The wrong conclusion

On 13 juni 2016, in demografie, voedsel, water, by Zef Hemel

Read in De Volkskrant of 13 February 2016:

Two newspaper articles. The first one on water shortages in the world. Arjen Hoekstra, professor Watermanagement at Wageningen University, thinks at least 4 billion people in the world are suffering from water shortages during at least one month a year. That’s far more than expected. Almost half of them live in India and China, the rest in the West of the US, Mexico, Australia, North- and South-Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe. When the need for fresh water is more than double the locally available amount, the water resources will deplete, ground water level will decrease, agriculture and industry will collapse.  The use of drinking water is only 4 percent of the total use of fresh water; but one person, Hoekstra charges, uses almost 4.000 litres of water on a daily base, mostly for animal products. All world conflicts are on water shortages nowadays, indirectly they are on hunger and agricultural mismanagement, not on oil, religion, inequality or scarcity of natural resources. Drought explains the bad condition of at least half the world, our gloomy global future.

The other article was an interview with Raj Patel, British development economist and author of ‘The Value of Nothing’. Patel is worried about how to feed 9 billion people on this planet in the future, especially now that the world is confronted with climate change. His Malthusian approach brings him to the conclusion that the only way to solve this problem is to build strong local communities as a countervailing power for the big corporations and the corrupt and failing governments. While we need to rethink our economic model, Patel argues that the larger failure beneath the food, climate and economic crises is a political one. He thinks the pull to the megacities is wrong. Urban people will get poor and stay poor. Is he right? I don’t think so. Cities can store and will distribute fresh water, agriculture will be become more sustainable if cities feel responsible for their food supply, and poor migrants could become a new middle class. Cities are innovative, sustainable, healthy, social, tolerant, prosperous, dynamic. Poor citizens, women in particular, are more free – more free than in rural areas. To think they are better off on the countryside would be a big mistake. Mahatma Gandhi was wrong. So is Patel.

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Metropolitan governance issues

On 16 mei 2016, in bestuur, participatie, by Zef Hemel

Read in of 29 April 2016:

foto: Lex Banning

This week, some ninety students Urban Studies at the University of Amsterdam will finalize their course on Cities in Transition by passing their exams. Six weeks long they have studied urban transitions in Moscow, Istanbul, Seoul, Toronto, and Amsterdam, all related to globalisation ànd regionalisation. They read papers of Allen Scott, Saskia Sassen, Peter Hall, Engin Isin, Michael Porter, Thomas Courchene, Ian Buruma, and John Friedmann. They discovered that many cities outperform countries. Last week lecture and workshops were on governance issues. How can the global city-regions of the future be governed and how will metropolitan planning look like if city-regions will be connected in global urban networks? We discussed this issue in the temporary People’s Industry Palace (Volksvlijt 2056) in the Public Library of Amsterdam. Wonder if they also read Kemal Dervis and Bruce Katz. In their article on the website of the Brookings Institution, the two – Dervis the vice-president and director of Global Economy and Development, Katz the cross-disciplinary Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution –, claim that governing cities will be the central challenge facing nearly all countries over the next century.

Dervis and Katz think a fundamentally stronger understanding of how governance relationships are structured and function is necessary. “This is critical at a time when inequality among cities – even within the same country – is growing at a rate just as worrying as inequality within a particular urban economy.” Brookings Institution will start a research on how urban and metropolitan governance nowadays works in a comparative context. “We will try to learn from those that have been most successfull and understand the underlying reasons for success as well as the remaining challenges.” My students know this, they have prepared themselves. End of the week they can reflect on how the key powers and responsibilities are distributed in different nations and cities among different levels of government and how difficult it is for city governments to deal with fiscal constraints and debt burdens. Their comparative research on governance issues in five global cities ended in Volksvlijt 2056, Amsterdam. The exhibition annex program illustrates how thousands of citizens can get involved in these governing issues and help generate a kind of collective intelligence on a regional scale, only in twelve weeks time.

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People’s minds & stories

On 17 oktober 2015, in participatie, planningtheorie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘The Power of Identity’ (1997) of Manuel Castells:


Is our personal identity changing in a globalizing world? Will it become ‘unlimited’? The symposium of the Veer Stichting (Veer Foundation) in Leiden (Leyden), the Netherlands, on 15 and 16 October 2015 was on ‘Unlimited Identity’. Speakers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ahmed Aboutaleb, Jang Jin-sung, Pat Cox, Simon Kuper and Mario Monti presented their views on the subject. Some 250 students and 250 policymakers discussed the theme. The organization had asked me to lead one of the workshops. Theme: ‘Cities and Identity’. In less than an hour, all twenty-five participants had to come up with powerful stories on their own city, every story containing elements of its identity in an positive, meaningful and productive way. There should be a hero, some killing or disaster, lessons learned. The result was amazing. One of the participants told the history of the ‘Maastunnel’ (1937) in Rotterdam, connecting the poor south with the rich north, she recounted its symbolic meaning, events in the war, anecdotes, its anniversary in 2017. Someone else told about how the French king Louis Napoleon became loved by the Leyden population, after the gunpowder explosion of 1807, and how the citizens felt in his behaviour a true sense of leadership. There were also stories from Schiedam, Blaricum and Het Westland, south of The Hague. We enjoyed the exercise, there was pleasure, relaxation, sociability, even togetherness; many even tended to feel more confidence in the future.

To prepare myself I had read ‘The Power of Identity’ of Castells again. Great visionary book. Information technology is changing the way we perceive and organize our society, it does so in a most radical way. Social change in the network society means the modern nation-state is losing much of its sovereignty. Liberal democracy is getting weaker, shared identities are dissolving. Castells: “The new power lies in the codes of information and in the images of representation around which societies organize their institutions, and people build their lives, and decide their behavior. The sites of this power are people’s minds.” Castells discerned an endless battle around cultural codes. “This is why identities are so important, and ultimately, so powerful in this ever-changing power structure – because they build interests, values, and projects, around experience, and refuse to dissolve by establishing a specific connection between nature, history, geography, and culture.” The battle is not yet won. While institutions are crumbling and political forms get exhausted, new stories on cities come to the fore. They could be the positive new keystones in the process of world urbanization.

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Alternative models

On 31 augustus 2015, in boeken, voedsel, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Food and the City’ (2015) of Dorothee Imbert (editor):


A new book about “the complex interrelationship between urbanization and food production” through time and space, in fourteen chapters. Great read. Dorothée Imbert, who holds a chair in landscape architecture at the Ohio State University, is editor. Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University, Washington DC, published the book. The monumental volume contains the proceedings of the 2012 Garden and Landscape Studies symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC. Architects and historians contributed with essays on food production in highly urbanized regions in the US, Japan, Israel, Europe, China, Africa, with a special role for the cities of Tokyo and Paris: two distinguished culinary centres with a global impact on food consumption and food production. Here you find articles for instance on the invention of sushi and the unique market garden system of 19th-century Paris. I wrote an essay on the regional food supply system of Amsterdam 1930-1969, focused on the IJsselmeerpolders.

Margaret Crawford wrote an essay on ‘’Urban Agriculture in the Pearl River Delta’. Crawford is professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. In her article she describes the rapid urbanisation of the fertile delta landscape in China’s South, in and around the city of Guangzhou, a city-region of some 60 million people. Crawford focuses on the fragmented peripheral counties lying outside of Guangzhou’s urban core, a landscape she describes as a desakota landscape: a spatial form of mixed  urban-rural interaction you find around major urban centers in developing countries. More than thousand administrative villages or 4,300 natural villages, she thinks, will soon disappear if urbanisation continues in this pace. She hopes urban agriculture will survive as community gardens or in any other form, “which would help legitimate them in the eyes of planners and officials.” Growing concerns about food safety among affluent consumers could be a trigger. Crawford thinks France and regions in central and northern Italy might be worthwile studying. I found many similarities with the Dutch situation, although Guangzhou, Dongguan, Macou, Hong Kong and Shenzhen are dense urban centers, while Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht are rather small, not densely built at all. The Dutch farmland survived, that’s true, but is it sustainable? Which spatial model is the best?

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