Window dressing

On 31 mei 2016, in politiek, by Zef Hemel

Heard in the People’s Industry Palace in Amsterdam on 30 May 2016:


The EU is in a crisis. And it’s a big one. Something went wrong. Remember, for many years Europe has been a sex object in the world. These times are gone. What happened? Mr. Jan Zielonka, professor of European Policy and Society, gave a dark and gloomy lecture yesterday evening on the future of the EU in the temporary People’s Industry Palace in Amsterdam. The lecture was organized by the Amsterdam Economic Board in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam. That same day the EU had presented its Urban Agenda in the Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam. So what happened? First there was the financial crisis, then the euro crisis, Greece not being able to pay its debts (and it will not either), next the internet revolution, it ended up with the refugee crisis; the whole Mediterranean is now turning into one big cemetery. So there is a crisis of cohesion in the EU, a crisis of trust, and, most important, a crisis of imagination. We don’t know how to fix the crisis. Mr. Junker is a ‘Spitzenkandidat’, a man we should have been happy with, his appointment the greatest triumph of democracy. How sad. We’re not even supposed to criticize.The only real new thing the EU came up with was the national referendum. So now the people in the Netherlands, in the UK, in Hungary can vote on matters of great complexity, with implications for the whole of the EU. How democratic is that? There is no plan-B. “Are we going to wait for Mrs. Le Pen and Mr. Wilders?”

The problem are the nationstates. Some have turned into protectorates, others look like semi-failed states, Germany behaves like an empire. They have become dysfunctional without noticing it. They’re working in a hierarchical way. And so is the whole of the EU, which is a creation of the member-states, with Berlin at the top. “We got more rules, but no governance. In this situation an Urban Agenda doesn’t help. The cities of Europe do not wait for the EU. Life goes on.” Mr. Zielonka pointed at the fact that we’re living in an economy and a society that have become more global and more networked, with powerful multinationals and megacities. Sure, we trust our leaders, but they don’t deliver. No, the situation doesn’t look very well. Mr. Zielonka believed that if you cannot push forward, you will have to step back. Brussels should disperse power. We need more horizontal structures. But this the nationstates will not do. So what happens if institutions become dysfunctional? There will be more ad hoc arrangements, people finding pragmatic solutions; this is probably the only way. What about the EU then? The EU should abolish the monopoly of the states on integration and stop working like an old propaganda machine; instead of territorial integration it should allow functional integration. And it should decentralize governance to a lower level. Back to the nationstates is no option. And just like the Lisbon Agenda, the Urban Agenda – this Pact of Amsterdam – is no more than window dressing.

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Bad news

On 9 december 2015, in demografie, economie, ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in NRC Handelsblad of 1 December 2015:

There was some news on the future last week. Bad news. Hope you didn’t read it. In ‘The Netherlands will look like this in the future’, NRC Handelsblad reported on a scenario study of the Netherlands in the year 2050. The two long term scenario’s were made by the Central (economic) Planning Bureau (CPB) and the Dutch National Planning Office for the Environment (PBL). In ‘Toekomstverkenning Welvaart en Leefomgeving’ both Planning Bureaus are forecasting a slowing down of economic growth in the future in each scenario. It’s all because of demography: the Dutch population will shrink.  Whether there will be any economic growth, will depend on technology, the planners in The Hague think. Some of them have high expectations of smart machines and robotization, others are more sceptical. In most parts of the country there will be no growth at all. Some regions will shrink even by 10 or 25 percent. “This can change the streetscape completely.” In the scenario ‘High growth’ the Amsterdam region will show the best results, in the scenario ‘Low growth’ all of the country will cope with high unemployment, vacant buildings, administrative crises, budget cuts. So in the low growth scenario even in Amsterdam the streetscape will change completely. For worse.

The surprising fact is that the experts think the Randstad will lose power in each scenario compared to Overijssel, Gelderland and Noord Brabant. Why?  Because the big cities in the West, they write, have already too many one-person households. It’s a typical demographers view. They even advise to build new dwellings all over the country, especially in the East and the South, where they think these houses will be needed. There is no lack of space over there! And Amsterdam, one of them adds, “will certainly not explode,” referring to the heated discussion on recent extreme fast growth in Amsterdam. No discussion on the poor outcome of the scenario’s, on the lack of agglomeration economies in the Netherlands, on strange local effects of globalization. No thinking even on why all this slow or no growth in the future is expected and how we could boost our national economy instead, other than blaming demography and our open economy. Just a lousy, old fashioned report of some experts in a The Hague bureaucracy again. Don’t read it. Just forget it.

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Looking backward

On 18 november 2015, in participatie, planningtheorie, by Zef Hemel

Heard in Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam, on 27 October 2015:

The 740th anniversary of Amsterdam was celebrated this year in Pakhuis de Zwijger, on 27 October. Another ten years to go. Then the city will celebrate its 750 anniversary. What should we add to the city? What’s still missing? A selection of speakers was asked to give their view on the city of the future. The aim of the long-term programme is getting citizens involved in a process that already started two years ago with asking some hundred young professionals working for Amsterdam-based companies to make scenario’s for the future – a process that will continue untill the year 2025. Ila Kasem, Paul Scheffer and Zef Hemel are the initiators of this inspiring ‘planning process’ of long-term engagement of citizens. We think that people should participate more, really contribute to and reflect on their own city as it will develop in the coming years. The format should not be a kind of competition or ‘challenge’, with winners and losers. There are no awards to win at all. We’re just fostering a more optimistic mood, many great new ideas, amazing plans, new entrepreneurship, thrift. Will we succeed?

What I found striking that night was the huge number of people who came up with proposals to add another museum to the city fabric:  for migration, for water management, for modern art, for this and for that. Every round in the Pakhuis ended with the M-word. But Amsterdam already has the highest museum density of Europe! Why adding more museums to the existing 75? And why are the citizens only looking backward? Why not forward? What are the people nostalgic for? It seems the future is too uncertain for them. There is no vision, no shared story, no goal, no hope, nothing to strive for as a civil society. Amsterdam’s Third Golden Age started with the reopening of the Rijksmuseum in 2013. This old building celebrates a national heroic history. Typical. We lack a Samual Sarphati, a visionary entrepreneur who built a People’s Industry Palace in 1864, a space of glass and steel where citizens could experience – almost enter – the future. Thank God it will reopen its doors in April 2016. But not the old one. We will welcome you in the new Public Library on the Oosterdok, where you will enter a brand new People’s Industry Palace, a space where in twelve weeks time more than 500.000 people will gather and dream their city’s future! See you there!

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Flanders 2055

On 9 oktober 2015, in duurzaamheid, by Zef Hemel

Read in Het Parool of 3 October 2015:

He was the last speaker at the conference last week, in the House of Lords (Eerste Kamer) in The Hague, just after me. The journalist who interviewed him was in the audience. Jonathan Holslag (1981) is professor at the Free University of Brussels, he’s an expert in China. Like all the speakers that day he focused on the future of the Netherlands. His theme: geopolitics. He was very pessimistic, I remember. Two days later I read the interview with him in Het Parool, a Dutch newspaper. Pessimistic too. What I didn’t know is that he had just published a book on the future of Flanders, Belgium. In ‘Vlaanderen 2055’ he presented his dream of future Flanders. When I met him in The Hague we discussed his view on cities. According to him, megacities are horrible inventions, inhuman, not sustainable. He had read my blog, he told me. He wanted to discuss with me why the hell I wanted to double the size of Amsterdam. He simply could not understand. But interesting though it was. What did he say in the interview? “The only possibility is to return to a society where we can improve ourselves en live together on a human scale.”

Is his view utopian, romantic? Holslag: “I think we feel better in communities that are small, where buildings are not too big. There is a big risk that cosmopolitan people project their wishes and ideas on the rest of the population.” So yes, Holslag is romantic, anti-urban, like most European thinkers through history. But what he stands for is also unrealistic, simply not true. Holslag: “Innovation and scientific breakthroughs mostly come from university-cities that have no more than een few hundred thousand inhabitants. Campusses of Google and others look like villages, not megacities.” Nonsense of course. That holds only if your focus is narrow. Holslag is a European romantic, living in one of the most unsustainable economies of the world. Why? Because Belgium is one of the least densily built, one of the most suburbanised, oil-consuming countries, the country is a horrible scenario come true. Like the Netherlands, Belgium would better build a megacity now.

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