“Cities are, as it were, territorial avant gardes showing how we have to tackle things.”

Reinier de Graaf

What is the future of cities? Why is it important to invest into cities? What changes should we make in our investment policies in cities? Twelve leading European thinkers about cities answer these three questions.

De Graaf doesn’t beat about the bush.

“Investment in the city is important because the city is ‘the battlefield’ where all today’s important issues are fought out. In terms of population profile and economic problems, cities were the first to come up against a certain inequality in society. As a result, there is a struggle going on that still has to take place on the level of countries as a whole. Cities are, as it were, territorial avant gardes showing how we have to tackle things. Governments often formulate policy on the assumption that they know what needs to be done; in cities, you can see the unadulterated reality. Excessive government complacency will immediately be slapped down by the reaction of society itself. Governments can talk about integration all they like, but the city is where integration has to happen. There, you can see that integration can also work out in unexpected ways. Cities have got so much to tell us.”

The market needs correction

If we stop putting money into cities, De Graaf thinks that government will be pushed out of the driving seat.

“As a government, you need money to invest because otherwise the market will take over. The question is whether this leads to the desired results, because the market needs some correction. The government can provide this correction by participating in projects or leading them.”

He quotes as an example the situation in England, where the free market has been embraced without restraint since Thatcher.

Government services have become a lot leaner. But London, the city where De Graaf is working at the moment, has a left-wing administration. “Ken Livingston plays a very clever game. He leaves the initiative to the market and forces it to do what he wants using statutory regulations and instruments. On top of that, the market is also forced to invest in projects that serve broader interests, such as the socio-economic structure and the physical infrastructure. This interesting formula has proven effective, without unleashing a social revolution or causing the collapse of the market.”

“Otherwise, a lot of money can be earned in London with land. Developers and market players are expected to come up with packages of compensation measures for the fact that they are given the opportunity to make large profits. But the government always retains the right to reject a project in the end.”

He also believes that ordinary citizens have to invest in cities. “Of course, local residents lack the financial resources to play an important role at the level of urban development. But they can act as an important brake on private parties during the development process because, in the end, their approval is required.”

Shrinking cities

The main problem in European cities is really that the population is hardly increasing or is even declining, thinks De Graaf. Instead of population growth, we should be using partial depopulation as a driver. In the Ruhr and in England, shrinkage is acute. The result is that, in many inner cities, large amounts of former industrial land are being released.”

De Graaf thinks that we should not simply fill up these spaces with urban developments. “OMA worked on a project in the Ruhr. Subcultures that used the holes in the city in a smart way were given the opportunity to carry on. You can also use the urban porosity created by shrinkage to shape integration. Places that shrink fastest can pioneer smart integration, with minorities becoming majorities. In these cases, strange hybrid forms are created that bring together the city and landscapes.”

Planning is a question of looking, classifying and adjusting

De Graaf believes that spatial design can only take effects from unexpected directions into account to a limited extent; many of those effects are spontaneous in origin. “Planning is partly a form of observation, and partly a form of documentary-like classification followed by adjustments at strategic points. The implementation of total plans will increasingly belong to the realm of fiction. Many developments cannot be guided using traditional planning instruments since they still adopt growth as a basic assumption. Now, more than ever, it is important to observe developments carefully and then to draw up your plan.”

The question of whether cities are really necessary is slightly different. De Graaf: “Traditionally, cities are built on poverty. In those circumstances, it is a good idea to concentrate living and working. The richer a country becomes, the more suburbanisation there is; the more the city wanes, the smaller the remaining public domain.”

Too many egos in Europe

Another area that De Graaf believes is ripe for improvement is the area of international cooperation. “European countries act selfishly and see spatial planning as a national matter; they are unable to look beyond their own national borders. For a long time now in Europe, we have been seeing a number of urban, transboundary trends. Take the Stedenbaan project. By basing the project within the borders of the Netherlands, you ignore the enormous potential of links to the Flemish Diamond, the Ruhr and sections of northern France. Nobody sees or acknowledges this urban complex because they are blinded by their obsession with national boundaries and are unable, unwilling or too frightened to look beyond them. And if they do, they will of course also be going against the tide of existing power structures. Nobody can operate on this scale. Spatial design should be an issue at the level of the EU. That would make advances possible.”

Reinier De Graaf is one of six partners at OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture). The other partners are: Rem Koolhaas, Ole Scheeren, Ellen van Loon, Floris Alkemade and Victor van der Chijs. He also manages AMO, OMA’s own research institute that was established at the end of the 1990s. AMO is the formal structure for a number of collaborative ventures in which the firm is involved, including one with the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States. AMO works on themes such as identity, culture and organisation and was involved with, among other things, assignments for Prada, the study of alternative locations for Schiphol airport and visual communications relating to the European Union.

This publication was enabled by ReUrbA2, Provincie Zuid-Holland and the Interreg IIIB programme of the European Union:

ReUrbA   Interreg IIIb Programme

This interview is part of a series of twelve, made by Mark Reede, Ellen Weerman, Simon Maas of ReUrbA and Hans Karssenberg of Stipo. They interviewed ten leading European thinkers avout cities to be able to write the Statement for Strong Cities, that was presented to the closing conference of ReUrbA and to Danuta Huebner, the EU commissioner for Regional Policy.
Downloads / links
> Inspiring Cities article on ReUrbA’s Statement for Strong Cities
> Download this interview as PDF
> Inspiring Cities article on OMA / REX project in Louisville
> View the compilation of quotes from the interviews on film.
> View EU commissioner Danuta Huebner’s welcoming response to the Statement for Strong Cities on film