New York! Sammler is at the house of his benefactor Elya Gruner in New Rochelle, who is dying in a hospital on Manhattan. Trains are not running. The servant will bring him in the silver Rolls Royce. There he goes. “It would soon be full spring. The Cross County, the Saw Mill River, the Henry Hudson thick with reviving grass and dandelions, the oven of the sun baking green life again.” They’re getting nearer to Manhattan. So in the end he is positive, isn’t he? “Looking from the window, passing all in state, in an automobile costing upwards of twenty thousand dollars, Mr. Sammler still saw that together with the end of things-as-known the feeling for new beginnings was nevertheless very strong.” He drives from north to south, up Broadway. “And away from this death-burdened, rotting, spoiled, sullied, exasperating, sinful earth but already looking toward the moon and Mars with plans for founding cities.”  There he finds Elya in the hospital at last, dead.

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On 5 november 2015, in geschiedenis, infrastructuur, planningtheorie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Building Gotham’ (2003) of Keith Revell:

Penn Station is the busiest station in the Amtrak system.

We met at Penn Station, New York. From there we would take the train to Boston. He had the tickets. The station, dating from the sixties, looked like Dante’s Inferno, but then as if you’re in a science-fiction movie, from the Jetsons, a world deep under the ground. My friend – also a planner – said I should read ‘Building Gotham’ of Keith Revell if I wanted to know more about Penn Station and its history. The book, he said, describes the engineering works of New York City from the end of the 19nth century untill the beginning of the Second World War, the Progressive Era. And yes, Keith Revell, a historian from John Hopkins University, did a great job by studying the regulation of skyscrapers and railroads in the city. All the great experts – mostly engineers – who were doing those difficult urban projects, were his heroes. The first chapter is about ‘conceiving the new metropolis’; next a chapter on private infrastructure follows, one on public infrastructure, and the book ends with a chapter on urban and regional planning – zoning – as a new expertise. So after our trip I started reading the book. A great book.

In his preface Mr. Revell writes that at first he thought his project would be an inquiry into the ways that the concept of efficiency affected the building of New York. Instead, he discovered quite something else. “As I learned more about what the experts engaged in those projects were doing, I discovered that efficiency played a less important role in their worldview than interdependence – the latter far more powerful concept with profound political implications.” He calls it ‘a civic culture’, leading to the formation of new public institutions. That’s what urban and regional planning is about: a civic culture. But all those institutions are weak now. People very much disagree on the future. So Revell wonders if “bureaucratic organizations (can be) the proper instruments for determining and carrying out the public interest in a democratic society.”  The answer is no of course. And interdependence is ever more a problem. That’s why we have to rethink planning.

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Urban university walk

On 2 november 2015, in onderwijs, wetenschap, by Zef Hemel

Seen and heard on 20 October 2015 at Morningside Heights, NYC:

The weather, that day, was excellent. His walk started at the old campus site. Then he took us eastward, to the rim of the heights, showing us West Harlem deep down below. Wonderful view! John Reddick is from Yale, where he studied history of architecture, with Vincent Scully. With his loud voice Mr. Reddick guided us around, told us some great stories on the history of Columbia University and its neigbourhood. The site, in northwest Manhattan, was an empty plateau in 1890. In the beginning the city wanted it to become the site of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, but Chicago won the competition. So the future of the place had to be reconsidered. Columbia University, which moved up from 50th Street and Madison Avenue to 116th Street and Broadway, now forms the centerpiece of Morningside Heights, but the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Barnard College and Riverside Church were its competitors. At the end of the nineteenth century Columbia was ‘a sleepy little place’, but Seth Low – who would become Mayor of New York City – had a great vision when he took over as the university’s president in 1889. Low didn’t want the Gothic of the traditional Ivy League campus. He wanted Columbia to become a great urban university, in and of the city.

So McKim, Mead & White, Columbia’s architects, adopted an urban Renaissance model for the campus. It was a conscious decision to be different from places like Princeton and Yale. This you can also read in Andrew Dolkart’s ”Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development” (Columbia University Press, 1998). Only when the subway was built in 1904, the place became a residential neighborhood. Since then, most of the appartment building have been purchased by Columbia, which needed ever more extension space. So that’s where our sunny walk ended: strolling along Riverside Drive in northern direction, crossing a tall bridge. Deep down below us we had a stunning view on Manhattanville, where Columbia University is building its brand new second campus on a 17 acre-site, costing 6.8 billion US dollars. Welcome to the masterclass New York City, moderated by the Wibaut Chair at the University of Amsterdam, on the future of the city and its universities.

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Powering forward

On 30 oktober 2015, in economie, innovatie, technologie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘The Metropolitan Revolution’ (2013) of Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley:

The US economy is broken. How to repair it? Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley wrote a book about ‘how cities and metros are fixing our broken politics and fragile economy’. It is similar to Benjamin Barber’s ‘If Mayors Ruled the World’, only more in detail. Katz and Bradley are working for the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, a nonprofit public policy organization, one of Washington oldest thinktanks, maybe even one of the most influential thinktanks in the world. Their message: the US government can’t solve the huge economic and competitive challenges its cities are facing, so networks of metropolitan leaders are stepping up "and powering the nation forward." They give examples of New York, Denver, Northeast Ohio and Houston. Katz and Bradley think power is shifting again in their country. No longer the federal state is the central agency in moving the country forward. The American revolution, they write, was an urban revolution, so the new economic revolution will be urban again.

The example of New York is exactly the one the Masterclass NYC of the Wibaut Chair at the University of Amsterdam is studying in depth right now: innovation and the next economy. It is the case of ‘the applied science initiative’ of mayor Bloomberg in 2011-2013. The initiative was based on the idea that innovation is closely intertwined with new developments in science and technology, but that New York was weak in engineering. There were too few engineers and similar technical professionals based in New York City. Technology strength often clusters around universities, so universities are basic to the infastructure needed. Katz and Bradley: "There is, of course, a deep irony in the fact that technology, which was supposed to cut ties between people and places and allow people everywhere to work from almost anywhere, turns out to flourish in fairly compact geographic concentrations." A host of studies have shown that clusters spur entrepreneurship and boost start-up initiatives. "Universities do not usually by themselves create clusters, but they can be powerful factors in maintaining and energizing them." So that’s why New York launched an international competition in which the prize was a new school of engineering on Rooseveldt island. Cornell University and Technion in Tel Aviv were the winners in 2013. The building of the new campus has already started. We visited the site two weeks ago. It will open in 2017. "This process will be a model going forward for any kind of technology-oriented development."  Also in Europe. In the biggest European cities and metros, I mean.

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Size, density, proximity

On 28 oktober 2015, in economie, by Zef Hemel

Heard in Brooklyn, NYC, on 19 October 2015:

His name: Eddie Summers. Mr. Summers is the executive director of Brooklyn Education Innovation Network, NYC (BE.IN). He showed us around in Brooklyn. His walk was more than twenty kilometers long, the weather was beautiful, although a bit cold. We crossed downtown Brooklyn, headed for DUMBO, visited a co-working space at the seventh floor, enjoyed the view, met some young people, walked on to Brooklyn Navy Yard, ended up at the campus of the Pratt Institute. All in all it took us two hours to make the tour. The excursion was part of the masterclass NYC, an initiative of the city of Amsterdam, on cities and its universities. Why Brooklyn? With more than 60,000 college students hailing from 11 higher education institutions, Downtown Brooklyn is truly New York City’s College Town. Mr. Summers’ task is to foster cooperation among member institutions to broaden and enrich academic programs, encourage fiscal economies through shared services, facilitate interactions with industry, and expand and encourage student programming and community service activities. His work reminded me of the Amsterdam Economic Board, whose task is to foster collaboration between higher education, industry and public authorities in the Amsterdam region. Mr. Summers did it all on his own.

Eddie Summers told us about his organizing a lot of Meet-up’s: of bringing some thirty people together around a certain theme or subject, starting at four PM, ending at six, doing business. It really worked. He gave some great examples of local colleges starting to collaborate, industry helping colleges, public authorities making use of the knowledge of colleges, with the result of new startup’s as a spin-off. The startup ecosystem of Brooklyn, he explained, is a highly interwoven complex of colleges, institutions and buildings with a lot of startups in a relatively small area of old buildings, not too far from Manhattan. The ecosystem works because it is a dense tissue of highly interrelated activities, it has critical mass, with a high-tech component, it works, he added, through close proximity. You can experience it by walking around. That’s why we walked, walked, walked around untill late afternoon that Monday in October.

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Growth or decline

On 27 oktober 2015, in demografie, economie, by Zef Hemel

Heard in City Hall, New York, on Monday 19 October 2015:

Last Monday, on the first day of the masterclass NYC in New York, we visited New York City Hall. The masterclass, initiated by the city of Amsterdam, studies the interaction between cities and their universities. Master: Zef Hemel, holder of the Wibaut Chair at the University of Amsterdam. Edith Hsu-Chen, vice-executive director of the City Planning Department, borough of Manhattan, and Edwin Marshall, senior planner, gave useful introductions to the theme from the perspective of the city. The expansion plans of all the universities in New York City on the island of Manhattan, Mrs. Hsu-Chen stressed, are most remarkable, and the city is facilitating all of those plans. The universities are important, a major growth sector and an economy in itself. A decentralized, more evenly distributed pattern is not aimed for. In fact, the city understands that all the universities have their roots in Manhattan, and wish to stay there. That means constant rezoning, because in the costly, densily built environment of Manhattan huge volumes of extra floor space are needed. It can only be served by high rise. But of course there is a tension between new campus developments and daily life in residential neighbourhoods. Take New York University (NYU) on Washington Square, or Columbia University in West-Harlem. They all serve as study material in the masterclass.

On Tuesday we visited Toni Griffin, director of the Max Bond Center on Design of the Just City at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York. The center is based in Harlem, close to the campus of Columbia. Mrs. Griffin told us about her research on ‘legacy cities’ in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Northeast of the United States. Some 48 cities are shrinking because they lose population and/or are economically depressed. Most of them are former industrial cities. Often they lack higher education or have to close down their colleges because of a lack of students. It’s a pattern of young adults leaving their hometown cities for college and not returning after graduation, or encountering obstacles to obtaining the educations needed to be competitive for local jobs. In America’s northeast, Boston and New York are the remaining growth poles, Carnegy Mellon University in Pittsburgh is also doing well, so higher education seems to be crucial in these struggling former industrial urban economies, who are all competing with the dynamic Westcoast and urban South economies. Size and density matter (all the fragmented land of Detroit fits easily in Manhattan), but also quality of the local colleges is critical to their economic future – whether it will be urban growth or decline. Even New York cannot ignore its universities. On the contrary, the city has to stimulate the quality of its higher education system by investing in it on a structural base.

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On 26 oktober 2015, in economie, technologie, by Zef Hemel

Heard in New York City on Wednesday 21 October 2015:

Sharon Zukin, professor on urban sociology at the City University of New York (CUNY), was our guest on the morning of 21 October 2015. She told us about CUNY, how this local university of some 500.000 students was structured, who owned it (public, the state, not the city), why its focus was on education, and less on research, who paid for it, why it was problematic to speak about this ‘Harvard for the poor’ with pride at this very moment (because of the unrest amongst the professors, fearing new budget cuts), what its future might be, and how CUNY is related to the so-called ‘new economy’ of New York: the one of the growing tech scene, the startups, the bootcamps, the fintech, the medtech, the anytech jobs. She was researching this new economy, which she still didn’t fully grasped. According to the many people she had interviewed it is still ‘inchoate’, that means: not developed yet, just begun, lacking order. We listened to her for more than one and a half hour in a small room at the Graduate Center of CUNY at Fifth Avenue. Welcome to the masterclass NYC on cities and its universities, an initiative of the city of Amsterdam.

Mrs. Zukin showed us the new website of ‘Digital New York City’: For her research, she told us, it was an excellent source. It gave all the information on startups, events, jobs, investors, courses, workspaces, incubators, a great map, all this news on the new economy in New York assembled on just one website. She could not tell whether any city in the world is giving this information real time. The website was initiated by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), or was it IBM that not only sponsored it, but also had come up with the proposal? We had to admit, this is a city that is strategically focussing on the new economy, and doing very well. Of course, New York had to, in a way. After the financial crisis of 2008, the city understood that being too dependent on the financial sector is very risky. The city should diversify its economy, adding a bit of Silicon Valley to its already diverse economic ecosystem. Or was it even more urgent? The whole economy, the mayor had told his staff, will become digitalized the next ten or twenty years. The city should wake up. So what about CUNY then? And Amsterdam?

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The city a superuniversity

On 21 september 2015, in wetenschap, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘The Urban University and Its Identity’ (1998) of Herman van der Wusten (editor):

Last week the masterclass New York 2015 opened with a lecture of Herman van der Wusten, retired professor political geography at the University of Amsterdam. Van der Wusten referred to a conference he had organized in the ‘90s in Amsterdam on universities and the city. The University of Amsterdam was building new campusses. One of the essays was of Thomas Bender, of New York University. Bender had opened his essay with a citation of Joshua Lederberg, a Stanford University geneticist and Nobel Laureate, who assumed the presidency of Rockefeller University: “New York played a special role in my scientific career. It was, and is, a communication network. New York is a superuniversity.” Over de course of the past few centuries, Lederberg stressed, cities and universities have shared some characteristics: secularity, tolerance, specialisation, concentration, diversity. But what worried him was that universities increasingly have qualities in common with suburbs: with campusses in the fields, near the highways. A suburbanisation of intellect would mean compartmentalisation marked by firmer and less permeable boundaries. “One cannot but fear scholasticism and self-referentiality.”

Bender wrote that universities are best at producing abstract, highly focused, rigorous and internally consistent forms of knowledge, while the city is more likely to produce descriptive, concrete, but also less tightly focused and more immediately useful knowledge. “The academy risks scholasticism, but the culture of the city is vulnerable to the charge of superficiality and crude pragmatism.”  Then he turned his attention to suburban Silicon Valley near San Francisco, which he compared to urban Silicon Alley in New York. While the first is more scientific in its activities, Silicon Alley is “an incredibly dense interdisciplinary world of writers, artists and computer freaks, making multimedia CD’s and other interactive creations , some commercial products, some art, which in this post-Andy Warhol era is sometimes difficult to distinguish from a commercial product.” His complaint was that no social scientist at Columbia (picture) or NYU studied health care, poverty, inequality, race relations, education, urban politics. Bender thought it necessary that academic culture is reoriented from the nation to the metropolis. “The world economy and culture, it seems, is increasingly organised by a network of international cities.” Scientists should locate themselves in a glocal perspective. Seventeen years later Van der Wusten quoted Bender. Now everybody agrees. Universities are learning from practical life. They can no longer stay suburban.

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On 21 april 2015, in water, by Zef Hemel

Gezien in het Queens Museum in New York op 7 april 2015:


Wat we nog meer zagen in het gerenoveerde Queens Museum op Flushing Meadows: de tentoonstelling ‘From Watersheds to Faucets: The Marvel of New York City’s Water Supply System’. Kern van de tentoonstelling bleek een enorme 3D reliëf-maquette van het zuidelijke deel van de staat New York uit 1938 waarop het toenmalige drinkwatersysteem van New York City was afgebeeld. Ze was ooit gebouwd voor de Wereldtentoonstelling van 1939 op Flushing Meadows om de grootse stedenbouwkundige werken van directeur Stadsontwikkeling Robert Moses te laten zien. Echter, toen hij klaar was bleek het paviljoen te klein, waardoor de maquette, groot 540 vierkante voet, nooit aan het grote publiek is getoond. De kosten bedroegen 1,5 miljoen dollar (prijspeil anno nu), maar waren dus weggegooid geld. Pas in 2008 werd hij weer ontdekt. De zevenentwintig delen zijn vervolgens stuk voor stuk nauwkeurig gerestaureerd. Het geheel zagen we, vijfenzeventig jaar na dato, dan eindelijk geëxposeerd. Een unieke ervaring.

Het grootste deel van het huidige drinkwatersysteem van New York City werd vanaf 1914 aangelegd. Naast het Old Croton Reservoir in Westchester County dat stamt uit 1842 besloot de miljoenenstad een tweede reservoir aan te leggen in de noordelijk gelegen bergen, waar een grote stuwdam op een afstand van 100 mijl van de stad het water sindsdien verzamelt: het nu honderd jaar oude Catskill System, vernoemd naar de Catskill Mountains. Vandaar wordt het door huizenhoge ondergrondse pijpleidingen naar de metropool getransporteerd. Daarmee is dit nog altijd het grootste ongefilterde oppervlaktewatersysteem ter wereld. Elke dag voorziet het de metropool van meer dan 1 miljard gallons drinkwater. Het ingenieuze systeem, begreep ik, is echter aan het einde van zijn levenscyclus gekomen en zal de komende jaren ingrijpend moeten worden vernieuwd. Om die noodzaak aan te tonen was niet alleen de historische maquette gerestaureerd, maar ook de tentoonstelling in het museum ingericht. Tot het toekomstgerichte programma behoort ook waterbesparing. Voor het eerst worden de inwoners van New York opgeroepen om minder water te gebruiken. Ook in the Big Aplle is de rek eruit.

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