The European Union (EU) is going through a tumultuous period: a Brexit referendum, EU-septic political parties on the rise, financial and economic crises, unemployment, large numbers of incoming asylum seekers, difficult relations with its largest neighbour Russia and an open conflict in Ukraine, a compromising deal on refugees’ rights with Turkey while the country moves towards authoritarianism, etcetera. Meanwhile in Amsterdam, the Member states will sign the Pact of Amsterdam, the formal acknowledgement of the role of cities in the convoluted architecture of the governance of the European Union. A major milestone.
A multicolored patchwork, that’s what the electoral map of Europe looks like. In a study published by World Policy Journal, I made a composition of all the political maps of the European countries together. This offers an intriguing insight in the different religiosities, class-differences, rivalries and lifestyles that are present. One of the main factors shaping this electoral geography is the divide between the urban, suburban and rural.
There is a slice of Holland in the heart of Saint Petersburg. When Czar Peter returned from Zaandam in 1698 after learning, incognito, shipbuilding (he trained as a carpenter), he applied the new skill to building Russia’s own fleet as he ventured to also build a new imperial capital. Shipyards were laid out on an island formed by a small river and two manmade canals. The resulting terrain so much reminded him of Zaandam, that the Czar named it, without much thought, ‘New Holland’. The name stuck and the area stood as a reminder of Peter’s ‘other’ revered country.
Amsterdam inner city, 2015. Households buying a plot of land and building their own dwellings, with gardens and work space. A network of about 50 people gets together with an architect and design their own block, perhaps including a small theater and few socially rented houses. Another group of neighbors decides instead to produce, use and store its own energy, building solar panels and their own in-house grid for waste water filtering. At the same time, a group of creatives finds out that there is a little piece of land in the city and propose a project of cultural use of the land, perhaps adding a café, selling local beers, and using food which is partially grown on the spot.
Across many different urban contexts, young people are currently faced with increasing constraints on the housing market. Inflating housing prices and stricter mortgage lending criteria render homeownership out of reach for more and more young people who, increasingly dependent on temporary employment contracts, are unable to acquire a mortgage at all. It has frequently been highlighted that parental support, in both financial and non-financial ways, may improve young people’s housing market position. Parents may help to buy a place for their offspring or cover (part of) their rental costs.
Ordos is China's most famous ghost city. Redesignated as a prefecture-level city in 2001, by 2010 it was hitting media headlines all over the world for its emptiness: an emptiness that gave its few thousand residents access to all the wonderful things cities are able to offer within unprecedented amounts of space. Ordos is, in many ways, the antidote to the experience of living in most contemporary Chinese cities which are overwhelmed with people, cars and pollution. The city has built an abundant array of cultural institutions – libraries, art galleries, museums, theatres – yet lacks people to appreciate them.
Some years ago my husband and I made a hiking tour along Glyndwr’s Way in the Cambrian mountains in Wales. In the Mid Wales Inn in Pant Y Dwr we met a couple of around 70 years old. The couple moved from Birmingham to this small village in a remote, idyllic rural area after their retirement: a typical example of retirement migration. We told them that we live in Amsterdam for more than 30 years, that we like to make hiking tours in remote rural areas, but love Amsterdam and couldn’t think of moving to another place. The man remarked: “Oh, yes, we loved to live in the city and before retirement we couldn’t imagine that we would leave the city and move to Pant Y Dwr. However, Birmingham is a city for young people and we felt more and more out of place.”
In the recent past many cities have embarked on mega-projects as part of their neoliberal development strategy. While many of the best known urban mega projects in the global south, e.g. those related to the Fifa World Championship in South Africa and Brazil, or London’s Docklands, are located in very large cities, mega projects are by no means exclusive to such cities. Small cities with similar ambitions and attractiveness for financial investment, boost their own mega projects.
The superrich are probably more visible in Hong Kong than Amsterdam, and probably richer. Hong Kong does superrichness better than most cities. But there is a pervasive concern with the impact of expanding economic elites on urban life and urban morphologies. There is growing resentment about widening income and wealth inequalities, most evident in major world cities.
Almere is becoming international more rapidly than Amsterdam. The past few years one out of four new inhabitants that moved to Almere came from abroad, departing from more than 100 countries. Currently almost 40% of its total population has some familial connection originating from outside the Netherlands. The town’s demographics continue to diversify but the population has not been increasing for a while. In contrast, Amsterdam is most popular lately and these last few years the city has seen its largest population increases since WWII. At the same time, the number of native Dutch who have been moving to the capital since 2011 is steadily increasing; very many newcomers to the city are white, native, middle- and upper-class parents, traditionally expected to suburbanise. Where is then the 1970s Dutch dream of the family house, the picket fence, the garden and the garage?
‘Big data’ has become one of those buzzwords we can’t escape in the urban field these days. There is a whole new industry of big data analytics companies, selling their services to cities that want to be seen as ‘smart’, promising insights that will lead to more efficient or effective services. In academia, the terms ‘big data’ and ‘smart cities’ are dominating funding calls and research initiatives.
Urban markets are hot. From Seattle to Sydney and from Turin to Toronto, marketplaces are popping up in cities to meet the interests of city dwellers in sustainable and healthy food and lively places to meet one another. This development has not gone unnoticed by planners and politicians. Increasingly, they appreciate the value of urban marketplaces.
Twenty or so years ago I stood on a cold and windswept spot in Almere New Town being a young lecturer at Cardiff University assisting on our Diploma in Town Planning field trip to the Netherlands. What better way to escape the crowds of gawping, zoned-out, tourists in central Amsterdam on the Easter Good Friday the day after my Centre for Urban Studies talk than to take a sentimental journey out of town to a suburb of sorts?
I spent my sabbatical in Hong Kong. With both extreme human densities and breathtaking natural landscapes, Hong Kong is an overwhelming city. This much I knew, and this alone would have made the stay a unique experience. Nothing however, had prepared me for the massive social movement and occupation of public spaces that was born, grew beyond all expectations, and reached a provisional end while I was there: Occupy Central, aka #UmbrellaMovement. Several times I visited the occupied sites, as well as following the developments daily in the media, and discussing them with locals of diverging views and backgrounds. The site visits especially made a profound impression on me, and fuelled thoughts that stretched beyond the event.
Inspired by Jenny Robinson’s invocation to look for ‘new ways of bringing cities together’ in urban studies, one is struck by a strong feeling of connectedness between the cities of Amsterdam and Cape Town. Since 1652 these cities have ‘inhabited each other’ and have been ‘drawn together’ more closely at various times in history and ‘kept apart’ at others. Viewing the roots of the Amsterdam-Cape Town connectedness merely as a binary of metropole and colony, does little justice to the rich and nuanced relationship in time and space of these two cities. The concept of ‘entanglement’ defined as “a condition of being twisted together or entwined, involved with; it speaks of an intimacy gained, even if it was resisted, ignored and uninvited”. To this day this ‘intimacy’ exists although it was variously ‘resisted’ and ‘ignored’ by Amsterdam and the Dutch anti-apartheid movement from the sixties.
The city of Amsterdam has long occupied a strategic position in the history of global interdependent development. Visiting the city of Amsterdam for the first time I was deeply impressed. As an urban geographer, I was fascinated by the landscape of the city, its glorious history and fabulous cultural heritage, and the way in which (post)modern urbanism has lived out with such a great livability and sustainability: the canal system, the juxtaposition of heritage buildings of different styles and times, the openness of the people linguistically and culturally, the wonderful interplay of state and market, and, of course, the amazing spatial mobility of people riding on the bicycle that I have loved and missed for so long! This is the most liberal and livable city of the world. Just as the forces of globalization are so strongly felt today, the leading role that could be played by this global city in the world of interdependent development has become more prominent than ever before. Obviously, the world we now face is one full of new challenges and opportunities that need to be taken with great vision and courage.
Recently, it has been argued that 'Smart Cities' are capable of addressing the urban challenges and problems of our time, orchestrating urban life in more efficient ways and making cities more engaging and livable. As an ideal of future urban life, the Smart City is shaped by ubiquitous sensing and tracking information technologies, which constantly monitor and orchestrate urban processes at multiple levels. Critics of the Smart City point out that this intensifies many of the Orwellian aspects already present in today’s society. NSA spying, Google censorship, Facebook nudging and the profiling and commodification of people’s actions, writings and thoughts are practices that seem to be given free rein in future Smart Cities.
In Amsterdam one is struck immediately by the weight of the past. But I found the common tropes available to be inadequate in framing the story of the city for the visitor. I visited both the City and the Canal Museums, which have elaborate, high-tech summaries of the city's Golden Age that produced the historic canals and houses for which Amsterdam is world famous. Unfortunately, these potted histories leave much to be desired, and not just because they are popular displays.
Recently, I spent the evening at a restaurant located in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district, where we had window seats with a beautiful view of the Old Church lying on the opposite of the canal. Surrounded by coffeeshops and red lights that signal the presence of window prostitution, the church has always seemed out of place in its surroundings. As a child I sometimes passed through this part of town on the back of parents’ bicycle on our way to one of the Chinese restaurants and I remember the lingering smell of marihuana, the junkies shuffling around and the male visitors who furtively walked by, looking away in order not to be recognized. Growing up in the canal belt in the early eighties, which was then quite run down, the sight of window prostitution was not unfamiliar to me, but the red light district was far more shady and clearly represented the shadowside of the city.