10 Questions for Rotterdam : from CAPE TOWN / A CAPETONIAN / by Janine Loubser

Dear Rotterdam,

Ten months have passed since that Sunday afternoon in Autumn when my train pulled into the station and I set foot on Platform No. 9. I remember making my way through the station building with a heavy heart, and an even heavier suitcase, overwhelmed by the newness and all the uncertainties ahead. However, as soon as I stepped out onto your brand new stationsplein and took in my surroundings, my heavy luggage seemed featherweight and my misgivings vanished. For a moment I was blinded by the sunlight glinting off a corner of your silver roof, but the drift of a cloud moved over and your skyline greeted me on all sides. 

My first view of Rotterdam stepping out of the station

My first view of Rotterdam stepping out of the station

The emotions rising and bubbling in my mind then quickly gave way to questions about you, which I have been refining and adding to ever since - prompted by your cityscape, your culture and your people. Can you help me - a passionate urbanist from Cape Town - gain some answers?

1. Constant Contrasts

Contrasting realities, on a scale unthinkable just one generation ago, have become a familiar feature of our fast-urbanising cities. Growing up in South Africa, I was used to the physical manifestation of difference around me; I was also used to the idea that poverty had a racial and spatial character, as did wealth (read more about a Yale student's experience of this here). Most of all, I was accustomed to the sameness of urban neighbourhoods: the poor built shelter out of whatever was to hand, while the rich enjoyed constructing car-dependent suburban fantasy landscapes harking back to Tuscany or Greece. 

Rotterdam was vastly more sophisticated than this. Strong visual contrasts were set up everywhere, as very new buildings were juxtaposed against very old ones. A high level of architectural daring seemed to be permitted, even encouraged. The diversity of the cityscape made for a sort of unifying and consistent eclecticism. I would like to know how you got it right, and whether Cape Town could learn from your attempts to create an attractive and dignified city where the spirit of experimentation remains intact. 

2. Nurturing diversity

Not only have your contrasting building styles set the scene for one of the most architecturally diverse cities in the Netherlands, but have you also allowed for an open-minded, multicultural environment rich in activities and complexity. Every day, interesting people from all over the world can be seen roaming your streets - without feeling the need to blend in too much. The result is that it takes a world to make a busy Rotterdam street. How do you stimulate such diversity? How do you sustain a culture of tolerance and openness in a large, competitive city?

The old and the new - a characteristic element of Rotterdam's built environment 

The old and the new - a characteristic element of Rotterdam's built environment 

3. Incubating Creativity

My most memorable moments have found me through the unexpected discovery of creative incubation and activity on your streets. Whether it be an art exhibition hosted in an old banking office, a giant wooden apple floating next to the river or a live musical performance reverberating through the walls of an abandoned jail - I have often been transfixed and delighted by the novelty you offer. How do you allow these creative ‘injections’ to take place within your legal framework? Who deals with objections, and how is this discourse handled between the city and the citizen? How do you facilitate temporary uses so creatively that people are willing or able to take risks?

In Cape Town the appropriation of public spaces for temporary projects has slowly started to gain support, with organisations such as Cape Town Partnership calling on artists to intervene, Future Cape Town and BLOK partnering to collaboratively improve public space, and events such as Open Streets and PARK(ing) day now more regularly taking place. But there is still room for improvement - how can we break down red tape to streamline and support these interventions at a metropolitan scale, especially beyond photogenic and gentrified parts of the city?

The opening of the No Man's Art Gallery pop-up show in the old ABN AMRO offices in Rotterdam

The opening of the No Man's Art Gallery pop-up show in the old ABN AMRO offices in Rotterdam

4. Regenerating Old Industries

In recent years your harbour has transformed significantly with the introduction of new technologies and the relocation of port activities to Maasvlakte II. These processes have established new agglomerations of shipping and industrial activity. Often, historic harbour cities are faced with questions on how to reuse vacant industrial sites or regenerate old port areas, which tend to be sited near historic city centres. Through allowing flexible space for small-scale creative industry activity, you have managed to give new shape - new life - to these buildings without blanket policies or over-planned renewal strategies. Places such as the Fenix Food Factory (pictured below), a former warehouse and port storage facility, have now become one of the most popular local hang-out spots, boasting organic markets, a beer brewery, a bakery and food truck events right on the water's edge. In a similar way, the former shipyard of the Rotterdam Drydock Company was recently redeveloped into an innovation cluster, now accommodating business, education and research facilities. How can Cape Town learn from these case examples? How can other cities facilitate a process towards reimagining their harbours into people-friendly, safe and attractive hotspots?

5. Connecting people with water

While this process of rejuvenation and creative incubation is taking place, you have skilfully managed to attract people to the water’s edge - areas which were previously considered unsafe and to be avoided. Is it the lack of canals in your centre that has forced you to rethink how to use the river as a source of physical connection? Or is it due to progressive policies that allow for terraces and seating areas to offer vistas along the river edge without any obstruction? Why when I am in Cape Town do I feel disengaged with the water surrounding the city, while in Rotterdam interaction with water is constantly stimulated?

6. Colouring your skyline 

Densification. A word so often used by planners and policy makers that the meaning is becoming lost in an ever-expanding cloud of definitions and ideas. It is becoming increasingly clear that real solutions will only come from contextually unique and innovative approaches to catch the attention of local councils and decision-makers. In your case, you have gone back to basics, promoting individual projects that densify upwards while also making living conditions on the ground more attractive. The colourful box on top of the house concept by MVRDV (pictured below) is a prime example of this. This idea not only liberates floor space but ensures that the skyline is systematically enhanced and intensified by new colours, arresting textures and interesting shapes. How can small private initiatives like this be translated into different urban contexts? How can we encourage and support people to take densification into their own hands?


7. Communicating through buildings

Oh how I love the way in which you speak to us when traversing your streets! Whether it's a shout or a whipser, whether you incite me to pursue a creative idea or merely cement an interesting thought - the city's exuberance seems to give me permission to experiment. The subtle messages contained in on your building facades constantly tug at the edges of my thoughts, whether through the playful counter-rhythms of a 1930s housing block or the riotous energy of the Markthal. While other cities plead with me to conform, Rotterdam demands difference. 



Markets. So many markets in your streets and squares! And every week I discover a new one. Your endless choice (more than 22 per week!) is definitely not healthy for those suffering from a fear of missing out. And yet your markets are never overcrowded nor under-attended. Is it because there is such a mix of choice and diversity? Or because you always use markets as a mechanism to activate public space? Through continuously activating open spaces in your neighbourhoods I have experienced many multicultural interactions. I can guess that, growing up here, your people are socialised to see this level of cultural stimulus as normal, and to think of cross-pollination between worldviews as a default setting. As a Capetonian, I envy this - we have our markets, but there is a long way to go before we can find each other over fresh produce, piping hot street food and second-hand items like you do. I look forward to the day when my hometown can give precedence in public space to these vital expressions of community and solidarity - such as shutting down roads for events, without also feeling the need to provide an intimidating level of security personnel. 

9. Breaking down physical barriers

A more physical mechanism towards integration that you have also mastered is the use of creative installations to bridge, overcome or remake unattractive places. An example of this is the Luchtsingel Bridge connecting Rotterdam North with the centre via a skywalk, which succeeded in revitalising a once forgotten railyard (pictured below). Locals were encouraged to take ownership of the project through sponsorship of a plank in the wall with their name on it. In this way, they were not only able to defray costs but also to lay claim to a physical piece of their neighbourhood. Is this an idea that can be implemented in Cape Town’s often unsafe freeway crossings or dark walkways? Instead of hurrying through these places with frequent glances over our shoulders, could we be coaxed to linger and appreciate their civic quality and beauty?


10. Fostering social activities through smart water management

One of the most inspiring things that you have taught me is to rethink water management - in a famously man-made country, I was surprised to see that keeping water out is now a superceded concept. In Rotterdam, the new thinking is to integrate the certainty of tidal and storm surges and floods into ordinary urban planning, such that the city takes an inevitability (in a time of rising sea levels) and literally surmounts it. Examples such as the water square in Benthemplein (pictured below) showcase Dutch water thinking at its finest, demonstrating that it is possible to move beyond infrastructure planning towards integrated designs. Here, social activations, such as play areas for children or public community areas, serve as functional spaces that also play a vital role in mitigating and managing severe water events. Is this an idea that can be implemented in Cape Town's flood-prone areas (which only stand to grow in area in the near future) to create socially useful spaces?

Since your ‘heart’ was destroyed in the war you have succeeded in building a new one out of new and spare parts. The result is a hybrid - in appearance, the least Dutch city of all; but in its can-do, tolerant and mercantile spirit, a great distillation of what makes the Netherlands great. 

Instead of trying to replicate what you lost to bombing in the 1940s, you have boldly remade yourself, and taken the risk of losing your history - after all, the future can be just as interesting a place to live. How can my hometown write new spatial chapters and build new kinds of space when the weight of the past is still with us? How can we give ourselves permission to experiment, without letting one failure condemn the entire approach? I want to know, Rotterdam, and I think you are willing to show me - and anyone - if we look long and hard enough.