14 februari 2019

Blueprint for a Just City

Selina Abraham Leestijd: 7 minuten

Op 19 februari 2019 vond de Meetup: Just City Design plaats. In het kader van het Living Lab Sociale Veerkracht verkende AIR en Veldacademie de verbinding tussen sociale en ruimtelijke stadsontwikkeling.

Onder andere Wouter Veldhuis (MUST) sprak over de betekenis van een rechtvaardige stad in tijden van economisering van de ruimte, gentrificatie, segregatie en de marginalisering van kwetsbare groepen. Selina Abraham, stedenbouwkundige en oprichter van de start-up ‘Urban Impact’, maakte een verslag van de bijdrage van Veldhuis (in het Engels).

Blueprint for a Just City

The title of this article is meant to be shamelessly trick urban designers and planners with enticing click-bait. But unfortunately, we can only dream that the pursuit for urban justice were that easy. As the co-author of the essay De Rechtvaardige Stad, Wouter Veldhuis shatters any dreams for any easy solutions. The intention of his essay was never to answer questions on the ‘just’ city, but instead help its readers ask the right questions. He says that the idea of a city is a mental construct, similar to the idea of civilisation. We can only find answers to questions on its ideal form by creating a constant dialogue on what it means to be a ‘just’ city. And of course, as Veldhuis says, the idea of a ‘just’ city is very different for a city in Western Europe than a city in Africa or the Americas. The idea of ‘just’ city might even mean different things for Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Veldhuis believes that only by talking about different ideas with the help of platforms like AIR and events like De Stadmakerscongres can we find out what justice is for Rotterdam.

Wouter Veldhuis is an architect, urban designer and the director of the firm MUST. Working in the realm of urban planning and design for more than 20 years has given him a chance to reflect and put in words, his thoughts on the idea of what it is to be a ‘just’ city. In 2018, he published the essay De Rechtvaardige Stad with Simon Franke. He sat down to answer a few questions about the just city and the profession, just before his talk at Just City Design Meetup organised by AIR on February 14, 2019.

Urban Aesthetics vs Societal Aspirations

As early as 2010, Veldhuis has been critical of the [Dutch] urban designer and planner’s obsession with aesthetics. The profession has absorbed the aesthetic ideals of architecture and has enlarged it onto entire cities. This is particularly true in the Dutch tradition of urban planning, which has its roots in the Woningwet 1901 (Housing Act of 1901), the Amsterdamse School and the tradition that Berlage started. These schools of thought are precision-based and aesthetically driven. And this is easily observed on the city’s streets. Within this institutional practice, Dutch municipalities redevelop streets under the guise of renewal programmes imposing order and precision. This is regardless of whether the residents and business owners fit into the plan.

In his essay, Veldhuis writes that Dutch streets, due to maximum design control, are synonymous with symmetric beauty, and lose out on vitality. He insists that urban designers need to be aware that their interventions have a direct impact on society. And aesthetics is not always important to the average citizen; concerns like financial stability, meaningful livelihoods often take priority. It is hence important that urban designers remember that they are not creating a beautiful end-product, but the starting-point for a process. Take the example of the redevelopment project in Lakerlopen (in Eindhoven), where an excess of designed car-park space allowed residents to seize the opportunity and create a community garden.


“Urban design is not about creating a beautiful end product, but the starting point of a process.” In this project, the redevelopment of the neighbourhood Lakerlopen in Eindhoven, an excess of car-park spaces allowed the residents to seize the opportunity to createa community garden. Photo Source – Rufus de Vries (2018). Design by Biq Architecten, Hans van der Heijden Architect, MUST


Negotiating for a Just City

Furthermore, Veldhuis suggests the urban designer should ideally take on the role of a negotiator. A mediator. And a designer. But most definitely not a dictator, which he laments is often the case. From his own experience in his practice, Veldhuis says the most interesting projects arise out of conflict, often between the city, the developer and the neighbourhood. Presumably any project without conflict is suspiciously one-sided to a single group, and other voices are not being heard. Veldhuis advises that as a negotiator, it is important to level the playing field, treat everyone like with equal respect regardless of their status. And with the additional role as a designer, he recommends to use the versatility of design to widen the scope of possibilities to find a solution to the conflict. In the end, he reflects that it is not about everyone getting everything that they want but making space for everyone’s contribution. Each representative at the table often has good intentions, perhaps only with the exception of the modern-day bogeyman, absurdly rich-foreign investors. But it is important the good intentions do not come at cost of another group’s well-being.

One example he cites is that of the conflict of interest between sustainability goals that are not affordable or feasible for poorer communities. He describes a community in Amsterdam living under poor conditions and expected to undergo development changes under a socio-liberal and green-thinking local government. The owners have a plan to conditionally upgrade the social housing to contemporary sustainability requirements. The tenants have the right to return when the new houses are delivered. But there will be a very limited space for car parking to fit into a larger vision for more sustainable livelihoods. This plan however fails to consider the social needs of the community, that require vehicles to travel for their basic livelihood. As a result, presumably the majority will move to another city, further away from Amsterdam.

Systemic Change

Furthermore, Veldhuis insists on a systemic change. There is a need to open the system for new citizen-driven collectives and corporations to exists, as opposed to older elite institutions. The Dutch tradition tends to plan for long-term success along the range of 200 years. This does not leave room for a testing ground, where failure and change of direction is a possibility. At a smaller scale, this is also reflected in municipal investment in neighbourhoods, often favouring stable stronger business, and dismissing smaller start-ups that are experimenting with success and failure.

In this race for value creation, many old haunts of the city have disappeared. Veldhuis has been vocally critical of developments at Nieuwe Binnenweg, where he inadvertently became the nemesis of a ‘hipster’ garden centre, whose appearance overlapped with the disappearance of shops revered in the collective memory of the city. Investments into value-creation and favouring the readymade business models takes away from the city’s testing ground. While he acknowledges that the matter is complex and all blame cannot be laid on the vilified creative-class, he implores that the ecology of the street is fragile and should be nurtured. The same can also probably be said for the ecology of the city at large.

To conclude and answer for the deceptive click-bait title, a possible blueprint for a just city in the Dutch context is partly this. Negotiate with all your partners, listen carefully to and treat everyone at the table equally. Remember that society’s priority is not always aesthetics. And failure is not always a bad thing. But most importantly, the Just City is one that needs to be talked about, discussed and debated. The perception of what is ‘just’ is often determined by personal experiences, and to determine what is just for an entire city can only be done through discussion and mediation. And repeat.