Rotterdam is a city you’ve surely heard of. It’s big. It’s ugly. It’s close to Delft. Many design projects, both in Bachelor and Master education at our faculty, take place there, so you may have gotten to know it a little through these projects. It’s a city that’s in a constant state of flux, which is perhaps what draws many people to it. It can be overwhelming, but its energy can be enchanting; it makes residents and visitors alike feel like they’re part of something bigger. The constant change in and rapid development of the city, where new projects seem to pop up every other week, undeniably also has its downsides. In the rush to become an attractive and competitive ‘city of the world’, it seems policy-makers have sometimes put ambition before the most important needs of the city’s loyal long-term residents, implicating a young generation of new residents in the process. This, is the story of how the ambitions and needs of different entities can come to clash in the modern metropolitan context.
Rotterdam’s history as port city has strongly shaped what it is today. During the 19th and 20th centuries, shipping and maritime industries brought prosperity, attracting huge numbers of migrants from surrounding regions to come work in the harbours and ship-building docks that were at the time still close to the city centre. This led to the formation of a large working-class, that lived in crowded neighbourhoods in the inner city. As globalisation and technology changed maritime industries throughout the later 20th century, many labour-intensive manufacturing and shipping jobs disappeared, leading labourers to leave the city and causing disruption in neighbourhoods and communities. With working-class housing, sometimes built by companies for employees, and rapidly built housing from the reconstruction period following the destruction of the Second World War, Rotterdam’s housing stock was dominated by cheap, low-quality housing, much of which was socially rent-controlled. An influx of migrants from abroad moving into the city’s neighbourhoods led the population of the city to become extremely diverse, leading to strong but separate communities of residents. This diversity is still strongly present today.
Facing a massive task to transform former industrial areas in the city, increase the quality of its housing stock, and attract new residents to the city, Rotterdam adopted novel growth-oriented strategies of governance and urban development. In other words, the municipality, supported by the state, started going crazy with urban development and restructuring, creating large scale masterplans for different parts of the city. Starting in the 1980s, the impacts of these governing strategies can still be felt today, producing the busy climate of development and construction that is still ongoing. An important example of such a development is the Erasmus bridge and the Kop van Zuid area. The Erasmus bridge, completed in 1996, was built to be an icon and eye-catcher, connecting the north and south parts of the city physically, economically, and socially, in a monumental way.
With a shortage of middle-class housing at a time when the city desperately wanted to attract middle-class residents, the abundance of social-rented housing in the city came to be seen as a threat to development. Neighbourhoods with high concentrations of socially-rented housing typically suffered from other problems as well; criminality, nuisance, vandalism, and unemployment. The city wanted to reduce these problems, not least because they made neighbourhoods undesirable for the new residents they were trying to attract. Why did Rotterdam want to attract and retain middle-class residents? Many reasons; to bring the wealth, jobs, culture, and knowledge needed to develop and grow beyond its labour-intensive industrial past; to be an economically desirable place for companies to establish themselves; to generate the tax income necessary to physically improve the city; to compete with the other major cities of the Randstad and of Europe. Rotterdam’s ambitions to develop clashed with existing working-class populations in the city centre, and it’s course of action would be to reduce these populations in the city centre.
Because of this, municipal strategies explicitly started to focus on gentrification, not as a consequence of urban development, but as a means of achieving it. The goal in doing so was to balance the class-composition of the city and ‘civilise’ problematised neighbourhoods, increasing their economic value. With a limited owner-occupied housing stock and therefore inadequate opportunities for home-ownership, Rotterdam was unable to retain the middle-class residents that completed studies or worked in the city. It’s a simple but tragic reality that rented-housing, be it socially or privately rented, does not allow occupiers to accumulate wealth through the value of their home. For middle-class residents that could afford to buy homes elsewhere, staying in the rent-dominated city was therefore undesirable.
The political climate at the time may have had to do with this ambition too; the late politician Pim Fortuyn, who was flagrantly anti-Islam and xenophobic, was hugely popular in the municipal elections of March 2002, his party Leefbaar Rotterdam winning 34.7% of the vote to instantly become the biggest party in the municipal council. Ironically, he was kicked out of this party not soon after for suggesting that the first article of the Dutch constitution, which forbids discrimination against people for any reason, should be abolished. Months later he was shot and killed. In a broader sense,
In 2007, the municipality published their vision for the city for 2030, Stadsvisie Rotterdam 2030. In this thorough 160+ page publication outlining the city's goals for the future and how to reach them, the term gentrification is mentioned no less than 31 times, often in combination with methods on how to stimulate it in the different neighbourhoods, as well as the supposed benefits that it can bring. In short, gentrification is embraced as a means of urban development, both in new-build projects, as well as integrally in existing neighbourhoods. It’s concerning that the negative consequences of this focus on gentrification go ignored, if not at the very least under-researched and unmentioned, though perhaps this is by design.
Making room for new housing typologies of higher quality in the city has meant that portions of the existing housing stock, as well as former industrial sites and harbour areas have been demolished to make room. This has been going on throughout the past decades, and nowadays the development of new projects seems to be booming more strongly than it ever was, with fierce redevelopment projects taking place across the city. Just one year ago, demolition started on a significant portion of the Afrikaanderwijk neighbourhood called the Tweebosbuurt, with demolition works still continuing today. Despite protests from residents and other initiatives, the demolition was set forth by the housing corporation that owned most of the properties, in discussion with the municipality.
A total of 524 socially rented dwellings have been demolished, the primary reasons given for their destruction being the bad physical state of the dwellings. Only 137 new socially-rented dwellings will be built in their place though, the remaining nearly 250 new dwellings being privately-rented and owner-occupied housing. While social housing corporations are required by law to offer residents alternative housing in such a situation, this is not guaranteed to be near their original homes, tearing apart long-standing communities of residents. With this comes the question of the impacts that new residents of higher income levels bring to such neighbourhoods. What supposedly happens, is that ‘liveability’, a term associated with reduced urban problems like crime, nuisance, vandalism, increases. Not only is this term problematic because of the limited and one-sided view it offers, the reason that ‘liveability’ increases is that residents associated with this problematisation are simply pushed out of the neighbourhood. The conditions of remaining disadvantaged groups with aren’t necessarily improved by the arrival of middle and upper-middle class groups however.
These processes of gentrification in the city lead to the suburbanisation of poverty, whereby households with lesser means are continuously pushed to the urban peripheries and surrounding boroughs, as they can no longer find affordable housing in the central areas. This happens through both direct and indirect displacement, the former being demolition of homes as mentioned, the latter via price-exclusion, whereby prices of centrally located homes are simply inaccessible to low income households. For reference, the maximum you can earn to qualify for social housing as a one-person household in 2022 is €40,765, which is €2,765 more than the expected average national income of €38,000 this year. That is to say, the amount of people that rely on social housing to be able to live where they want to is not insignificant, and we can ask ourselves whether Rotterdam is not simply pushing people out of the city centre. Beyond that, socially-rented housing has intentionally been given a negative connotation of poverty, while historically it was available for everybody and a large section of the population lived in socially-rented homes. In other words, the very language used in the discourse about social housing and city development has been used to problematise low-income residents and create a much-believed idea of a separate ‘us’ and ‘them’.
The 20th and 21st century saw the emergence of many new forms of work in society, leading to the rise of a new ‘creative class’. Writer and research Richard Florida describes this group of people as follows:
“The distinguishing characteristic of the creative class is that its members engage in work whose function is to create meaningful new forms. […] These people engage in creative problem-solving, drawings on complex bodies of knowledge in seeking innovative solutions. Doing so typically requires a high degree of formal education, and thus a high level of human capital. […] What they are required to do regularly is think on their own. They apply or combine standard approaches in unique ways to fit the situation, exercise a great deal of judgement, and at times must independently try new ideas and innovations on their own.”
Does that sound at all familiar? Florida writes that this class includes a wide range of professionals, from engineers, to professors, to actors, to writers and designers. Not surprisingly, architects are right at home among these professionals. The way Florida describes ‘the creative class’ could be a perfect description of the curriculum at our faculty. In itself this is not a bad thing, but Florida goes on to show that the creative epicentres where these professionals congregate are also some of the cities with the highest levels of inequality in the American context (cities such as Austin, San Francisco and Washington D.C.). Two things are ironic about this; creativity is supposedly ‘the great leveller’; it can’t be owned or handed down, yet the presence of the creative industry manages to create inequality. Beyond that, one of the hallmarks that draws the creative class to these epicentres is tolerance. Florida writes that members of the creative class prefer places with high levels of tolerance; tolerance in the sense of openness, inclusiveness and diversity. Yet precisely what attracts these people to such cities can simultaneously damage diversity by pushing out people of lesser means.
If you ask me, the same thing is happening in Rotterdam. One of the explicit aims in the Stadsvisie Rotterdam 2030 is to attract creative people to the city. Creatives have historically been known to kindle gentrification in problematised or dilapidated neighbourhoods, and for nearly two decades now, Rotterdam has been set on attracting more of these people to the city; “The creative sector is important as catalyst for gentrification (upgrading) of existing neighbourhoods” (translated from Dutch, page 51). The architecture sector is specifically mentioned as a strong existing sector that can be capitalised on and should be expanded. This is you. This is me. The exact people they’re trying to attract. The perfect people to gentrify the city. It’s not a coincidence that we feel at home in Rotterdam, it’s the result of years of careful crafting, on an image, atmosphere, and setting that is desirable to us.