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.
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.
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.