In de steden broeit iets

On 12 november 2016, in boeken, by Zef Hemel

Gelezen in ‘The Unwinding’ (2013) van George Packer:

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor the unwinding packer

George Packer, journalist bij The New Yorker, schreef drie jaar geleden een boek over dertig jaar Amerikaans verval. Ik las het in één adem uit. Drie Amerikaanse burgers volgde hij op de voet vanaf 1978 tot 2012: de ondernemer Dean Price in Rockingham County, North Carolina; de zwarte ongehuwde moeder Tammy Thomas in Youngstown, Ohio; en de Democratische politicus Jeff Connaughton in Washington DC. Tussendoor maakt hij uitstapjes naar zonnig Tampa, Florida, verlicht Silicon Valley, California, en verdorven Wall Street, New York. Zo ontvouwt zich in meer dan vierhonderd bladzijden een drama van wereldformaat: de keiharde de-industrialisatie, de opmars van het grootbedrijf, de leegloop van het platteland, de financialisering van de economie, de ondergang van de middenklasse, de verarming van de suburbs, de groeiende economische ongelijkheid, het verval van politieke normen, alles uitmondend in de financiële crisis van 2008. Ze noemen het globalisering. Treurigmakend boek. Ik begrijp de woede en frustratie, die zit op het platteland en in de buitenwijken. De mensen daar hielpen Trump en Poetin aan de macht. Het is een regelrechte contrarevolutie.

Het boek deed sterk denken aan ‘Expulsions’ (2014) van de Amerikaanse sociologe Saskia Sassen. Ook dat recente boek schetst een omvattend beeld van verarming, verlies en verdrijving, samenvallend met processen van verrijking onder slechts twintig procent van de westerse bevolking. In Azië komt weliswaar een middenklasse op, maar volgens Sassen zal deze qua omvang uiteindelijk toch relatief beperkt blijven. Ook daar ziet ze vormen van onderdrukking en verlies. Ze wijst op de verwoestende werking die groeiende complexiteit heeft op de planeet aarde en wijst op de militarisering van de staat als dominante reactie. Volgens haar heeft niemand hier meer greep op. Achter ons ligt een periode van maatschappelijk opbouw en groeiende samenhang, voor ons ligt een periode van afbraak, uitstoting en oorlog. Weet u waar me haar boek aan deed denken? Aan ‘Het einde van de rode mens’ (2013) van Svetlana Alexijevitsj. Net als de Sovjet-Unie in 1989 stort het Westen nu in. Zoiets. Toch zien Sassen en ook Packer nog lichtpuntjes. De emancipatie van minderheden in de grote steden zet door, mensen daar komen in verweer, Occupy was een begin, in de steden broeit iets.

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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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One rich, one poor

On 27 januari 2016, in cultuur, migratie, sociaal, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Our kids’ (2015) of Robert Putnam:



Robert Putnam’s latest book is on American kids, their lives, their future. The social landscape in the land of opportunity is changing rapidly, that’s for sure. The sociologist teaching at Harvard University compares it with his own youth in hometown Port Clinton, Ohio, in the fifties. In half a century time it got a lot worse in terms of social mobility. He thinks it is now “a split-screen American nightmare, a community in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that bisect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits the kids from the right side of the tracks.”  The chapters are on families, parenting, schooling, community. The chapter on families is situated in Bend, Oregon; the one on parenting in Atlanta; the one on schooling in Orange County, California; the last one, on community, in Philadelphia. Then he focuses on what is to be done. Let’s study Atlanta.

Putnam describes Atlanta as an affluent, sophisticated, and global metropolitan area, the ninth largest in the USA. The city has a strong, diversified economy, with headquarters of CNN, Delta Airlines, UPS and Coke. Its history is one of racial division. In black residents, Atlanta is second to New York City. The city is being confronted now with a rapidly growing gap between rich and poor. Over the last ten years some half million new black residents entered the city. They all came from the North. Many of them have college degrees.  But Putnam adds that the blacks in Atlanta itself are desperately poor. “Large swaths of southern and western Atlanta itself are over 95 percent black, with child poverty rates ranging from 50 percent to 80 percent.” So the black community is segregated along economic lines. He concludes that Greater Atlanta has the second-lowest rate of intergenerational social mobility of all major American cities – a great contrast with his own youth in Port Clinton, where poor kids and rich kids lived near one another. Wealth is accumulating in Atlanta, but many kids have no opportunities to do better. He thinks America is moving towards two countries: one rich, one poor.

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Immigrant city

On 30 november 2015, in politiek, by Zef Hemel

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

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

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

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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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Out of control

On 3 november 2015, in duurzaamheid, participatie, planningtheorie, by Zef Hemel

Heard in Boston City Hall on 22 October 2015:

Image The Boston Harbor Association

Leaving Penn Station early in the morning, I took de Amtrack train from New York City to Boston, Massachusetts. There I would meet some people at City Hall, to discuss the planning of the city-region. Boston – a city of some 640.000 inhabitants – is preparing its first new comprehensive plan for its city-wide future after fifty years. Citizens are invited to ‘Imagine Boston 2030′, when the city will celebrate its 400-th anniversary. In May this year Mayor Marty Walsh launched a two year public engagement process, saying it would be a more dynamic process of civic engagement than has been done with planning efforts in the past. So that’s why I took the train to Boston and meet the planners, Gerald Autler, director of Boston Redevelopment Authority, in the first place. To discuss with him and his staff some new approaches of open planning.

How’s Boston doing? Quite well in economic terms, I would say, surely for an east coast city. It’s a thriving, innovative city in the Bos-Wash megaregion, just north of New York. However, climate change is a real threat, because its position on the Atlantic coast makes the urban area extremely vulnerable. Especially the redeveloped southern waterfront with the new convention center near South Station is in danger, as is all the land that has been developed on the waterfront in the 19nth and 20th century. In the Boston Globe I read: "Over the past century, temperatures in northeastern states have risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and if heat-trapping gases increase at current rates, warming could spike as much as ten degrees by the 2080s, prolonging bouts of extreme heat, taxing electrical systems, and disrupting ecosystems." What is to be done? There is a Boston Climate Action Plan, sure, but is it adequate? Could ‘Imagine Boston 2030′ bring solutions? A radical open approach might give birth to miracles, but no one knows the outcome from the outset. Open planning means: being out of control. Will the leaders accept uncertainty? I hope they will not only take action, but listen to the people first.

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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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The enemy is noise

On 23 september 2015, in boeken, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘There is simply too much to think about’ of Saul Bellow (2015):

Chicago World's Fair, 1933 Art Print

The first essay in the bulk of nonfiction of the great American novelist Saul Bellow, assembled in ‘There is simply too much to think about’, is called ‘Starting out in Chicago’. It’s about how the young man started writing novels in the Windy City in the thirties, at the time of the Great Depression. This is how Bellow described Chicago in his adolescent youth: “A colossal industrial and business center, knocked flat by unemployment, its factories and even its schools closing, decided to hold a World’s Fair on its shore of Lake Michigan, with towers, high rides, exhibits, Chinese rickshaws, a midget village in which there was a midget wedding every day, and other lively attractions including whores and con men and fan dancers.” Several millions of dollars were spent on the Fair of 1933, but it didn’t produced jobs. Bellow remembered how president Roosevelt later, “seeing how much trouble unhappy intellectuals had made in Russia, Germany and Italy between 1905 and 1935”, started to pay the jobless youth “for painting post office murals and editing guidebooks.

More descriptions of an industrial Chicago in the thirties: “I would have kissed the floor of a café. There were no cafés in Chicago.” More depressing even: “In my own generation there were those immigrants who copied even the unhappiness of the Protestant majority, embracing its miseries, battling against Mom; reluctant, after work, to board the suburban train, drinking downtown, drinking on the club bar, being handed down drunk to the wife and the waiting station wagon like good Americans.” These are the notes he made in 1974-75. There was no poetry in his hometown, that’s for sure. “The enemy is noise.” What did he mean by that? “By noise I mean not simply the noise of technology, the noise of money or advertising and promotion, the noise of the media, the noise of miseducation, but the terrible excitement and distraction generated by the crisis of modern life.” The crisis of modern life? Bellow studied sociology and anthropology. In 1937 he finished his study. As a writer and anthropologist he decided to describe melting melting pot Chicago, for which you have to read ‘The Adventures of Augie March’. On poverty, on discrimination, on late-nineteenth century capitalism. A must read.

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Dark Sky City

On 24 augustus 2015, in kunst, by Zef Hemel

Seen in De Pont in Tilburg, the Netherlands, on 6 August 2015:


The exhibition on the American artist James Turrell in De Pont, Tilburg, was exciting. Thursday two weeks ago we visited the museum, but I have to admit I didn’t know his work when I entered the place. There were some four installations. Most extreme and impressive was the video on Roden Crater, Arizona. You can find it on Youtube. It was amazing. Turrell, who works with light, found the crater in 1974 on a trip with his plane flying over the desert, and then he bought it. More than forty years now he’s building an obersvatory and tunnels in the crater, which is situated near the city of Flagstaff. Flagstaff is called the ‘Dark Sky City’, because local government tries to keep the sky over the city absolutely dark at night. It is an excellent condition for Turrell’s obervatory. The first room he built is the Sun and Moon Space. He added a tunnel to it, which works as the biggest telescope on earth: 854 feet long. Turrell wishes to bring astronomical events and objects down into your personal life, because you live in space. “We drink light,” he says. In the end he hopes the volcano will contain twenty spaces, each reveiling different perceptions of light.

What I like in his work is his notion that knowledge in itself  is not enough. “It is one thing to know these things, and another is to see them happen.” All his installations are built in a way that visitors experience light personally, with their body. He’s after this primary relation to light. “You come to this room and discover these things yourself, you go through these things, it’s your discovery.” I became conscious of the fact that, in a way, the same holds with all the projects I developed as a planner over the last thirty years: Nederland Nu Als Ontwerp (1986), Creatieve Steden (2002), Vrijstaat Amsterdam (2009), De Nieuwe Wibaut (2011), Volksvlijt (2016): these were all installations in which thousands of people could experience and discover the future in a most personal way. Why? It is their future. I think this is the most powerful planning approach. You need a space where these things can happen. Roden Crater is that kind of space. I hope the Amsterdam Public Library will gonna be a sort of Roden Crater in the first half of 2016, when Volksvlijt (The People’s Industry Palace) is staged right there.

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The creative gap

On 3 juni 2015, in economie, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Atlantic of 28 May 2015:



In 2003, at the opening of Westergasfabriek, Richard Florida visited Amsterdam for the first time. That was only one year after his ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ (2002) first was published. I remember. All Dutch cities wanted to become creative after that great performance. More than six years long each of them tried to surpass the others in its ambition to become a creative hub. Now, twelve years later, Richard Florida writes an article in The Atlantic in which he presents new data on the creativity of American cities. In ‘One Reason It’s So Hard to become a Creative Superstar City’ he reveiles that only 19 out of 364 U.S. metros have fully formed sustainable creative economies. That is no more than 5 percent. His sobering conclusion is based on new research of Shade Shutters, Rachata Muneepeerakul and Jose Lobo of Arizona State University. They took a detailed look at the growth and development of the creative economy between 2005 and 2013, so before and after the recession. Florida: “This small group not only outperformed the rest across several key economic measures, but the creative gap between them and the rest grew over the eight years studied.”

The researchers found that the small group of creative metros follow a general trajectory towards a creative economy that requires them to increasingly specialize in every economic domain. “In other words, the places with the most creative economies also have the highest overall diversity of occupations and specialities – by a wide margin.” That means, you cannot build a creative economy, at least it will be “quite daunting”. A diversity of occupations and specialities – also in the non-creative sectors – is needed. Its talent pool must be deep with all the skills, creative and otherwise, required for economic growth. Boston stands out, then follow Washington and San Francisco. Florida concludes that it is extremely difficult for the other cities to break into the small club of creative leaders. So what about the Netherlands? All those cities wishing themselves to be ‘creative’. All those creative ‘hotspots’, museums, factories, breeding places. Also without research one could expect that from the more than fifty Dutch cities – all rather small – only one or two might be called creative. The rest is not and will not easily be. The gap will become even bigger.

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