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.

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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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 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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