Between the mud and the model
The Netherlands has always been the land of drawing boards, but too much legislation and the economic downturn have paralysed this top-down planning. What can we learn from shrinking Liverpool and the booming Balkans?
In the centre of Kosovo’s capital Pristina, a digging machine is levelling a corner lot. The lot is so small the digger can barely turn. It is one of the last empty spaces in the densely-built city centre. The owner, Qazim Babatinca, proudly shows us the building plans. The house he is building with his brother will have four stories. The design and permits cost him 15,000 Euros. “I wanted to do it legally and that’s expensive,” he says. I ask him why he bothers, when everyone here builds illegally anyway. He laughs: “I’ve lived in London for too long, you can’t help but adapt.”
Following the Serbian capitulation in 1999, construction projects began sprouting throughout the city. There was plenty of capital, from both Kosovan Albanians working abroad and from organised crime. Supervision failed. When the head of City Planning tried to stop the illegal construction projects in 2000, he was simply murdered.
The group of architects, city developers, critics and artists that the BKVB Fund has invited for the study tour ‘What’s up, what’s down – Cultural Catalysts in Urban Space’ have mixed feelings about Pristina. There is aversion to the unplanned proliferation and the ugliness that results, but also admiration and perhaps even jealousy of the vitality and the unlimited possibilities.
Because the Netherlands doesn’t have any very big cities, the BKVB Fund has chosen to visit second-rank cities, roughly the size of Amsterdam. In the course of two weeks we will visit nine European cities currently undergoing radical transformations. What can the Netherlands learn from these cities, what inspiration can they offer? The Netherlands, with its famous heritage of spatial organisation and urban development, needs to move in a new direction. The Dutch town planning machinery has become bogged down in its own complexity and red tape. The lack of a new vision was painfully obvious during the coalition negotiations following the elections. In the new structure, the Ministry for Spatial Planning was eliminated: all that is left is the Ministry for Infrastructure and the Environment.
Many plans have also been put on hold, due to the economic downturn, and it remains to be seen whether these will ever be revived. The age of the master plan has in any case ended: nowadays there is more talk of bottom-up planning, spontaneous planning and temporary uses. But no one knows exactly what this entails. It is not easy to shake off a century of the drawing-board mentality.
The inhabitants of Pristina have taken to unregulated construction with a vengeance in recent decades: entire suburbs have been illegally built. This ‘turbo urbanism,’ as the German city developer Kai Vöckler calls it, is not exclusively a Kosovan phenomena; it caught on throughout the Balkans. The big international investors hardly get a look in here. Often the owner and contractor will share the risk and retain one floor each after construction, while renting or selling the rest of the building. What is ultimately located in the building – a store, an office, a workshop or residences – depends on market forces. An architect is rarely involved, it’s considered quite something if a design engineer checks the plan for structural adequacy. Naturally, such unplanned and unrestrained urbanisation results in considerable problems, such as the demolition of cultural heritage, an overloaded infrastructure, arguments between neighbours, a terrible lack of facilities and a dispiriting lack of taste. Surprisingly, the feverish construction has not produced slums, as has happened almost everywhere else in the world.
Take for example the residential suburb Shutka, in Skopje, the capital of the country that is officially called ‘The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia,’ in deference to Greek sensitivities. Shutka is the only gypsy neighbourhood I’ve visited where strangers are neither treated like Santa Claus nor faced with rejection or even threats. You seem to go unnoticed.
Shutka has something between 20,000 and 50,000 inhabitants: no one has even an approximate idea of how many people really live there. It’s a mixture of run-down wooden housing, loud villas, empty lots and concrete houses, small shops and three-story plastered buildings in all the colours of the rainbow. The roads are full of donkey carts and homemade delivery scooters, but also Mercedes and minivans. Self-reliance is the driving force behind this neighbourhood, and the result exhibits a blossoming vitality.
In Albania, where turbo urbanism started in the nineties, it has already entered the next phase. Here we can see a possible way of dealing with spontaneous neighbourhoods. Over half of the capital Tirana, including the suburb of Bathore, was built illegally. Bathore was formed in the early nineties when farmers from the North moved to the city in droves. Bathore became a concept in Albania, it even became a verb: the Bathorisation of the country.
Bathore is now fully built, with 70 to 80 thousand residents. At first glance it’s hard to imagine that the district was built illegally. It may be a bit chaotic to Western eyes, but the houses are big and well-maintained, there are schools and stores, and the roads are paved and wide enough for buses.
The illegal settlers followed the lines of the drainage ditches in what was a wasteland. But how did they ensure there was enough space left for infrastructure, were they that well-organised? “The roads were built later,” says Dritan Shutina, the manager of Co-Plan. Co-Plan is a non-government organisation, with funding from Cordaid, which the Dutch Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies has supported with expertise and information.
With its feet literally in the mud, Co-Plan developed the zoning plan for Bathore. “Making plans isn’t about drawing, it’s about reaching people and harmonising different interests.’ It took three years to convince people to relinquish a bit of ‘their’ land for roads. “We asked what they thought was most important, and the answer was always, ‘the future of our children.’ We took that as a starting point, and argued, ‘If your children get sick, how will the ambulance get here to take them to hospital?’”
It took a lot of talking, and it was far from easy. They had grown up in the mountains, and still had a tribal way of thinking. Most of them still kept a gun under their beds. It took a long time, but the project was eventually successful, in part because Co-Plan didn’t just make plans for the roads, it also fought the City Council to get the whole suburb legalised. At first the idea met with disbelief from the powers that be. Their idea was to wipe the whole suburb off the map. But nowadays, politicians realize that the inhabitants of Bathore are also potential voters. Besides, every road that is laid out, and every school built, is inevitably a step towards legalisation.
Bathore was Co-Plan’s first project, but now they are active throughout Albania. Social workers are still the cornerstone of the organisation, but Co-Plan has extended its work to include master plans for entire cities, and input to national spatial planning policies. In 2006, Co-Plan even founded a private university. The first thirty students will graduate from Polis University this year. It’s this connection between high and low, mud and model, residents and politics, that makes Co-plan’s work so inspiring. Talking and doing at the same time.
Co-Plan is concerned not only with unruly growth in Albania, but also with shrinkage. The countryside and the smaller cities are emptying. However for really striking examples of population loss – a problem the Netherlands will also face during the next few decades – the study group went to northern England. Since the 1950’s, the population has been shrinking drastically in the area that once led the industrial revolution. The population of Liverpool dropped by almost half, from 850,000 to 440,000. The city hit rock bottom in the eighties. Since then, the city has recovered economically and culturally, at least if you look at the city centre.
Liverpool has hosted the famous Liverpool Biennial since 1998, which in 2008 led to it being chosen as the cultural capital of Europe. In the same year, a shopping mall the size of 25 football fields opened, with more than 160 stores, fourteen theatres and its own bus station. The warehouses beside the harbour look neatly renovated and the beautiful modern Museum of Liverpool is almost complete. As an extra mark of distinction, the city centre is surrounded by parks whose higher points offer panoramic views of the city. A depressing detail here is that the hills are artificial, built from the rubble of the working-class neighbourhoods that used to be here.
Further to the East, some of the working-class suburbs are still standing. In Anfield, for example, street after street of two-story houses stand abandoned. Steel plates have been welded over the windows and every building has a sign to warn burglars: “All valuables have been removed.” The city renewal came to a screeching halt here: one section of the neighbourhood was levelled, but now there is no money left even to demolish the remaining houses, at a cost of 2,500 Euros per house. The ghost houses are literally a stone’s throw from the world-famous FC Liverpool football stadium. It’s because of the stadium that the abandoned streets are filled with parked cars once every two weeks.
The Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk will be working in Anfield for two years, under an invitation from the Liverpool Biennial. Van Heeswijk is known for her social interventions. To break the apathy, she has already organised unemployed youth to design and build their ideal housing units. She already has volunteers and an empty lot that used to have 24 houses. Now she is fighting for the right to use bricks and timber from buildings being demolished. The demolition companies want to keep these, as they are in great demand in London for renovating luxury apartments.
Van Heeswijk has proven to be exceptionally good at handling practical problems, but it remains to be seen whether her intervention is any match for urban decline and houses left empty on such a large scale. ‘Do it yourself’ is a wonderful approach, and one that fits with the local punk tradition, but when looking at Anfield’s many abandoned streets, it can be disheartening. Nevertheless the active residents in the Anfield and Breckfield Steering Group support the plan. “We have no choice but to remain optimistic,” says one of the volunteers. He is referring to the fact that residents themselves were responsible for the restructuring plan, which was approved eight years ago and provided for the demolition of 1400 houses.
We found more fighting spirit among a group of older residents in the much smaller neighbourhood of Granby, close to Liverpool’s city centre. Granby too was earmarked for demolition, some 15 years ago. In some places, half the houses have been boarded up. The majority of the residents owned their homes, and every street still has a few residents who refuse to sell out. A group of older residents painted several houses, as a way to cheer the place up. The idea caught on and the group asked everyone in the neighbourhood to paint the houses next to them, and those across the road.
We have seen this before on this study tour: paint as a means of social rehabilitation, or at least for decoration. The most striking example was in Tirana, where Mayor Edi Rama had entire neighbourhoods colourfully painted. His project has since attracted international artists such as Olafur Eliasson. True, there are some really nice art works there, but it falls far short of being an inspiring attempt to blow new life into a city. It’s exactly what its name suggests: a façade project.
However Granby is a different story, precisely because the residents aren’t over-awed by the rules and norms of modern art, and are unabashedly looking for comfort and pleasantry. They have no fear of clichés, so the walls with their blocked-out windows have been painted with childish curtains and mailboxes, and with stars and flowers of every imaginable colour. No aesthetics committee had a hand in it, there were no workshops, no master plan, no analysis, nothing. The result is pure poetry, reminiscent of a somewhat demented old lady who has put on make-up and is, for a moment, the flirtatious girl she used to be.
The operation fits perfectly in the Victorian neighbourhood of low-rise houses with bay windows, well-proportioned streets, old trees and tiny front gardens. It draws attention to the area’s quality; you can easily imagine that gentrification will catch on here. You could almost think you are in the old Jordaan, a working-class area in Amsterdam, just before it was taken over by young professionals. The similarity with the Netherlands is strengthened by trailers full of pot plants, parked here and there on the pavement, and the Farmers’ Market that the women organise every first Saturday of the month. “You can’t get fresh vegetables here any more,” is their laconic explanation.
Will the activist-oldies be able to stop the bulldozers? They often despair, but they also know that the quality of the area has already improved a lot. Every year they hold out improves the odds that their neighbourhood will be rediscovered and new life will begin from the bottom up. Their unpretentious activism may not be a solution, but it is a start.
The differences between Northern England and the Balkans are extreme: dramatic decline versus explosive growth. Both of these processes occur in the Netherlands too, although on a smaller scale. By 2040, over half of the Dutch municipalities will have shrunk in population. This decline is strongest at the geographical margins: North-east Groningen, Southern Limburg and the Dutch portion of Flanders. The Central Bureau for Statistics has predicted that these areas combined will lose 150,000 inhabitants. The population of the area known as Parkstad Limburg, which includes Heerlen and Kerkrade, will drop by 15 percent.
Meanwhile the urban agglomeration in the West (the Randstad), and cities in the centre of the country will see a lot of growth. Utrecht will grow by 35%, making it the fastest-growing city in the Netherlands. But even the most successful cities will experience some deterioration. Take Amsterdam for example: overall the city will grow by an eighth, but the urban renewal in New-West, the post-war suburbs in the western part of the city, has come to a complete halt. A more extreme example can be seen in Liverpool: a booming city centre and dying suburbs.
What can the Netherlands learn from the cities that were visited? The examples of large-scale population loss aren’t encouraging. It’s unreasonable to expect the inhabitants of a district such as Amsterdam’s New-West, where large empty lots are witness to the thousands of homes that have been demolished, to take the initiative to halt the degeneration. And it’s unrealistic to expect art projects to turn the tide. But when you look closer, there are real possibilities. On a neighbourhood level, or for individual apartment blocks, the energy and fighting spirit of the residents can be a starting point. Art can play a role, but only when the local community is involved: art for art’s sake will not help.
Spontaneous urbanisation also is an extension of resident action. Now that the big project developers and construction consortiums have lost interest, local initiatives and smaller investors must be allowed to fill the gap. This can only happen if we abandon the idea of a master plan and accept that we can’t predict what a neighbourhood will look like, 20 years from now. This realisation is slowly penetrating even to policy-making circles. Councillor Maarten van Poelgeest of Amsterdam recently argued for bottom-up city development. In the policy document ‘Sensible sequels to the construction freeze,’ he rejected plans for the Sluispoort development on Zeeburger Island. Instead the area will “be used for temporary facilities for now, and will gradually grow towards a definitive plan. (…) To facilitate this, the Sluisbuurt Free State Plan is being developed.”
Perhaps Van Poelgeest should call on Albania’s Co-Plan organisation to monitor and advise, and to ensure there are good connections between the top and bottom, up and down. That would also be a nice example of reverse development aid.
This article was published in FORUM A+P Magazine, number 7 (2011)