Rotterdam runner: The marathoner who helped transform a city

I am in love with bike lanes. What spurred this passion for well-placed and paved road separations? A semester in The Hague, a city in the Netherlands. It draws citizens from around the world due to...

I had the chance to dig deeper into my fascination with Dutch infrastructure when I met Martin Aarts, marathon runner and Senior Advisor for Urban Planning for the municipality of Rotterdam.

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I am in love with bike lanes. What spurred this passion for well-placed and paved road separations? A semester in The Hague, a city in the Netherlands. It draws citizens from around the world due to its reputation as a city of justice and peace and as the site of the International Criminal Court, the Peace Palace, and the International Court of Justice, just to name a few.

I had the chance to dig deeper into my fascination with Dutch infrastructure when I met Martin Aarts, marathon runner and Senior Advisor for Urban Planning for the municipality of Rotterdam. We met at Esri’s GeoDesign Summit Europe, at the Delft University of Technology, or TU Delft.

TU Delft, is ‘just down the road’ from The Hague. Or a 45 minute bike ride, for an amateur like myself.

Delft is a halfway point between The Hague and Rotterdam, Aarts’ city. Rotterdam has transformed over the past decade, due in part to Aarts’ efforts. Aarts spoke at the Summit about their 2007-2030 city plan that changed Rotterdam from being known as the “different” Dutch city (according to Aarts) to what CNN just called the ‘new capital of cool’.

Their innovative city planning turned the 2008 financial crisis into an opportunity to build more hospitals, and Aarts says the call of the Paris Climate Change Conference for sustainable cities and a fossil-free future, is another such opportunity. You can see their newest plan, released in November 2016, the Roadmap Next Economy, here (or the brief).  Here’s our conversation.

Kara Morgan: How long have you been working for the city of Rotterdam?

Martin Aarts: Thirty Years. I’m a marathon runner. I know it takes a lot of training to get things done.

KM: At the GeoDesign Summit, you mentioned your team’s 2007-2030 Plan for Rotterdam, which was actually jumpstarted by the 2008 financial crisis. What happened there?

MA: On a very abstract level, nothing really changed, of what we wanted of course, to execute. The conditions to execute had completely changed. Because there were no developers any more, or artisans. Financing was highly frustrated, for the developers…. 

There was a project I didn’t talk about before. Hospitals, which couldn’t be built before the crisis, because the price was 50% too high then. Because it was financed by the state, everybody was sad that the money wasn’t there and it couldn’t happen.

Aarts spent some time explaining to me the process of how they negotiated with construction companies to lower their prices for the building of more hospitals. Essentially, the city did not have the budget to pay the proposed price for the project. But due to the financial crisis, the construction companies were losing work anyways. At the rates that the government could pay, the companies would not make any money, but at least their employees would get paid and they would still have their companies when the crisis ended.

MA: I was also accused [confronted], when I said that Rotterdam should be more of a “normal” Dutch city. Because the Rotterdam mindset was descending, people would say that Rotterdam is boring…People began defending themselves, saying “We are different’. Of course, Rotterdam is different, Amsterdam is different as well. So, you don’t have to worry about that.

But, we must not be different by having a huge scale of city. We must not be different so that people with children cannot live here in the city center. Because, people constantly have to move, and for me the most important thing is that Rotterdam would never not be attractive to people. And also for students, because students always choose for half their city and half their studies. Or for companies, who want their employees, that their employees want to live there. So the blowback of being just different, or to defend yourself, is that Rotterdam was not an attractive city.  

MA: Since we enjoyed this kind of “new city”, and the people of Rotterdam, since 2014, really are kind of glancing. Now, if someone makes a compliment like, “I like your city,” now you can believe them…I say “Yeah, yeah, we learned!”

KM: You said that with the Paris Climate Change Conference and the corresponding push for more funding into sustainability, it also gives another opportunity. As you’re moving forward with different plans, are you considering ways to change Rotterdam to make it more resilient or sustainable?

MA: We are very firm on it, in all kind of ways. We have, as we speak, today, the Roadmap Next Economy‘s launch. The main reason for this Roadmap Next Economy is that we should build our economy without fossil energy, so, how to do that? A circular-economy, bio-based. The optimistic part of this vision is, if we start now, we have work to do, so that is employment, and we may be on the front row of this transition, so maybe this also delivers us work in the world. Because we not only going to try and protect, but be an example of this new age of economies without fossil [fuel].

MA: So it’s [the Roadmap] kind of hopeful, but of course, it’s insufficient. On that abstract level, we’ve introduced [these ideas] in the city itself, so the Roadmap Next Economy, is for the whole region, so the metropolitan area of Rotterdam-The Hague. So that’s about 2.2 million people, in 23 different cities. Rotterdam, The Hague, and Delft, are the bigger ones, but there are also a lot of smaller cities in the region. Rotterdam itself, it’s not very original, but still, it implemented a law that it is impossible for diesel and old cars to drive in the city. Not only the city center, but the surroundings of the city center, which was just implemented in May, of this year (2016). It already reduced the CO2 emissions…We hope to get 40% reduction. 

MA: My big statement with planning a city that…it’s not only going to deliver a lot of employment, but the footprint will be enormously reduced…At the same time, make the public transport more efficient, so that it is more sustainable. Rotterdam at this moment, already, the public transport, it’s not profitable, but it is zero, at-cost. It could be a firm, as a matter of fact. I think that the nice thing about it, because investment in public transport, for me, is always good, but if you increase that, it is sustainable, because no one is going to discuss a good business case. To get things profitable, it helps also, to get more people using public transport daily. 

KM: How do you think Rotterdam compares to cities in the United States?

MA: I think, in Dutch cities, quality of life is fantastic. So, we are aware that we should, it is not about improving the quality of life, but to get hold of it, so that it doesn’t disappear.

MA: Since the crisis, the city has put a lot of money into real estate and things like that, because the extensions of the city. And now, so, we have less  money, and we want to to keep the quality of life of the cities on the same high, so what we are doing, at the moment, which is also very fascinating, is that initiatives and ideas of the inhabitants  are taken much more seriously. So people can, for example, ask, “Give us the budgets for our area”, for safety, for maintaining the greenery, etc., etc., for the public space, “Give us it all, and we will take care of our safety and public safety ourselves, because, we think, if we look around, it is much better than, for example, police.” Then we make a contract, to make sure. We monitor [to see] if they lie, because if you say “Give me the six million”, and they go on holiday, and everybody’s happy, then nothing has changed. 

MA: So what we hope, is that the consciousness and the kind of…that they take responsibility for their own city, comes back to them. Because it was kind of, it was of course the normal morals after the war [World War II], and everybody took care of his neighborhood, but then it somehow disappeared… So to give everybody back the responsibility is…it’s not neutral, maybe, but it makes people look around, and feel that the city is theirs, and not from the city bureaucrats, or something.  

KM: Do you see that in other cities in the Netherlands?

MA:I see that, actually, in bigger cities. Because…in smaller cities, mayors and politicians want to have a role: “I am the Mayor, so I want to say something”. And in bigger cities, the mayor ought to be more facilitating. They are proud that people take control, take back control, of their situation. There’s a kind of different mentality. Because, you see, Rotterdam is a very experimental city, so we are used to that energy. So maybe Rotterdam has a little bit more, but I see that same things in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and then it’s kind of–The Hague*, I don’t see that, and I don’t know other situations. It can also be my knowledge, you are always already talking to your colleagues of other cities who are in similar said situations; it could be a lack of knowledge, but I know that Rotterdam has, a lot of times, it used to be an example in the newspapers of this.

* To test Martin’s statement, I found an interactive tool by the municipality of Den Haag/The Hague. It lets users explore and compare different information about the city or neighborhood where they live. It states that The Hague has a rate of 18% of local residents who participate in activities to improve their neighborhoods (updated 2015). I struggled to find comparative numbers for The Netherlands overall or the city of Rotterdam.


KM: What are you concerned about next?

MA: We are now really in the situation where we don’t have to…inhabitants in the city are going up, because the glass is now more than half full, and the developers and the investors are really discovering Rotterdam. So, at this moment, there are, for example, for the next two years, plans for 5,000, apartments, houses, in the city. So that is 4,000 houses more than we normally would expect…It’s not only discovered by the press, by the rankings, it’s also discovered by investors, developers, and financiers. 

MA: It’s not my concern, but what I hope for, is that they control the quality and that we go on, because…We are kind of cool, and sexy, and then it stops. And I think “No!’, now we are on this good wave, and if you are not on the wave, you always need help, and to find financing, and we cannot afford it. So I hope that we can continue our ambitions to be an effective city, in this basis of a very sustainable way, with an increasing density. Which means, for all people who can say, “Ahh, why don’t you stop now?”, I hope that we can motivate…because if we stop, then this is just a moment in history. If we go on, we can really make a difference. 

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