Democracy & the City: The Dutch Case.


2008, NAi010

In 2007, on one of the local television stations for the Rotterdam region, a report was broadcast on a sixty-year old woman of Nieuw Crooswijk (a Rotterdam neighborhood) who stubbornly and combatively refused – Antigone style – to move out of her apartment that, together with virtually the entire neighborhood, will be demolished to make way for a totally new development.[i]

The camera follows her as she embarks on her daily neighborhood round. We see her walking through desolate streets, pass by houses with bricked-up doors and windows, slipping through the fences with which condemned blocks are cordoned off, passing cranes and bulldozers which are already getting down to business, talking passionately to the rare inhabitants that haven’t moved out yet, etc. At the time of the report she was facing a court case – for the first time in her life, she emphasized proudly – for her resistance against the demolition of her house. But even in the face of her imminent conviction, she remained in fighting spirits: she was going to tell the judge personally about how bad and inhumane she has been treated.

Homo sucker in the city

The fate of this brave woman is the sad ending of the battle fought for many years by the current residents of Nieuw Crooswijk against a highly questionable redevelopment plan – consisting of the demolition of nearly all existing housing blocks and redeveloping it from scratch, a Haussmanian gesture if ever there was one – imposed upon them by a coalition made up of the municipal government, a local housing corporation and a construction firm.[ii] Even when confronted with sound arguments and objective counter-research this coalition showed itself to be unshakeable in their belief in the necessity of the radical make-over of the neighborhood. Many experts clearly stated that the majority of the existing housing stock was still of good quality – although not as good as new of course – and could therefore better be renovated. This, so they claimed, would not only make more sense from the perspective of sustainability but also offer the social advantage that the current residents could stay in their neighborhood – or at least decide to do so for themselves. Also, it became clear that on a social level, apart from a few problematic housing blocks, this was a fairly cohesive community. Add to this the fact that there were several neighborhoods in Rotterdam which were socio-economically in much worse shape, and one is even more stunned by the stubbornness, autism even, with which the coalition kept on targeting this neighborhood and bombard it with its dystopian propaganda about social disintegration, urban blight, etc. In short, even if something had to be done to renew the housing stock, improve the urban lay-out or tackle some social problems, the stubbornness with which the coalition stuck to the draconic measures proposed and disregarded all counter-arguments, betrayed the fact that there was something more at play in the restructuring of Nieuw Crooswijk.

Its strategic geographic position (between the city centre and the green belt called Kralingse Zoom) and therefore its high market potential – that is now underused due to the high amount of social housing – as well as the demographic politics of the Rotterdam municipality to try to attract high income groups to the city at all costs, are without doubt more likely candidates for explaining the urgency, ideological fervor even, with which the make-over was pushed through. That such an explanation is anything but the product of a vivid imagination is immediately clear from the redevelopment plans. These provide in pre-dominantly owner-occupied houses in the middle-high to high range of the market, making it virtually impossible for the majority of current residents to ever return to the neighborhood after the restructuring.[iii] The pro-redevelopment coalition thus clearly placed its own economic, political and fiscal interests above those of the existing low-income population. The fate of the brave old woman testifies to this. As she explains it to the camera, the apartments that were offered to her in replacement of her old one – since, like most of Nieuw Crooswijks current inhabitants, she couldn’t dream to afford the rents of the new developments – were in an incomparably worse shape than her existing house and mostly located in neighborhoods that were far worse off physically and socially and much less well-situated. In that sense, it would have effectively meant a step backwards from her current housing situation. On top of that, rents were often double or triple the price she was paying now and, as she further states furiously, with rents like that and with her meager pension – which, so she stresses, she has deserved through a life of hard work – she could forget about going to the theatre or movies every once in a while, actually being condemned to whither away silently in a decrepit, over-prized apartment. In short, this is nothing less than an assault by dubious economic and political forces on the rights to the city– the depriving of the full enjoyment of the urban, cultural infrastructure, a qualitative and affordable residence in a well-located area, the democratic right to have a substantial say in the fundamental choices concerning one’s own habitat, etc.

It should be clear that the case of this brave woman, or that of Nieuw Crooswijk as a whole, is anything but an exception today. Especially in the cities in the Netherlands, which today go through an unprecedented restructuring significantly called the Big Fix-up,[iv] socio-economically vulnerable people are demanded to sacrifice the few spatial privileges they have for the so-called common good or restoration of the natural balance of the city. In reality, however, as the case of Nieuw Crooswijk shows, this boils down to giving the middle and upper classes the opportunity to re-conquer the city, after their massive exodus to the suburbs. If there is one thing to be learned from this woman’s resistance, it is the way in which she sees right through this rhetoric of sacrifice for the city’s greater good and future health. Instead, she sticks to the basic, nonsensical principle that what is good for the city, should also be good for those living in it in the here and now and, perhaps more importantly, it should strengthen the immediate interests of those who are least able to fend for themselves. In short, against the mantra of the decision-makers behind the current restructuring of the city that ‘you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs’, she stubbornly opposes, albeit unconsciously, the revolutionary idea that the future – utopia – should start in the here and now. Even though she might not be clued up on all the ins and outs of urban politics, she understood much better than some experts what needs to be understood. And how could she not, we should remark, since she’s experiencing it in person?! Her daily existence in a legal grey zone – resembling the fate of what Slavoj Žižek calls ‘homo sucker’, the unfortunate people “missed by the bombs” who have to survive in the devastating landscapes of today’s global war zones (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.)[v] – is a living testimony to the fact that in contrast to the official line that eventually the tough measures will improve the lives of all citizens, even those least well-off, the latter are obviously not and also will never be the main beneficiaries of the restructuring operation, no matter how many trickle-down effects there are.

In this essay, we explore the state of urban politics in the age of neo-liberalism, an age in which the market – accompanied by a strongly slimmed-down government whose main task is to provide for the preconditions for market rule and which itself operates in conformity to market rules – is accorded the utopian power of being able to neutralize every social antagonism and provide for the happiness of all in the most efficient and sustainable way – if not immediately, then at least in the long run. As should be clear from the previous, this essay takes a critical stance towards this new myth, grand narrative even, of our time.[vi] We will argue that with the neo-liberalization of urban politics, the democratic rights to the city have been dealt a severe blow and are increasingly being eroded. We will do this by referring mainly to urban processes in the Netherlands which are, no doubt, to a high degree the same as those in other European or Western cities, in a general sense. We will sketch a picture of the neo-liberal city as a city where social repression reigns as never before, in which different socio-economic classes are encouraged to get back at one another, and where urban politics has become fully incorporated in the neo-liberal machinery, outsourced as they are to conflict experts. Still, the position of this essay is hopeful. The analysis of neo-liberal urban processes sets the scene for the theorization of the considerable amount of resistance to the neo-liberal urban project in the second part of the essay. There, we sketch the contours of a radically urban political gesture in which those excluded in neo-liberal politics posit themselves as the ultimate referent and subject of the urban process.

The neo-liberal city

Let us start by looking at the bigger picture, the deeper causes of the massive restructuring of cities all over the globe, of not only – as in our case of Nieuw Crooswijk – of housing but also of business centers, industrial parks, office districts, and public spaces which we have witnessed over the past decade.[vii] This is clearly both the result of, as well as an answer to an ever increasing and toughening global economic competition of which cities and city-regions are more and more becoming the key players.[viii] To think that Western European cities because of their wealth and established position can remain untouched by this new round of neo-liberalglobalization, would be naive and unrealistic. It seems, on the contrary, that the necessity for radical restructuring imposes itself all the more on Western cities precisely because of their relative wealth and historic advantage. In a wealthy Dutch city like Amsterdam, one merely needs to consider on-going ‘mega’ urban development projects such as the South Axis development or the massive make-over of the central train station strip to convince oneself of the fact that the content and pace of urban politics is more and more dictated by global economic forces and tendencies.

It is imperative to realize how the ruthless struggle between cities for investments, technology, resources, goods, employees, tourists, inhabitants and what not, creates new urban conflicts and puts back on the agenda old issues that were assumed to wither away silently after the so-called end of history. To stick to the example of Amsterdam, the flipside of the municipal campaign to re-brand Amsterdam as a creative capital – the ‘I Amsterdam’ campaign – was the violent crack-down on and clearance of long established squatted premises in the city. At the Oostelijke Handelskade, for instance, these had to make way for the all-inclusive ‘working, living, dining and shopping’ environments for the coming creative class. In this way, one of the most notorious accomplishments of the urban grass-roots movements in the Netherlands was reversed. The right of a person to housing regardless of wealth, occupation, standing, conviction or lifestyle – a right that was even more strongly felt as those who owned places in abundance left these vacant for purposes of self-enrichment, which formed the main motivation behind the squatter movement – has thereby received a hard, if not fatal, blow.[ix]

The reversal of this democratic right should no doubt be seen as what in psychoanalysis is called a “return of the repressed”, the regression to a pre-democratic form of urban politics in which some people have more rights to the city than others or, in the case of ‘I Amsterdam’, in which some are considered to be more creative than others. To give one more example from the Dutch context, the liberalization of the social housing market, which is in full swing today, equally turns back the clock many years with regards to the democratic rights of Dutch citizens.[x] Once the showpiece of the Dutch welfare state – the proof of the real as opposed to formal character of its democracy – the social housing sector is today seen as an anachronism, an untenable burden, assault even, on the finances of the state. Consequently, social housing is hived off and slimmed down at an alarming rate. Of course, all the usual neo-liberal orthodoxies are being mobilized to legitimize this restructuring operation. Making social housing conform to market norms is said not only to allow the housing corporations to invest more flexibly in their housing stock, the social housing consumer would also get a better service, a product that is more tuned to his demands and desires – in short: the dismantling of social housing was presented by market adepts as the ultimate favor done to the people.

It should be clear from our example of the woman in Nieuw Crooswijk that this is nothing but a fraud, a convenient lie, to make people comply with schemes informed by neo‑liberal dogma. Cut off from state subsidies and forced to operate in conformity to market principles, social housing corporations started to heavily restructure their housing stock in order to liquefy their assets and generate the necessary capital. This resulted in the unprecedented demolition of social housing – more often than not of good quality – over the last decade and their replacement by predominantly houses for sale for middle- and high-income groups. This massive cut-back in the social housing stock resulted in an unseen mobilization of an already vulnerable part of the population – often the working poor. Being delivered to the hidden hand or, rather, iron fist of the housing market, these groups could only afford housing in less centrally located areas. They often wound up in houses that were more dilapidated than their previous homes, rented out by ruthless landlords taking advantage of their precarious situation. Moreover, their forced removal deprived them of their much-needed community networks and meant the dead-knell for those areas in the cities that were known for their absorption capacity of newcomers to society such as immigrants or temporary workers, or those who are temporarily struggling to get by. Finally, it led to the creation of a group of what were appropriately called demolition or restructuring nomads: permanently displaced social renters moving from the one area condemned with restructuring to the next.[xi]

Typically, in their revolutionary zeal as saviors of social housing in particular and the city in general, the neo-liberal proponents of the restructuring did not take the long-term social costs and political effects into account. As we saw, these are paid for by people that are the least able to do so. Any testimony by the victims of the restructuring of the hardships they suffered, or of the lowering of their living standards, was downplayed by the restructuring advocates by presenting the operation as a necessary sacrifice, as an inevitable step in preparing the city for satisfying society’s future demands and thereby secure the happiness of all its residents. In short, what was in effect the result of a political decision – i.e. a pro-market or even market-only form of politics imposing stringent financial discipline on social housing – was presented by its protagonists as something apolitical, as nothing but the logical next step in the natural evolution or life cycle of the Dutch city, a medical intervention to secure its future health.

… and its discontents.

If we can deduce anything from these worrying developments, it is that the neo-liberal world view not only unleashed a ruthless struggle between cities all over the globe, but also caused an internal strife between different factions within cities. Or, as Neil Smith puts it, neo-liberal policies have turned the city into a revanchist city, with different population groups locked in a struggle for strategic urban locations, services, investments, subsidies, etc.[xii] To stick to our example of the vicissitudes of the social housing market in the Netherlands, it was Dutch housing expert André Thomsen who rightly claimed how it is not so much the houses that are considered to be bad or to no longer conform to contemporary standards by the main forces behind the restructuring operation, as their inhabitants.[xiii] Which inhabitants are considered to be good or more desirable should be clear from the above. It obviously concerns a middle and upper class of high-income groups, highly qualified professionals, and creative people. In this way, the recent restructuring can be seen as a huge subsidy – financial as well as symbolic – to a group that in fact doesn’t need such a subsidy at all to fulfill its housing needs and desires. We are thus confronted with a reverse, perverse urban redistribution policy in which public funds are used to allow a section of the population that is actually well-off to become homeowner. In order to justify this twisted social housing policy, for some years now a story has been propagated of wealthy, high-income groups being forced out of the city and into the suburbs by hopelessly backward population groups occupying the best, central places near the city centre. The deeply revanchist message is obvious here: today, the upper classes are the victims of the asocial behavior of the underclass. The fact that this message isn’t even suppressed clearly shows that the government is all too willing to help these ‘prosperous victims’ to strike back and claim back their right to the city.

One of the symptoms of the intensified intra-urban struggle is the growing indifference or insensitivity towards those living in the margins of society or those who do not feature in the official plans or statistics of the city. Over the last decade we have witnessed a lowering of the bar of what are considered to be bad or inhuman housing conditions. Take for instance the fate of the growing army of semi-legal immigrant workers living in the so-called ‘hot beds’ in the big European cities, illegal hostels where one can rent a bed for either a night or day at exorbitant prices.[xiv] These phenomena are clearly the result of the ongoing liberalization of the EU labor market, which is a major pull factor for desperate fortune seekers of peripheral areas to move to European cities. Of course, politicians stress the burden that these groups place on the city, how this creates a breeding ground for all sorts of illegal activities and vices. It is however also, and perhaps even to a larger degree, to the advantage of these cities. The reserve army of semi-legal workers allows cities to keep down labor costs for non- or low-skilled jobs and thereby create a good business climate for enterprises as well as offer cheap public services to their residents. In the Netherlands, for instance, a recent documentary uncovered that the bulk of low-skilled jobs in the headquarters of big firms in the cities – such as those of cleaner or janitor – were performed by foreigners living in deplorable housing conditions.[xv]

Instead of being recognized as the new subject of social housing policy – if these unfortunate groups don’t qualify as the new needy, than which groups do? – they are being permanently displaced, kept in a perpetual state of mobility, if not by ruthless landlords then by zero-tolerance crackdown measures by the police.[xvi] This misrecognition of the needs of this urban proletariat no doubt creates a time bomb underneath the city. It creates a generalized sense of unfairness and powerlessness and sets up groups against each other. The unofficial, semi-legal status of large groups in our cities, their exclusion from the standard urban political channels for voicing their discontent, leads to the manifestation of this discontent in apolitical and destructive phenomena such as meaningless violence, vandalism, riots, physical assault, and so on. The high social costs of this should place a serious damper on the enthusiasm with which neo-liberal city managers close win-win transactions everywhere. As a matter of fact, these may in the long run turn out to be lose-lose situations, with both the city losing its attractiveness as a place of investment or residence due to a plague of social pathologies and to the fact that the marginalized are locked in self-destructive feuds.

Faced with the many involuntary prisoners of the neo-liberal city who are condemned to live as second-class citizens, it is hard not to speak of a new urban class struggle.[xvii] Of course, the terrain of this struggle is today much more diffuse and ambiguous than, say, in the industrial era. Instead of clearly defined working-class neighborhoods – either in the fringes of the metropolis (the suburbs) or close to the city centre – that function as cheap labor reservoirs for the urban economy, it is no doubt more a case of what Stefano Boeri calls an archipelago that has disseminated across the entire urban territory.[xviii] It should also be clear that the term “class” is here not – wrongly – taken to coincide with the stereotypical blue collar or factory workers. It should rather be understood in terms of what Jacques Rancière calls ‘the part with no part’, which for him forms the core and driving force of democratic politics.[xix] By this he means those groups in society that play an important role in securing the wealth and well-being of the city, but are nevertheless not counted as part of that society or at least not as a valid or equal part. This is clear in the case of the working poor or immigrant workers mentioned above. For all their sacrifices to the urban economies in the West and their capacity to create an attractive business climate and offer cheap urban services to their first-class inhabitants and users, they do not at all feature in the current restructuring operation of the city. If this operation, as its protagonists claim, has to prepare the city for satisfying the needs and desires of future generations, it is clear that the above-mentioned groups, or their offspring, are radically excluded from that future. Within this skewed topology, a term like “urban proletariat” no longer simply refers to groups that are simply excluded or included, that are “in or out”. It is rather that they are – as Giorgio Agamben would put it – ‘excluded in’ or ‘included out’.

Finally, the use of the term “class” should not be understood to mean – again wrongly – that there also exists a strong class consciousness amongst the newly marginalized groups in the neo-liberal city. It is obvious that there is still little or no sign that there is a growing awareness among the victims of the current neo-liberalization of the city of their particular fate. One would be totally mistaken, however, to conclude from this lack of a subjective class awareness, that this new urban underclass does not exist objectively, or that we cannot truly speak of a city divided according to class lines, or still, that the neo-liberal city is not based on an uneven distribution of happiness among its inhabitants and users.

Machinations with a human face

It is this new urbanism that unashamedly operates at two speeds, which necessitates a new round of urban politics, one that goes beyond the existing, institutionalized channels that are for the large part informed – not to say brain-washed – by neo-liberal orthodoxy. For this to be more than a mere act of will, we have to seriously consider the conditions of possibility of such an alternative urban political project. How should we for instance interpret the fact that to this day there hasn’t been any serious protest against the above-mentioned neo-liberal urban processes? That is to say, acts of resistance that go beyond what psychoanalysts would call ‘acting out’, such as meaningless acts of violence, vandalism, gang crime, riots, etc. Protest also, not only of those who are hit the hardest, but also of those professionals – planners, architects, designers, urban sociologists, etc. – that are, or at least, ought to be passionately committed to the fate of the contemporary city and its many victims.

It would be cynical to see this absence of a serious resistance movement that would be able to radically contest the ongoing neo-liberal processes, as proof that the current urban restructuring is seen – even by the ‘small minority whose lives are temporarily upset by it’ as restructuring propagandists would put it – as a harsh yet inevitable operation that eventually will be to the greater good of the city as a whole. The lack of a broad-based urban countermovement should rather be seen as the result of the application of specific practices, discourses and technologies that prevent such a movement from emerging. In the case of the restructuring or – if we skip for once this euphemism of all euphemisms – the destruction of social housing in the Netherlands one cannot but notice the many smart techniques used to break or even proactively prevent any resistance. Already by the mere change in the type of houses on offer, predominantly middle and high-income groups are strategically injected in the neighborhood in order to ‘set a good example’ – as the proponents argue. Inversely, the majority of the existing population, since they can no longer afford the new prices, are displaced and diffused over the entire city – think of the demolition nomads mentioned earlier. In this way the discontents are de-concentrated and a focalized, collective eruption of their grievances is made impossible. Furthermore, economically successful residents of the problem neighborhoods are promoted, so to speak, to move on from their rental apartments to newly build, private houses in the same neighborhood, thus becoming homeowners for the first time. In this way a local middleclass is consolidated in the neighborhood that sets the standard of success for their less fortunate colleagues, so to speak. Finally, to canalize and divert the discontent of the latter group during the restructuring, all kinds of socio-cultural schemes and participatory programs are organized in the neighborhood. Even when these programs explicitly deal with the many social problems and the collateral damage caused by the restructuring process, they are more often than not meant to offer consolation to the affected populations. The space of this essay is too short to give an account of the many socio-cultural events – or better non-events – that want to help the local people in saying goodbye to their neighborhood, and in mourning about their forced exit.[xx]

For those to whom all this smacks a bit too much of the thesis (popular in the sixties and seventies) of the so-called machinations of the market and State, their cold manipulation of all spheres of life through processes of integration and co-operation, it is crucial to see how the current neo-liberal constellation gives these machinations a further twist.[xxi] To be more precise, if the former constellation was still too much locked in a technocratic, rational vision of society, the latter adopts a more experimental and softer approach which enables the powers that be to interpellate and mobilize people on a more human, often unconscious level, which makes it both more effective and more elusive.[xxii] Today, in other words, it is a case of ‘machinations with a human face’. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the thousand and one micro-interventions of cultural activists in the many redevelopment sites of the neo-liberal city which are significantly baptized by some of them as ‘the new hunting grounds’. In the wake of building cranes artists, designers or architects, often with urban art institutions acting as mediators or temp agencies, organize cool cultural projects that have to soften the blow on local community life and public space of the creative destruction raging through the neo-liberal city. For instance, during the restructuring of Hoogvliet – an old workers district near the harbor of Rotterdam – an army of cultural actors literally bombarded the neighborhood with thousand-and-one creative, cutting-edge interventions for remedying the in-between condition in which the district and its inhabitants were thrown, as well as taking the restructuring to a higher level. However heartwarming such initiatives might be, the central slogan of this initiative: ‘Welcome in my backyard!’, clearly revealed its uncritical, instrumental position toward the ruling regime as it asked, no commanded, the struck population to affirm the radical changes – which for most of Hoogvliet’s inhabitants basically meant deportation – as so many opportunities to re-invent itself.[xxiii]

The ultimate example of the use of such soft techniques of power within neo-liberal urban developments is perhaps the already mentioned South Axis development in Amsterdam. No doubt one of the most exclusive real estate projects in the Netherlands, it mobilizes art in the public space as a way to pimp up its real estate portfolio with contemporary aesthetics. We should of course not be fooled by the seemingly subversive character of many of the artists’ interventions. Since virtually none of them radically question the true rift or split that crosses Amsterdam’s urban political economy – think of the already mentioned janitors that do the dirty jobs in these business districts in deplorable working conditions – they can only contribute to the de-politicization of the ongoing urban processes, even if even if they seem to do the opposite. Through their simulated activism, they divert attention from existing, if still largely invisible conflicts and thus delay the development of a true urban resistance movement that deals with these conflicts and antagonisms head-on. Moreover, if artists do use these conflicts as the ‘stuff’ of their work, it is most often done through aestheticizing these struggles, thus taking the sting out of them, reducing it to yet another interesting tension.[xxiv]

Democratic urban acts do happen

Still, no matter how extensive or all-pervasive the de-politicization machine has become today, the discontent that neo-liberal urban policies inevitably provoke in considerable parts of the population, can never entirely be converted to a cool, fun or happy energy. The frustration it causes can never fully be turned into an affirmative, constructive yet deeply fatalistic mind-set. There will always be a residue that will seek other outlets for its discontent, even if through negative canals such as stupid, destructive, asocial behavior or graffiti. There is however no reason to be pessimistic about the future of a democratic urban political movement that would stand up against the arrogance with which a neo-liberal view on the city is currently being pushed through. That would be giving too much credit to the current, deeply anti-political, fatalistic mode of urban politics. It would be to take the position of the cynical Left, that is, of regarding any resistance to the much criticized system as impossible since the system would be all-inclusive, constantly revolutionizing itself, capable of awarding every resistance or criticism a proper place without having to transgress its own presuppositions.[xxv] It should be clear that the fundamental operation of such an ultimately cynical attitude is to present the opponent as invincible, i.e. in the way he would like to see himself. This of course gives the enemy too much credit as well as doing him an unnecessary favor. In this way, it even seems as if such leftist cynicism wants the Other to be invincible – and if the Other doesn’t live up to its superiority, its weaknesses are explained as signs of its strength – so that one can sit back and relax and justify one’s inaction in the face of the deluge.

Against such defeatism and doom-mongering one has to affirm that democratic urban acts do happen, that no urban consensus machine, however cool or fine-tuned to the whims or unconsciousness of the people, however embedded in everyday practices, can ever silence the passion for urban politics completely. While the emergence of politics proper can be delayed, it can never be totally foreclosed or, at least, not without paying the high price of being plagued by all kinds of symptoms and pathologies. To give a concrete example of such an urban-political act we may refer to the brave resistance of the inhabitants of the Rotterdam neighborhood Nieuw Crooswijk – mentioned earlier – against the make-over of their neighborhood. As we already explained, this make-over basically comes down to erasing the entire neighborhood from the map and redeveloping it as if it was a virginal piece of land where nothing had existed before – in short, an act of creating a tabula rasa worthy of a Le Corbusier-style of modernism. Faced with the socio-economic cleansing of the neighborhood, with the existing population declared unwanted in their own neighborhood overnight – since, as mentioned earlier, the largest chunk of new housing would be in the middle to high range of the market – the plans rightly caused a massive uproar among the inhabitants. While in other condemned areas the initial indignation was soon depoliticized through all kinds of participation schemes, consensual techniques and compensatory rituals, in the case of Nieuw Crooswijk the inhabitants stood their ground, founded a federation of inhabitant committees (FBNC)[xxvi] and proposed an alternative master plan. This plan provided for a less destructive upgrade of the neighborhood, as stated in no uncertain terms in its central slogan: ‘renovation where possible, demolition where necessary’. The alternative plan made it possible for the existing population to stay in their homes which – although labeled by the housing corporations and municipality as hopelessly out of touch with the demands of the contemporary housing consumer – were seen by both residents and experts as good housing (apart from the usual exception of course).

The resistance of the inhabitants of Nieuw Crooswijk against this aggressive assault on their habitat should be seen as an eruption of a true democratic politics: the moment when a group that is officially treated as having neither the right nor qualifications to have a say on a certain matter, positions itself as quite the opposite. In this case, the inhabitants, under the banner of the federation of inhabitant groups, asserted themselves as knowing far better than the coalition of housing corporations, municipalities and construction firms what was best for the neighborhood. Also, they not merely demanded an equal say in the restructuring. This could easily be accommodated by the decision-makers by organizing a few information and participatory meetings in which inhabitants can periodically communicate some concerns or small demands and – after having weighed their relevance and necessity – get back to business as usual. Against this illusory, pseudo-democratic participation game, the federation claimed the exclusive right to the future planning of the neighborhood.[xxvii] As the organization of the current inhabitants who had invested most of their lives in this neighborhood – both socially, emotionally and by paying their monthly rent – they legitimately challenged the right of the pro-restructuring coalition to make such drastic, destructive claims on their part of the city.

With regard to this conflict, one should oppose the false opposition – deliberately created by the proponents of the neo-liberal remake – between on the one hand a progressive vision on the city, i.e. one that welcomes change, improvement of the living conditions, etc., and on the other hand a reactionary vision – clinging to the old no matter what, afraid of social mobility, change, etc. Just as for Rancière a true democratic moment or dissensus – as he calls the opposite of consensus – is not a conflict between black and white but between two definitions of white-ness (or black-ness), the same holds in this case. What the federation of inhabitant groups contests is not improvement or development as such, but the limited, clearly neo-liberal way in which these terms are defined – automatically interpreting development in terms of higher land uses and the presence of middle and high-income groups in a neighborhood. The core of the conflict, in other words, concerns the very meaning of such general terms like change, improvement, or success. In this light we can see the naming of the alternative master-plan in terms of an ‘even newer’ Nieuw Crooswijk, as a strategic move to avoid the conflict from being misrepresented or falsified in terms of conservative versus progressive, old and new.[xxviii]

Democracy or expertocracy

Another dominant way to de-legitimize democratic urban movements such as the FBNC that resist neo-liberal urban measures, is to present their conflict with pro-restructuring coalitions as one between those who think long-term and in terms of the city as a whole, and those who by lack of technical-historical insight into the natural rise and fall of cities fixate on short-term goals and their own private backyard. In short, this is the idea that only those who have had the appropriate training or gained sufficient experience with regard to the evolution of cities can know or sense what, at a certain moment in time, is the best decision for not only an individual neighborhood, but also for the city at large.

This recourse to experience or expertise of course serves to cover up the traumatic core of a true urban democratic politics, that is, the fact that in the latter all traditional, established hierarchies between the different parties involved in the production of space melt into thin air, that all the known planning procedures – urban planning as we know it – are fundamentally questioned and reshuffled. Such a radical contestation clearly occurred in the case of the FBNC’s presenting its own master-plan. By doing so, the Federation refused to be merely acknowledged and integrated within the coalition as a so-called experience expert, as someone whose testimony of daily life in Nieuw Crooswijk is welcomed as a way for urban planners and other experts to get a subjective, insider’s perspective on the area that allows them to fine-tune and, if necessary, correct their master-plan. In such a scenario – which is a well-established, institutionalized practice in planning in the Netherlands – there is full (even if unspoken) acceptance of the fact that the expert coalition of project developers, corporations, the municipality, planners, neighborhood managers and artists in the public space is best-suited to map the strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities and threats of a certain neighborhood. And furthermore, that they are best equipped to take the appropriate measures to secure the long-term success of a neighborhood and the optimal happiness for its inhabitants. The federation, on the contrary, by positioning itself as a popular front against the official decision-makers and taking measures into their own hands, challenged the legitimacy of this coalition of experts as such, its unilateral claim to have the monopoly on the future of the neighborhood. They, in other words, contested the one decision they were not consulted about, the one that accords to some more rights to the city than to others on the basis of know‑how, experience, merit, financial means or political influence.

This radical contestation of any such privilege is what according to Rancière accounts for the scandal of democracy. In our case of Nieuw Crooswijk, this scandal was produced by the unconditional way in which a group that is normally excluded from the urban decision-making process disregards all existing, natural hierarchies, conventions and common-places, and posits itself as the true subject of the development, the one who not only really knows what is best for the neighborhood, but also who wants the best for it, and is willing to take the lead. If politicians or planners are really serious about bringing politics closer to the citizens, it is such a fundamental questioning of their own status, of their right to the city, that they should be willing to perform.[xxix] In fact, they ought to be delighted by the active stance of the FBNC. Is this not one of the first, hopeful signs of the long-awaited engagement of the so-called silent majority, the open manifestation of the citizens’ desire, the enflaming of political passions in the much deplored aseptic, post-political universe? That after years of struggle by the FBNC the pro-restructuring coalition arrogantly pushed through its own master-plan – not of course without paying the usual lip-service to some minor demands of the neighborhood – is proof of the hypocrisy of all the talk about citizens that make their city. When politicians and planners were really faced with dynamic, mature, politically active citizens, they tensed up, politely ignored them and stuck firmly to their privileges and power within the existing hierarchy of experts. If urban politics today means anything, it is to radically resist this expertocratic reflex. To do otherwise would be a blow to all those who refuse to be treated like passive housing consumers and will no doubt lead to an even bigger disbelief in and disregard for politics. Sooner or later this will blow up in the face of the current urban order.

New commitment beyond the limits of the expert

This discussion on the conflictual, even impossible, relation between democracy and expertocracy is also directly relevant to the ongoing debate on the so-called “new commitment” in architecture, design and art.[xxx] If in the previous we spoke of experts, we didn’t merely refer to politicians, construction firms or investment companies. Architects, urban planners and designers are also a constitutive part of this know-how aristocracy. Even though their ties to the big players behind the recent neo-liberal make-over of the city are not that firmly established and their interests may diverge from them – these may, for instance, rather be issues of form, meaning or program – they are nevertheless seen as, and act like, a natural ally within pro-restructuring coalitions. This is even more the case since the rise of the notion of the creative city: cultural agents are more and more regarded by urban elites as possessors of a unique know-how about that sublime quality or X-factor that can decide the success or failure of an urban development. No doubt, the key to an explanation of this alliance – which might seem awkward perhaps, considering the progressive, critical imago of cultural producers – is to be found in the daily, personal experience of architects or designers. They know as no other how difficult or frustrating it can be to try to convince non-experts of the beauty or necessity of their proposals. One doesn’t need to know a lot of psychology to see how this frustration can easily nourish the conviction that it is sometimes better to push through a certain design, regardless of the resistance of the client, or to not furnish the client with all the details of and conceptual moves behind the design, and just do what is best for him or her. When confronted with resistance of population groups against redevelopment plans for their neighborhood, architects and designers might easily fall back on this – deeply expertocratic – attitude.

Of course, the fact that there are experts in certain fields who use all their knowledge and experience to come up with the best possible solution for the city is not per se problematic or undemocratic. The decisive question concerns what exactly is meant by the “best possible solution”, what arguments or critical yardstick one uses, which groups one takes to be the main referent or beneficiary, as well as what the procedures are by which one arrives at it. In that regard it is clear that urban politics today is based on consensual and compromise techniques, in which the conflicting interests at play are weighed through a negotiation process by all parties involved in such a way as to satisfy all as best as possible. Although such a procedure may be ideal from a managerial viewpoint, it is anything but that from a democratic perspective. Apart from the fact that not all parties are equally represented in this negotiation process – it basically concerns politicians, developers, contractors, experts, a neighborhood manager and at best a VIP living in the neighborhood – it also disavows the asymmetrical power relationships between the parties at the table. This is especially true for the growing privatization of planning under the influence of neo-liberal dogma. Take the much hailed public-private enterprises for instance. Although the term suggests symmetry, a well-balanced whole between the public, common good and private interests of the market, market parties often bring in up to 90 percent of the budget. It doesn’t take much to understand that municipalities, cut off from state subsidies and faced with real estate groups whose budgets often exceed their own many times, can easily be seduced or – if that doesn’t work – blackmailed into agreeing with plans that mainly benefit the interests of these groups and their shareholders. And if even the government cannot oppose the demands of the market, how could the affected inhabitants do so? In short, the urban negotiation process can only produce its so-called win-wins on the condition that some groups accept certain power relationships or injustices – for instance, that capitalism is the only game in town, that experts know what’s best or that those who pay the most taxes have the biggest say in the shape of the city.

The task of architects, designers or artists – at least, if they are serious about their new commitment – is to relentlessly oppose the current, thoroughly anti-democratic and post-political urban decision-making processes. If they are often put in the position of a neutral mediator, someone who stands above political and economic interests and, consequently, someone who is still able to recognize the public interest and, through unorthodox techniques, win the hearts and minds of the people, why not use this role to give the current urban conflicts a space, to prevent unequal distributions of happiness to be maintained and installed, and thus to create the possibility for a re-politicization of the city? Following Rancière, we are inclined to define the true task of committed planners, architects and designers to visualize today’s urban democratic struggles.[xxxi] As we argued, the rise of a neo-liberal take on the city in which market players, together with their new ally the entrepreneurial government, have increased their grip on the production of the city – in fact adding a new chapter to the much criticized tradition of central planning and the malleable city – makes such a politicization through dramatization of urban inequalities and injustices as urgent as ever.


[i] The report was broadcast on RTV (TV Rijnmond) February 6th 2007 and was made by Marion Keete. See

[ii] The co-operation, specifically founded for the restructuring, is called Ontwikkelingscombinatie Nieuw Crooswijk (ONC) and consists of the housing corporation Woningbedrijf Rotterdam (WBR), project developer Proper-Stok woningen and construction company ERA Bouw.

[iii] In the official Masterplan 1800 of 2100 houses in Nieuw Crooswijk will be demolished – this is 85% of the entire housing stock, 95% of them are social housing for renting. 70% of those newly build will be privately owned houses in the middle expensive to expensive range.

[iv] This term was coined for the exhibition and symposium ‘The Big Fix-Up. Transformations in Post-war Housing’ that took place in the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) in 2004. See also the accompanying publication: Jacqueline Tellinga (ed.), De grote verbouwing. Verandering van naoorlogse woonwijken (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2004).

[v] Slavoj Žižek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Verso: 2002.

[vi] I borrow this expression from Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of resistance. Against the new myths of our time. Cambridge: Polity Press 1998.

[vii] See Edward Soja, Postmetropolis: studies of cities and regions, Blackwell Publishing: 2000. Erik Swyngedouw, Frank Moulaert & Arantxa Rodriquez (eds.) The globalized city: economic restructuring and social polarization in European cities.

[viii] Cities and city-regions are perhaps even replacing the role of the nation-states as spear-heads of competition. According to Ricardo Petrella for instance, in the future it will no longer be the G7 or G8 that will call the shots globally, but the CR30: the assembly of the 30 most powerful city-regions in the world.

[ix] Of course for some decade now, squatting practices had already been institutionalized through what is rightly called ‘anti-squatting’: municipalities or real estate agents signing contracts with wannabe squatters to temporarily occupy their empty premises. Such a scheme of course prevents ‘real’ squatters from moving in. It is thus a sort of squatting under certain conditions – a win-win between the property class and squatters. With these anti-squatting practices, artists or designers looking for cheap studio space more and more became the ideal subjects of squatting. Today, with the advent of the notion of the creative city, this scheme is even more formalized: creative experts can apply for a workspace to official channels which then select the most appropriate candidates. Against all these practices one should say: ‘squatting by right, not by government permission!’

[x] For a further analysis of the U-turn on the level of social housing policy, see: BAVO, ‘Neoliberalism with Dutch Characteristics: The Big Fix-Up of the Netherlands and the Practice of Embedded Cultural Activism’, in: Rosi Braidotti, Charles Essche and Maria Hlavojova (eds.). Citizens and Subjects: The Netherlands, for Example. BAK and JRP<

Essay published in: BAVO (eds.), Urban Politics Now, NAi Publishers, 2008

Tags: English

Categories: Urban planning

Type: Article