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June 16-18 | 2021

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  /  Built Environment & Architecture   /  How to create better neighbourhoods

How to create better neighbourhoods

Let us take you on a little transformation tour through our next host city – Rotterdam. In a recent online session, various local CityChangers shared stories and tips on how to create better neighbourhoods. Here is a highlight summary for you.

Jorn Wemmenhove – creative urbanist and Co-Founder of Humankind – introduced us to the Dutch city and its peculiarities. Since Rotterdam was heavily destroyed during World War II, it had to reinvent and rebuild itself from scratch. This led to a quite modern architecture and lots of urban space dedicated to cars. Fortunately, the latter has been changing quickly over the last 10-15 years as many initiatives are coming up to push the mobility transition.

Rotterdam is not the most beautiful city, but it’s a city of hope because it’s showing that change can happen very quickly.

Talking to your communities, they might come up with ideas like – make our district greener, safer or maybe just listen to our kids! Here are a few examples of how some of Rotterdam’s CityChangers have improved their neighbourhoods:

5 tips for greening your neighbourhood

Architect and founder of Krachtgroen, Nienke Bouwhuis gave some insight into greening Rotterdam West and creating value for citizens by doing so. Her key message is that green doesn’t just make the city look nice, but it also has quite a large social health value for cities and most importantly – “green makes people fundamentally happy!”

Do you need some tips for greening your own city? Nienke stressed these 5 main points to consider:

  1. Get people involved, start with kids! Making school yards greener and more playful and organising activities is important. If you get kids involved, then parents tend to get active too.
  2. Make a map! Maps show the context and form a kind of framework that makes your work understandable and accessible to everyone. Also, they are an easy device to get people involved not only on a community basis but also on a governmental level. Check out the Rotterdam West Green Map.
  3. Just do it! We want your actions to lead to urban planning, and the nice thing about taking immediate action is that you can really start to get people involved from an early stage.
  4. Give people a reason to join in! You can do so, for example, by providing people with exactly the things they need to become involved with the project. Nienke shared that e.g. in the “1000 Rain barrels for Middelland” project, they gave each person their own rain barrel and found that if they participated this way, they were more likely to use solar energy or reduce their waste – it made people feel as though they really were a part of something bigger.
  5. Think local and exchange globally! It is essential to work together. “Of course, we may all work separately on our own green areas, but we must then get connected on a global level to share insights and ideas.”

Get the kids involved!

The neighbourhood is like a symphony, it only sounds right when everyone joins in.

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? We love the idea of everyone being an active part of a neighbourhood.

Sander van der Ham – an urban psychologist – introduced us to a participatory project called “Klimaatkwartier Carnisse” (Slides Sander van der Ham). The goal was to make the Carnisse neighbourhood climate adaptive and with the current movement around Greta Thunberg, they figured that they needed to ask the kids first.

Carnisse is a neighbourhood located in the south of Rotterdam. It is considered a ‘neighbourhood of extra interest’ by the national government. These neighbourhoods are seen as having problems in the social, physical and economical domains. Even though the team’s first impression/idea was to “improve”, they soon realized that a lot of incredible actions were already happening there, including some neighbourhood networks that were fighting for better and more liveable urban spaces in their district. So they decided to connect these existing networks with the kids and make sure that the community involvement was right. In the end, such a project only works if you manage to motivate the community to actively participate and the feedback was amazing. The team experienced an incredibly huge involvement and willingness to invest time and make change happen.

“Bring your empathy and skills, not your methods and projects and help people to make change, don’t do it for them!”

What would happen if your neighbourhood was given 7 million euros to spend?

Lot Mertens told us the story of Middelland in Rotterdam. The residents became “the governors of their streets“: they had full political support to spend seven million euros as they pleased. Through ‘co-creation’ between the residents, entrepreneurs and municipality, Middelland has become “mooi, mooier, Middelland” (Lovely, Lovelier, Middelland).

But with 11,000 residents, how did everyone really agree to ‘co-create’? Surely, headaches and stalemates dominated the project?

These are some of the (unexpected) insights we gleaned from Lot:

  • Firstly, people were surprisingly cautious and careful with public money: some felt that it would be better to save it in case of later need, rather than spend it without cause. Enabling residents to feel comfortable with ownership and responsibility for 7€ million was the initial hurdle.
  • Secondly, whilst you cannot get everyone involved, there are ways to increase participation. Every resident was sent a letter and invited to attend sessions – 150 people attended the first. Games were organised to increase children participation and a randomly selected 50 residents were visited at home and asked for their input.
  • Thirdly, radical ideas are not always the most important. Middelland could have spent the money on something completely new, shiny and innovative; instead, the project ended up supporting local businesses and redeveloping four squares. Lot confessed her initial disappointment that no bold vision was pursued, however, later realised that uncontroversial ideas result in more support and cohesion.
  • Lastly, shared projects forge a sense of identity. Prior to 2015, Middellanders did not have a sense of belonging. Following the project, Middellanders know that they can achieve lovely, lovelier things together as a community.
  • If you want to know more, see “Middleland additional information“.

Too good to miss

Whilst preparations for the session were running smoothly, unfortunately, we had to close it earlier than expected due to technical difficulties. Still, we don’t want you to miss out on insights from these two CityChangers:


The city perspective

As an Urban Planner in the field of public space & mobility at the city of Rotterdam, José Besselink is responsible for facilitating and coordinating a number of urban projects and tactical experiments (Slides José Besslink).

“We are putting pedestrians and cyclists on top of the pyramid. And when your street design allows it, people will come. This is exactly what happened in the area around our Central Station, which transformed from a traffic dominated square into an attractive ‘red carpet’ guiding people into the city centre.”

“Rotterdam has introduced a program of tactical interventions. Besides these large scale investments in iconic projects. The idea is showing the city of tomorrow today, so people can experience what the city of the future could look like. The bike-parklet is one of our most successful examples. We all know these car-shaped bike racks, but this is next level. It’s a flexible system to reduce on-street parking and provide more space for cyclists. The parklets are placed in a street for several months. If people are satisfied after a trial period they will be turned into permanent bike-parking. What has started as a pilot, became a serious part of our policy and approach to create more space for cyclists and bicycles in our city. Around 45 parklets are rotating through the city.”

Temporary transformations

Teun van den Ende is head of the Urban Development and Architecture section at Vers Beton and explores the link between historic developments and popular culture in the Netherlands second-largest city.

“On market days the central Visserijplein-square in the neighbourhood Bospolder-Tussendijken becomes a lively hub. However, it remains empty and desolate during the rest of the week, so local designers have started a design initiative with residents to revitalise the square.”

“In a neighbourhood in the south of Rotterdam, residents have opted to temporarily change their street into a so-called ‘Holiday-street’ during the summer months of 2020, after international travel was restricted in the summer holiday. Parking spots provided space for interaction and greenery.”

Wind of change

Working with urbanists from Rotterdam, visiting and hearing stories about their city, we’ve clearly understood that the wind of change is blowing stronger here than in many other European cities. People and municipality are not afraid of transformation processes, they just want to make sure that everyone is involved. We are curious to experience it ourselves at UFGC21 in Rotterdam and we hope to see you there!

This session was co-created together with Jorn Wemmenhove from Humankind and Milena Ivkovic from ISOCARP. The International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) is a global association of experienced professional planners. It brings together individual and institutional members from more than 80 countries worldwide.

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