Housing Policy, another approach

Ing. Tobias Woldendorp RCE, Amsterdam, Netherlands

I initially began my career as a landscape architect.  I have been working on both urban planning and architecture assignments for the last thirty years and my role as a landscape architect has changed from mediator to consultant.

Working for the city of The Hague in the early nineties, I analysed situations from the point of view of a manager, public transportation carrier, ecologist, urban planner, or politician. To specify the last role: both the city of The Hague and the smaller village of Wateringen were supposed to develop a new housing development, a large suburbanisation-assignment. In the beginning, the dwellings at their borders were designed with the rear facades adjacent to one another. The team of landscape architects pleaded for a more metropolitan approach, with the possibility of developing one front facade. After some resistance, this political decision was adopted. Consequently, public space became a reverse-template to the housing layout.Twenty years on, I have continued working in the fields of urban planning, landscape architecture and residential architecture. As a consultant I was:

  • working with children and youngsters living in the completed phase-one IJburg district development in Amsterdam to discover their views of the neighbourhood and to improve the quality of life implement the results in phase two;
  • occupied with how to create  new housing developments based on the principles of Healthy Urban Living. This principle was used to create shared space that is accessible to everyone;
  • Working on accessibility and safety, developing friendly viaducts, tunnels and flyovers in metropolitan areas, making it possible for children and youngsters to safely travel from their homes to school or leisure and sports activities. Also in winter, all by bicycle of course;
  • connecting potential ecological infrastructure to recreative co-use.

Which statements did I want to make in the panel about housing policy as a landscape architect and consultant?

1) Developers and road constructors should become managers: according to the DBFM model (Design, Build, Finance, Maintain), a major advantage is that soft aspects of development such as manageability, durability, design  for life long use,  social safety and crime prevention are deployed in the initial phase on the one hand to improve the financial basis for maintenance and on the other hand to increase the possibility for public space identity, involvement and management.

2) Do not demolish any vacant building. Leave the gate of an abandoned building slightly ajar, put a bowl of olives and a bottle of wine on a table and see who will sit down and take on the accompanying hardships. Spaces set aside for creativity play an essential role in the process of gentrifying existing areas.  Lure hipsters! Temporary users also increase the value of the land. When buildings are adopted in such an organic way, the government must address any adjacent public space. That, in turn, attracts social developers.

3) Place users and those with particular expertise at the forefront of urban development: consider a Public Private Collaboration (PPBS), which involves the contribution of a village delegation to the development of an area or infrastructure. Think of the contributions that junkies and drunkards, members of a project group’s client council, can make to design of a newly built homeless shelter. A third example is for police academies to train officers to become Architectural Liaison Officers and, to develop Police Label Safe Housing, as is the case in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.

Back to the forum!

A reality-check (1):

We didn’t really speak about  housing in the forum. We mostly discussed developing offices, shops, business districts and accessibility (by car).

In the Netherlands, the role of a developer is to take care of maintenance of newly developed housing areas for approximately twenty years. In earlier times (before the banking crisis), developers had their housing project built, drank champagne and drove their Ferrari on the way to a new building challenge.  I had the idea that thinking about maintenance, user friendly public realm was not yet applicable to the situation in Poland. An integral way of thinking, thinking beyond building construction only, was not yet a consideration. ”You were the only one in the forum that has tried to tell a story about housing, not about developing” said dr.Iván Tosics,  Director of the Metropolitan Research institute, Budapest, who sat in the public.

Reality-check (2):
When I was in Stary Maneż last year I was very happy to see that the old buildings were being re-used, and that the public space was laid out in a very suitable and sustainable way. Some of the buildings were still empty, waiting for new users.  This year I revisited the complex and was shocked to find demolished sheds and halls, and new architecture encroaching from the north.

Result: too much of the same. Too much space set aside for parking cars instead of qualitative public space . Hipsters were not part of the forum’s focus group ( “white collars”), which was attempting to focus their attention towards housing policies.

  • What Poland needs is to focus on the softer aspects of housing policy. In Poland, people should get out of their cars and bike to work, school, leisure activities, etc. That is good for health, weight control, the climate. It will also bring about an increase in public transportation and a need for a higher quality of public spaces. And: approached in combination these are all aspects from the Urgenda, (Amsterdam 2016). If a city is in balance with its soft aspects, it will become a happy city (acknowledging Martin Sim’s lecture earlier that day).
  • Poland should open the borders for refugees. In 2017, 16 Syrian asylum seekers were allowed in. In a nearby future, Poland, as well as The Netherlands, Germany and others countries, will need to employ newcomers. There is a good chance that when I’m 80 years old, I will be very glad to be washed and dressed by a former refugee. Poland will also have to anticipate in this in the nearby future. Especially when an increase in refugees is expected in the coming years, metropolitan housing has to anticipate on that process.
  • Invest in ecological networks. Every child has the right to see a butterfly, a hedgehog, a squirrel, to pet a lamb. It is therefore evident that new urban design of cities result in Smart Metropolia, ones that are connected to robust green structures in neighbourhoods.

Back to the olives and wine. It would have been a very good idea for the moderator, who recently bought an old sugar factory in his village, to have asked the five panellists how to deal with its development. Due to soil pollution, his solution was to demolish the factory and to create a park. My solution would have been to maintain the factory-building, open the gates, place a table and some chairs in the yard and see who was willing to come and invest in to “take on the convenience”.

A good business model is the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam: contaminated soil under the former gasworks made it unusable for housing, but all kinds of creative entrepreneurs came to the site and have made it a resounding success. That, in turn, made it interesting for housing development in the neighbourhood.  It is now one of the best places to live in greater Amsterdam. And that within ten years.

Reality-check (3):

On the first day of the congress,  I joined a forum about social relations. It was remarkable to hear the intention for participation. But what remained with me mostly concerned discussions, listening to the public instead of true participation.

True participation is, for me,  joining a steering committee, joining a walk through the neighbourhood where new additional housing should be developed. Next year, I expect a physically disabled person to be on the podium. Next year, I expect a walkabout /field survey with various stakeholders, as well developers and users of public space, to develop a common language in the field.

With addition of  junkies and alcoholics to a project group. How realistic is that in Poland? Well, there are alcoholics, as well as junkies, and all sorts of addicted persons, who need to be taken care of. Society has to take care of them and establish care centres for this group in the city, in the metropolitan area. Give them a chance think about their environment. They are experts. They know what they need to improve their quality of life.

Last but not least: is Poland already for a so-called Police Label Safe Housing? A manual for creating save neighbourhoods?  Not yet, eight years after training police officers at the Police Academy in Szczytno, where I and some colleagues trained police officers to become  Architectural Liaison Officers,  in other words, crime prevention building plan consultants. Shortly before the Smart Metropolia Congress,  I asked the dean in Szczytno, Mr Krzysztof Łotek, if the Police Label Safe Housing was already implemented in Poland? And he answered “ we do have not any formal crime prevention strategy in order to implement CPTED, nor any clone of Police Label Safe Housing, but…. in our academy, CPTED is a subject which is part of  the curriculum for an internal security bachelor degree”.

The challenge is there: we can pick up various aspects to firm housing-policy in  the nearby future. Regardless of how that is regulated by higher authorities: we can commit a bottom up-process to strengthen the top down approach. Nadzieję że. Hope rise.

Gdansk, November 29th 2017