The most recent European policies promoted by the current Commission, and the opportunities arising from the availability of the Next Generation EU recovery instrument of €750 billion, have put the topic of urban renewal back in the spotlight of continental and national debates. This isn’t surprising at this point in time because since the end of the XIX century urban renewal practices have been master tools on which to boost the economic performance and social sustainability of a community by enhancing the urban fabric and buildings
Urban renewal was a very strong driver for the revival of the economic and social fabric in the Netherlands in the post-war period. More than anywhere else, Dutch society and its government moved for three decades (from the late 1940s to the 1970s) from the belief that the social body could and should be shaped after a vision, based on the regained values of democracy: egalitarian access to welfare, social infrastructures, and decent housing conditions. Spatial determinism was an important component of this vision. The Dutch approach was rooted in the optimism of the modernist urban practice, which believed that the separation of functions, generous space, and light were the keys to human dignity. These principles guided the realization of a first wave of urban renewal projects, at that time mainly headed towards post-war reconstruction and the creation of dwellings different from the overcrowded, obsolete central districts. Amsterdam’s Bijlmermeer is possibly the most imaginative expression of this strategy: a vast area traversed by raised highways and metro lines and populated by a composition of slab buildings on a hexagonal grid, attempting to create a vertical garden city
In the 1970s the growing demand for housing in the biggest cities – especially Amsterdam – drove a shift towards the realization of new cities, like Almere and Lelystad, as simple expansion projects that became insufficient to meet the heavy demand further fostered by the first wave of overseas immigration. In the big cities, attention moved to the demolition and reconstruction projects, under the motto “building for the neighborhood”. This policy lasted well until the 1990s and formed as such a second wave of urban renewal projects.
By the time most demolition and reconstruction projects had seen the light, the first expansion projects of the post-war years started showing signs of aging. Despite documentedly low segregation and a decent level of maintenance as a result of publically-owned housing corporation governance, massive urban projects resulted in repetition, uniformity, poor utilization of ground space, in general, a lack of human scale and diversity, and eventually urban vitality. Courageous urban policies considered these aspects and resulted in plans for the demolition and reconstruction of these districts, based on a much more fine-grained scale and attention to street involvement. In the case of Amsterdam’s Bijlmermeer, only a little part of the original plan was kept in place as testimony to the past. The experimental projects such as Kleiburg (NL Architects) have successfully explored strategies at the scale of the slab building to diversify, activate, humanize the original architecture. Apartments in the building were sold as Do-It-Yourself units at a very low price, offering newcomers a high rate of personalization
In parallel to interventions on the existing housing stock, urban renewal practices in the Netherlands have followed other trends as well. In the last 25 years the Dutch government largely withdrew from its previous scattershot involvement in local planning and promoted large urban projects instead, intended to support the Netherlands’ escalation in urban and regional global competition. Its welcoming policies to foreign companies, a compact and well-infrastructured territory around the four main cities (also known as Randstad), and its proven capacity to deliver ambitious projects have been important assets to attract foreign capital and a highly qualified workforce. Zuidas – the urban project for the new business center of Amsterdam – is probably the most representative intervention to foster internationalization. Dating back to the late 1980s, it started against the city’s government vision with private entrepreneurship aiming to exploit large sport facilities between the consolidated city and its 1960s over-the-ringway expansion to build office venues with exceptional accessibility and proximity to the city center and Schiphol airport. Only once it was clear that the influence of Dutch and international flagship companies was more powerful than the governmental planning instruments, the Municipality accepted to modify its plans, took the lead, produced a vision, and set out a normative framework for further developments. The most important ingredients of the Zuidas urban project are its striving for a functional mix, the high quality of public spaces, and its sustainability ambitions. While the biggest part of the buildings have been delivered according to the project’s ambitions, the government is currently investing billions for the enhancement of the Amsterdam Zuid train station and the creation of a tunnel to bury the ringway to make space for new green and public areas.
The ever-growing capacity of the Netherlands to attract new inhabitants puts big pressure on the housing market, which currently lacks ca. 50.000 units in Amsterdam alone. Under such circumstances the city’s development is forced to look at creative ways of providing new housing within the current metropolitan region. The two cornerstones of this strategy are the substitution of functions and densification. In the past 20 years a radical transformation, yet to be completed, has been observed in the harbor areas along the river Ij, mainly west of the city center. On both riverbanks formerly harbor-related production sites have been transformed into new neighborhoods. Houthaven, Overhoeks, and the yet-to-come Havenstad are the most relevant examples. In parallel, entrepreneurs’ eyes have been caught by large areas of low-density, outdated business premises in the south-east outskirts of the city. Amstel III is an example of an urban reconversion project, encompassing the substitution of office buildings with medium-rise and high-rise residential towers.
The ability to agree upon and deliver ambitious projects is in the Netherlands’ DNA. Urban renewal intervention, as we have seen, has played a big role in envisaging future collectivity. But when it comes to the present, what challenges do urban renewal strategies need to tackle? In the first place, social elitarization and the uprooting of industrial businesses are intrinsic side effects of the housing market’s pressure. Due to high land prices the housing offer is mainly addressed to the upper-middle-class segments, typically represented by highly educated expats. Families with kids move more and more outside of the city due to the sky-high housing prices and scarce offer of spacious apartments. Professionals in the fields of education and healthcare cannot afford the prices either. Industry makes places for living. Altogether, the economic and social life of the city risks getting poorer instead of richer. Secondly, climate change is an ever-growing challenge that urban renewal projects face more and more . Coherently with the country’s planning ability, professionals are trained to approach complex urban sustainability issues both locally and internationally with a visionary, lookahead attitude. The recent Rome Reforested proposal to resolve the heat stress on and water permeability of Rome’s largest roads by landscape architecture office B+B is well-representative of the Netherlands’ functional, yet visionary approach which has enabled a whole country over centuries to turn challenges into deliveries of renewed and enhanced spaces.