Category Archives: City Planning

Urban Renewal in Rotterdam

A new approach to the urban farm

In the morning we walked to the station and caught a train to Rotterdam. We had a meeting with at an urban farm called Op Het Dak, but we took our time walking there. Along the way we passed some architecturally unique houses called Urban Treetops, which appeared to be slanting down toward the street. These houses were built in the 1970s in an effort to liven up the city center with “playful architecture”. Then we meandered through the Market Hall, which was held in the center of a huge ring-shaped residential building. I bought a bizarre-looking fruit called a crazy melon and enjoyed it as we walked. As we approached the building we passed through an area that has experienced tremendous urban renewal. In order to make the area more accessable, a massive pedestrian bridge was built out of wood and painted yellow. The bridge passed by a small community garden, made in a former deposit for building supplies. The bridge continued up to a train station that is in the process of becoming the Dutch equivalent of the New York Highline. This trio of inviting refurbishments is meant to encourage people to spend time outdoors and encourage pride and commitment to the surrounding community.

Inside the Rotterdam market hall visitors can pick up spices, produce, meats, cheeses, or enjoy a warm meal with a view of the Pencil, a neighboring landmark.
The slanted Urban Treetop homes require some creativity to live in and make the center of Rotterdam appear more playful and lively.

Upon arriving at Op Het Dak, we took the elevator up to the top floor and were greeted by Wouter Bauman. He explained that in 2012, the building was scheduled for demolish, but the architect stepped in and proposed a plan to give it new life by inviting creative companies to move into the builder. Bauman explained that the bottom floor was home to a popular Biergarten, and the other floors of the building housed other community-oriented organizations. Then he presented his personal project; the urban rooftop garden, overlooking the center of Rotterdam. The city offers a hefty subsidy for people starting rooftop gardens because they minimize the heat-island effect in cities, increase biodiversity, and work to prevent runoff and flooding. The garden produces a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, and even honey to be sold and served at the charming restaurant that shared the roof. Bauman explained that the biggest challenge with rooftop gardening was distributing and managing weight in a way that the roof could support. The edges could support more weight, so were fitted with polystyrene planters where deeply-rooted fauna could be grown. The rest of the roof was covered by several layers of plastic, film and soil in order to prevent damage to the roof. Because of the limited amount of soil that could be used, the garden was mainly comprised of plants with shallow roots. However, this didn’t seem to present a large obstacle for the garden; ruby raspberries could be seen warming in the sun, the vines of bean plants bowed under their heavy pods, and pollinators (including bees from Op Het Dak’s own hive) buzzed lazily around the rooftop. In addition to being exceedingly fruitful, the garden has received much media attention and is even listed on travel website Lonely Planet as one of the top attractions of Rotterdam. Although the garden does not use any pesticides, its produce is not considered organic because the soil used is not natural. Nevertheless, Bauman explained that the compost, which was comprised of food and plant scraps, provided some of the fertilizer used to nurse nutrients into the soil. After a few minutes of wandering around the garden and grazing on the fruits and vegetables, we settled down at the small rooftop restaurant and were treated to a healthy, wholesome lunch.

With the long hours of intense summer sun, Op Het Dak’s garden is thriving.
The compost pile in the corner of the garden is a step in the company’s effort to be sustainable.
The yellow pedestrian bridge, which passes over a major road, makes the area around Op Het Dak more inviting and accessible.

After lunch we left Op Het Dak and moved in the direction of the harbor. Along the way we passed a few large regions of pavement sunk below the level of the ground. These pits contained steps and jumps for a skate park, but during heavy rains a series of gutters would direct the water into them to form ponds and alleviate flooding. Upon reaching the harbor, we split up into groups and took our time returning to our hotel in The Hague.

Because of its low altitude and rainy climate, Rotterdam has been forced to get creative about managing water. This recreational area doubles as a pond during times of heavy rainfall.

-Ayla Gizlice

Smart Approach

A look at urban farming, sustainability, and standardization

The day started with a visit to a one year old urban farm called The New Farm centered in The Hague, Netherlands. This urban farm is located atop a six story building used for housing different office spaces. The rooftop and top floor were completely converted into a large aquaponic system containing both a greenhouse and fish tanks. By allowing the plants above to use the nutrients found in fish waste, aquaponics combines two different ecosystems into one to create an efficient use of resources. Thousands of tilapia were grown in the tanks and their waste water was taken through a large filter which then feeds into tubes to be taken to plant soil. The rooftop contained many different kinds of produce such as basil, cilantro, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, lettuce, and many other leafy greens, all fueled by the nutrients of fish waste. The entire aquaponic system recycled around 90 percent of its water. This resource efficient farm can be seen as an example for future food initiatives in urban areas. As the global population grows, more and more people need food and gravitate towards cities. This leads to questions of space and food production, which are both answered by urban farms. The only drawbacks are that they require a lot of money and energy to start. This urban farm combines agricultural and fish production to efficiently feed the planet as the population grows.

Rows of leafy greens at the entrance to the rooftop greenhouse at The New Farm. This was one of two sides. The other side contained tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplants.
Water filtration system used to extract useful nutrients and water from fish waste to be used for produce. Water enters through the black box and then a series of open containers. Ammonia is the main nutrient extracted which is the converted into nitrates by small bacteria in each open container.
The irrigation system for all of the plants in the greenhouse. The system runs nutrients from fish waste and water from below directly to plant roots in a controlled amount. Yellow tape is suspended above the produce to control pest contamination in an organic way.

To finish the day we stopped by NEN, which is a company centered around standardization. Although it seems complicated, standardization is basically agreements among many parties affiliated in producing a product, idea, or system. The goal is to minimize conflict when developing ideas and allow for the acceptance of these new products in different areas, whether its regions, countries, or continents. Some examples are bolt sizes or USB ports on computers. In talking personally with a NEN employee, we learned that the most complicated part of standardization is making all parties agree on an outcome in a timely manner. This process can be difficult but it is necessary for allowing cities to replicate systems that are known to be successful in other smart cities.

An interesting entrance to the standardization building at NEN. Here many parties are worked with to come up with agreements that lead to a higher quality of life.
Rooftop and solar panels of the university. Under the parking lot there are thermal collectors which allow for the transfer of energy and aid in heating the building. The solar panels also acquire energy and produce heat.
The heat pump located inside the university. The structure looks as complicated as the processes that occur inside it. Its main purpose is to minimize energy use when heating and cooling the building.

When moving towards a smart city it important to take steps that enhance the quality of life for its inhabitants. We saw three examples of this in food production, sustainable building use, and standardization practices.

-Charlie Garnett

The Laakkwartier District of The Hague

Social Entrepreneurship to Revitalize a Struggling Neighborhood

We started the day today by traveling to the Laakkwartier district of The Hague. The district used to be a large manufacturing center, but the factories moved out of the area a number of years ago, which resulted in widespread unemployment in the district. The Hague has developed an economic revitalization plan for the area, and has partnered with local social entrepreneurs to implement the plan. We met with Jurienne Hollaar, the head of Coalitie Laak, which is a network of startups in the Laakkwartier district. The first building that he showed us was Werkfabriek, which is an incubator space for social entrepreneurs in the neighborhood. We spoke to a few different entrepreneurs working in the tech sector, and learned about one business helping to re-employ people in the area by teaching them to clean the windows of office buildings.

This is a picture from the inside of Werkfabriek. The building is a shared space for social entrepenurs in the Laakkwartier district of The Hague.

We then moved on to an organization whose mission was to educate the residents of the community about a project that will connect a highway to The Hague via an underground tunnel. This is part of The Hague’s plan to deal with increasing traffic from cars and trucks. While a large portion of people bike or use public transit to get around the city, the city is still experiencing lots of congestion from road traffic. The tunnel will emerge in the Laakkwartier district, and the city has a long-term plan to redesign the area to accommodate the highway that includes building 10,000 living units by the year 2040. The Hague also has a long-term plan to be climate neutral by the year 2040.

Throughout the morning, we visited three other groups working to improve the Laakkwartier district. The first was a community garden that was surrounded on three sides by social housing, and on the fourth side by another shared workspace for social entrepreneurs and welfare organizations. Another group was accepting public input on behalf of the municipality for how to redesign a community square. The group encouraged the public to submit input on what they wanted the square to look like, and then worked with an architect to incorporate as many of the ideas as possible. When the construction takes place for the new square, the group will employ people from the community, which generates money in the local economy. The final group was Mosaico, which employed mentally and physically handicapped individuals to make products out of used plastic bags. The main theme from all of the organizations that we visited is that citizen participation is the most important thing when revitalizing a run-down neighborhood. Rather than just coming in and changing the district entirely, the municipality worked to involve the people in the district, which gives the people employment, as well as a sense of pride for helping improve the community. The city also helped inspire change by offering several spaces for social entrepreneurs that are rent free for the first year. The Hague did a very good job of involving citizens to help revitalize the Laakkwartier district.

This is a workstation at Mosaico. Mosaico employs people with mental and physical handicaps to make products out of used plastic bags and cassette tape.
This is a public square in the Laakwartier district of The Hague. As part of a plan to revitalize the district, the municipality is currently accepting input from the community about how the square should be redesigned.
A community garden in the Laakwartier district uses rain-barrels to help water the vegetables in the garden. The space is surrounded on three sides by social housing, and on the fourth side there is a shared workspace for social entrepreneurs and welfare organizations.
Students learn about a community garden for low-income people in the Laakwartier district. The garden grows fresh vegetables, and also offers education programs for the community.

In the final part of the day, we visited a local organization called Sustainable The Hague. The organization focuses on bottom up initiatives in the city to promote sustainability and create awareness of environmental issues. For example, they have a program where citizens could remove stones from paths in their backyards, and exchange them for plants. This initiative helped citizens green their yards, and created awareness about the environment. This was followed by a bike tour of part of the city where we looked at different green spaces and projects that Sustainable The Hague has been involved in. The day ended with a discussion of safety and security in Smart Cities, especially as it relates to data collection and storage. A central component of a Smart City is data collection to improve the efficiency of the city, but this also raises questions about personal privacy. City planners must keep the safety and security as the number one goal, but also must keep in mind that people want their privacy as well.

This is a cogeneration power plant in The Hague that runs off of natural gas. The plant also supplies heat to 15,000 of the homes surrounding it.
Students stop on a bicycle tour of The Hague to learn about sustainable housing. The houses pictured were renovated to be more energy efficient, and many of them have solar panels on the roof.

-Eric Fitch

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

Vauban

From mobility to housing, Vauban, a district of Freiburg, has created a vibrant, efficient and dense community

On June the 7th, the fourth day of our Summer Burch program, the nearly thirty people that comprises our group cycled about twenty kilometers between Freiburg, Reiselfeld, and Vauban. In the kilometers in between, we witnessed beautiful nature, undisturbed by hordes of suburbs. Thanks to impressive bicycling infrastructure, even in rural areas, the trip was a huge success. Attempting to stay in a single file line on our bikes, we first stopped in Reiselfeld and later stopped in Vauban, both expertly planned districts outside of Freiburg. This blog post will focus primarily on Vauban, from its remarkable mobility to its diversity of housing projects.

In this image, you can see the main road that passes by Vauban – not through it. Even on this main road (this only one near the district), you can see that well-maintained bicycle infrastructure and the pedestrian-friendly features.
Here you can see another view of our bike ride to Vauban. From the beautiful landscape to the well-maintained bicycle infrastructure, this was a very pleasant ride.
In this photograph, we are cycling from one district to the next – from Reiselfeld to Vauban and all the while experiencing the beautiful and well-maintained countryside.

Our group leader, Stefan, who biked with us and helped us understand the area, explained the necessity of both discouraging individual car ownership and giving rewards for using public transit and bicycles. Vauban successfully embraces both of these concepts and thereby reduces car ownership to a fraction of its population. Of that population, many people often use the tram instead of their car because tram stops are more convenient than their car, which cannot be permanently parked in front of their home. Vauban has done several things to ensure that this pro-communal transit concept is successful. Firstly, the trams come about every seven minutes. When tram arrivals are kept under ten minutes, ridership is more likely to be high because the tram becomes more convenient for individual riders than taking their own car. When cars do drive in Vauban, they are generally guests on the road. Everyone else has right of way most of the time – cyclists, children, and pedestrians. This encourages other modes of transit over cars and provides for a safe environment for families. Vauban’s expert planning with a focus on the tram, bikes, and pedestrians, provides a number of lessons for United States suburbs on mobility.

Here is a view of a public space that the citizens of Vauban decided would be a community garden and green space rather than a parking deck. If sentiment changes within a community, this area could become a parking deck.
This is a view of a street in Vauban. Notice that there are no cars – parked along the street or in carports. This allows a safer, more child and bicycle-friendly community.

Vauban’s variety of housing also provides many insights for the United States. Rather than creating a suburb with individual houses, large yards, and a lack of social interaction, Vauban creates high-density housing that encourages social interaction and discourages crime. However, rather than creating identical housing projects that eliminate a sense of identity, Vauban attempts to create a huge range of housing. One of the most interesting buildings we looked at was a mixed-use building. Some of the building was used by people who financed the cost of their apartment entirely on their own, other rooms were social housing, and other rooms were used for people with disabilities and the elderly. This cohabitation helps people realize the importance of relationships with people of different incomes, backgrounds, and experiences, something sorely lacking in the individualistic culture of America. Another interesting housing project was a largely subsidized set of housing in the district, paid for by a group whose mission centers around ensuring housing for everyone. In every housing project in the district, bottom-up decision making plays a key role and citizens are on the front lines, versus the top-down approach considered the default in so many other places.

This is a picture of a building with Pippy Longstocking painted on the side. This art is a symbol to the people of Vauban of their cultural and social identity.
Here is an example of another housing community in Vauban. This project brings together people of all different socioeconomic backgrounds to achieve higher levels of social capital.

Consider rethinking what you view as sustainable development. In your community, are new suburbs encouraging sustainable housing and transit with significant social capital? Or is there something you could do to make your town more like Vauban?

-Joseph Womble

An Introduction to Freiburg and Smart Cities

Diving into Freiburg and the sustainable measures the town has adopted

Day one in Freiburg and it is already like entering a different world. There are trams and bike paths that fill the city, solar panels on the roofs and natural green areas everywhere. Nothing like my suburban home in Cary, North Carolina with manicured lawns, multiple cars in every driveway, and hardly a bus let alone a tramline or train in sight.

For our first educational day here, we were introduced to Steffen, our instructor and tour guide for the day. In a classroom we focused on a few main topics: history of sustainability in Freiburg, energy efficiency in old homes and municipal buildings, supply and disposal, and finally mobility. Freiburg, known for ten to fifteen years now as a sustainable city, began its environmental movement in 1975 when students and farmers came together to protest the implementation of a power plant in the town. After the 1986 Chernobyl incident, citizens truly united, energy saving became crucial, and renewables a mainstay in the town.

Our guide Steffan teaching us about the history of Freiburg and showing us around the town. Here he is explaining the history of market surrounding the church – it was first a parking lot, but was transformed into a beautiful market square where vendors come every morning to sell food, flowers, and other goods. This both discourages transportation by car and unites the community.

Throughout the different topics, one theme became clear: the importance of engagement at the local level. Citizens own over 50 percent of renewables in the city. Additionally, a convention was held in 2008 on how to make old houses more energy efficient. Architects, financial managers, designers, and many others came together to teach the people what they can do in their own homes. Lessons on waste separation and recyclables are taught in local elementary schools – kids are provided cost free lunch boxes to encourage use of reusable products, and trips to landfills inspire them to be mindful of their waste. Finally, the construction community allows people the option of multimodal houses and cohousing, which allow the people to design their own home while also being efficient in the use of space and improving social and community life.

Steffan walks us over the parking garage, which is discreetly hidden beneath the houses that were built on top of it to save space and make the town more appealing.

While local engagement was stressed throughout the presentation, a tour of the town had the group admiring Freiburg’s success in transportation and mobility. The ticket to decreasing car use was decreasing parking options. As the church parking lot was changed to a beautiful market square, parking garages placed further from homes, car ownership made more expensive, and efficient tramlines and bike paths installed, the city was transformed. There are only about 35 private cars per 100 residents, many of which are not used on a regular basis, and the centrally located train station provides an easy way to get anywhere in the region without stepping into a car.

One of the most interesting places I felt we visited on the tour was a parking garage. No, a parking garage does not sound exciting, but this one was implemented in an ingenious way. First of all, it was integrated into the surrounding area so that I could not even tell it was a garage when approaching. Second, houses were built on top so that no space was wasted. Finally, it served as a noise barrier between the town and the large road that surrounds it so that inside the town all that can be heard are birds chirping and people talking.

Here is the right side of the parking garage, where the noise from cars and other transportation that surrounds the town is masked by the design of this construction. To the left is the houses seen previously, where no car noise can be heard.

As it is the first day, we were left with many questions to look out for in our next adventures. How do less cars change daily and social life? How does society benefit from more public transportation and how does the district itself change? What kind of society arises from construction communities and cohousing? What are the keys to implementing these systems back home in North Carolina/U.S? Up next are bike tours in Rieselfeld and Vauban where we can evaluate these questions even more and look at examples of these initiatives in different towns.

Approaching one of the train stations of Freiburg, a central hub where people can take buses, trams, trains, and rent out bikes in order to navigate the surrounding area.

-Sarah Wotus