At the opening of Letters to the Mayor on 12 January 2018, Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb had a proposal for the writers of the 46 letters in the exhibition: if they condensed their ideas into five questions for local government, he would set up a meeting to discuss how to shape Rotterdam’s co-creation process. This essay by Mark Minkjan attempts to boil down the architects’ visions for the future into five tasks for the city.
Architects arguably prefer answering questions to asking them, and supplying answers is what they mostly do in these letters. However, five central questions can be distilled from the writings, along with a few guidelines that can help the city to respond. These emerged after a couple of listens to the audio files of the letters (which Het Nieuwe Instituut helpfully produced for the exhibition). Het Nieuwe Instituut deserves praise for inviting mostly women architects to write to the mayor. This fits with a growing movement of opposition to the masculine rhetoric (and practice) that dominates architecture, real estate and urban development. It could also be why the letters’ showing-off quotient is comparatively low by the standards of the architectural world.
While the collective tone of the letters is one of concern, the architects think in terms of constructive ideas for the future. They display great ambition and optimism around making Rotterdam an international model of an inclusive, diverse, green, circular metropolis.
Rotterdam has developed rapidly in recent years, and the architects say many changes have not benefited the city. They cite rising inequality, polluting port activities, plans for ‘social cleansing’ of neighbourhoods through demolition of social housing, automobile addiction, a shortage of affordable working space, a lack of greenery, below-par architecture, and the city’s loss of its connection to the water. A number of the letters exhort the city to let go of its fixation on iconic architecture and the city marketing strategy based on it. At the exhibition opening, Mayor Aboutaleb said the city was already vibrant and magnetic and could become even more so. He appealed to the architects to strengthen these qualities. However, the architects indicate that they want the city to formulate clear spatial objectives that will help it to develop in healthy, socially responsible, productive ways before mounting pressures do more damage to its essential qualities.
In terms ranging from the technical to the poetic, the architects’ letters passionately describe how the city could develop rapidly yet responsibly. They mention numerous existing examples of good development that can be expanded, supplemented or copied.
The letters call for bold changes. After all, ambitions for the city as a whole are rarely imagined. Architects are typically asked to design a building or a site, which they proceed to do in as spectacular (or cheap) a manner as possible in order to secure the assignment. Imagining the city of the future is a completely different challenge. It calls for a broader, more politically aware, nuanced view than does making sensational digital images of a building. A vision of the future city could generate great energy and aspiration among the general public, who are currently difficult to engage in discussions around big issues. It could spark a political debate that would focus on setting shared goals for the coming half century instead of getting bogged down in petty antagonisms.
How can we turn Rotterdam back into an accessible place where diversity reigns?
The problem most frequently mentioned in the letters is housing. The concept of public housing needs to be revisited, because the city suffers from a dearth of decent affordable homes. This is not only a problem for those on the lowest incomes but for others too. The city is becoming too expensive for many architects, and many of their educated and creative friends have already moved away.
Alongside affordability, new forms of housing that cater to a broader range of household types are also needed. Designs, policy positions, regulations, and innovative financing must create space for collectives, senior citizens, young people, newcomers, and various cultures, subcultures and income groups. Genuinely innovative and inclusive design will ensure that Rotterdam will keep its status as an architectural hub even after iconic image construction has become passé. Also sorely needed is affordable working space. And where gentrification occurs, what can be done to enable present residents to stay where they are and even to benefit from the rise in property values? Densification and the addition of storeys to existing buildings are options in many places. New homes should be created in these ways, not by destroying or selling off existing affordable housing.
The architects also call on the city to build inviting public spaces that, rather than being arranged reactively around safety, hygiene and consumption, welcome and accommodate all sorts of people. It’s better to tackle nuisance behaviour by strengthening community than by installing cameras; better to plan a dazzling new library as a prestige project than to opt for a pricey shopping mecca. More cultural diversity within municipal services would also lead to more diverse ideas about public space and urban development.
How can Rotterdam become more sustainable and productive?
The port must end its reliance on fossil fuels, and the city must stop rolling out the red carpet for cars. Now is the time to think decades into the future to deal with problems like pollution, rising waters and robotisation in ways that will benefit the city’s economy, society and ecology.
Many architects call on the city to move to a circular economic model. We need to rethink our use of resources, reduce waste streams, and put waste to productive new uses. We should see to it that more production, distribution and reuse take place at the city and neighbourhood levels. For example, the city could strive to purchase at least 40% of its goods and services from local businesses operating on a circular model. It could do the same with electricity and heat, setting an example and encouraging others to follow suit.
It is by taking bold steps into the future, not by clinging to obsolete practices out of a fear of change, that Rotterdam will benefit in terms of employment, education, research, economic innovation and shared pride.
How can the city become healthier by restoring its ties to nature and water?
Greenery and water have gradually all but disappeared from Rotterdam. Canals and other bodies of water should be restored, and people should be given much easier access to the Nieuwe Maas river.
A better network of parks and green pedestrian and cycle paths would provide Rotterdammers and visitors with fresh air, exercise and pleasant routes through the city. The city has plenty of excess asphalt and pavement that could be sacrificed for this purpose. Many of its green spaces could be used for urban agriculture, with the work done by green businesses and gardening associations. The organisations would earn money and the functional planting could contribute to the local food supply, community ties and education.
How can city co-creation take maximum advantage of self-organisation?
Without shifting key safety nets and public functions onto society on the pretext of encouraging self-sufficiency, much can be achieved through self-organisation. Bottom-up city-making – as it’s called in the current jargon – can yield much more than temporary creative pop-up businesses that make neighbourhoods more attractive (and expensive). Self-organisation, self-building, shared use and collective ownership can turn facilities and buildings from instruments of profit into common resources. Tools like citizens’ budgets, already in use in other cities, can help Rotterdammers to play a role in shaping their city. More community work and less market competition would turn consumers back into citizens and make their place in the city more secure, sociable and enjoyable. Some architects call for squatting to be permitted again as a counterweight to real estate insanity.
When will Rotterdam get an architectural policy and an official city architect?
The architects criticise the quality of built space in Rotterdam – both individual buildings and the city as a whole. Much has been left to the market, which is subject to few rules. Appointing an independent city architect to advise government would help, especially with the city employing increasingly few designers. A city architect could also translate the various ambitions the city has set for itself into spatial objectives.
The architectural culture Rotterdam has become famous for is clearly on the wane. Therefore, it should create opportunities for young architects by holding open calls and changing tendering rules. It should also strengthen quality requirements for public and social buildings like schools, crèches and care institutions, and also for homes and public spaces. Within existing budgets and conditions, buildings and locations should be designed with more poetry, creative ambition, humanity, and attention to the local culture, environment and history. Selection should be based more on these criteria and less on the bottom line. The result will be a better city that will thrive over time.
PS: Don’t forget Zuid
...and not just out of a reflexive impulse toward crisis management and gentrification. The south side of Rotterdam matters as much as the rest of the city. Its residents deserve jobs, pleasant neighbourhoods, good education and cultural facilities too.
Mark Minkjan (1986) has a special interest in the interplay between society and the built environment. He studied urban geographies, sociology and economics at the University of Amsterdam. Within Non-fiction, Mark works on programmes, editorial content, research and more. He is chief editor at Failed Architecture. For The Guardian, he is a 'leading independent urban voice' in Amsterdam. Mark contributes to numerous media, research projects, debates and events. For 2015/16, he received a talent development grant from the Creative Industries Fund.