Tristate City Vintage

On 5 juli 2016, in Geen categorie, by Zef Hemel

Read on

Imagine: ‘The Battle of the Cities’. The Dutch employers organisation VNO-NCW and the real estate developer CBRE think there is a battle going on in this world. They wanna be winners. Mr. Peter Savelberg, a Dutch consultant, proposes a city of 30 million inhabitants. VNO NCW and CBRE decided to sponsor him. His TristateCity covers the whole of the Netherlands, the Rhine-Ruhr Area and Belgium. He even made a map of his transnational conurbation, its size even bigger than Jean Gottmann’s Megalopolis of 1962. Mr. Savelberg, who is a professional in real estate and marketing, thinks it’s gonna be the most powerful urban power center of the world. Yes, we’re going to beat the Chinese! We need transport corridors that are connecting all three rings of rather small-size cities. The so-called Randstad is just the inner ring. A second ring connects Middelburg, Goes, Tilburg, Breda, Eindhoven, Zwolle, Leeuwarden; a third ring binds Ostende, Ghent, Brussels, Maastricht, Aachen, Cologne, Duisburg, Enschede, Groningen together – this last ring is even wider than the outer ring of Greater-Beijing or the MKAD of Greater-Moscow. The outer ring is shrinking, the future of the middle ring is fishy, even parts of the Randstad are suffering a Rust Belt condition. Mr. Savelberg’s scheme reminded me of a diagram and an old idea: in 1898 the British inventor Ebenezer Howard thought a diagram like this would make sense. He was wrong. The Soviets tried. It only generated congestion.

The problem with Mr. Savelberg’s TristateCity is its scale too, of course. It’s simply too grand, too megalomanic, too much out of control, lacking any decent governance. The whole idea is also not liveable and sustainable, and worse, what it lacks are agglomeration economies. You remember the corridors-discussion of the nineties? See the result. The future Mr. Savelberg and his powerful sponsors seem to propose looks almost like Soviet or Fascist style planning of the twentieth century. On the website of Tristate City, the organisations that support Mr. Savelberg refer to the Pearl River Delta, a conurbation of 60 million inhabitants. So that is their adversary. Are they aware of the fact that Chinese planning schemes on this huge scale have a communist background? I doubt it. And do they see the difference between Pearl River delta and the Tristate City?: one is full of peasant-immigrants and growing very fast, while the other is ageing and shrinking. Mr. Hans de Boer, president of the Dutch employers organisation, thinks it is just a great way to present the Netherlands to the world. Is it? I think it is ingenious. As a planner I even feel embarrassed. No, we should be very worried. 

Mr. Savelberg commented:

“Jammer dat u niet even contact heeft opgenomen/zich echt ordentelijk heeft verdiept in ons MARKETING-model; het gaat hier natuurlijk geenszins om een ruimtelijk ontwikkel model; laat staan om een ruimtelijke ambitie.

Op dit moment wonen er al lang 30 miljoen mensen in dit gebied en dat zal ook niet hard groeien. Ook nemen wij de Pearl River Delta absoluut NIET als voorbeeld voor onze Lage Landen. In tegendeel, wij stipuleren juist dat ons organisch gegroeide model van netwerk van kleine steden op vele fronten als voorbeeld kan dienen voor alles wat er nu mis gaat bij de onbeheerste urbanisatie in o.a. China.

Wel geven wij een antwoord op de huidige inefficiente en gefragmenteerde citymarketing van vele kleine steden en hun bestuurders. Dat wordt overigens door velen op prijs gesteld (ook in de academische wereld).”

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Country in a Clusterclimax

On 5 juni 2016, in economie, innovatie, by Zef Hemel

Read in De Volkskrant of 28 May 2016:


Strange map in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant last week. Almost hilarious if not depressing. The map showed all the latest campusses in the Netherlands with their special brands: technopolis, bio science, healthcare, IT, geomatics, green chemistry, water, sensortechnology, energy, services, food, horti science, space, knowledge. The whole country has turned into a wide range of valleys. But the queer thing is that cities on the map are lacking. In ‘Every village a silicon valley’, journalist Remco Andersen confirms that specialists think this spatial and functional fragmentation is absurd and wrong. “The Netherlands are in a clusterclimax,” Miranda Ebbekink of Nijmegen University remarked. She thinks it is a race to the bottom. But the Dutch government, all the twelve provinces and the EU seem to encourage this fragmentation by subsidizing many new local initiatives. Every province wants to establish its own campuses, some even think two or three are needed. My guess is they all are trying to upgrade their vacant business parks. To no avail.

The map reveals how this country disregards agglomeration economies and how it doggedly misinterprets Michael Porter’s theory of clustering. The scale and complexity at which innovation happens is nearly totally neglected. Urbanization patterns play no role, local authorities think post-industrial innovation is a matter of putting some experts together in an office block in the outskirts of a provincial town, add an incubator and a restaurant and miracles will happen. They missed all notions of new forms of centrality. Porter: “The more that one thinks in terms of microeconomics, innovation, clusters, and integrating economic and social policy, the more the city-region emerges as an important unit.” (Porter, 2001)  The map in the newspaper shows no city-regions. In its Territorial Review of the Netherlands in 2014 the OECD pointed at the urgency to create a National Urban Policy Framework which is currently lacking in the Netherlands. Such a policy should improve economies of agglomeration and reduce fragmentation. That was two years ago. Since then, nothing has happened.

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The real blind spot

On 13 mei 2016, in landschap, regionale planning, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Blind spot’ (2016) of Vereniging Deltametropool:


Got a free copy of ‘Blind spot’, a Dutch glossy on metropolitan landscapes. Huge pictures, huge maps, huge volume. The well designed publication “aims to illustrate the quality of a metropolitan landscape contributing to the economic success of the region by analyzing and drawing comparison from ten international case studies”: Rhein-Ruhr, London, Toronto, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, Paris, Johannesburg, Milan, Taipei and Deltametropolis. Deltametropolis is a summation of cities and villages in the Netherlands, totalling a number of 10 million inhabitants, which makes a territory more than double the size of the former Randstad area. That means half of the country is included, half is excluded. The authors claim the one half is a metropolis. Which it is not, of course, because it is more countryside than city, a chaotic suburban landscape filled with highways, airports, railway tracks, shopping malls, green houses, factory outlet centers, golf courses, stables, office parks. Still, the promotors think it is green and it should be protected. That’s why they are lobbying with the help of this new glossy, comparing their work with those of colleagues in London, Paris and Rio. “Do we use the metropolitan landscape to our economic advantage and do we invest enough in its development and conservation?” Apparently they want more investments in landscape designing and engineering, so they are lobbying for themselves, hoping for a strong client. And yes, Dutch landscape architects were hard hit by the financial crisis.

Distressing is how these architects and government institutions systematically misinterpret cities and governance issues of metropolitan regions. “Despite several attempts since the 1950s, the ‘Randstad’ metropolitan region in the west of the Netherlands has never produced a single metropolitan government. The rural and equalitarian spirit of Dutch politics, with preference towards several smaller independent cities as opposed to a single cosmopolitan center of power and culture, largely explains the lack of an overarching governing body.” Apparently they lack a planning background. I mean, which of the ten metropolitan regions mentioned in this glossy has an overarching governing body? Zero. Why? Because they develop themselves bottom-up. Why exaggerating the Dutch metropolis? It simply does not exist. Why asking for a strong government? Central government in the Netherlands is already too strong. The whole atmosphere of the glossy gives off an odor of strong centralized authoritarianism: a romantic yearning for large scale design interventions, big money, state power, top-down planning. Nothing learned from the crisis. That’s the real blind spot.

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Unsustainable Urban Delta

On 22 april 2016, in duurzaamheid, economie, by Zef Hemel

Read in Het Parool of 15 April 2016:


Last week they forced me to move to another lecture hall at the University of Amsterdam. They told me the Dutch prime-minister Mr. Rutte was expected to come. He would give a lecture on ‘How the Netherlands is functioning’, and he needed my room. So I asked my students to move to the next hall and listen to my lecture on Global Cities over there. Afterwards I was wondering what Mr. Rutte had told his audience. In the newspaper next day I read that he had been speaking of the Netherlands in terms of a smart, innovative country we should be proud of. We’re one of the best in the world! Very stimulating indeed. But then he made a mistake. “It’s not a problem at all that the Netherlands lack megacities,” he lectured. See our country as one big colaborating city. When Amsterdam goes on a trade mission and sees opportunities for food or agriculture, the mayor invites the rector of the Wageningen University to join him. Then you could say: Wageningen is not Amsterdam. But on a world scale, Amsterdam is Wageningen-West.” Very funny. Mr. Rutte better had joined my students and learn more about Global Cities. (Photo: Mats van Soolingen)

Are the Netherlands one big collaborating city? Surely not. If the country is conceived as one big city, it would be one of the most polluted and least sustainable cities in the world. The ecological footprint of the Netherlands is one of the heaviest. If everyone were to adopt the Dutch lifestyle, the planet’s natural resources would be exhausted by 2030. But that’s no problem to our prime-minister. The same day he made his bold statement at the University of Amsterdam, he also launched the ‘Sustainable Urban Delta’-campaign at the Innovation Expo on the banks of the river IJ. Can you believe it? In terms of global hectares, the Dutch footprint measures 6.34 gha. This is twice the size of the Brazilian footprint and six times the size of the Indian ecological footprint. For the earth to support itself, scientists estimate that an ecological footprint of 1.8 gha is permissible. More than twenty years ago researchers reported that the Netherlands required a land mass fifteen times its current size to support of Dutch consumption levels of food and resources. So shame on us. Our prime-minister should aim for one big megacity of 17 million inhabitants, to begin with doubling the size of Amsterdam. That would make a difference, also in terms of innovation. But he will not. He’s only focused on boosting the economy, summoning his subjects to collaborate, without comprehending that megacities are true economic engines ànd far more sustainable than a conurbation of many small cities and villages. How sad.

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Jane Jacobs again

On 1 april 2016, in economie, by Zef Hemel

Read in OECD Territorial Review of the Metropolitan Region Rotterdam-The Hague (2016):

With the financial support of the Ministry of Interior Affairs in The Hague, the OECD published a report on the regional economy of the two Dutch neighboring cities Rotterdam and The Hague. It’s worth reading, especially for the students  following my course on global cities at the University of Amsterdam. How competitive are these two cities in the South Wing of the former Randstad area or, better, why do they lack competitiveness? The OECD concludes that “the distinct socio-economic profiles of Rotterdam (centred on the port and logistics activities) and The Hague (specialised in public administration and services) have contributed to weak functional integration of the MRDH area,” and also the “two cities have not traditionally considered themselves as natural partners”. Commuting flows between the two cities are extremely low, even though the distance between them is less than 30 kilometres. And yes, it’s the most densiliy built area in the Netherlands. ”However, the MRDH lags behind the Dutch average in terms of educational attainment, disposable income and employment.” Globalization is testing the capacity of city-regions to exploit their comparative advantages. MRDH is losing ground. “It has struggled to recover from the 2008 global crisis and continues to be outperformed by other metropolitan areas in the Randstad.”

So what does the OECD advise the Ministry and its two cities? Its key recommendations are:  it’s a long way to go, and best would be “focusing inward to promote greater integration of the MRDH while looking outward to boost the national and international profile of the region”. Personally I hope they will not boost the national and international profile too much. The two cities are quite good at that already. Better look inward. That’s also what I teach my students, I mean, the sustainable development of a city-region requires giving greater attention to the creation and conservation of regional wealth. Especially now that globalization is testing regional economies, big projects are no help, nor does city marketing. Focus on your regional assets. So let’s quote the great American planner John Friedmann, who wrote: “Sustainable development is never bestowed from the outside but must be generated from within the regional economy itself.” Or I would suggest reading Jane Jacobs again: Cities and the Wealth of Nations, 1984.

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17 million, at last

On 21 maart 2016, in demografie, by Zef Hemel

Read in the Dutch newspapers today:

We Dutch expected to reach a population of 20 million in the year 2000, we only got 17 million in 2016. Today, nr. 17.000.000 is welcomed. Still, people do think this country is crowded. True, all over the Netherlands commuters are stuck in heavy traffic jams, and by building new roads and adding ever more trains we still are not able to solve this problem. We seem to prefer to sit in our cars, waiting and looking at our spoiled countryside, feeling bored.We have become masters in infrastructure building; the number of fly-overs has doubled, tripled, over the last twenty years, but we lack real nodes. While the number of centres has exploded, our cities lack vitality. Most of our cities are tiny compared to what you find in other countries. If you drive through them, they’re all sleepy places. Culture is not concentrated, art and culture, all based on the principles of the welfare state, are evenly distributed and heavily subsidized. With the exception of the inner cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, there are no crowded streets, no high rise, no queue formations, no mixed use, no busy, highly specialized districts, no metro systems. Most of us drive cars. Urbanity is missing.

Just imagine the Netherlands were one big city. Then one could compare it with Moscow, Istanbul or Los Angeles, all three cities of 17 million inhabitants. The urban economy of LA is double the size of the Netherlands, in terms of economic growth Moscow and Istanbul are overhauling the Low Countries. If we had followed them, the rest of the Netherlands would be nature reserves now. Would anybody then have thought this country is too crowded? These 17-million cities are true beehives, economic powerhouses, with great public transport, wonderful culture, a thriving 24-hours economy, and beautiful parks and nature. All their economies are booming, migrants get relatively easily integrated. So this feeling of crowdedness in the Netherlands is largely based on spatial preferences for garden cities, small towns, low densities, suburban living, say, a very expensive and brittle spatial configuration generating a dominant feeling of crowdedness. The Netherlands is the least densily built city in the world.    

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Local Autonomy

On 17 maart 2016, in infrastructuur, ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Economist of 12 March 2016:


This week I had to defend myself at the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment at the session on the future of the Dutch system of physical investment programming (MIRT). They asked three collegues to give their view on the new programming, which we did. I said I doubted whether the officially proposed refined approach would be sustainable and referred to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 in the United Kingdom, which devolves housing, transport planning and policing powers to directly-elected mayors. Compared to that, the new Dutch system looks almost Asian-style: seemingly harmonious, authoritarian still, aiming total consensus. Glassy eyes. Devolution? Cities? In the Netherlands? I told them that some cities are becoming more and more important, even in our country, and that the inequality between cities is growing faster than you might think. In such a stringent situation the Dutch system will break one day or fail. That was, to put it mildly, a rather controversial proposition of a suspicious guy from Amsterdam. Is the capital city getting arrogant again?

Next day the London based The Economist published an article on ‘The Great Divergence’. America’s most successful cities are leaving the rest behind. In 2001 the richest 50 cities and their surroundings produced 27% more per head than America as a whole. Today’s richest cities make 34% more. The population of the first is increasing fast, much faster than other cities: 9,2% against 3,1%. The same holds for companies: some are very successful, while others are losing ground. And successful cities attract successful companies. So the fortunes of cities become more polarized. The Economist quoted Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, who in 2013 stated that ambitious and talented workers “would want to work in a relatively small number of cities and regions. These vibrant clusters would then benefit from increasing returns to scale, cementing their advantages.” That is exactly what is happening now. More local autonomy will be unavoidable.

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Capital of the Internet

On 9 maart 2016, in economie, energie, technologie, by Zef Hemel

Read in FD Morgen of 5 March 2016:


Its special last weekend on innovation, leadership and technology ‘Morgen’ was on ‘Cooling down’. Het Financieele Dagblad published a beautiful map on page 6 and 7 of its special which showed all the datacenters in the Netherlands as gleaming stars. According to the journalist, Bob de Lange, thirty percent of all the new datacenters of Europe of 2015 were built in the Low Countries, most of them you can find in and around Amsterdam: some 180 ‘data-hotels’, with a total floor space of 240.000 m2. Really? After London and Frankfurt, Amsterdam is number three now. So yes, that would be amazing and a real big success! But the fast growth of these datacenters is becoming an issue these days. The problem is one of sustainability, because these buildings consume a lot of electricity. More than half of their costs are for cooling. Some 10 percent of all the electricity consumption is for the internet, 50 percent more fuel than for air transport. And its share is growing fast, because ever more datacenters are needed. The newspaper introduces a new concept: ‘software footprint’. How to make software smart and sustainable, that’s the question. Why, then, such a tempting cartography?

There are at least 40 datacenters is Amsterdam, consuming 11 percent of all the electricity consumption of the 22.000 Amsterdam-based companies. In an agreement the centers promised to cut their energy use by 68 million kWh the coming years, that is 15 percent. This local policy, three years ago introduced, was not undisputed at all. Why would Amsterdam go green on its own? Why undermining its strong market position? But now I read in FD: “Amsterdam follows a more strict policy on CO2-emissions that stimulates all parties to intensify the search for new concepts, that could be interesting for other countries. This strengthens the export position of Dutch builders of datacenters.” So the policy was clever and now it’s profitable too. One drawback: the newspaper qualifies the whole of the Netherlands as ‘the capital of the internet’. A country is not a capital. Besides, the map shows different.

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Let’s suburbanize!

On 23 februari 2016, in demografie, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Guardian of 9 February 2016:

While the Dutch newspapers reported that people are leaving the Dutch cities again (‘Meer mensen verlaten de grote steden’, in NRC Handelblad), thus suggesting the revival of suburbanization, the city center of Amsterdam is coping with the biggest crowds on its streets in history. Crowd management is badly needed, the city center is flooding, the city thinks it can no longer accommodate all those visitors. It proofs that Dutch demography as a discipline is outdated. Demographers simply work with statistics of households and inhabitants, they do not reflect critically on what they find, and the new data are only on domestic migration, it ignores internationalisation. At the same moment the British newspaper The Guardian published a far more intelligent article on dynamic urban demographics in the UK. In ‘Is Britain full?’, Andy Beckett writes that the British population is growing unusually fast. In 2030 it will house more people than France, in 2047 more than the whole of Germany. In the near future Great Britain will be the most populous country in Europa, its economy is booming. It is a trend nobody had expected. And yes, London is the epicenter of this exciting trend. The cities’ infrastructure is almost collapsing. Lack of resilient planning?

People do sense the crowdedness in and around London nowadays, The Guardian observed. “Doom-mongers warn that schools, hospitals, roads and housing are overstretched.” They don’t like it at all. The Guardian: “Our expanding population is almost always talked about in negative terms.” But imagine, the newspaper adds, all the problems you would have to deal with if the population was shrinking! London was a shrinking city in the sixties and seventies. For those who lived there it was a horrible time. People wanted to leave. So people should be happy instead! Population growth makes austerity less painful. But most people don’t want the disturbance of large numbers of people coming. The newspaper quotes experts explaining that population is not well discussed in Britain. They think it is because England is an old and constrained country. “We’ve forgotten what depopulation feels like.” For the Netherlands the situation is a bit different. Most of the people in this small provincial country hate thrilling, high-density 24-hour cities. They do not want to be disturbed. They think that those leaving the cities hate the crowdedness or prefer suburbanision. They do not. They simply cannot enter the cities. Too small.

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Read in ‘Urban Utopias of the Twentieth Century’ (1977) of Robert Fishman:


So much fun reading the old stuff again. Last December I started writing a book on cities, what they are, why they exist and what they are heading for. So it’s a book on the past and future of urbanization. The publisher is Amsterdam University Press. It will be launched in May 2016, in the People’s Industry Palace. You will be amazed. So while writing my book, I took some old stuff on cities and planning from the shelves of my private library again. One of them was Robert Fishman’s ‘Urban Utopias’. I wanted to know more about Ebenezer Howard, the evangelist of the Garden City movement in the first decades of the twentieth century. Fishman describes how middle-class Londoner Howard discovered a true goal in his life: dissolving monstrous London by building hundreds of new towns in the countryside. It fascinated me because Howard’s thoughts became a true gospel in Dutch planner’s circles after the Second World War, his view leading in postwar spatial planning.

As a planner I wanted to know how the radical Howard imagined his dream would come true. They always told me he was a very practical man, his schemes and diagrams flexible, his approach open minded. Not Edward Bellamy’s centralized planning approach was his favorite, because as a London Radical he loathed state intervention. He was convinced his ‘peaceful path to real reform’ could only succeed if small communities were embedded in a decentralized society. People would then start cooperating spontaneously, everything based on independence and voluntary action. Howard was a true anarchist. Fishman: “The Radicals devoutly believed in Progress, and they held that mankind was evolving toward a higher stage of social organization – the cooperative commonwealth – in which brotherhood would become the basis of daily life.” In Dutch postwar planning I cannot mark off any of these values. It was centralized state planning pur sang that led to the dissolvement of the big cities. Is the result a higher stage of social organization? I don’t think so. I’m afraid Bellamy has won.