Recently we crowd-funded our new book Pop-Up City: City-Making in a Fluid World, that will be published in May this year. One of the rewards we offered to backers of the Kickstarter campaign was a special interview on this blog. This post is the fourth in a special series that features some of the generous people that helped us make the book happen.
Sjors de Vries is a Dutch urban planner and founder of RUIMTEVOLK (‘Space People’), a leading online discussion platform about planning and urbanism in the Netherlands. We spoke with him about the current state of planning in the Netherlands, the best ways to upscale cute and small initiatives to make them serious improvements to the city, about the power of online media in city-making and the role of their platform. “We see it as a very important task for urban professionals to establish connections and coalitions with other disciplines in order to solve the next big urban issues.”
What’s missing in today’s urban planning?
“When we started RUIMTEVOLK about seven years ago, the urban debate in the Netherlands seemed to be dead. There only seemed to be some isolates discussion by a few urban professionals who only spoke about classic urban themes like infrastructure, housing, and public space. The urban profession, somehow, did not seem to know how to address major societal issues like the rise of what we call now the civil society, social segregation and sustainability. From the beginning we have been interested in featuring also people other than urban planning professionals. People with backgrounds in for example sociology, psychology, arts, sustainability and trendwatching could have great ideas about cities. We see it as a very important task for urban professionals to establish connections and coalitions with other disciplines in order to solve the next big urban issues.”
What do you think about bottom-up urbanism? Is that the way to go?
“Many bottom-up initiatives are very sympathetic and good for a local community, but to make them part of serious city-making a connection with other networks is needed. In order to do so we run a RUIMTEVOLK lab on bottom-up initiatives, a program that we execute in partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment. Within the framework of the Lab we’re approaching small scale bottom-up initiators in regions with a shrinking population to make their initiative happen, bring it to a new quality level, but also to learn from them. Locals know best what their local community needs, but they often lack the right expertise, skills and networks to make their idea happen in a successful way. This is where the Lab comes in. We help people getting the right connections and knowledge — this can be a financial expert, a business man or someone in another municipality that has successfully carried out comparable projects. And we make connections between initiators and a wide range of professionals by telling the initiators’ stories and organizing meetups. In this way professionals can learn from these initiatives. Again, this is about making the right connections to create something bigger out of small ideas.”
Can you give us an example of such a project?
“We use the lab for a wide variety of projects. The lab helps initiators that want to transform or upgrade a building or public space, by creating and combining new programs, make ideas about how to make this happen and turn the idea into a business that can survive. We helped them to link their idea to other people that had gone through the same process. On another scale we support village communities to make a strategy for improving the availability and quality of housing and services for the young and elderly.
In general, a lot of seemingly great ideas turn out to be not possible, because there’s no serious business case. City-making is changing. It’s less and less the real estate development that brings in the money, but one has to come up with a strategic program that generates income. Fortunately the list of successful projects is growing every day. Almost every city in the country has a active group of initiators that understand this new way of city-making really well. They organize programs and events at unusual places that need some activity, like the roof of a parking garage, and run the events in such a way that it’s profitable.
How do you see the role of blogs and online platforms as agenda-setting in local or thematic issues?
“Let me give you an example. Last week we posted a thought-provoking article about social segregation in Amsterdam. As a result, we organized immediately a public debate about this topic, which was attended by 80 people including one of the aldermen of Amsterdam. It’s very interesting to see how an online platform can introduce new and relevant ideas that are seriously being picked up. I also think that this is an interesting way for online platforms to extend their activities. We don’t have the ambition to become a company of 20 employees as we want to stay flexible, but it’s very interesting to see that we can move out of the online world sometimes.”
How do you see the future of the city?
“It’s fascinating to see the emergence of a new Dutch planning practice. Traditionally Dutch planning is very strict and based on straight-forward spatial rules. That has generated a country in which plenty of things work really well. Often we forget that due to smart spatial strategies we are able to live in relatively healthy and safe streets and neighborhoods. But the economic crisis and a growing awareness about sustainability have showed that this planning practice will not be sustainable for the future. The last years, fortunately, a new form of Dutch planning comes to life which is more about smart connections and better use of the existing city instead of building stuff anew. New collaborations are set up to make the city more livable and new partners play a role in this. Those partners can be web developers or local entrepreneurs, but also health or energy corporations. When I proposed the creation of energy-neutral neighborhoods to real estate developers a couple of years ago, they all told me it was way too expensive. Now it’s very often part of the business model of a development project. Things change pretty quickly and that’s exciting.”