Conversational Cuts on a Joint Field Trip to Rotterdam

Conversational Cuts on a Joint Field Trip to Rotterdam

By Rogério Lopes, 06 September, 2019

In July 2019, our European Planning Cultures team made a field trip to the second-largest city of the Netherlands, Rotterdam. Initiated by the head of department, the idea is to annually go on a joint field trip to the cities, being used as case-studies by the PhD candidates at our department. By doing so, the colleagues are able to get to know the current stage of work. Also, it enables the PhD candidates to discuss with their colleagues about their results and insights.

Thanks to one of my colleagues, we were able to get to know in depth what Rotterdam’s current success on transformation and also on temporary urbanism is based on. My colleague has been working on the latter aspect for her PhD thesis and was therefore able to organize a stunning two-day long trip through Rotterdam’s most emblematic sites and spots. Our first trip started at the Zomerhofkwartier (ZOHO) and ended with a tour by Mohamed from DakAkker, a rooftop farming organization that is located along the Luchtsingel project.

ZOHO is a neighborhood in the northern part of the inner city, just behind the northern entrance to Luchtsingel, and it is located along the southernmost stretch of an old railway viaduct, the so-called Hofbogen. Once known as dilapidated, run-down part of the city, often referred to as an isolated, poor blue collar neighborhood, quite recently, since 2013 ZOHO has undergone a smooth, but still significant transformation into a new ‘trendy hotspot’, driven by the idea of slow urbanism (cf. www.zohorotterdam.nl/over-zoho). Citizens, entrepreneurs as well as different organizations and initiatives have been working together in the ZOHOcitizens network and been collecting ideas to slowly transform the neighborhood. The idea and leitmotif is to experiment with space and to co-create a neighborhood to work, live and also to spend time in. Walking around ZOHO and having our colleague as a quasi-local guide, we were able to explore the most important organizations and sites of the neighborhood, but also to realize what slow urbanism actually means: There are still abandoned, industrial buildings in between as well as sites that are ‘only’ temporarily used.

After having walked along the railway viaduct and its dozen ateliers as well as coffee places, we made our way through Luchtsingel – a project near Hofplein Square, consisting out of four individual subprojects (Hofplein station, Park Pompenburg, the bridge and DakAkker) adding together to Luchtsingel (cf. www.luchtsingel.org/en/about-luchtsingel/the-idea). The most emblematic and probably well-known part of the project – also since the bridge itself is often solely referred to as Luchtsingel – is the yellow wooden bridge that connects the center of Rotterdam with the northern part of the city. Basically built in six phases of construction, citizens and entrepreneurs have financially contributed to complete the project. This is also reflected in the design of the bridge: each contributing entity is represented with its name on a plank or on another element of the bridge (cf. www.luchtsingel.org/en/participate/buy-a-part).

One of the ends of the bridge led us to Schieblock office building, where several smaller businesses, but also a rooftop restaurant as well as DakAkker are situated. The latter one is the largest roof farm in the Netherlands as well as one of the largest in Europe. As scientists working at a planning department we could not go to Schieblock office building without talking to someone from DakAkker. That is why our colleague had organized a guided tour on top of Schieblock.

Mohamed was actually not meant to be our guide, but due to some misunderstanding it was him who spontaneously showed us around the rooftop and he definitely did a good job. Thanks to him we were able to learn about DakAkker’s activities as well as about their rooftop farm. The farm is situated on two different floors and includes land to cultivate, e.g. strawberries and tomatoes, but also space for beekeeping as well as a smart roof. The smart roof is a water storage on the second floor of the roof and it includes an innovative flow control, enabling a smart storage or flow of water, depending on the weather conditions. The system is able to forecast the weather situation and to respond to the given circumstances (c.f. www.dakakker.nl). Anyway, DakAkker does not only offer land to cultivate, but also education programs for primary school kids who would like to learn more about urban agriculture, green roofs, climate and water, healthy food and bees.

During our second trip we headed to Katendrecht neighborhood and met up with a representative of Stead Advisory – a real estate development agency from Rotterdam (see: www.steadadvisory.com). He explained to us how Stead Advisory managed to transform Katendrecht from a ‘rundown’ neighborhood to a new ‘trendy’ place along the waterfront. One of the key anchors of the project is definitely Deliplein (Deli street): a newly developed square with a huge number of restaurants, delis and coffee places as well as redeveloped apartments, a brewery and a so called food factory. The new development followed a concept only allowing restaurants and delis fulfilling a list of quality criteria. Apart from that, it established a combination of social and free market housing in the neighborhood. Before that Katendrecht used to have a significant share of social housing units. Though somehow responsible for the transformation process – along with the city of Rotterdam, of course – the representative of Stead Advisory expresses that he is surprised about the rising real estate prices, giving us the example of a recently constructed building along the waterfront which is currently the most expensive building in the Netherlands.

After having talked to Stead Advisory, I started to reflect on Rotterdam’s recent development and to wrap up all the insights that we had gained during our field trip. Summing up the described projects in Rotterdam from a critical point of view, I would see myself being trapped in a paradoxical situation. No matter if we are talking about ZOHO, Katendrecht or even Luchtsingel, all of these examples – and also other areas in Rotterdam such as Kop van Zuid – fascinated me from an urban planning point of view. It is amazing to experience flexible and innovative planning practices as well as architecture. Anyway, walking around Katendrecht and realizing how private developers have been turning this blue-collar neighborhood into a ‘hipster-like’ paradise, I was also able to understand to which extent Rotterdam, but also any other municipality on the capitalist side of the world have been selling out their cities. No matter if we are talking about rising rents, gentrification or touristification, all of these ‘phenomena’ result from of a neoliberal way of governing and leading our cities.

Looking at Rotterdam and many other places on this planet, a lot of new planning approaches that are being applied emphasize their aim to reduce the negative effects of global warming or to learn how to handle the consequences of climate change. Other approaches focus on reducing our society’s reliance on new resources. Anyway, do so called ‘innovative municipalities’ really commit to the ideals of these new planning approaches or aren’t they just following the capitalist ideal of competition? And by doing so, to which extent do these municipalities really contribute to a ‘better world’, to a more just and less polluted environment?

I do believe that slow urbanism, resilience and temporary urbanism can contribute to solve a lot of problems, but looking at the case of Rotterdam from a critical point of view and without having any scientific proof, I wonder if in a neoliberal world these concepts are used as new narratives to open up paths to compete on the ‘global market of cities’ and to give commercialization and real estate developments in general as well as gentrification and touristification processes a push.

Looking at the example of Katendrecht, I wonder to which extent less advantaged groups may sooner or later be diminished from the urban community and if new real estate development is really needed. A lot of the redeveloped apartments in Katendrecht used to be social housing units and are now imbedded into the private market. Along with that, the list of quality criteria (see: above) for restaurants, delis and coffee places excluded stores representing owner-managed snack bars and fast food restaurants. From my point of view, at least the example of Katendrecht seems to be a perfect example for indirect and direct displacement of certain social groups.

ZoHo is far away from turning into a second Katendrecht at this point; slow urbanism can definitely serve as a way to predict negative consequences, such as gentrification. Anyway, I wonder if the stores along the railway viaduct as well as the redevelopment of the viaduct as a whole could pave the way for indirect displacement. By opening up new ‘trendy’ and ‘hipster’ stores, the neighborhood will automatically be in the center of attention of economically better situated groups as well as of tourists. Even the resilient and slow urbanism concepts which ZoHo is following might turn the neighborhood more attractive for visitors and those people working on these topics. Besides that, it is important to note that ZoHo lies on one of the ends of the bridge. Though not openly expressed, I wonder if the neighborhood might be part of a larger concept, transforming the whole northern part of the inner city.

The Netherlands as a whole used to be a haven for social housing and the Dutch state was often portrayed as a good example of the European welfare system. Globalized neo-liberal tendencies have anyway transformed the Dutch housing market and society over time – looking at Rotterdam which used to be known as the ‘unsightly’ industrialized and second largest city of the Netherlands, one can tell how much the globalized competitive neo-liberal nature is pushing municipalities to adapt to the given circumstances and to apply new concepts in order to be a step ahead of competing cities.

Besides my critical point of view, for me personally, it was my first trip to Rotterdam and I am glad to have had the chance to get to know a city that is ubiquitously known for its creative and flexible way of dealing with transformation and planning procedures. Rotterdam definitely is an astonishing city with a young, innovative spirit that is hard to find over here in Ruhr. Anyway, I do believe that in order not to completely gentrify neighborhoods which used to be known for their blue-collar demographic, it will be more important to focus on inclusive ways to adapt new planning approaches than to follow new ‘trendy’ concepts in order to compete within a capitalist system.

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