Places transformed by people re-inventing everyday life
by Joke van der Zwaard
In February the housing association sent a letter to around 100 residents: we're going to knock down nine of the houses in your block and we're not going to build new buildings straight away. What shall we do with the demolition site in the meantime? Five of the residents came together to talk: three were worried about the site becoming run down; two of them had an idea: to make a garden together with a stage for acoustic music concerts. The two placed an article in the local newsletter, a paper by and for local residents. A neighbour who they hadn't known before, a young landscape architect, responded. He immediately came up with a plan for this piece of land: each house would get a allotment that could be filled in differently by each person, a wooden deck, a path through the middle and, near Aunt Anna's tree, the huge poplar that was planted fifty years before as a tiny sapling, a small 'square' with a stage.
After a further article in the local newsletter and a bit of chatting with people who lived on the street, there was a group of six. This was too few for the nine planned allotments, so the landscape architect asked some young colleagues to make planting schemes for a couple of them. Things needed to move quickly; the planting season was almost over.
by Martijn van der Steen en Susan van der Steen-Goedknegt
'The municipality sees a well, I see a pump. The municipality sees a neighbourhood full of problems and negative statistics, I see people that want something.' So says Ton Huiskens. We are a group of local council workers from Rotterdam City Council who are looking at a series of projects in which residents themselves are taking the initiative and are actively working in public space. On a visit to Ton Huiskens, from the project Oleander Blooms, the difference between the way in which the council sees neighbourhoods and the way local residents of these neighbourhoods behave, became clear.
Oleanderplein (Oleander Square), which, in the view of the municipality, is one of the most challenging neighbourhoods in the city, is a veritable hive of citizen activity. It's a long way from the 'do-gooder' image that might initially spring to mind: this isn't busy-bodies who have nothing else to do, but instead people who want to make something of their lives, working towards the public good. One council worker asked why people invested so much time in these projects. 'Because they want their children to have things a bit better.' Sometimes apparently complex things are surprisingly simple.
Put the point of a compass down on the Coolsingel, one of Rotterdam's main, central streets and then draw a circle of 50km radius around the city. The food that is grown, processed and sold within this ring is Rotterdamse Oogst (Rotterdam's Harvest). From grapes grown in the Westland region to the west of Rotterdam, to apple juice from Rhoon in the south of the city. From sambal chilli sauce from Katendrecht to salami made from lamb in Hoeksche Waard in the countryside to the south. From the dairy products from the Green Heart, the green area in the centre of the Randstad, to the herbs and vegetables growing on your balcony.
Rotterdamse Oogst wants to strengthen the regional food chain by organising events and market places. In the centre of the city, close to the consumer. Common sense meets world citizens, craft meets design, forgotten vegetables meet innovation.
What began as a temporary shared workspace in the attempt to create a social and cultural centre in the south of Rotterdam, slowly grew into a new meeting place for people from the south of the city, the north and beyond. The workspace provides a welcoming home base for Rotterdammers of all backgrounds. Stories of the present, past and future of the city come together here.
In one and a half years it has established itself as a significant new urban meeting place, with a sometimes national as well as an international character and with strong roots in the neighbourhood. The iconic building is historically a place where the entire (international) community could come, feel at home and then leave again and in this way it serves as an important symbol of the Kaap Belvédère initiative, the first 'house for cultural heritage' in the Netherlands.
The street, the pavement, parking places and squares together form public space. The maintenance of public space, with its flowerbeds and borders, patches of grass and gardens is traditionally seen as a cost. For Creatief Beheer (Creative Management), these green spaces form the places of opportunity in the city: a healthy city has healthy outdoor space. When we set up Creatief Beheer ten years ago, management and maintenance were our central issues of concern. Daily interactions in the neighbourhood, taking care of each other and the environment, a human scale, are important for a safe, liveable neighbourhood.
Our practice is therefore orientated towards the development of green spaces which stimulate interaction in the neighbourhood. By this we mean the 'natural' interaction between people, plants and animals. In our opinion, there should be investment in the development and maintenance of these green spaces. This is simply because it offers the highest possible return for the neighbourhood and the community. Not directly through the initial work, but through daily interaction and its communication value: improving the climate for education in the neighbourhood.
The Heemraadsingel, a canal with a linear park called the Heemraadpark running alongside, is a green oasis in busy Delfshaven. Behind the stately townhouses along the canal lie two densely built up neighbourhoods: Middelland and the Nieuwe Westen. These are neighbourhoods where people from incredibly diverse backgrounds live side by side, where no one group is in the majority, but where a feeling of community cannot be taken for granted. In the park, Singeldingen (Canal Things) offers local residents the chance to meet each other in a relaxed environment and to enjoy a rare piece of greenery. With this, it offers a new take on the area: the 'wild west' of Rotterdam as pleasant residential neighbourhood.
How do you make a city? Buildings, streets, schools and parks form the image of the city. That forms the basis of how people experience a city. Stories about the past, about heroes and villains also make a city what it is. Rotterdam is known as a city which doesn't give much away, a working city where people know the system and know how to get things done and where you have to prove yourself. That image came about through the rebuilding after the war, through the harbour and was formed through the numerous groups of people who live there. It is what it is, you might say, we're no pearl on the Maas (the river running through Rotterdam), instead we're fickle and stony. But is that really true? Or was that image created through a certain number of stories? What happens if you go and tell new, different stories? Will the image of the city change?
The Groene Loper 010 (the Green Carpet, '010' is the dialling code for Rotterdam) makes the image of the city greener: it is about uncovering the green soul of Rotterdam.
In the Pendrecht neighbourhood of South Rotterdam, the roles have been reversed. It isn't civil servants, social workers or corporate employees who explain how things are. Instead, they go to learn from the residents. The local community centre run by and for local residents, where meeting, exchange and support for local people take place is combined with informing professionals.
Local residents tell stories from their homes, to professionals. Local residents are supported to take the initiative: from theatre projects in the neighbourhood to setting up a frame and trolley workshop to help older residents. A simple reversal of roles creates space and energy for all sorts of new initiatives which work together in the neighbourhood.
Mischa de Winter, professor of pedagogic, wrote recently that children develop better when they are brought up in social networks which are more extensive than that of just the family. The question is then, 'how can you create these social networks? BuurtLAB develops projects for improving the quality of life in neighbourhoods throughout the Netherlands and focuses on children who involve themselves less actively with the people around them.
According to a piece of research by the Social and Cultural Planning Office, these children appear to have fewer friends, are less likely to belong to sports clubs, rarely take part in art or cultural activities and are more likely to have problems at school. At BuurtLAB we think that these social networks are available in the neighbourhoods where children go to school, live and play.
Based on this observation, we developed ideas for pilot programmes that could be organised in the neighbourhood. Within these programmes children can practice their social skills and that has had a positive influence on the quality of life in the neighbourhood. Children who are capable of operating in different social settings benefit from this ability later.
Buurtflirt (Neighbourhood flirt) develops temporary creative meeting points in forgotten locations in the city. In these 'flirt-locations' Buurtflirt puts local creatives and entrepreneurs in the spotlight. Local residents can actively become acquainted with their creative and entrepreneurial neighbours. The two most important ingredients for creating the 'flirt-locations' are empty properties and one or more creative disciplines.
In October 2011 the first Buurtflirt took place in the Nieuwe Westen neighbourhood, in the west of Rotterdam. On the Nieuwe Binnenweg, a street with a multi-cultural character, exhibition space of approximately 100m2 was made available for anyone interested in using it. The result? A fortnight-long 'Buurtexpo', or 'neighbourhood expo', with a colourful collection of local art and design: from photography to furniture design and from life drawing to poetry collections. There was space for people to meet, network and have a nice cup of coffee.
In spring 2009 a property on the corner of Burgemeester Meineszlaan (Mayor Meinesz Road) came available. Quickly the idea to use this building as a centre for neighbourhood activities developed, which could help strengthen social cohesion in the neighbourhood. What had been a thorn in the side of local residents for many years, became overnight, a positive place for the local area. The Burgemeester Meineszlaan and the surrounding area is an attractive neighbourhood which is currently undergoing a lot of change, and has a lot of enthusiastic people. It is also a neighbourhood where social cohesion is still fragile. In addition, in recent years there have been problems with drugs. The abandoned property which the neighbourhood association took on is a good example of this.
The NAC Foundation (Nieuwe Ateliers Charlois – New Artists' Studios Charlois) is a non-profit organisation set up to guide the self-management of live-work spaces for young visual artists. Through finding, managing and offering affordable studio space and other space suitable for producing art work, for shorter or longer periods of time, we want to encourage cultural activity in Rotterdam, with a particularly focus on the Charlois neighbourhood, in the south of Rotterdam. Building management, urban development and cultural production become interwoven and strengthen each other.
NAC was set up in 2004 by artists and other local residents in Charlois. The impetus was the preservation of 45 houses on the Wolphaertstraat that had been threatened with demolition. With this, a long standing idea to create living and working spaces for artists was slowly realised. To preserve the houses it was necessary for us to take over the management of buildings and act as financial partners. In addition, we had to bring the current occupants – a mix of squatters, tenants, people with and without individual tenancy contracts – together under a new 'NAC' contract.
A delightful and welcoming training kitchen, fully equipped with up to the minute technology (including iPads), forms the beating heart of an unusual initiative in the North of Rotterdam: Kook met mij mee! (Cook Along With Me!) This project works with primary school children to promote a pattern of good, healthy eating more widely amongst children of that age, with their parents and amongst other local residents.
Kook met mij mee! is an initiative of local resident and social entrepreneur Hans Kervezee and educational sociologist and organic chef Pinar Coşkun. They got to know each other because of an article in the local newsletter, in which Hans described his plans for a vegetarian restaurant. They immediately hit it off and together they have developed this special project.
Hans: 'It began purely as an idealistic thing and that's the reason that I call myself a social entrepreneur. I think that it's important that children are aware of their environment, learn to eat healthily, but also that they know what they eat and that they learn to think about it. What does it do for the environment when you don't eat meat for one day? The starting point is plants and organic food, because that is responsible and sustainable. An additional advantage is that, in a multicultural community, vegan food is acceptable to everyone. I wanted first to start a community restaurant, but after close discussions with five enthusiastic head teachers, the idea for the training kitchen came into being.'