Today I attempted to explain to my first-year BA students what theory is, what the place of planning discipline is within social theory, and why theory is important for planning practitioners. Tough job to simplify all these in 90 minutes, considering most of the...
CAPP Student blog (November 2018): The Great Divide: The Lex Deldenbrug as false sense of inclusion: South-Axis by Maarten Sluiter and Daan Klaver
Looming skyscrapers with merlons on top appear as gatekeepers upon approaching the Lex van Delden Bridge from the south. Big, gated apartment buildings tower over the water and function as a wall that prevents intruders from entering. This bridge divides the haves on the north side from the have-not’s on the south side of the moat. It demarcates the poor from the rich, the powerful from the powerless, and creates a false sense of bridging the gap. This process of exclusion becomes even more apparent upon crossing the bridge into the castle. The bridge is lit by giant lampposts (Photo 1), which almost seem to function as searchlights when illuminating the bridge and its adjacent courtyard. Another striking feature is the ‘all-seeing-eye’ portrayed on the deck of the bridge, which controls everyone passing by (Photo 2).
Even though the metaphors above may seem over the top, truth rings to these words as the architect’s envisioned connection is not achieved. The idea of a “blurred boundary” between the “public sector and private market”(Tasan- Kok, p. 5, 2012) was supposed to be achieved by this bridge . The goal was to create a square and a bridge, which connects not only the opposing Gershwinplein with the Boelelaan, but also the city-centre with Buitenveldert (Dok Architecten, 2010). Buitenveldert with its majority of social housing and the South-Axis with predominantly middle and high segment dwellings (Gemeente Amsterdam, 2017). It’s the well-off business people in their tailored suits on the one side, and the lower classes in social houses on the other side. The power relation manifests itself as a natural barrier as the canal was dug in 2016, simultaneously with development of the apartment blocks (Beensgroep, 2018). The idea behind the canal is supposedly to function as water retention in order to prevent flooding (Beensgroep, 2018). Despite this, it becomes evident that the water functions as a natural barrier to prevent intrusion into the gated apartments.
The apartment blocks overlooking the water are gated areas with high facades facing the water and inner gardens, which cannot be accessed by others. Many aspects of the build environment show similarities to gated communities,
which can be defined as “ residential areas with restricted access such that normally public spaces have been privatized” (Blakely and Snyder, p.85, 1991). This is what happens with the apartment buildings facing the Boelgracht as they are restricted to outsiders. People in the social housing on the other end of the canal can only look at the beautiful gardens and terraces at the other end of the divide. The grass in this case really is greener on the other side.
The bridge that supposedly connects the two areas was designed by an architecture firm and cost the municipality €1.000.000,- (Dok Architecten, 2010). Our view is that the municipality caters for big corporations on the South- axis, making the area more attractive with this bridge. The property located in this area in a sense leads the way of urban planning, and the municipality caters to this end and does not serve the people to the south, as it feels more like an extension of the South Axis than a way of connecting. This is also exemplified by a quote from the architect: “Tables, chairs, and residents enjoying a glass of wine in the evening sun. That is the way I envisage this”(Dok Architecten, 2010). This sounds rather elitist to drink wine on a bridge. Drinking wine or any other form of alcohol is prohibited in a public place and a person drinking a can of beer on a bridge in Buitenveldert will undoubtedly be addressed to their behavior or fined.
This put things in a larger context, Tasan-Kok (2012) argues that large- scale property projects, like the South Axis, are a result of globalisation. The South Axis, with his stately allure, is a new center and is key to the identity of the place, which not only changed the appearance of the area, also the socio- economic character changed (Campbell, 2014). This became clear during our observation. Almost all the commercial facilities were closed on a Sunday. Besides, most of these stores do not connect with the inhabitant of Buitenveldert, who due to their socio-economic status cannot afford a €50,- haircut.
It becomes clear that the Lex van Deldenbrug divides more than it connects. The divide can only be tackled if residents of Buitenveldert would actually have something to visit the area for, instead of feeling out of place between the high facades of the buildings and feeling unwelcome in certain areas. The gated apartment blocks also do not seem very welcoming as the view from inner gardens is blocked or out of reach to non-residents. The bridge to the castle at first sight seems open to everyone but functions to a great extent as a drawbridge, which enables the well-off to pass without feeling unwanted and out of place, and functions as an invisible boundary to those living in Buitenveldert.
Beensgroep. (2018). Boelegracht Amsterdam. (Accessed at 04-11-2018), from: http://www.beensgroep.nl/projecten/boelelaan-amsterdam/
Blakely, Edward J., and Mary Gail Snyder. (1991) Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. Print
Campbell, H., Tait, M., Watkins, C. (2014) Is There Space for Better Planning in a Neoliberal World? Implications for Planning Practice and Theory, Journal of Planning Education and Research, 34(1) 45-59.
Today I attempted to explain to my first-year BA students what theory is, what the place of planning discipline is within social theory, and why theory is important for planning practitioners. Tough job to simplify all these in 90 minutes, considering most of the students hear all these for the first time. It’s a lot to take in! But of course, they will realise soon that there are recurring themes and ideas, which will fall into place through time. My approach was to illustrate the link between theory and practice by focusing on a real-life case, Het Hem, a brownfield regeneration project located in Hembrugterrein in Zaandam. I used what Fainstein & DeFillipis (2016)* said in the textbook in reference to theory as a starting point: “Planning must be predictive, and predicting the future impacts of planning interventions requires a theoretical understanding of the processes that shape the making of spaces and places. Thus, planners need theory and, while they may be relying on theory that is internalized, implicit, and unexamined, it is present nonetheless” (Fainstein & DeFillipis, 2016: p.3). I concentrated on transferring the idea of how an understanding of the processes that shape the making of urban spaces may help the practice of planning.
Het Hem is a regeneration project initiated by a private sector investor (Amerbough) targeting to accommodate creative industries (ateliers, workshops, etc), a hotel, a large restaurant and cafes, roof terrace, film theater, and rental offices, as well as short stay apartments. It was covered by Het Parool, Amsterdam’s really cool newspaper this week and I thought using it as an illustrative case may help them to build a bridge between theory and practice.
My idea to explain the role of theory in predicting the future was to show them step by step how we can establish some ‘facts’ to predict the future. Earlier in the lecture, I shared a small video where the role of ‘facts’ in the making of theories was explained in the case of exact sciences. I did explain to them, however, that our facts in social sciences may not be the same kind of ‘facts’ as in exact sciences due to the context-dependent nature of our interpretations in social sciences. Here, by using Het Hem as an illustrative case my aim was to show students what a practitioner, who may sit in a position to decide on the future of Hembrugterrein, has to keep in mind in his/her decision process. A planner, I simplified, should analyse or understand the past and the present conditions that brought the context in which a project as Het Hem is created while deciding on the future of this area. I’ve talked about ‘public interest’ as one of the focus points that theories in planning cover in my previous class and here, in the case of Het Hem, it is an important focal point to keep in mind as a general, principle target. I started with a question: How do we understand the processes that shape urban space? I explained that understanding the processes that shape the urban space requires theoretical understandings as an important step in predicting its future.
I displayed my analysis with 3 elements: historical context, current capital accumulation processes in the city that supports brownfield regeneration, and new economic functions in the city. In other words, by understanding the characteristics of the historical context in which this particular urban space emerged as a 19th-century ammunition factory; then linking these characteristics to today’s tendency of property-driven regeneration projects where municipalities hope to realize socio-spatial transformations through private sector involvement; and then, finally, linking these to the new (popular) urban functions like ‘creative industries’, ‘food and beverages’, ‘temporary/shared office spaces’, or short-stay apartments, would help a planner in his/her decision on what to do with this urban space. The input for the planner’s decision should come from knowing how the past conditions (industrial history of the factory) resulted in the situation of today, how the present (derelict brownfield zone waiting for new investment) conditions shape the capital accumulation processes, and how the future (new urban functions) is shaped by the private sector’s involvement when deciding on how to deal with this project. Although I will explore in later classes in detail, I also introduced the importance of property market dynamics in contemporary planning practice today due to the market dependency of municipalities. By doing that I was hoping to make them see that a practitioner has to juggle with decisions like this to balance greater public interest and market dependency as private sector investments play a great role in urban development today.
“Planning must be predictive, and predicting the future impacts of planning interventions requires a theoretical understanding of the processes that shape the making of spaces and places” (Fainstein and DeFillipis, 2016).
In the case of Het Hem project I illustrated how industrial history has put this place on the map by manufacturing capital accumulated in this very space, and then how it became derelict because the industrial functions were not needed anymore, and hence the capital could accumulate elsewhere. However, then, how this urban space became one of the many opportunity zones in the city to accommodate new investments and picked up by an investor. The decision that (the imaginary) the planner has to take at this point is about how to deal with this decision. Is the planner going to leave the decisions on the new functions entirely to the investor’s wishes, or is s/he going to enforce his/her agenda for safeguarding wider public interest in this process? An urban planner should know that urban functions, such as creative industries, like previously popular functions such as manufacturing, may not be the target investment for new generation capital accumulation processes in the future. There will always be more popular investment channels in this growth-oriented, market dependent world. It means that some principle decisions have to be taken, considering long term functions for such brownfield areas, especially considering the needs of urban residents. I asked students what they thought the most important problem of Amsterdam is. “Housing…affordable housing,” they said. They are first-year BA students. They are the future of planning. They will use their knowledge, skills, and principles to bring substance back to planning again, I believe…
* Fainstein, S.S. and DeFilippis, J. eds., 2015. Readings in planning theory. John Wiley & Sons.
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