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Rotterdam’s Waterfront: a grand vision & a political consensus

By Brian Doucet
February 27, 2012

Rotterdam is a city of just under 600,000 inhabitants. It is the main port of the Netherlands and has a long maritime tradition. In the 19th Century, the city grew rapidly as migrants from rural areas arrived to work in the expanding docklands, which were primarily situated on the south side of the city, directly opposite to the city centre. The river quickly divided the city between the prosperous northern half, with its historic economic, commercial and cultural heart, and the southern half, which was dominated by shipping, industry and working-class inhabitants. By the 1970s, containerisation had resulted in the existing harbours being too small for the new ships, and this, combined with other economic and technological changes resulted in the port shifting westward, and the old harbour, with its associated neighbourhoods, falling into steep decline. Since the 1980s, the city has used large flagship projects, events and the lure of the ‘creative class’ in order to reverse its fortunes and transform its waterfront.

While this story is specific to Rotterdam, it is one which is repeated in countless harbour cities throughout the world. The specific neighbourhoods and industries may vary, but this could easily be Baltimore, Glasgow, Bilbao, Genoa and many more. What I would like focus on here is the last few decades, and the ways in which the unique visions and political structures in Rotterdam have created a new waterfront, centred around a development called the Kop van Zuid (English: Head of the South). This is a project which other cities often cites as a model for how to create successful mixed-use development out of an old industrial wasteland.

By the mid-1980s, the 19th Century harbour, situated opposite the city centre, had fallen into disuse. There were discussions at that time as to what to do with the site. The initial proposals were to turn the space into an overspill area for social housing – the idea being that residents would be temporarily moved to housing in the old harbour while their neighbourhoods were being regenerated and upgraded.

Enter Riek Bakker. When she was appointed head of the Rotterdam Development Corporation, a municipal body in charge of stimulating development, she was shocked at the lack of vision for what she saw as a very important piece of the city. She believed that this site could be turned into something much more important for the entire city. She believed that the city centre should expand to the south side of the river and that that would help unify the city – why should half the city’s residents not have a city centre, she asked. And she had the vision to keep the control of the project firmly in the hands of the municipality, rather than selling off land to the highest bidder. It is largely because of her vision, spanning more than two decades and outliving almost every politician, that the Kop van Zuid has developed into one of the most desirable places to live and work in the city.

However, in the 1980s and early 90s, when the site was still a derelict wasteland, she had quite a monumental task convincing people that this was a project worth undertaking. Rotterdam South was the ‘bad’ side of the river; residents viewed it in a negative light and developers were more attracted to sites in the city centre, or close to the main railway station. Ms. Bakker believed that a new iconic bridge was vital to the success of the project and to the future health of the city. Building a new bridge would not only link the development to the existing city centre, but it would serve to help physically unify the city. However, the general feeling within Rotterdam at that time was that there were enough river crossings for the existing traffic needs. A bridge was also going to be costly. But Ms. Bakker persisted. She even organised a gala ‘bridges ball,’ modelled after the famous skyscraper ball in New York in the 1930s. Guests arrived in costumes depicting famous bridges from around the world. One sad-looking individual appeared dressed as a boat, illustrating the idea that a ferry would be insufficient to make the site work. Finally, Ms. Bakker arrived dressed as a one-column bridge, the iconic structure which would eventually be the Erasmus Bridge which opened in 1996. It was events such as these, as well as continually convincing politicians, planners, developers and the public that taking the long-term approach and building a high-quality urban environment was the way to go, that garnered support for the project from all sectors of the city.

The Erasmus Bridge represented a turning point in the project. It is an interesting study in and of itself, and I would like to take a moment to discuss two specific goals which the bridge was meant to achieve. The first goal relates to a wider goal of the Kop van Zuid, and that is the idea of the undivided city. Despite its early critics, the bridge has become an important transport link which brings Rotterdam South closer to the rest of the city. It helped to save the city’s tram network by linking the then disjoined northern and southern sections via a new line over the bridge, and since it has opened, new lines have been built in Rotterdam South. For thousands of residents, it represents a tangible benefit to their daily lives through better transport links.

But the bridge also represented an important statement that the city (and – because the national government helped fund it by declaring it a ‘key project’ of national importance – the Dutch government) believed that this project would work and that it would be a safe place to invest. Another goal was to attract private development and city-centre functions such as culture and leisure, to the Kop van Zuid and the south more generally. In this way, the iconic nature of the bridge is very important – a simple structure, or a tunnel, would not have made that powerful statement.

In the end, both these goals were achieved, and the opening of the bridge represented the key turning point for the Kop van Zuid. While the private-sector commercial uptake was initially slow (many of the first offices were government or quasi-government, such as the national telecom company or the Port of Rotterdam), the second half of the 2000s saw new developer-led projects such as the Maas Tower.

Housing has proved to be more popular and an easier sell. The initial residents who moved in in the late 1990s, felt like ‘pioneers’ because they were living in a construction site in an area which was ‘off the middle-class map’ for generations. The area quickly became a desirable middle-class neighbourhood inhabited by professionals, many of whom work for the government or the not-for-profit sector. The neighbourhood is popular because of its infrastructure and transport links, location along the water and the high-quality of the houses.

The last point is one of the keys to the success of the Kop van Zuid. All parties involved have maintained the vision and belief that if the development is to succeed, it must be built well. This includes not only the quality of the buildings, but an emphasis on the urban landscape. In some areas, this is done very well, though the quaysides have yet to become popular ‘destinations’ largely because they are often cold, windswept and isolated.

In addition to a focus on quality, there are other lessons which cities can learn from Rotterdam. First, patience is key. Redeveloping such large parts of the city takes decades and if it is to be done right, an emphasis on quality and design is more important than a quick fix. The Kop van Zuid is more than twenty years in the making, and in the current economic climate, it might take another twenty for all the sites to be filled. This relates to the second lesson: such projects are bigger than the dreams of any one politician and shouldn’t be used as a political football. The consensus achieved by Riek Bakker and transcended political parties so that a change of government did not mean a change of direction for the project. Third, infrastructure is important. The Kop van Zuid is both well connected to the rest of the city, and it serves to connect other parts of the city to each other. This has not only the benefit of helping to make the development a success, but also goes a long way to wider city-building as well. The final lesson is that cities need to retain some degree of control over these projects if they are to become a holistic and complete neighbourhood, rather than a patchwork of one-off developments (see the forthcoming article on Glasgow for more on that). The municipality of Rotterdam has always been firmly in charge of the Kop van Zuid, and it works with other actors, such as developers to complete specific projects within it. In this way, the city is able to maintain its long-term vision of the project, rather than those of developers who may build what is profitable at that moment in time. While this is not possible in every national context (the role of local and national governments is much stronger in the Netherlands than in the Anglo-Saxon world), some sort of leadership is necessary in order to see such a monumental task through and avoid quick profits at the expense of long-term success. As Ms. Bakker said during an interview: “an office or a house won’t organise your infrastructure.”

Looking at it through the lens of transforming a derelict part of the city into something more valuable, and creating a high-quality urban space, the Kop van Zuid can be seen as a success. However, if we look at it through the lens of social justice and building a more equal city, we can be more critical. While this is a topic for a future article, it is perhaps worth pondering to what extend these types of economic and social divisions (the Kop van Zuid is primarily an affluent space, after all) are inherent to post-industrial, entrepreneurial forms of urban development? The Kop van Zuid, with its social, as well as economic aims, is better positioned to withstand this line of critique than other waterfronts. However it too alters rather than reduces the spatial divisions within the city. While I have outlined many lessons which planners and politicians can learn from Rotterdam when redeveloping waterfronts, this notion is an important caveat, particularly if the vision is for a socially-just and inclusive city. So despite its pleasant appearance and success in achieving many of its goals, we should not assume that this project – grand as it may be – will increase the wealth and opportunities for all inhabitants of the city.