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 It proofs that Dutch demography as a discipline is outdated.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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Keep it light

On 2 oktober 2015, in politiek, by Zef Hemel

Discussed in the House of Lords (Eerste Kamer) in The Hague on 1 October 2015:

The conference was about ‘Contours of the Third Century of the Dutch Kingdom’ in the House of Lords (Eerste Kamer) at the Binnenhof in The Hague. The seminar was organized by the Scientific Advisory Board of the Dutch Government (WRR) and marked the end of all the festivities of ‘Two hunderd years Dutch kingdom’. My presentation was on globalization, the retreat of the nationstate and the future of Dutch cities. Most of the lectures in the morning were about democracy, citizenship and the Dutch constitution. Many complaints were heard, but I really felt a lack of imagination; it was almost depressing. Andreas Kinnegin, professor philosophy of law at Leyden University, was quite pessimistic (he warned for the tyranny of the state and the disappearance of the protestant ethos), so was Kustaw Bessems, historian and journalist of de Volkskrant (who warned for islamic antidemocratic acts). His message: we are living in the best possible world, it will get worse. Even Jonathan Holslag of the Free University of Brussels was negative in his analysis of the international geopolitical situation. Nothing to be proud of. Scary even.

It reminded me of the lecture of Peter MacFadyen at the ‘Flatpack Democracy’ event of last Saturday in Brighton, UK. Peter had told us about creating independent politics in Frome, Somerset, south of Bath. After years of missed opportunities, a group of residents had taken control of their town council and had set about making politics relevant, effective and fun again. Frome counts 26.000 inhabitants. Its political system lacked vitality, people didn’t feel represented any more. Peter: “Britain today has a dysfunctional political system. Many politicians are making decisions to meet their own needs or those of their party, not the needs of the people they serve.” In detail he described how citizens took control of the system and searched for a radical democracy, without making use of political parties.The underlying ethos of all our actions is to build confidence and facilitate opportunity.” MacFadyan’s speech inspired many in the audience who apparently do not feel represented after the last election too, when most of the UK turned ‘blue’. MacFadyen gave a manual of how to develop a political system from the bottom-up. Essentials: work as a group, agree your ways of working together, use facilitators, friends, experts, people with skills, keep it light, decide on a good name. He told us it works. Why not?

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Fun Palace

On 29 september 2015, in kunst, by Zef Hemel

Read in the Guardian of 19 February 2015:

The other conference I visited this weekend was ‘Flatpack Democracy Brighton’. They made me member of a forum. I told the audience about how to build local platforms of citizen-amateurs that can generate collective intelligence. Just when I was leaving the conference, Daniel Bernstein of The Synergy Centre told me my plan to erect a People’s Industry Palace in Amsterdam next year with the help of artists reminded him of Stella Duffy’s Fun Palaces initiative. Duffy is a British writer and theatre-maker. In the Guardian of 19 February 2015 she wrote about her Fun Palaces network: “At Fun Palaces we want to do away with the idea of excellence and experts altogether, especially around subsidy, and demand instead an excellence of engagement and participation.” All the Fun Palaces are local, embedded in their own communities. Artists are working with neighbours, local councillors and public buildings, to make great, inclusive work – and making it locally. “There’s a real joy in contributing to our communities, right where we are.” In 2014 more than 3.000 people across the UK signed up to make local Fun Palaces.

Just that morning Jenni had showed me the Royal Pavilion of the Prince Regent, which she had called a ‘party palace’. Striking. Back home I read new writings of Duffy in the Guardian. She announced that on 3 and 4 October in more than 130 locations across the UK locally led, community-driven, arts and sciences events will take place. Instead of new buildings, these cultural events will be focused on people. “Bricks and mortar will never replace dialogue.” Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price had inspired her. In 1961 these two architects had made designs for a venue where you could “choose what you want to do or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up …. sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening.” While reading the text, I could only think of ‘Volksvlijt’. By choosing the new public library in Amsterdam as a pop-up People’s Industry Palace we are aiming exactly the same: truly welcoming everyone to participate in the cultural and economic life of the city. And yes, “those running our buildings might have to give up a little control for it to work.”

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On 28 september 2015, in wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in The Argus of 24 September 2015:


Samer Bagaeen, teaching planning at the University of Brighton, showed me the local newspaper. In The Argus of last Thursday there were at least three pages on new high-rise initiatives in Brighton, UK. In ‘Building upwards is the way to go to meet housing crisis – but it can still look good’, Bagaeen is interviewed on the local housing crisis. He is one of the experts telling the readers that ‘the only way to go is up’. Geoffrey Mead of the University of Sussex adds: “The Dutch put something like five times as many people in their cities.” Some seven years ago the American architect Frank Gehry proposed a series of new tower blocks near the waterfront, worth 300 million pounds, but because of the financial crisis nothing came out of it. Bagaeen thinks projects like these are still needed. Brighton, south of London, is growing fast. There is no land for extension, but people need affordable housing. There are more than 20.000 households on the city council’s waiting list and an estimated housing need of 24.000. Brighton should be densified.

Brighton is a city of 250.000 inhabitants on the South coast of England, not far from London. The coastal region has beauty, the climate is gentle, everything looks nice. In many ways Brighton is a small version of the British capital city: low density, large parks, attractive neigborhoods, and a booming economy. You might compare it to Haarlem near Amsterdam. As a touristic beach resort it is transforming itself into a creative high-tech hub. Lots of people have moved from expensive London to Brighton, many are commuters now, the housing market is overheated, traffic congestion on the roads to London is an issue. Brighton, experts say, should densify. At the ‘Connect’ conference, organized by Austen Hunter and Jenni Lloyd, some eighty citizens focused, instead, on the identity of Brighton. They asked me to give a lecture. The outcome? Brighton’s identity should not get lost. But there is room for improvement. Many things can be done. People are willing to help. Let them. Connect them. Empower them.

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