All posts by Jennifer Craft

Rotterdam’s Smart City Initiatives

Water Squares, Mobility Initiatives, and Do-It-Yourself Houses

On June 26, we toured the Technical University of Delft (TU Delft), the largest and oldest Dutch public technological university. Nico Tillie spoke with us about Rotterdam as a smart city and how these smart city aspects contribute to quality of life there. He formerly worked as a landscape architect in Amsterdam and is currently an Assistant Professor in Landscape Architecture at TU Delft. In Rotterdam, he works on citywide projects as a leading advisor on energy, green, water and resilient city strategies and presented about these topics.

Although this bicycle pathway is near the city of Delft as opposed to Rotterdam, public transit initiatives including cycling are important for both cities because not being dependent on a fossil fuel burning car is liberating. It is also noteworthy that this bicycle lane went under the highway, ensuring that citizens can reach virtually any location they need to without endangering themselves.

I was blown away by three particularly impressive smart city initiatives in Rotterdam—their water square, their mobility initiatives, and their do it yourself houses. Many of the larger cities in the Benelux region like Rotterdam are experiencing growth rates at or above 2% on an annual basis and this increasing urbanization and population growth brings with it many challenges. Rotterdam is using an effective smart city approach to address these challenges. Smart cities concepts have six integrated dimensions—mobility, economic competitiveness, natural resources, quality of life, social and human capital, and governance. Nico’s presentation touched on all of these aspects and I was impressed.

Rotterdam wants to make sure that the city is a nice place to live and work now and that the city is able to keep improving to meet future needs. To achieve this goal, Rotterdam is committed to fighting climate change and combating its effects. As a port city, Rotterdam is acutely aware of the effects that rising seas will have on the city. As such, the city values dunes as natural barriers and dikes, data, and other technical solutions like storm surge barriers to prepare for climate change. Rotterdam’s public water square functions as a water collection and storage space during periods of high rainfall. The sunken sports court offers recreation facilities to the students and in very wet weather the square becomes a deep pool fed by storm water from the wider area and two shallower depressions fill more frequently with run-off from the immediate surroundings. Water squares and things like permeable pavement will become more and more necessary as urbanization increases, which decreases available space for precipitation to percolate and seep into soil. The water square was not that aesthetically pleasing, but it was definitely functional. I value the functionality more than the aesthetics, but in the future it would be nice to see projects that are functional and beautiful.

Another impressive aspect of Rotterdam’s smart city initiatives included mobility. Rotterdam is committed to increasing walkability and as one would expect from a Dutch city, bicycling culture is huge. 80% of people own a bicycle and 25% of Rotterdam’s citizens cycle daily. At Rotterdam’s Centraal Train Station there are 5,500 bike parking spaces. Rotterdam also has a plan to have public transport 300 meters from every homes. Studies were done and found that this increase in public transit increased healthy life expectancy within 2 years. Mobility is a huge issue in the United States because the country is so dependent on cars, which increases air pollution, decreases quality of life, and makes cities there less livable and less attractive. Rotterdam, on the other hand, recognizes the importance of ensuring easy access to and from locations that its citizens need to go. This reality is current benefitting Rotterdam by making it more attractive to live there and I believe Rotterdam’s mobility strengths will continue to benefit it in the future as well. Increasing the availability of public transportation in the United States is no small task and would also involve changing a cultural stigmatization against public transit. I think this is possible, however, especially because the younger generation seems to overwhelmingly want more livable cities and is tired of all the congestion and traffic that cars bring.

This is an aerial view of Rotterdam’s water square. As you can see, there is a sports court that also functions as a flooding prevention measure. I was really impressed by this initiative because it had an environmental focus as well as a social one. Rotterdam wants its citizens to engage with each other casually, and citizens can play basketball here or simply sit and chat or play music, as we saw several individuals doing.

One of the most innovative smart city aspects that Nico talked about was related to do-it-yourself houses in Rotterdam. The city of Rotterdam bought several hundreds of privately let and poorly maintained houses. The city then gave these houses away or sold them at bargain price to citizens will and able to renovate a house in a neighborhood with a low socioeconomic status, thus the DIY namesake. This initiative was highly successful in regenerating low-income areas in Rotterdam and also strengthened social cohesion among residents. Politically, I do not know if seizing houses in the United States would be viable given the cultural emphasis on property rights, but this initiative demonstrates the innovative approaches that cities will have to take to solve pressing problems.

All of these smart city projects increase Rotterdam’s quality of life and make it a much more attractive place to live because these projects also strengthen social and cultural systems. In the United States, we need to look to places like Rotterdam for ideas on how to be environmentally friendly and maintain economic competitiveness because sustainable cities are much more attractive and economically viable and resilient. There are political and cultural barriers in the United States to implementing such initiatives, but citizens are a powerful force and I am optimistic that if enough individuals press their legislators to use a smart city approach, progress will be made.

-Jennifer Craft

Alternative Tour of Berlin: City Planning Thoughts

Walking tour focusing on culture and creativity in Berlin

Today we took a tour of alternative Berlin. We had taken a historical tour of Berlin on the 13th but today’s walking tour focused on sources of innovation and creativity in Berlin. The tour focused on art and graffiti, urban culture, alternative lifestyles, cultural icons like the YAAM Beach Bar, and artists’ squats. Themes that ran through these sights were significance of the areas and current city planning problems including the tension between preservation of Berlin’s history and modernization initiatives that might spur economic growth.

The alternative tour focused on many aspects, including the graffiti culture in Berlin. Although this tag does not look that impressive, there is a large fine since this is a very public area under the Berlin train station. Graffiti artists often gain credibility for the measures they took to tag the area and this tag becomes arguably a bit more impressive when considering the likelihood of a big fine.

We started our tour at Alexanderplatz, one of the best-known public squares in Berlin. It was a central meeting place during communist rule in East Germany. It has the iconic Fernsehturm television tower and the surrounding shops are very commercialized—including a Starbucks and other shopping chains. Like much more of what we would see, Alexanderplatz demonstrated the tension between history and modernization are affecting Berlin’s growth and redevelopment.

We saw quite a bit of street art on the alternative tour and this sculpture spoke to the theme of an increasingly commercialized world. The Native American is wearing the cliche I

Another aspect of alternative Berlin relating to city planning that we saw was in the Hackescher Markt area, specifically the Spandauer Vorstadt area. A number of artists’ squats, workshops and galleries sprang up here in the early 1990s. The area we walked through was a former artists’ squat and now has a flea market, a beer garden, the Anne Frank Zentrum (home of the Anne Frank: Here and Now Exhibition), and the Monster Kabinett (part art gallery, part haunted house holding massive robotic creatures, metal sculptures, and insect-looking beasts). This former art squat describes the action of artists to occupy (squat) in abandoned buildings and using these to create art. The concept of art squats, some of which are still open, really spoke to the alternative culture of Berlin and how different conceptions of housing are in the United States as opposed to in Berlin. Art squats in Berlin seemed to be much more accepted in Berlin than squatting would be in the United States.

Hackescher Markt had a really great market with jewelry, produce, coffee, spices, and lots of food.
This is the former artists’ squat that now has two beer gardens, the Anne Frank exhibit, the small flea market, and graffiti and art on the walls

My favorite part of the tour was when our guide mentioned YAAM Beach Bar, which our group went to after the tour ended. YAAM is an acronym for “Young African Art Market” and is located on the River Spree. YAAM is a cultural hotspot and has a club, beachbar, and gallery, complete with sand, hammocks, and picnic tables. YAAM is incredibly laidback and although it’s really close to some of the main attractions in Berlin, namely the East Side Gallery (the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall), it is not face paced and is a really unique area.

Mediaspree is one of the largest property investment projects in Berlin and aims to establish telecomm and media companies along the section of the banks of the River Spree where YAAM is located. Unused or temporary occupied real estate is to be converted into office buildings, lofts, hotels, and other new structures. Our guide said that YAAM’s current location is its third location due to these Mediaspree plans. YAAM is temporarily thriving in its current location, but only time will tell whether it will be able to survive the increasing commercialization of Berlin.

To the right of YAAM we saw the Mercedes-Benz arena being built which to me really embodied the increasing commercialization of Berlin. The arena is being built right by the East Side Gallery and Mercedes-Benz. That is the type of mix between history and modern initiatives that this alternative tour and all of our time in Berlin kept demonstrating. We can debate the merits of this commercialization and the Mediaspree plans, but it will likely take active citizens to keep places like YAAM from being bought up by larger corporations. This alternative tour demonstrated all of the careful planning that must go into city planning initiatives in a city that will likely keep growing for quite some time.

-Jennifer Craft

Scavenger Hunt through Rieselfeld

Walk through Freiburg’s Rieselfeld district and seeing sustainable city planning and neighborhoods

Today Stefen took us on a bike tour of some districts in Freiburg: Rieselfeld and Vauban. Before we started biking, Stefen pointed out the car sharing stations. Users can pay 4 euros to use the cars and he pointed out that most trips people take in Freiburg are distances of only a few kilometers, which makes the car sharing program particularly convenient.

These are three different car sharing companies in Freiburg. Stefen told us that many of the trips people need to make in Freiburg are only a few kilometers so the car sharing service is helpful.

We began the ride by renting bikes at RadStation (Bike Station). Once all 27 of us had a bike, we rode over the bike bridge until we arrived at an electronic counter that counts how many bikers have crossed that plaza that day. On a rainy day like today, there were 1,636 bikes that had crossed the plaza at 10 a.m. in the morning.

There were 1,636 bikes that went over the bridge by 10 a.m. on this rainy Wednesday. This was tracked by this device.

One of our first stops was at an apartment complex that had been redesigned. The multi-story complex has been outfitted with solar and had reduced energy usage by a significant amount as a result. We then went to another apartment complex and Stefen explained that the residents were involved in the planning process when the city of Freiburg was renovating the complex. The citizens got to choose how many people they wanted in their apartment and even the specific people. There was a meet and greet where future residents could talk to people they might be living with and decide if that arrangement would work or not. Residents of a floor even took part in an art decoration project where they designed a circular art piece that corresponded to their floor’s number. This community participation was a big theme of the day. Stefen also explained that knowing your neighbors made the apartment complex safer and made the people more friendly and empathetic.

This was the apartment complex that Stefen told us the residents had a say in how they wanted to redesign it and they even got to meet who they might be living with to see if that arrangement would work.
This is the same apartment complex as above in Freiburg. These circular art pieces on the outside of the apartment were designed by residents of each floor. I really liked these because their creation process means that the residents get to know each other and interact. This resident was biking into her apartment and the tram was only a two minute walk away, demonstrating how prevalent and accessible alternative modes of transportation are in Freiburg.

We then biked to the Rieselfeld district in Freiburg. We went on a scavenger hunt where we walked and looked for various landmarks in the city. One was a culture center called “Kultur Glashaus” and they had activities like music and games for all ages in an attempt to engage the community. I noticed that the Kultur Glashaus was near the tram, which made a lot of sense and made it accessible to many people. As we walked through the city we noticed that the trams even went through grass at some points. It was very picturesque. The district is very walkable and our next location we needed to find was the recycling area. There were multiple colors of bins for different types of recycling. Glass had its own bin while paper had another bin. There were even bins for clothing that people wanted to discard.

This is one of the first apartment complexes that Stefen pointed out. It has been redesigned and now has solar in the middle–that’s the blue. It reduces energy usage significantly.

One of our next stops was another neighborhood with a courtyard that functions as a play place for children and also a water retention basin. If the water level rises more than the surrounding grass can handle, the water flows to the streets which works well. We also saw a garden for residents of the same apartment complex which had flowers of all kinds as well as vegetables. These green spaces are important since the residents don’t have much in the way of a lawn but still have ownership of a space that allows them to grow produce if they wish. Many of the apartments are co-housing, or Baugruppen. Residents got to make decisions about how they wanted the apartment to be designed and in many places they chose who they lived with, promoting community and a high quality of life. We finished the scavenger hunt and ate at Ciao Bella, an Italian restaurant with amazing pasta.

This is a housing complex in the Reiselfeld district in Freiburg. There was solar on the roof and there is quite a bit of vegetation surrounding the area.
Natalie and I were looking at the community garden for residents of that particular apartment complex in Reiselfeld. There were lots of flowers like the poppies pictured here as well as vegetables and produce.

-Jennifer Craft