Crisis, what crisis?

On 27 november 2015, in politiek, ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Economist of 7 November 2015:


Yesterday evening I had to give a short presentation in Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam, on ‘Growing cities, shrinking regions’ (Groeiende steden, krimpende regio’s). The meeting was organized by the journalist Floor Milikowski of De Groene Amsterdammer on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, celebrating its ‘Space Year 2015’ (Jaar van de Ruimte). My opponent was Pieter Tordoir, an economic geographer, who showed his elaborate work on recent mobility- and migration patterns in the Netherlands. His slides showed familiar, reassuring images, his policy advise was affirmative for those in power. My contribution on the other hand, was on the future and was far more alarming. My speculative research I based on globalization, fractal patterns of spatial localization, long-term trends, disruptions. The reaction of the audience on my presentation was rather negative. I think people still do not understand. So I tried to explain what globalization means: complexity, extreme interdependence, modern information technology making everything transparant, all resulting in extreme spatial concentration on the one hand, brutal expulsions on the other.

To clarify I told about the chaotic Facebook riots in Haren, a sleepy suburb of Groningen, in September 2012: thousands of young people gathering one night after viral messages on Facebook, announcing a great party, all started to drink and fight with the police. It was breaking news all over the world. The other example was the exponential growth of Airbnb in Amsterdam, while in the rest of the Netherlands nothing happens. The third I wanted to give but didn’t because of lack of time, is on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. In The Economist of 7 November, Charlemagne wrote about the late French decision to put on a show of European solidarity. “French bureaucrats, armed with Arabic translators and loudspeakers, chartered three coaches and set off for the German city of Munich. The idea was to fill the vehicles with refugees and drive them over the Rhine to France, thus easing Germany’s load.” What happened? No one wanted to climb on board. The refugees from the Middle East and Africa were too well informed. They only use Paris as a transit to the far stronger London economy. Most prefer to stay in Munich. Just have a look at the interactive map of Lucify on those thousands of migrants flooding Europe, searching for great cities to live in (picture). It’s the rise of the network society!

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Sick building syndrome

On 20 november 2015, in ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in Het Parool of 7 October 2015:


Foreign investors are buying pied-a-terres, luxury shopping malls, dwellings, office space on a big scale in Amsterdam. The financial crisis seems to be passé. Buying real estate is becoming more and more attractive. The mayor of Amsterdam wants a real estate fund that will finance the buying of dwellings in the city centre in order to prevent rich foreigners to become the property owners and prevent overheating. He hopes to discourage global market forces and counteract buying and selling of dwellings like in London, Paris and New York. End of this month, 30 November 2015, an edition of ‘Stadsleven’ (Urban Life) at De Balie in Amsterdam will be dedicated to ‘Big spenders’. Tracy Metz has invited guests to speak about buying and selling real estate in Amsterdam. Is it risky? Should we stop it? Or is it just great? Tracy asked me to write a piece on the subject for her website, which I did, of course. Then I read – a bit too late – the Amsterdam based newspaper Het Parool of 7 October. It said that real estate prices in Amsterdam are booming, while in the rest of the country they are stable. Prospects are unvaryingly detrimental. Detrimental?

In one of the reports on this issue, De Nederlandsche Bank points at the fact that rents in the Netherlands have stabilized as well, even in Amsterdam. That means returns on investments can only drop in the future. For new contracts renters will ask for lower rents because the vacancy rate in the Netherlands is far too high. The national bank is convinced that the situation on the Dutch real estate market will aggravate. “The capacity of office space is dropping, from 16 m2 per person now to 14 m2 in 2030. And internet shopping will steeply rise form 10 per cent now to 25 per cent in 2030, but it could also be 40 per cent.” Forty per cent? Too bad. Conclusion: in the rest of the country there has been a massive overproduction of real estate in the past, while in Amsterdam, where demand is high, overcapacity elsewhere hinders new building projects. Worse even, owners of real estate in Amsterdam who have paid the highest prices, will be confronted with the lowest returns on their investment. Something really to worry about.

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International solidarity

On 14 oktober 2015, in demografie, geschiedenis, by Zef Hemel

Read in Historisch Nieuwsblad nr.9 2007:

On an excursion last week, my students visited the Spaarndammerbuurt, Amsterdam. There, in museum Het Schip, they listened to the story of the Great War. The neighborhood, our young guide explained, was built in 1914-1920. In 1914 one million Belgian refugees had fled to the Netherlands in only a few days time. The Great War had started, with the Germans occupying Belgium. The city of Antwerp was evacuated. What did the Dutch government do? Not much. Mr. Cort van der Linden, the Dutch conservative prime minister, kept quiet for more than six weeks. It was Queen Wilhelmina who asked the population to help their neighbours and welcome them with open arms. In Amsterdam, a national committee – the ‘Amsterdam Committee’ – was installed by citizens. At last the government decided to build concentration camps all over the country, but mostly in the southern provinces. The refugees, it decided, should be imprisoned and leave the country as soon as possible. From then on, the Belgians had to live behind barbed wire, waiting for the moment to be sent back. To make things worse, the Dutch government started negotiations with the Germans in the hope to get rid of the Belgians as soon as possible. The Germans decided to build a fence of electric wire on the northern border of Belgium to stop the Dutch implementing their evictions.

The guide – a master student Social History at the University of Amsterdam – was telling his story with passion. The architects of the Amsterdam School, he told my students, were ordered by socialist deputy mayor Mr. Floor Wibaut personally to keep on building, thus creating new dwellings for the Belgian comrades. The magic architecture of Michel de Klerk was a political statement: socialist Amsterdam voting against conservative The Hague. The beautiful tower in the building of ‘Het schip’ – now a museum – is a symbol of international solidarity. Afterwards I asked the young guide why he told us all this. He said, “Well, because the same is happening in our country right now.” Mr. Rutte doing nothing. Even the king is holding his tongue. The refugees from Syria, Iraq and northern Africa have to stay in asylumseekers camps on the countryside. We should build dwellings in Amsterdam for them now. With beautiful architecture. And towers! We need Wibaut again!

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Asian style

On 12 oktober 2015, in duurzaamheid, economie, migratie, stedelijkheid, by Zef Hemel

Read in China Digital Times of 26 June 2014:


What the Russians are trying to do in and around Greater Moscow (17 million inhabitants), the Chinese are doing even on a grander scale with Beijing (22 million inhabitants): building an Asian megalopolis. I remember the session in the Intercontinental Hotel in Moscow in April 2012, when a delegation from the Chinese capital informed the Russians about their plans to transform Beijing into a city of 110 million inhabitants. We were all perplexed. Since then president Mr. Xi Jinping took over. He changed the policy of the Hu-Wen administration, which was focused on accelerating development in the inland regions (‘Go West’), and called for integrated, coordinated development of the region around Beijing. This megalopolis will become the third economic power house of China, after Shanghai’s Yangtze River Delta and the Guangzhou’s Pearl River Delta, two spatial-political products of Den Xiaoping’s administration in the 1980’s. Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province are collaborating now on a huge scale, it’s a daring experiment of the new leadership all the rest of the world should have a closer look at.

Just imagine the European Union would force the Netherlands to collaborate with the Belgians and the government of Germany to build a World City out of the triangle Amsterdam-Brussels-Cologne: a megalopolis of more than 60 million inhabitants, doubling its size the coming twenty years thanks to migration from the Middle East. Schemes of densification of the extremely distributed suburban landscape would aim the creation of an economic power house on the North-Western shores of Europe, comparable to Greater London (10 million) and Ile de France (12 million). It will never happen of course. This is Europe, not Asia. But maybe Mr. Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, aiming economic growth as well as sustainability, will at least come up with a proposal to transform the Dutch fragmented suburban landscape into a densily built city-state of 17 million inhabitants. How will the nation react? Negative, I suppose. It will happen anyway.

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On 1 oktober 2015, in ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Prepared on 30 September 2015 in Amsterdam:


This week the Dutch government commemorated two centuries Royal Dutch kingdom in Amsterdam, the capital city (1814-2014). Today I will give a lecture in the House of Lords (Eerste Kamer) in The Hague on ‘the third age of the Dutch kingdom’ (2014-2114). How will the next age look like? Six professors were asked by the Scientific Advisory Board of the Dutch Government (WRR) to give their view on the future of the small, densily populated country at the Northwestern periphery of Europe. My subject: urban dynamics. What is my view? First of all, I will tell the audience that the Dutch government will no longer be in control when it comes to spatial-economic dynamics; globalization, information technology and localization wil decide on future urban patterns, not its national centre The Hague. Megacities will grow all over the world. Agglomeration economies will be powerful. However, no World City status for the Netherlands. Amsterdam could become one, but seems not to be willing, Rotterdam is willing, but cannot be. The Randstad as a total is a lame duck. My conclusion is that in the future there will be a substantial brain drain.

Then I will focus on the popular concept of the Dutch city-state. Some ministers in The Hague seem to like the idea.What does it matter which town you live in? They use it to invoke collaboration. I will compare the Dutch city-state of 17 million inhabitants with other cities of the same size: Los Angeles, Istanbul and Moscow. All these global cities have bigger economies, their productivity is growing faster than the economy of the Netherlands and their ecological footprint is much smaller (the Dutch citystate only a bit less destructive than Qatar!). How come? I know. The Dutch city-state is the least densily built urban field in the world. Add to that the shrinking population in the periphery and the high vacancy rate of the real estate, which has doubled over the last five years, then you get the full picture: the Amsterdam region is growing fast, the rest of the country will be given back to nature. Amsterdam arrogance? The first wolve has been spotted earlier this year in the province of Drenthe. 

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On 25 augustus 2015, in ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Read in Forum (VNO NCW magazine) of 20 August 2015:


Bingo! Three in two days: first ‘Alle kaarten op Amsterdam?’ (‘Amsterdam only?’) in Forum, magazine of Dutch employers union VNO NCW, second, on saturday, the Vonk-special of de Volkskrant on ‘De verhipte stad’ (‘The kinky city’) and three: ‘Rotterdam is hot’ in the Amsterdam based newspaper Het Parool. Which city wins? (Which city do you hate?) You get the feeling a national battle between cities is going on, between Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the first place. Forum journalist Paul Scheer comes from Rotterdam, so his interview with me was very much biased. Headline: ‘Alleen Amsterdam kan meekomen’ (‘Only Amsterdam has a chance’). Stupid of course and, yes, something to feel sorry about. De Volkskrant made fun of it: ‘Dure huizen, rijke mensen, koffietentjes en yoga. Veel yoga’ (‘Expensive houses, rich people, coffee shops and yoga. Much yoga’). Message: Amsterdam works like a magnet (picture: Jasper Rietman). According to the national newspaper there are two categories of people nowadays: those who are living in Amsterdam, those who are not yet living there.

De Volkskrant presented five statistics that illustrate there is something going on in Amsterdam: fast growth of the Amsterdam population, local workforce is becoming international, lots of immigrants from western countries, housing prices steeply rising, housing market becoming a buyers market. These are all facts you cannot deny. The difference between Amsterdam and the rest is growing bigger. Amsterdam should double its size. In Het Parool though the Rotterdam marketing machine behaved in an agressive way: ‘Amsterdam thinks it is happening there, but that will change. When I see Amsterdam news, it is often negative’. How sad. This national battle between the Dutch lilliputter cities is pitiful and lacks the global dimension. By the way, Rohan Silva warned Mr. Cameron that London could follow New York and lose its creative class. “In New York, people are decamping to LA and I think we’ve really got to be careful in London that people don’t pick another city and choose to go there. Because the moment a city starts to lose its artists, things can fall apart and the city might lose its edge." (Dezeen 23 May 2015). But Rotterdam is not LA and Amsterdam is not New York. It made me think of Christopher Clark’s ‘The Sleepwalkers’, in which this Australian historian described the confrontational attitude of European nations and empires on the eve of the Great War: cities behaving irresponsible, like nation-states.

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On tour

On 19 augustus 2015, in ruimtelijke ordening, by Zef Hemel

Seen in the Netherlands in August 2015:


Because the Dutch Minister of Interior Affairs, Mr. Plasterk, wants us to consider the Netherlands “as one big city of 17 million people”, I decided to make a two-weeks tour in my own city, after having spent a full week in London. What a strange city Holland is! I visited Rotterdam, Middelburg, Domburg, Tilburg, Den Bosch, Valkenburg, de Hoge Veluwe and Maastricht – say, the south part of the Dutch megacity. I walked, biked, drove a car.True, the province of Noord-Brabant looks like one big industrial estate: agro food, horticulture, pigs, poultry, construction firms, logistic halls, infrastructure, chemical plants. Also Limburg seemed to me one big entrepreneurial zone. Only the valley of the Geul has been saved. All provincial roads were filled with cars, the highways loaded with trucks. Tourists find their own zones: the inner cities of Middelburg, Den Bosch and Maastricht were crowded with shoppers and regional sight-seeers. People looked rich, prosperous, many were fat, with their white skins far from being members of a multicultural society. Now and then I saw some asylumseekers in the woods, who felt lost. Wherever I went the sky was filled with airplanes, the noise: there was always an airport nearby (Schiphol, Luik, Düsseldorf, Eindhoven). Remarkable trend: tourists renting scooters in hilly Limburg. And yes, public space is great everywhere, in every village the lampposts and benches are brand new, facades have been painted in fresh, bright colours. All thanks to VINEX (Dutch national spatial policy 1994-2015).

But what a strange city it is! If this is a city, it is the least densily built city in the world. It’s also a noisy city, full of cars, scooters and planes, unhealthy, stinking (after gas and manure), rich. But not sustainable at all, to say the least. The most astounding fact is the high vacancy rate of the real estate, all recently built. Even in the successfull inner cities of Den Bosch, Middelburg, Tilburg and Maastricht shops were left vacant, high rise was standing empty, there was simply too much office space. I could not guess why this building boom has found completion in this mass of houses, malls, stables, boxes, office parks, bricks and mortar, all spread out over the countryside. Does the apparent prosperity of the Dutch have anything to do with it? Was our booming economy based on building a maximum of dwellings, offices, shops, all to be furnished with junk we would consume? My tour ended in the national park of De Hoge Veluwe. An oasis. What a relieve!

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