A beautiful city

On 23 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (1859) of Charles Dickens:


Have you read all those newspapers publishing on Paris this weekend? On all those killings, violence in the streets, terrorism, islam. Can’t get enough? I prefer rereading Charles Dickens. Dickens published his great novel on the French revolution in 1859. His own life was in a crisis. He divorced. In 1858 he decided to write ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, a novel on London and Paris in 1798, the year of the French revolution. Private and public revolution assembled in one book. His favorite source was ‘The French Revolution’ of Thomas Carlyle. The novel we wrote is almost Dostoyevski-like. It’s about Dicken’s obsession with destructive violence. Violence of the mob. “He regarded violence as the necessary end of violence; prison as the consequence of prison; hatred as the wages of hatred. He preached that we must not allow society to take on the condition of frustrated anger in which men become mobs and the world is violently upturned.” Such dangers, wrote George Woodcock in his introduction, could not be removed by repression, but only by recognizing and alleviating the conditions that caused them. So reread Dickens.

Charles Dickens had no programme for an ideal society. What he critized were the wrong moral attitudes of people. We have the moral choice between changing society and changing oneself. Better change oneself. “It is in fact by a moral resurgence that Dickens hopes to defeat the threat of revolution, and the idea of such a resurgence is clearly linked with the theme of resurrection that permeates every level of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’  and assumes an almost grotesque variety of forms.” Nothing new. Very difficult indeed. Dickens: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.” (…). Just before the guillotine Sydney Carton thinks these thoughts: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” A minute later he dies.

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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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Building green belts

On 30 september 2015, in wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Economist of 26 September 2015:


Something’s badly wrong. On my way back from the UK, I read an article in this week’s edition of The Economist on the booming housing market in and around London. Despite stagnant incomes, Britons have taken on masses of cheap debt. All this demand has run up against ‘sluggish supply’. People think foreign ownership of London real estate is the problem. It is not. That problem concerns only certain parts of inner London. Demand from within Britain exerts much bigger effects, according to The Economist. The magazine thinks this is partly due to strict planning laws. Green belts are protecting the landscape around cities; these belts now cover 13 per cent of England. How sacred are they? The conservative government wants to get rid of those planning schemes and, by doing this, make it easier to build. The Economist thinks cheap debt is not the problem, but spatial planning. The magazine quotes Paul Cheshire of the London School of Economics, who thinks London could build another 1,6 million houses in the Green Belt around the capital city. The magazine agrees, because much green-belt land “is far from green”.

So that’s the end of planning, even though everybody knows that when planning permission is forthcoming, housebuilders have held back. Why? Because builders try to sell new-builds at a price in the upper decile of those prevailing in the local market. “Since coming to power in 2010 the Conservative government has done more to boost demand for housing than increase its supply. Labour, meanwhile, talks about rent controls, which could flatten supply still further.” While reading this, I had to think of the recent study of Greg Clark, senior fellow of the Urban Land Institute, who gave a lecture in Amsterdam last week on the lack of density in our cities. In ‘Density: drivers, dividends and debates’ (2015) he demonstrates the great value of density, “to advocate for the best practices that can produce it, to bust the myths, and to start the process of informing and supporting new leaders to put density at the heart of long term planning for the future.” We should densify our cities now! Would be a great read for the editors of The Economist.

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Delicious liquorice

On 28 augustus 2015, in infrastructuur, internationaal, by Zef Hemel

Read on CityMetric on 1 July 2015:

There is a fierce debate going on in Great Britain about the future of its London airports. BAA wants to expand the capacity of Heathrow, west of London. The mayor of London, Mr. Johnson, is favoring the building of a new hub on an artificial island in the Thames estuary in the east: a four-runway airport, called ‘Boris Island’. This Thames hub was added to the list of possibilities by the national Airports Commission in 2014. Tom Forth published an analysis on the website of CityMetric, defending another option: Amsterdam airport. Forth gave “six very big reasons to think that Heathrow isn’t the UK’s hub airport at all.” It’s a great read, illustrated with convincing maps. What are his reasons? 1. You can’t get a train to Heathrow from any UK city other than London. 2. you can fly from Heathrow to only seven other UK cities, 3. Manchester is better connected, “but there’s an airport that easily beats them both.” Which one? Amsterdam airport, good for 24 connections to British airports. “They speak great English, the liquorice is delicious, the airport is efficient, and you can buy tulip bulbs and cheese while you wait for a connection.”

4. Mr. Forth even found data on international flight connections. In a huge majority of cases, the best option was a flight via Schiphol. 5. True, the cheapest flights for citizens of the UK is Heathrow, but Manchester, he found, is only a bit more expensive and, surprising, half of the flights from Manchester go via Schiphol, 6. and Norwich, he added, gives the fastest connection to the world, but that is thanks to the fact that it is the closest airport to Amsterdam. Forth, who is from Leeds, used all these arguments and data to make clear that subsidizing Heathrow is unfair, his aim was not to come up with the proposal to accept Amsterdam airport as a major hub, also for British passengers. And yes, Heathrow is a London hub, not a national hub. And Schiphol is an international hub, not an Amsterdam hub. By the way, the alternative of Schiphol would have helped the Airports Commission. But: again a national debate, not an urban one.

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Highrise is coming

On 20 augustus 2015, in wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in Het Parool of 1 August 2015:


So we spent a week in London. We booked an Airbnb in Hampstead Heath, London North. An excellent appartment, though rather small compared to Dutch standards. We met friends, all living in London now. Why did they chose for London? Because, they said, here are the jobs. Sure, they admitted, London is an expensive city. Even for a small dwelling you have to pay a fortune. The average housing price in London is 650.000 euro now. You have to earn at least 100.000 euro a year if you want to buy one. But there are lots of opportunities. And don’t forget all the amenities. Dutch newspapers love to write about ‘ghost streets’ in Kensington and Mayfair, where billionaires buy real estate from paper, without seeing it. The Amsterdam based newspaper Het Parool even headed ‘Londen staat leeg’ (‘London is vacant’), which is nonsense of course. In reality, London is heading for a population of 10 million inhabitants. In 2040 Great Britain will have a bigger population than Germany.The newspaper quoted David Galman, director of the new Maintower on Canary Wharf. All appartments in his tower were being sold without mortgage. Buyers came from China, the Middle East, India and Greece. “It proofs that the world puts trust in the housing market of London.” But the Dutch prefer their small cities with their cheap houses.

The London housing market is overheated, for sure. The situation fits in a global pattern. Cities are back on stage again, but certainly not all cities. Many are shrinking, becoming cheaper (which is a problem in itself). But all successful cities, worldwide: Sydney, San Francisco, London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, New York, Amsterdam, are fighting against a lack of affordable houses. If you want to live in one of those dream cities, you will have to earn a lot of money nowadays. What is happening in Mayfair and Belgrave is exceptional though. Rich people are speculating there with (exceptional) real estate. The task of local government is making developers to build as many houses as possible in a very dense setting and providing mass transit all over the place. This will reduce the average price and will keep people coming. London is not a densely built city at all. I had a look at Nine Elms, Old Street, Battersea, Canary Wharf. Highrise is coming to town.

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Importance of a ping-pong table

On 17 augustus 2015, in boeken, by Zef Hemel

Read this summer in London and on the beach:


At the beginning of every summer, more or less round the month of July, correspondents and critics of newspapers and popular magazines always give personal lists of their favorite books. ‘These are the books I advise you to read.’ I love those lists. So that’s why I give you my personal list of favourites now, even though it is late August, at the end of my holiday. This is what I read during this summer time, books – novels and non-fiction – which I found really worthwile reading:

1. London, the biography (2000), by Peter Ackroyd;

2. Freedom (2010), by Jonathan Franzen;

3. The Sleepwalkers (2012), by Christopher Clark;

4. Soumission (2014), by Michel Houellebecq;

5. NW (2012), by Zadie Smith.

The first book is about London, the city perceived by Ackroyd as body. Great. The second describes Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota, but it also gives a great portrait of the dullness of Washington DC. Not to be missed. The third is about Belgrade, Serbia, on the eve of WWI. Horrible history. The fourth concerns Paris. Awesome. And NW, by the British novelist Zadie Smith, describes Willesden, North-West London. Willesden I visited mid July, when I went to London. I walked through the sleepy street where Leah lived. Leah, “a state-school wild card, with no Latin, no Greek, no Maths, no foreign language (…)”, living amongst Nigerians, Sikhs, lots of immigrant people in the neighborhood near Willesden Junction. “In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside.” I even visited Number 37 Ridley Avenue, Finchley Road, Willesden lane. So this is London too. The non-touristic, non-billionair immigrant city. Enjoy the language: “Elsewhere in London, offices are open/floor-to-ceiling glass/sites of synergy/gleaming. There persists a belief in the importance of a ping-pong table. Here there is no. Here offices are boxy cramped Victorian damp.” (…) “Face east and dream of Regent’s Park, of St. John’s Wood. The Arabs, the Israelis, the Russians, the Americans: here united by the furnished penthouse, the private clinic.” Yes, a boring place, but a true emancipation milieu. Read this great novel if you want to understand how citites like London and Paris function these days.

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Metro mayors

On 13 juli 2015, in economie, ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Economist of 6 June 2015:


George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer in the UK Cameron administration, called the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds-Sheffield urban region a new ‘Northern Powerhouse’. At least he wants it to become a new engine. The Economist agrees very much on that. Great Britain, it states, is one of the most centralised and economically unbalanced countries in Europe. It thinks part of the problem is “that local government is so toothless.” Really? “Over-centralisation is a strange problem for Britain to have. In the 19th century northern towns were like city-states, run by Victorian worthies who set up civic institutions and superb infrastructure. It was only with the coming of the welfare state in the 1940s that London took control.” After the austerity programmes of the central government, all city councils now want control of their own budgets. Osborne will give it to them if they collaborate and choose one mayor for themselves first, he promised. He calls it ‘metro mayors’. Will they do it? And will devolution help?

The article shows a diagram of four European countries with their biggest cities: Great Britian, Germany, Italy, Spain. The capital’s GDP in each cases is 100. It compares Britain to Germany and the other countries. Düsseldorf then makes more than 175, Milan 170, Barcelona 75. Manchester though makes only 7, Birmingham 6, Glasgow 5. Surprising? No, London is far bigger than Berlin, far more successful too because Berlin is not doing too well. Rome is dull compared to Milan. Take the Netherlands: Dutch government in The Hague is dominating, the political system is very centralised, but Amsterdam is growing faster though. What’s wrong with the British? Do they really think the success of London is due to centralised government policies? After 1940 British government created a green belt around London and built new towns in order to appease the monster. To no avail. Of course, de-centralisation is needed, (we all need city-states now), but centralisation is not the cause of London’s astounding success. Success just reinforces success. It’s globalisation that’s doing its work. Because of globalisation this uneven growth gets reinforced. This feels unjust. Devolution will only make it more explicit.

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Winner takes all

On 17 juni 2015, in bestuur, economie, politiek, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Economist of 12 June 2016:


In the UK, just like in many other countries, regional inequality is growing fast. London is the big winner, cities in the North are the big losers. As Richard Florida already forecasted years ago, the world is getting pretty spiky. The principle is simple: ‘success breeds success’. The winner takes all. This feels uncomfortable, to say the least. But in ‘Time for a civic surge’ The Economist writes about “the best opportunities for Engeland’s regional cities for a renaissance in decades” – opportunities they must not waste.  The Economist: “Britain is absurdly top-heavy: whereas half a dozen German cities have economies three-quarters the size of Berlin’s, no English city’s economy is even a quarter the size of London’s.” But can you do anything about it? How to stop London being successful? This is what governments always do: embracing distributive justice by relegating public money from successful cities to struggling cities in the hope markets will follow. Also London-based The Economist thinks the other cities in the UK should grab their chance now. George Osborne, the chancellor in the Cameron administration, has offered to cede billions of pounds of public spending to clusters of cities that agree to join together and be run by an elected mayor. So do it! I’m afraid more countries will follow his model.

Will it work? Surely not. Jane Jacobs was clear about it. In ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’ (1985) she dismantled all existing economic theory and argued that a nation is an inadequate unit of analysis for understanding economic life. Differences between cities – some rich and some poor – in one country simply cannot be balanced by redistribution. The point is, countries and also economists, she stressed, do not understand how cities work. Only local production can create wealth, wealth cannot be bought or acquired by loans or grants. The Economist also hesitates, but the magazine only points at some practical objections. It thinks the conditions under which the British government will redistribute taxpayers money will be too troublesome for many cities. They will not collaborate. The editors also point out the danger of incompetence and corruption. They’re right. Nevertheless, “This deal offers a chance to claw back power, make savings and reshape English governance.” I don’t think so. It will only harm the British economy. Trouble is on the road again.

Uitgewoonde metropool

On 14 januari 2011, in politiek, regionale planning, by Zef Hemel

Gelezen in Politics, Planning and Homes in a World City (2010) van Duncan Bowie:

De eindconclusie van Duncan Bowie ten aanzien van de planning van Londen in het eerste decennium van de eenentwintigste eeuw is inkt, inktzwart. Hij waarschuwt andere steden in de wereld het voorbeeld van de Britse hoofdstad niet te volgen. Investeringen in het openbaar vervoer zijn sterk achtergebleven bij de bevolkingsontwikkeling. Zo ook investeringen in de sociale infrastructuur. Ofschoon burgemeester Ken Livingstone substantieel heeft geïnvesteerd in nieuw busmaterieel, is de Londense metro verder achteruit gekacheld. “This is not helped by the privatization of basic physical and social infrastructure services, from the railway franchise and the underground maintenance contracts to the energy providers and the water and sewerage companies. “ Hij noemt absurde situaties waarin overheidsorganisaties de controle over geprivatiseerde bedrijven totaal zijn kwijtgeraakt. Na meer dan 240 bladzijden moet het deze zorgvuldig formulerende onderzoeker van het hart: “This would not have happened 150 years ago when, even before the founding of the London County Council, the Metropolitan Board of Works, a publicly accountable body, provided water, sewerage, bridges and roads.”  De neoliberale Britse politiek heeft de publieke sector volstrekt uitgehold. Het gevolg is een uitgewoonde metropool.

Bowie schaamt zich voor zijn land. “So the lesson for other cities is not to follow London’s example.” Erger, regionale planning bestaat in Londen al helemaal niet en het gevolg is dat het compacte stadbeleid van Livingstone dus niet heeft gewerkt. Een derde van de werkers in de Britse hoofdstad moet elke dag van ver komen om op het werk te verschijnen. Maar nog erger zijn de effecten van de globalisering, waardoor mensen steeds mobieler en flexibeler zijn geworden en dikwijls verschillende werkkringen met verschillende woonplaatsen combineren. Niet de internationale migratie, zegt Bowie, is het probleem van deze tijd, maar deze bijna onzichtbare, dikke stroom van mensen die gaan van niets naar nergens. “How can governance be accountable to a population which is continuously on the move and generates demands and can contribute both spending and investment in a number of locations simultaneously, while having no single residential base or community identity?” De meerderheid lijkt losgeslagen, ze is permanent op drift. Past daar nog een lokale democratie bij zoals we die honderdvijftig jaar geleden hebben bedacht en die de laatste dertig jaar door voortdurende liberalisering is leeggeroofd en geplunderd? Bowie probeert het nog één keer: stadsontwikkeling kàn niet zonder publieke investeringen, overheidsplanning en een goed georganiseerde publieke sector. Maar ook hij ziet in dat wanneer een democratie niet bereid is in een overheid te investeren in een situatie van hoogconjunctuur, deze in een recessie daartoe al helemaal niet bereid zal zijn. Het is einde verhaal.

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Bestuurlijke drukte

On 4 januari 2011, in politiek, regionale planning, by Zef Hemel

Gelezen in Politics, Planning and Homes in a World City (2010) van Duncan Bowie:

The London Plan (2004) was het eerste regionale strategische plan dat gereed kwam onder de nieuwe wetgeving van de Britse Labourregering van premier Tony Blair. De Londense planoloog Bowie verbaast zich nog altijd over het feit dat The London Plan van Ken Livingstone zonder noemenswaardige controverse in slechts vier jaar gereed kwam. Eigenlijk waren er helemaal geen pijnpunten geweest, oppositie ertegen was er nauwelijks gevoerd. Hoe speelde de kersverse burgemeester dat klaar? Bowie’s verklaring is deels van technische aard: er kon door de pas aangetreden ambtenaren van de Greater London Authority heel gemakkelijk worden voortgeborduurd op een eerder planningsdocument van de London Planning Advisory Committee van Martin Simmons. Door bovendien de hoogleraren Drew Stevenson en Robin Thompson aan te trekken als adviseurs stuitte het plan niet op weerstand van de Britse vakgemeenschap. Daarnaast brak de onafhankelijke burgemeester met de standaardpraktijk in Groot Brittannië om met planproducten tegenspraak uit te lokken. Livingstone koos uitdrukkelijk voor het consensusmodel. Ten slotte zocht de burgemeester aansluiting bij dominante spelers in het economische veld: de ondernemersverenigingen in Groot-Londen. Ondertussen vergat hij niet met verschillende andere belangengroepen rekening te houden: die van de woonbonden en, door middel van een stevige Green Belt-politiek, de machtige duurzaamheidspartijen die het platteland rond Londen willen bewaren.

De enige die dwars lag was de Britse regering. Ook na 2000 had Whitehall nog veel macht ten aanzien van de stadsontwikkeling van Londen – via wet- en regelgeving -, maar ook bepaalde ze in hoge mate de financiering van ruimtelijke programma’s. Sterker, het hele bouwwerk van planologische bemoeienis van de regering met de hoofdstad dat voor het aantreden van Livingstone bestond, bleef ook daarna gewoon intact en ontwikkelde eigen beleid parallel aan de werkzaamheden van het team dat in opdracht van de burgemeester aan ‘The London Plan’ werkte. Kwam het doordat Blair niet blij was met de figuur van Livingstone op de burgemeesterszetel? Bowie laat zich er niet over uit. Hoe dan ook, toen het plan gereed kwam was de tegenwerking nog allerminst voorbij. “GOL-planners appeared to check every sentence of the draft London Plan against every national planning policy document and formally object to every statement that was not fully consistent.” Dit werd nog bemoeilijkt doordat de voor Londen verantwoordelijke staatssecretaris veel wet- en regelgeving gedurende het totstandkomingsproces wijzigde of aankondigde te zullen wijzigen maar dit vervolgens niet deed. Terwijl de planologen van de burgemeester wanhopig probeerden de documenten in lijn te brengen met rijksbesluiten, keurden de ambtenaren van de departementen beleidsteksten gewoon af, afhankelijk van de voortgang van eigen wetgevingstrajecten. Achteraf heette de totstandkoming van The London Plan buitengewoon succesvol, maar wie direct betrokken was geweest wist wel beter. Een sterk staaltje van bestuurlijke drukte in het Verenigd Koninkrijk. Overbodige bureaucratie. Niet nodig. Jammer.

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