Conversation with 3 Dutch entrepreneurial urban planners and designers

Dec 12

On December 11th we had three visitors from Rotterdam. Petra Maas, Geert Kooistra and Liliane Geerling met each other whilst working at planning office BVR Adviseurs. But since the speculative Dutch real estate bubble burst, they have redeployed to their own base. Petra has established her own office Beeldverband, Geert is working from Planosfeer and Liliane is re-orienting herself from a part-time teaching position. Together they are developing new ideas and approaches to get a shell-shocked system going again.

Can you explain what is going on at this point in urban planning and development in The Netherlands?

Well, clearly we are living through a phase of creative destruction. The old recipes don’t work anymore. The existing system has been shaken to its foundations because of hubris and mismanagement. Public authorities have ventured recklessly into private territory and as a result of the financial crisis incurred huge losses. In the eyes of the public they have gambled and lost their legitimacy. The private developers, however, have mostly gotten away with it. As a result there is great anger, distrust and uncertainty and nobody moves. The megalomaniac masterplans (Blauwestad, etc) have been shelved almost everywhere but planning authorities are still too afraid to burn their fingers to experiment with alternative approaches. They are scared of everything. And they try to scare us too! Indeed, citizens have been pampered for too long. They need to be reactivated again. At this moment, citizens and planning authorities are not able to connect at the right level. Local governments need to move away of the idea that they need to do everything. Instead they have to create opportunities for the right conversations and experiments to take place.  Finally, let’s not forget that everything in Holland is immobilised because of a thicket of rules. Everything, down to the tiniest detail, is regulated. It stifles innovation and keeps people from looking ahead. So the whole system is seriously gridlocked. The crisis exposes the weakness of the existing model. We all agree that the crisis is a consequence of the old system that ground itself to a halt. It’s not the other way around. But the crisis is also a huge opportunity. In a way we are blessed in Holland that we are gridlocked because now we really have to move. 

So what do you do as young but experienced planners and designers in such a challenging situation?

Compare it to water that percolates even into the most barren ground. It takes a while but eventually it gets there. We are trying to find our way in the cracks of a paralysed system. We don’t see ourselves as activists although we sympathise with their goals. However, we are not interested in a conflict model. We start from within our rather traditional practice, trying to create momentum from modest opportunities. It doesn’t have to be spectacular. A local event can be enough to set things in motion. We need to be flexible, pragmatic, low threshold and use all the channels and levers that contemporary society offers. So you will see us writing editorials, lecturing and teaching, communicating via social media. We use the incredible power of images to visualise attractive and tangible solutions. We create and reconfigure networks all the time. We inject insights from other disciplines and common sense in complex spatial problems. Always trying to build on positive, good experiences. Always trying to persuade through our own passion. It’s very eclectic and very personal. Similarly as you guys at shiftN we profile ourselves as ‘specialist generalists’. We don’t claim to know everything but we are good at pulling together transsectoral networks to tackle spatial challenges in a context-sensitive way.

That’s exciting. But, if I may ask, how can you earn you daily bread with these kinds of subtle strategies that seem to transcend the boundaries of a ‘project’?

That’s a very good question. It’s true that our practice needs new financing models. At this point we are still relying on public financing and subsidies, but we believe that the trend towards ad hoc, fluid consortia of service providers will be matched by a trend towards more flexible and open-ended financing logics. The cumbersome tendering models have shown their limits. Just as we see flexible constellations at the supply side we will see hybrid configurations of public authorities, private parties and citizens on the demand side. And within public services we will work with a much more diverse spectrum of sponsors, ranging from traditional planning departments to hospitals to educational institutions and energy providers. We may also have to rely on an ecosystem of smaller projects. Crowdfunding points the way to a more nimble and modest kind of financing that is much more reliant on social capital than on strict, impersonal rules of organising tenders for big projects. Hence the importance of strong communication, visualisation and good branding on our side.

Thanks a lot, guys. We look forward to teaming up with you!

“Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcome the adamant, the yielding overcome the forceful. Everyone knows this, but no one can do it.”

—Lao Tzu

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