Updated: Jun 2, 2022
Part 1. The Netherlands
Placemaking in Dutch translates to plaats maken and translated back to English is “to make place or to make room by moving things out of the way.”*
It was an honor to address a crowd of about 120 architects, city planners, students, public artists, placemaking leaders of Europe, social-art engineers, and space-creators from the Netherlands at Citylab RAUM. Onze star, Ons canvas (Our City, Our Canvas) is an annual gathering of leaders in the placemaking initiative hosted on the grounds at RAUM. Presented in Dutch, the conference experience includes experts keynotes, plenaries, small group discussions, and workshops.
This blog profiles my time teaching and learning in the Netherlands and France.
To start, it was an honor to keynote the conference. The theme? Temporary versus permanent and the role of creativity and the arts under the constant threat of fast-paced development and gentrification. My presentation was on how cities fail to be inclusive, specifically in public space(s) and what form of engagement and community outreach are truly effective in removing social, political and economic barriers of access.
Nothing is permanent except change (Russian saying)
What is RAUM?
The name itself translates to the word SPACE in German, but is so much more. RAUM is a cultural city lab that shapes future city life though the incubation of art, music, culture, food, drink, and ideas.
The 900 sq meter space is located about a 30 minute train ride from Amsterdam in a neighborhood called Leidsche Rijn which started to get build in the 1990s. The neighborhood is new given that the City of Utrecht is celebrating its 900th birthday this June and is the oldest city in the Netherlands acknowledged with municipal rights. RAUM has been a vision for over ten years and originally was meant to open as an iconic theatre of 1,000 seats. The great recession led to a change of plans and RAUM was no longer envisioned as a place for performing arts. By using the method of creative placemaking, for the past six years, visionary and Executive Director Donica Buisman has transformed the space. Today RAUM functions similar to a public-square but is so much more. The space has layers of experiences from a restaurant and library to spaces for artists in residence, exhibitions, and is a breeding grounds for experimentation.
Here We Are at RAUM.
The big day started with coffee and licorice, reminiscent of the previous day when I first met Donica Buisman and staff. We shared a joy for the flavor profile of anise, her preference liquorice and mine Absinthe. Before going into the keynote experience, the previous day was formative and worth profiling.
RAUM leadership arranged for us a “city as the classroom” experience led by local creative placemakers and designers in Amsterdam.
RULES. Signs that Explains The Dos & Do Nots.
The first day of the conference started in North Amsterdam for an outdoor excursion of the creative spaces made by and for people. The experience focus on pop-up villages and neighborhoods as case0studies for creative placemaking and the incubation process of going from temporary to permanent.
The first stop was right outside of STRAAT (Museum for Street Art) and a perfect point of discussion around the conference theme(s). A place where the word placemaking is too closely associated with real-estate and therefore abused, misunderstood and the cause of belly-aches. The grounds of the controversial Straat Museum, home to massive murals by the most famous spray-painters of our world, opened dialogue about the use and abuse of the arts. As we walked the grounds, we learned about the inner politics of the opposing dynamic of profit-centric developers and the free-spirited, co-collaborative nature of local artists in Amsterdam. The teacher was frustrated from the friction that resulted. The teacher, who used to manage Design Week in the Netherlands, pointed out the fencing around the constructions sites on the grounds and lamented in fear that they are becoming too normal. Literal barriers. He pointed out the signs with all the rules and begged not for a list of no’s but a list of yes's.
One thing was clear, the arts are alive and well-funded and urban planning in Amsterdam is ahead of the world. The city is aggressively pursuing car-free by 2030 alongside many cities that are no longer catering to the vehicle. The Co-Director of Placemaking Europe shared that their next conference will be in Pontavedra and referenced the mayors recent quote as a succinct way to understand European city-planning priorities:
"It's not my duty as Mayor to make sure you have a parking spot. For me it's the same as if you bought a cow, or a refrigerator, and then asked me where you're going to put them." Miguel Anxo, Mayor of Pontevedra, Spain.
Mayor Anxo has been re-elected four times since pedestrianising the city, air pollution is down 61%, there have been no traffic deaths since 2009, 70% of the population gets around by walking, and 12,000 people moved into city centre since the car ban was declared.
Right outside of STRAAT is playground for designers, architects, community members, and artists to define and deploy a sense of ownership to facilitate an open, free, flexible city-lab. Next, we visited a sound barrier playground area that acted as a flex space. Flex spaces are open spaces and most appealing for the adaptability of use in city centre. The idea of spaces for all is being scrutinized because it over simplifies the complexity of human-use and positions programming as if people are monolithic. There is a more nuanced practice of programing space "by and with" people not for. Instead, there is a demand for a blended approach to use space at different times for different uses by different people.
Space to Place.
With a group of a dozen practitioners, we walked to visit two unusual neighborhood concepts, one which took twelve years to build that is intended to be a utopia. The first neighborhood is a congregation of floating houses and the second an even more unusual adaptive-reuse of boats that were transformed into houses, labs, sound studios, galleries and restaurants. The utopian models opened up conversation on the dysfunction of a dystopia and the opportunity that exists under such conditions.
Space and Matter is an organization that focuses on regenerative and sustainable building of neighbrhoods. We got to get up close to what took them more than ten years to create, a place called Schoonschip. The place is a prototype to what can be the future of resilient communities in the Netherlands. The space is made up of almost 50 floating houses to address resiliency in urban planning and design. The units together create what is called a “smart network” and share a block-chain based grid that acts as a vehicle to trade solar energy.
A rather astonishing circular city acting as a little neighborhood, boats that were about to be sunk and at the end of their life were resurrected by residents who then came together to temporarily lease land and to create a truly regenerative place.
This is a success story for those who inhabit the space, the original grounds were highly contaminated and were once considered an area described as “rough and shady” with a high criminal activity rate. Their vision was simple: build a sustainable playground. There is a restaurant, bakery, and different studios for thought leadership on site. One of the boat-conversions read: Center for Circular Thinking. The grounds are also the birthplace of the METABOLIC LAB, an organization that has grown into a global company with 100 employees with expertise in sustainability for bigger companies. Additionally, one of the boats is home to a specialized edible flower company to exemplify the spectrum of use that occurs on this now remediated land.
After experiencing the two neighborhoods, we adventured deeper into what is misperceived as “the rough part of the city” or Southeast Amsterdam to meet the brilliant community organizer and local people-leader Angelique Hoogmoed.
We went to her gallery New Metropolis Zuidoostgallery and then to a contemporary museum showing a hip-hop exhibition which was right next door to the Hip-Hop academy centered around practice and education.
Both the museum and the academy are anchor cultural spaces that feed the soul of the community. In particular, the academy prided itself in having more than 300 books about what is and what inspired hip-hop. Reading is a major tenant of the program, staff wants to challenge the students who get comfortable in the culture with books.
Each meeting and place is a case study to better understand design-principles and the complexities of public space and placemaking. The day centered around who owns and controls space, who is excluded from play and gain, as well as how both built and social environments creates or remove barriers to access.
Furthermore, the day was scheduled specifically to focus on creativity and the value of the art(s) or what the Dutch calls "the DNA of a city" that results when those who use not just their mind but also use their hands are “in-charge.”
We continued our walk through Southeast Amsterdam to another neighborhood to see a brain-to-brick concept by starchitect Le Corbusier. He is a man of many titles including but not limited to architect, designer, painter, urban planner, and writer. Similar to Fourier and Hotel Chelsea, he forever changed architectural thinking by proposing that spaces be healthier and safe, specifically low income neighborhoods, by raising the construction from ground level to “lift” up the built environment to have the first floor open for green lush spaces and public space (amenity). Ultimately, a pioneer of “modern architecture,” pictured above is one of his first brain-to-brick buildings in SE Amsterdam, which gen. pop non-lovingly refer to it as the "bad part."
We stopped for a presentation at a community center on site. The host was passionate, real and felt responsible in the work to protect his neighbors. The core of his platform? Neighborhood rights is not a new concept but new to the people and so he empowers people by reminding them that “you have the right to participate” and therefore to challenge government that ill-servers people living in poverty.
Every neighborhood has the right to organize and then get money, that is the seat at the table. The host spoke to fatigue. Fighting so hard for budget, once money is ultimately allocated, the advocacy process is too exhausting and therefore the community typically experiences high rates of burn-out. Fatigue then impacts delivery. He volunteers to work full-time to empower his neighbors and deploy strategies to address an “archeology of local knowledge” (Sherryl Muriente).
Once established, the neighborhood can meet two times a year and gain municipal resources and again, a seat at the table. He shared examples of their fight for bathrooms and rubbish bins and the influx of new residents filing noise complaints about the first floor music (yes the music had to stop). The larger social issues are knife fights, suicide and crack-attacks.
The day ended with a private studio visit of Dre Urhahn from the United Painting project. Dre was kind enough to share room in his studio at Amsterdam Central Station while we sat with RAUM/conference leadership over cold beer and rumination of the previous six hours.
Train to Hotel BUNK to lay eyes on the iconic RAUM.
FINALLY, the point of the entire journey: RAUM.
Remember, the city tried for twelve years to make something of nothing. Donica got the call and for the last seven years in one, two and four year contracts and during that time has built an epicenter for creativity, design. RAUM has evolved into a laboratory for freedom of expression and tastemaking. Donica referenced her work in relationship to the Happy City Index, which says that one-million people cities are the happy factor and so it was discussed in the context of Jacksonville, Fla. at 900,000 and Amsterdam at 850,000; both growing exponentially. RAUM is looking at how to approach community engagement with the delicate balance of supporting the arts and also supporting commercial development.
The grounds at RAUM had small structures for the incubation of creative ideas. One participant saw parks as camp sites and created an Urban Camping cohort centered around a tiered-payment system. The model allows those who can afford to pay a premium fee to do so to afford those who bring value in other forms to opt out of the fee. Another participant explored her passion for old, historic homes and the many feet and families that once graced the floors and left life in the walls. From that passion, a successful project was birthed in the form of a grant program to cover the costs of dinner(s) in houses with the requirement to invite past tenants to break bread and share stories.
The conference was brilliant. The main question was how do to protect creative ideas and culture. Attendees spoke to the sour feeling of when their idea(s) are stolen and then executed poorly with no seat at the table or participation from their people, those that represent the culture. During the event, I had the honor of meeting Marc-Anthony Westmaas and his wife who designed two skate parks in Netherlands and are being positioned to design the one in his hometown in Curacao. There is a boulevard near-by the new skate park in Curacao that needs placemaking and that's where we focused our exchange.
Part 2. France
Placemaking in French is création de lieux which translates back to English as “the creation of location.”
I departed to France on Friday and spent 24 hours reconnecting with Placemaking US leaders and preparing to travel to the French countryside to take on a deep work session with three fellow Florida residents.
Paris for International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) where the keynote speaker adressed the “15 minute city,” so upon arriving on the peninsula to stay at an old post office in Brittany it was easy to dub the place a 5-minute city. Everything one could need was right there on the Main Street and anything else arrived Thursday for a pop-up market that abutted the property, quite literally. When we left the post-office house, a cargo truck was parked right against it and the street closure leading to the first two vendors had their backs right up against the house as well. In Brittany, nature is the playground, kitchen, and living room.
In France the discussion went around concepts like Doughnut Economics, a one of the most popular topics in city planning. It was interesting to learn unusual approaches to community engagement. One practitioner hired peddy cabs, canoes and ice cream stands to get input from the community as a way to meet your city and to meet your neighbors.
While in France, the study was public art. The largest megalithic site in the world is actually found in France. It is known as the Carnac Alignments and its stones are scattered across the coast of Brittany in a more extensive formation than Stonehenge, home to over 2,800 standing stones. We talked about the oldest art known to man, like Cave of Chavet meaning the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” which is also the name of a documentary on the very early works of Vernar Hertzog. The cave drawings are known to barely change in style for eight to the thousand years made of charcoal, tar and clay.
Another example of early art making we talked through is the colored shells early inhabitants of the Netherlands made to wear which led to a discussion of fashion not protected as art in the United States. We ended on the work of my graduate school professor Ashlye Keaton who works around the clock to protect culture bearers and trying to re-classify Mardi Gras Indian suits as sculptural works of art to then gain Federal protection.
The last night in France was a culmination of passion with one last four-hour meal with an exchange of friendship and future potential.
*This lovely bit of knowledge was shared by my colleague Dre Urhahn from United Painting.