For the sake of public spaces
Journalism was not my first calling; I was in my thirties before I realized how much scope this profession offers for exploring the world and telling stories about it.
Journalism was not my first calling; I was in my thirties before I realized how much scope this profession offers for exploring the world and telling stories about it. It was quite a switch for me, after a Master’s in Industrial Engineering, followed by social work with drug users. However that somewhat unusual background gave me a fruitful journalistic perspective.
My main theme is public spaces. I have defined a public space as one that anyone can access freely, without needing the permission of a front desk or security officer, as a space where your citizenship is your entry ticket. In pursuing this theme, I have found I have a soft spot for society’s frayed edges, with all their imperfections and conflicts, for the tiny cracks that show what’s bubbling beneath the surface and hint at what might come next.
Yet I am also interested in top-down urban planning and the economic imperatives and technological developments that shape cities and landscapes, determining their possibilities and limitations.
My stories are set in the uneasy field that lies between planned space and lived space.
Being a freelancer gives me freedom to choose my own themes and perspectives and to decide for myself what medium fits the topic. Often the themes eventually culminate in a book. For example:
> The expressway is one of the largest public spaces, and one of the least considered. I published a large number of reports on this topic, and a book called ‘Asphalt Travels’ (Asfaltreizen), and I am currently working with artist Melle Smets on a series of guidebooks to the great cities of the world, as described from their beltways (such as Amsterdam from the A10, Paris from the Périphérique and New York from Interstates 95 and 278). The preliminary studies are completed, and we are looking for an international publisher.
> Shopping is the main economic and cultural driving force behind the revival of city centers. Their remarkable blossoming – when ‘edge cities’ were supposed to be the future – has changed cities radically. I describe this process in my book ‘The Square Yard’ (De Vierkante Meter), based on the history of a shop in a provincial city – the building where my mother was born.
Inspired by The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, I made a documentary with moviemaker Gerard van der Wardt on this theme, called ‘Welcome to Control Space’ (Welkom in Control Space).
> The city continues to be a machine for integration, even if it does not run smoothly. The availability of large amounts of digital data enables us to literally map segregation and the quality of the residential environment. I did this for the 25 largest cities in the Netherlands, and gave color to the picture with street-level reports.
In the coming year, as part of a journalistic exchange, I will work for a Berlin newspaper for two months on the topic ‘The New Wall.’ Why is only one of the 25 neighborhoods with a substantial Turkish population situated in former East Berlin?
> Art in public spaces reveals much about a society’s power relationships, dreams and conflicts. The acme of this – or its basest form, in many eyes – is the new global phenomenon of art works on roundabouts. There are hundreds of these in the Netherlands alone, and remarkably enough, they are set up without interference from artwork committees, so they are a good mirror of the country itself. My research, in collaboration with designer Peter Jonker, led to the book ‘Round About Utrecht’ (De ronde van U.), with a sequel forthcoming.
> The word ‘landscape’ (landschap) has found its way from Dutch into many languages. Even if there has been no human intervention, there is still a difference between a landscape and the natural environment, for a landscape is in the eye of the beholder. This perception has led to many reports, some of them collected in a theme book on the Dutch provinces called Het land van Lely, and to some essays, for example for books of photographs, such as Dutchscapes and De Volgerlanden.
> The future of the city continues to fascinate me. That has been reason enough to travel to China, Russia and America, and to study the cities of old Europe, so as to bring back lessons that can be translated to the Dutch context. In 2010, in a background story on Amsterdam (submitted for theCiti Journalistic Excellence Award), I discussed why the Dutch capital, with its well-known structure of encircling canals, and outlying suburban lobes, continues to build suburbs 15 or more miles from the center. This report initiated a fierce debate, among residents and in professional circles. In 2011, I will study possible alternatives to this type of development together with photographer Theo Baart.