The Future of Resilience

Urban Amenities Chosen By the People, For the People

Rotterdam allows residents to vote directly for everything from Ferris wheels to skating rinks, but that may soon change.

The Elfstedentocht, or “Eleven Cities Tour,” is a grueling race across 200 kilometers of frozen Dutch landscape. It has been held annually since 1909, whenever the temperature makes it possible. Since it is dependent on nature’s whims, the tour is announced just 48 hours before it kicks off. The build-up begins each year after 10 days of freezing weather, with the nightly news covering the increasing thickness of the ice as if it were a breaking news event, until joyfully announcing to the nation when it has reached a safe, skate-able depth.

Then, before a backdrop of picturesque windmills and snow-covered fields, skaters whiz across the country’s canals, rivers and lakes, ducking under bridges and fending off ornery ducks. Participants have been known to lose noses, fingertips and toes to frostbite. During the last tour in 1997, one man died on the course, and nearly a third of 16,000 skaters abandoned their hopes for victory before crossing the finish line.

To say that the Dutch take their ice skating seriously may therefore be something of an understatement. In recent years, however, rising temperatures have made Dutch winters less severe, and skating through the polders has become less common as a result. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that in 2013, the city of Rotterdam announced the winner of the second annual stadsinitiatief, or “City Initiative” — a proposal for a public, professional-grade ice-skating rink.

The City Initiative is part of the municipality’s strategy to support grassroots ideas and give residents a louder voice in public development. Since 2011, this competition has made millions of euros available as co-financing for the project that receives the most votes. The decision-making criteria for proposals include a number of (largely subjective) requirements, the first being that the idea must in some way become iconic for the city of Rotterdam. The project must also be open to the public, have an impact at the urban scale, be realistic and feasible, tighten bonds among Rotterdam residents, have public support and an appropriate budget, and create a “multiplier effect,” which basically means it should be able to attract investment to Rotterdam.

The winner of the first competition was the Luchtsingel, a pedestrian bridge and urban-activation project by the architecture office ZUS that received 48 percent of the votes — and four million euros from the city’s coffers. The Luchtsingel project set a precedent by creating a crowd-funding model that allowed residents to purchase different construction elements (at costs varying from €25 to €1,250) and have their names engraved on that piece of the bridge. The model was wildly popular, with more than 1,300 crowd-funders participating. Of course, it wasn’t without its critics – after a festive beginning, the call for transparency eventually became so loud that in December 2013 a public debate was organized to allow all the associated stakeholders to be heard. The discussion was heated and opinions were fiercely defended. As evidenced by the Luchtsingel debate, the risk and reward of such a program is that every Rotterdammer feels a sense of ownership over the winning project.

The Eleven Cities Tour is held whenever the ice is thick enough. Here, skaters compete in the 1954 race. Photo credit: via Flickr

Within the city’s annual budget of €3.5 billion, the €3 to €4 million reserved for the City Initiative is relatively small change. Still, whenever large amounts of public funds are at play, controversy arises. Since the first competition, many have wondered whether the funds could be better spent on “normal” city projects. In June 2013, writer Vincent Cardinaal published a serious critique of the entire process. His article, written for the website Fresh Concrete, asserted that the City Initiative should stop completely, as the money could be better used to reduce Rotterdam’s debt. Cardinaal’s article opened the door for what quickly became a firestorm. Critics pointed to the fact that out of 600,000 residents, only 40,000 (6.7 percent) actually took the time to vote in the 2013 competition, casting additional doubt on the legitimacy of doling out so much money for a project that had so little support from the masses. Another difficulty, as evidenced by the last two rounds, is that one project will never make all Rotterdammers happy. With just 23 percent of the total votes, the winning ice-skating rink still received €2 million from the city. Sure, there were more votes for skating than swimming, but what about the 77 percent of voters who would rather do something else than skate?

Alderwoman Korrie Louwes responded to the critique, defending the program’s ambitions. “First of all, the City Initiative is a means to an end and not a final result in and of itself. It’s an experiment to tap initiatives and energy within the city, and it’s a new manner of working for the city government. The Rotterdammers are at the center, the government takes a step back and facilitates the innovative and creative plans of the residents.”

According to City Initiative Program Manager Vera Bauman, the 2013 controversy led directly to a change in the program’s rules. For the 2014 competition, a single winner will be allotted €3 million. If they don’t need this much to achieve their intended results, the leftover funds will go to the second-place project. If the second-place winner does not accept these funds, they will go back to the city. The regulation shift shows that the City Initiative is responsive to critique. As Bauman describes it, “The first competition was being implemented and developed at the same time; it was one big experiment. Now we are learning from the process.”

The City Initiative model of public participation has already drawn interest from other Dutch cities, including Amsterdam, Breda and Tilburg. Belgium has also expressed interest in this new form of civil engagement. Ironically, however, just as others are warming up to the program, Rotterdam’s City Initiative may be under threat. With local elections scheduled for March 19, Bauman predicts that the next government will focus on smaller-scale developments and scrap the City Initiative altogether.

For Rotterdam, a resilient city is clearly one that responds the wishes of her residents. While few question the validity of this stance, there is still fierce discussion regarding whether the City Initiative really is the best way to implement the collective will of the people. There are already a number of new projects under consideration for the upcoming 2014 City Initiative. “Girls in the City” proposes to empower young women, while “Stadsgas” offers to convert food waste into biogas and electricity. “Kaapse Knijter” would be the largest Ferris wheel in Europe, providing a new attraction for the city and employment for disadvantaged youth. The proposals are diverse and represent the ambitions of various urban social groups. But based on the last two rounds, one wonders how such specific, targeted projects will fare in the face of public critique. After all, aside from ice-skating, there are few other pastimes for which the Dutch are willing to sacrifice their extremities.

Tags: resilient citiesnetherlandsrotterdam

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