Rotterdam, co-host of Urbanism Next Europe, is a unique city but what is its secret? Apparently, its one-of-a-kind approach called #NextCity. Alessia Giorgiutti analyses the incredible work of the #NextCity

View of Rotterdam, © Jurriaan Snikkers via Unsplash

Any Urban Thinker worth his or her salt has the City of Rotterdam on their radar - a major logistic and economic centre, Rotterdam is indeed Europe's largest seaport, as well as one of its fastest growing cities. Home to over 180 nationalities, Rotterdam is known for its university, lively cultural life, maritime heritage, modern architecture and, above all, its consistent strive to make urban life sustainable, efficient, and attractive.

But how does it do so? What is its secret? The City is facing a multitude of challenges (not the least of which is having to accommodate an increasing population in a very limited available space) but does not dwell in them – instead, it thinks beyond the practices of today and points its eyes to the future, connecting structural spatial policy with programmes and projects to prepare it for what is to come.

Rotterdam co-hosts Urbanism Next Europe 2021, © Urbanism Next Europe

#NextCity, an action by the Municipality of Rotterdam that focuses on how this transition would and could happen, offers tools and examples that highlight the City’s alternative approaches on the matter, so that other local authorities could either take them as examples and investigate their own ongoing challenges with a broader and visionary approach.

In Rotterdam, #NextCity has been gaining experience with alternative ways of thinking and acting […]. We are learning how to deal with uncertainties and how to give them a place in the transitions we are facing. We are developing alternative work methods that sometimes achieve surprising results. We are learning to look at our work differently and to do it differently

Hermineke van Bockxmeer, Director of Urban Development at the Municipality of Rotterdam

Rotterdam is Europe's largest seaport and a great logistics hub, © Bernd Dittrich via Unsplash

The #NextCity approach

The approach designed by #NextCity consists of three cyclical steps:

  • Signalling;
  • Testing;
  • Normalising.

First of all, Urban Thinkers “pick up a signal” from the City and its inhabitants regarding an ongoing challenge or need – this prompts the beginning of a conversation that allows knowledge exchange, as well as the creation of a network of thinkers that are willing to explore solutions. Then, Urban Thinkers “get their hands dirty”, develop scenarios and launch pilots to explore and test possible futures. Lastly, Urban Thinkers “turn the extraordinary into ordinary” – they take stock of all the insights and lessons learned and create future-proof exploitation actions. And they do so over and over again, in an extremely successful loop. Talking per abstraction, however, is not very helpful: to “make it make sense”, the #NextCity team has collected some of the inspirational, concrete activities that are currently taking place in the City using their approach, starting with some examples in terms of pedestrian- and cyclist-centred urban planning, continuing with shared mobility and zero-emission logistics, and ending with data and digitalisation.

Rotterdam wishes to create more space for active modes – even parking spots © Greg Jeanneau via Unsplash

#NextCity – the official document

Make it make sense – and start by making a city for people, rather than cars

Rotterdam is a great place where to bike, © Coen van den Broek via Unsplash

Since 2008, Rotterdam has invested on creating an attractive and lively city centre – the so-called City Lounge. This plan focuses on people and makes the centre a place where to easily meet in a café or on a street bench, rather than to spend time in a traffic jam. Rotterdam is indeed committed to a full urban mobility transition that would reduce car traffic through the neighbourhoods in and around the centre and create better connections inside the urban network – all to increase the city’s liveability, accessibility, and economic potential. Another step towards a “city of people” is ‘Park(ing) Day’, an event taking place on the third Friday of September, when Rotterdam locals get to transform parking spaces into small parks: those who pay parking fees are allowed to furnish the parking space in all sorts of ways, from creating pop-up coffee spots where to read a book, to a mini playground. This action gets in line with Rotterdam’s ambition to cancel or alternatively reallocate 3000 parking spaces to other uses, such us bicycle pallets – wooden constructions with ten bicycle racks each (an idea that won the National Innovation Award in 2018), which in turn could be replaced by permanent bicycle parking.

Liaising with privates to manage public space

Rotterdam was one of the first cities to develop an integrated policy for shared mobility. The policy came in place in 2017, when five bicycle share companies set up shop in the city, prompting a discussion on shared public space. The City entered into talks with the companies and the sectors involved and consequently drew up quality requirements for shared mobility and its policy to (adaptively) make room for shared mobility. The growth and appeal of the City did however not only attract shared mobility companies, but also e-commerce and delivery services, causing Rotterdam to be in a (logistics) pickle: to avoid the increase of carbon emissions, it had to reduce the number of kilometres travelled in the city and allow only zero-emission vehicles in, as well as to make all logistic chains as efficient as possible – all while fostering these new services. For this reason, as the Netherlands decided on a zero-emission zone for logistics to be in place from 2025 on, Rotterdam has joined the scheme: from 2025, only zero-emission vehicles will be allowed to enter the city centre for delivery.

Data and digitalisation as a fil rouge

Rotterdam aims to use digitalisation to further meet its social, physical, and economic challenges. In order to do so, it has to find a smart, safe, and uniform way to collect data to make them available in urban mobility processes and projects. This does require a comprehensive public infrastructure with new roles (such as data accountants) and new data centres, which will attract companies and workers, thus contributing to the overall economic development of the city, but also further digital- and data-friendly solutions.

For decades, we were able to rely on models and forecasts, but new challenges made it impossible for us. The #NextCity approach is a specific approach we developed in Rotterdam to deal with a type of change that is hard to predict – transitions. Funnily enough, we then found out a connection with the Urbanism Next Framework – which is very similar yet developed separately from our Municipality. We had to join forces and highlight our kindred mission via Urbanism Next Europe.

Marije ten Kate, Head Urban Planner at the Municipality of Rotterdam

Rotterdam is a fast-growing city, © Pixabay

Rotterdam’s digital lampposts come immediately in mind. They not only offer lighting, but also measure air quality, identify parking congestion, provide Wi-Fi, and much more. In November 2019, the City erected the first masts in Reijeroord as part of the living lab Sensible Sensor, which investigates smart ways to digitise the urban space. Geofencing, the virtual demarcation of geographical areas using GPS, is another one. Rotterdam is indeed interested in understanding how this technology can contribute to crowd management, for example by sending notifications to people in a certain radius around a calamity and asking them to take a different route. In addition, geofencing could also help monitoring the availability of shared mobility vehicles by sending notifications to inform users of designated parking areas.

#NextCity is… Now

Polls of all kinds tell us that people and companies want to move to Rotterdam: the number of inhabitants is increasing, employment is sharply rising and pull factors are thriving. The City itself wants to grow but struggles with the question of how to do so while remaining liveable and efficient. The standard approach to this question, which translates various trends into space requirements and then into spatial plans and projects, is beginning to falter. Linear, predictable trends have changed into much more uncertain and therefore unpredictable developments. For this reason, the #NextCity approach rules – it merges exploitation with exploration, efficiency with creativity, short-term with long-term, and tangible goals with alternative solutions. It says that both aspects are sides of the same coin – equally important and reinforced by one another. The hope is that this coin will soon end in all cities’ pockets.

Rotterdam as a POLIS member

Alessia Giorgiutti is Project and Communications Officer at POLIS Network. Contact her: agiorgiutti@polisnetwork.eu

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