Federation for
Housing and

How do we make a city?

From 20 April 2012, 35 projects from over 25 cities around the world will be exhibited at the Rotterdam Biennale at NAI.

Giulia Maci - How do we reconcile planning culture with new emergent needs? What competencies and expertise are needed to manage this process? How can the physical elements and the life of a city influence each other?  What are inspiring examples of successful urban development around the world and how are planned solutions and spontaneous development combined in these examples? These are some of the questions the Rotterdam Biennale addresses, providing inspiring examples and facilitating city-thinking for city-building (1).

The world is rapidly urbanizing and  turning into what Francesco Indovina, professor at the University of Venice, defines as an infinite "urban archipelago"(2): a continuum of cities where urban activities (business, leisure, housing, education)  are dispersed in the territory like many islands in an archipelago. By approximately 2050 more than seven of the projected nine billion people on earth will live in cities. The global socio-economic and ecological agenda  is consequently an urban agenda.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis in Europe highlights the limits of traditional planning systems. The institutions have managed to react to  the effects of the crisis (for now at least) but not to plan proactively in order to turn the unpredictability into an opportunity. What is evidently most needed is a  reflection on new ideas and ways to adapt the planning system to the new changing context. Reforming the planning system requires a shift in mindset. Learning from other countries and experiences, across the developing and developed worlds, sharing knowledge among urban professionals and experts from different fields in order to create resilient and inclusive cities is essential as well.

Some of the most innovative urban interventions of the last two decades have in fact come from emerging contexts like South America or the Balkan region, where the rapid and uncontrolled urban growth and the absence of effective institutions allowed individuals to contribute to the development by addressing (and often solving) their specific problems. The cities were shaped by their occupants in an ever-changing process of transformation and adaptation. Developing new practical solutions to the urban environment has rested on the initiatives, energy and efforts of individuals and communities. Stories have emerged that demonstrate how leadership and local initiative have succeeded in creating a balance between order and chaos, and stabilize complex urban situations. Often the interventions in the cities are not just physical , but are carefully combined with social programs which are based on an understanding of the social structure of the city. They contribute to a sort of organic development: the interventions follow the logic of the natural growth of the city, responding to local needs and becoming catalysts of urban change.

This need for breaking down barriers, for expanding the dialog around urban issues and understanding the complex relation between planning, design and individual initiatives is the starting point of the 5th Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam . The 2012 Biennale is inspiringly (if a little vaguely) titled "Making  City" to emphasize an ongoing process of research of new planning approaches and new forms of development, preserving what defines a city and makes each city unique. From 20 April 2012, 35 projects from over 25 cities around the world will be exhibited at the Rotterdam Biennale at NAI. These projects from different contexts such as Istanbul, São Paulo, Delhi, Paris and New York show  a range of possibilities to balance economic efficiency, social cohesion and environmental protection.


(1) To know more about this concept see F. Indovina (2009) "Dalla città diffusa all'arcipelago metropolitano",

(2) See, R. Burdett and D. Sudjic (2008), The Endless City, London: Phaidon.

Image: Late night road workers by Natasha Hemrajani licensed under CC license