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The soul of a City

Elsbeth Quispel • 24/09/2020
Every month a column by Elsbeth Quispel is published on a topic related to the value of the city. In it she gives her vision on the social relevance of cities, urban development and therefore also real estate.
Now that I have lived in the city for 17 years, I call myself an Amsterdammer; thanks to and despite all the changes in recent years, a city that gives me energy, I enjoy living with my family and have the luxury of going to the office by bike every day. But how come I really feel like an Amsterdammer?

Cities are always on the move. I doubt it is always in the right direction. A city should in any case have a vision; about who and what it wants to be for its residents, the business community, its visitors and tourists, now and in the future. In Jane Jacobs 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' she argues that a city is a vibrant community of great complexity; a large space without parts where you do not want to go, where functions are mixed and reinforce each other. This is in contrast to uber-modernist Le Corbusier with his Charte d'Athenes from 1943; the city as a machine: cities with industrially manufactured residential towers in parks that can be multiplied neutrally and endlessly all over the world. Just like the French banlieues in the 1950s and 1960s and Shanghai have developed in recent decades. Here functions are separated and no longer support each other. Jacobs advocates a certain degree of messiness, creating connectedness and liveliness with busy streets and visited parks.

Rotterdam is an example of a city with a post-war Le Corbusier-like center (including the Lijnbaan since 1951) where living is separated from work during the reconstruction. As a result, it is now difficult to create a connection between areas. At the time, residents were drawn to so-called growth centers such as Zoetermeer, Lelystad and Almere, driven in part by the Notes on Spatial Planning, the deterioration of inner cities and the cheaper cars. Suburbs and suburbs were (and are) often set up on a large scale with a lack of a good mix of functions, such as good facilities in a residential area. As a result, these places are used too organized, anonymously and soulless.

Another example is Utrecht, a city that has managed to recover from the sharp decline in its population after the loss of employment due to the departure of heavy industry in the 1970s and 1980s (Demka and Kraanspoor). Due to its university, highly desirable post-industrial employment has been created in Utrecht. This attracted ambitious people who have developed into a strong community; the social capital. From which a demand for culture and leisure arose, in its traditionally cluttered, monumental and lively city center. That attracts creativity and then employment.

For me, Amsterdam is, not entirely objectively, the city; has grown organically from a small harbor settlement to a city of international allure. A city that has certainly not always made the right choices in its existence in terms of urban development and policy and has exploded at the seams in recent decades, but is brimming with liveliness. However, we are faced with a major challenge here to ensure that living in the city remains affordable and thus retains its soul and that we all continue to feel like Amsterdammers.

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