International
Federation for
Housing and
Planning

URBEGO HITS THE HAGUE (11-14 FEBRUARY 2013)

The URBEGO team, having its diaspora practically all over the world, assembled in The Hague for a workshop on urban renewal in the Transvaal neighbourhood. After three days work, we presented our work at the IFHP Housing conference.

Transvaal-Noord: a working-class hero is something to be
Middle-aged ladies without helmets on mopeds, smoking rolled cigarettes and routinely holding plastic bags. Surinamese food shops where a regular customer talks about flying cockroaches until the shop-owner tells him to shut up. Indian telephone shops with Miss India Holland posters. Children playing joyfully in the streets surrounding the school. A few blocks further, though, streets are fenced-off, houses are abandoned, windows are nailed-up with chipboard. Transvaal-Noord is subject of urban renovation.

The Hague: a peculiar city by the sea
International organizations, government offices, embassies and the stuff that is inherent to that. Hotels, big classy houses, cars of the corps diplomatique swirling between fast trams. Rather conservative cafes. Fancy people with slick hair and big mouths. But also beggars with bowl-shaped hands. Rough and tough guys, working hard in small shops. A chilly breeze coming from the seaside. And there we are, eating Argentinian steak, drinking Belgian beer and talking all kinds of English. Welcome to The Hague.

The Netherlands: making its crisis
Travelling to the Netherlands makes me always think: is this country changing, or am I changing? I like being there, I love the open culture, but after a few days I want to leave again. And when I am out of the country, I sometimes and somehow miss it. It is not hate-love. I still cannot define it.

But anyhow. The first thing you will hear nowadays from a Dutchman is that “we are in crisis”. The dutiful (national) government is cutting costs to lower debts and it is liberalizing different systems to attract private investments. The private sector, however, does not (or cannot) react as eager as expected. It is like with trees: if you cut them too thoroughly, they will not grow anymore. As a result of the cost-cutting governance, the economy has stopped growing.

In Belgium/Flanders on the other hand, there is hardly a changing sense of crisis (perhaps people have been aware of a crisis for many more years). The complex governmental system makes it hard to take resolute measures. But because of partly denying the existence of an overshadowing crisis, the economy is still growing. Referring to the tree metaphor: the tree will grow, but if you do not cut it regularly, it will not grow as fast and full as it potentially could.

So both ways are not efficient. And there are many other approaches. I just introduced this topic, because to me the Dutch perception of crisis is crucial in understanding the situation in Transvaal-Noord and the current urban renewal projects. “It’s crisis, people! Watch out, I am being serious! We must do something! And we must do it now! If we don’t do anything it will grow worse. And who wants that?”

What we did in the URBEGO workshop
Transforming Transvaal
Before visiting the neighbourhood, the city council and housing association made us clear that Transvaal-Noord is “the worst area in The Hague”. This reminded me of the European Urban Summer School 2012 in London, when we were invited to work in Bromley-by-Bow, “the most deprived area in the UK”. And like in London, I could not confirm, nor deny this problem statement in Transvaal. And because of this dilemma, it was once again hard to propose physical interventions. But on the other hand, it opened a way to more structural thinking.

Transvaal-Noord is an early twentieth-century expansion of The Hague, very close to the city centre. Over the past few decades, the neighbourhood transformed from a working-class area into a non-working area. Since a few years, however, there is a tendency of middle-class residents (re)turning to the city. Other European urban areas alike, Transvaal-Noord slowly becomes popular again. It’s poor, multicultural and central.

But there is one important distinction within these gentrifying areas. On the one hand there are examples of spontaneous (or bottom-up) gentrification: Berlin-Kreuzberg becomes popular among youngsters with an alternative lifestyle, and it slowly attracts other people and investments. On the other hand there are examples of planned (or top-down) gentrification: London’s speculative investment culture leads to the appearance of gated apartment blocks in poor, multicultural, well-connected areas all over the city. And in my eyes, the latter is applicable to Transvaal-Noord too.

Within the wondrous world of statistics, everything is possible. Both in Bromley-by-Bow (London) as in Transvaal-Noord (The Hague) statistics are simply translated into improvement reasons. Statistics are used to build inappropriate projects. More concrete: a high concentration of foreign and poor people levels the way for top-down gentrification. Social housing is actually a strong point of the Netherlands: about 30% of the housing stock is social. Although this factor, among others, makes the Netherlands a successful country, a concentration of social houses is locally often seen as a problem. “It is alright, but please, not in my backyard anymore!” Transvaal has potential to attract educated youngsters (middle-class), because of its poorness, cultural varieties and central location. To achieve a so-called “social mix”, the housing association builds monofunctional, sterile housing projects. Row houses with gardens instead of apartments. No shops, no companies. Boring streets with monotonous building forms. Rather annoying architectural details. Anti-urban tidiness. And, more frightening, the housing association builds gated communities (like in London). A recent housing projects is gated “as a response to the wishes of the individual residents to have semi-private inner gardens”. According to the association, these gated projects are good examples of urban renewal and of “social mix”. And the newly built apartments architecturally refer to Transvaal’s multicultural character, “because there are oriental signs on the roofs”…

Social mix? My arse. Money-making is the key. So why not so say? Plus, where are the poor supposed to go? Question unanswered. They are probably economically forced to leave the city, and they end up in peripheral zones like Rijswijk or satellite cities like ultimately-depressing Zoetermeer.

Shifting roles of housing association and city administration
The trends can be put in their context by looking at the shifting roles of the housing association and the city administration.

Most housing associations in the Netherlands are financially under pressure. After being privatized in the 1990s, there is a strong tendency to combine urban renewal with selling social housing stock, breaking down social houses, building middle-class houses in poor areas and focussing on cash instead of capital. The system of maximum rental rates in the Netherlands does not seem to react on that, although abolishing these maximum rents would lead to an even more asocial situation.

City administrations’ credo has become “reactive and facilitating” instead of “active and guiding”. The perceived shift in role seems to be a result of neoliberal capitalism and market-based thinking. And I dare question whether a city administration had ever been really active and guiding urban renewal. Reactive and facilitating can also be translated in “doing nothing”.

Proposal: it is nicer to be together rather than alone
During the four day workshop in Transvaal-Noord we, young URBEGO planners and architects, worked on various themes within urban renewal: figuring out the identity of the area, making new development methods, improving public space, planning entrepreneurial space etc.

Overall conclusion is that we, within these times of scarcity, want to focus on different parties making the city instead of just one big investor (housing association or another private investor). We also want to work on alternative development theories. Inner city areas are not made for monofunctional, tidy housing zones. Especially in areas like Transvaal-Noord or Bromley-by-Bow, the local entrepreneurial spirit can be used to make improvements. Creating mixed neighbourhoods, both socially and economically, will make it more habitable in the end. Fostering local businesses by providing for example micro-funding or combined rental systems (both commercial as residential) could be an idea too.

Our job: get out there
As urban planners, we do not solely believe in comprehensive planning anymore. In our eyes, it is about creating a spatial framework in which different actions can take place by different actors. The role of the city is not to be “reactive and facilitating”, but on community development. If there is a private investment, the city may expect social revenue. But to do so, the city still needs a spatial framework and a long-term vision (perhaps rather social than spatial, even).

The urban planner could (or should) be more involved and active too. If he knows about the local situation (I mean really knows, so not just the statistics), if he gets out of his office voluntarily, if he uses the ideas of local people, if he translates the needs and obstacles of local shop-owners into spatial improvements… the place would become better. The planner is a catalyst (making the spark, get the engine going) with a hands-on approach. A real form of local and community participation could be created. And if participation is real (and spontaneous) and in some extent durable, the place will improve automatically. It is about creating responsibility (and that is often the hard part in areas with a high amount of social rental houses).

A conclusion (one of many)
People work hard on places like Transvaal. And we, URBEGO, are perhaps just some wise-ass punks flying in from other countries criticizing everything that is being done.

But we are learning by experimenting. In The Hague we had a very intensive workshop – intellectually and physically. It has brought us a lot of new insights and ideas that we try to use in our daily work. And there might be many more and different conclusions. If you have any (especially contrary to our ones!), please contact us.

There is certainly more to come from URBEGO! See you in Paris, see you in Antwerp, see you somewhere else. URBEGO for real.