Gentrification in Rotterdam: Ingenuity or Danger?

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Walk with me

Research conducted by EUR-scientists and students looks at the effects of gentrification in Rotterdam. ‘We noticed that there weren’t that many negative consequences, but then again not that many noticeably positive ones, either.’

TEXT: Inge Janse
ILLUSTRATION: © José Paúl Pérez Cóndor
PHOTO'S: © Mark Uyl


‘The worst part isn’t even the fact that I have to leave my home. The worst part is that I have to leave my neighbourhood.’ One of the many poignant quotes to appear in a Volkskrant article published early this year. The article looked at the flip side of gentrification, at the rise of the wealthy middle-class within a neighbourhood – and how the arrival of this class has come at the cost of existing residents. The story wasn’t about Crooswijk, or the Liskwartier, or Katendrecht or any of the other changing neighbourhoods in Rotterdam – it was about Brooklyn. This New York borough has always had a contested history, and in 2018 it has become a battlefield: on the one hand, there’s the old tenants who pay fixed rates from a bygone age, and who often live in a certain state of poverty. On the other hand, there’s the slick real-estate yuppies, set on having the old – majority black – tenants move out of their apartments. Their goal to do a quick renovation and put the house back on the market, but then for astronomical prices.

Broadest shoulders

This isn’t quite the case yet in Rotterdam. ‘Since a few years now there’s been a focus in Rotterdam on appealing to ‘broad shoulders’,’ says Roy Geurs, strategic advisor for the municipality’s Social Development cluster. That term refers to residents that don’t tax the city (by way of requiring financial aid or healthcare), but rather contribute to it. ‘But always in-keeping with the necessary investments in ‘weaker’ residents.’ There’s a good reason for this new focus on the wealthier class, according to Geurts. ‘Across the world cities have a general higher percentage of highly-educated people in comparison with the national average. In Rotterdam this percentage is actually lower.’ Geurs can see in the numbers that the appeal of Rotterdam among young professionals is growing. ‘But when they want to settle, have children, then it becomes difficult for them to find a good home. That’s when you lose them.’ That’s when these young professionals move to Barendrecht or Langsingerland, where the homes are bigger and the back yards sunnier.

That’s why, in 2014, the municipality decided on transforming ten ‘promising neighbourhoods’ in order to create an appeal for (above) middle-income families. These neighbourhoods were the Oude Noorden, Nieuwe Westen, Middelland, het Liskwartier, Nieuw Crooswijk, Kralingen-West, the Lloydkwartier, Katendrecht and the Kop van Zuid-Entrepot. Each of these are situated near the city centre and have the potential of appealing to wealthy families, and that’s how they’ve been marketed by the municipality. The layman’s term for these neighbourhoods is ‘bakfietswijken’, literally translated: carrier-bike neighbourhoods. This refers to the desired demographic’s iconic form of transportation, the carrier bike. These ‘promising neighbourhoods’ got better housing, the streets were made more attractive (think: playgrounds, clean streets), and a lot of time and attention went into improving the quality of available education. In the years since these developments have taken place there has been a rise of a few percent in new highly-educated residents moving into these neighbourhoods.

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Social power

But what are the effects these ‘broad shoulders’ have on the neighbourhood itself and its people? To find out a research project was set up by the public research centre ‘Leefbare Wijken’ (‘livable neighbourhoods’, a collaration of the local government, Erasmus University Rotterdam and other research institutes). The organisation analysed literature from across the world on the consequences of gentrification. The positive outcome of the research was finding out that ‘broad shoulders’ do, indeed, encourage a growing economy by way of new businesses and amenities. The social power of the neighbourhood also grows due to the fact that the new residents are often people who take on initiative and also know how to contact official organisations. However, there are also downsides to gentrification. The original residents can become estranged within their own neighbourhood, what with the influx of new and unfamiliar shops and people. Displacement is also a regular occurrence: gentrification often comes hand in hand with higher rent prices that go beyond the means of the existing tenants.

Next, the research focussed on whether the demographic of the ‘promising neighbourhoods’ of Rotterdam was actually changing. Yes, the research concluded. The number of ‘broad shoulders’ in these neighbourhoods has grown faster in comparison with other neighbourhoods. But did this mean that the aforementioned side-effects of gentrification took place? In order to find out, Risbo (an independent EUR research institute, part of the Social Studies Faculty) entered in conversation with the residents of the ten neighbourhoods. The questions were: do people talk to one another? Are they active in the neighbourhood? ‘We noticed that there weren’t that many negative consequences to gentrification, but then again not that many noticeably positive ones, either,’ is how Geurs summarises the results. The lack of positive effects, according to Geurs, is mostly to do with the fact that while the new ‘broad shouldered’ residents enjoy living in a neighbourhood with ‘other people’, they don’t have the time to make new connections. ‘The contact that they maintain is usually with people who have similar lives. They meet at the schoolyard, go to the same gym, the same shops and bars. The desire to broaden their social circle is there, but they don’t have the time to do so.’ Due to the clear proof of economic progress at the hand of gentrification Geurs believes that the scales are tipped toward the positive.

Social climbers

A drawback of the Risbo research is that it doesn’t differentiate between ‘social climbers’ (residents from within the neighbourhood who’ve made a certain career) and ‘newcomers’ (the ‘broad shoulders’ residents who have moved into the neighbourhood). This is why Erik Snel, university professor of sociology at the Erasmus School of Social Behavioural Sciences and coordinator of the research centre ‘Leefbare Wijken’ had his students take up the research. One of these students is the 26-year-old Mouna Ghzaoui, whose look into the Afrikaanderwijk earned her her Master in sociology. ‘I myself live in Bloemhof, also in Zuid, and I’ve noticed I’m not there very often. I also think gentrification is a fascinating topic. Poor neighbourhoods develop, but how do the original residents experience that change? That’s why I picked this research.’

In the last months she’s spoken to the people of African Inn, an eight-floor flat at the Afrikaander square. Her research question was: do ‘social climbers’ (who want to move from social housing to private rentals) stay in Zuid if the neighbourhood becomes more appealing? And is there a difference in how social climbers and newcomers each engage with the neighbourhood? After speaking to about forty private-rental residents of the African Inn, Ghzaoui noticed that about half of them were social climbers. This means that internal growth within a neighbourhood happens in Zuid as well. This stands in contrast to the common assumption that people from the city who come into money will leave, or cross the Nieuwe Maas. Ghzaoui also noticed a pattern in the family structure of the people she interviewed: only two had school-attending children. The rest were starters with either no or very young children.

In-depth interviews with the residents showed that there was no difference between the social engagement of social climbers and newcomers in the neighbourhood: both don’t do much of it. ‘They all give the same reason: an expensive house is only affordable if both partners work full time. Once they’re home they’re mostly happy if they can get a moment to sit down, watch TV.’ Gzhaoui emphasises that the ‘broad shoulders’ are engaged with the neighbourhood. ‘They’ve all come to live here because the neighbourhood has improved, but they don’t want their presence to cause displacement.’ According to the interviewed, there’s already more than enough inequality. For example, not every building is maintained to the same standard. One interviewee said, ‘There’s no difference in tenants, only in homes.’

Another remarkable find of Ghzaoui was the fear among the ‘broad shoulders’ of being displaced themselves. ‘They came to live here because the homes were more affordable than for example the centre, or Blijdorp. But the rent prices go up every year. Before you know it and they won’t be able to afford it either, that’s their fear. The question is, will the local government and other corporations make sure that the ‘broad shoulders’ won’t have to leave the neighbourhood again.’

For strategic advisor Geurs the main priority is a new research that focuses on how the old and new residents can better benefit from one another. He believes that a collective interest can play a big role, make people come together to ensure a neighbourhood has better traffic safety, for example, or a better street design. The advisor insists that being an active part of the neighbourhood shouldn’t be an obligation. However, he points out that because of the democratic nature of our current society – where the emphasis on social participation is quite strong – it’s good for there to be more social structures. ‘Independence, loneliness, health: it’s better to have a good network. Social cohesion doesn’t only mean having a better living environment, it also means knowing you can rely on someone.’

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Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood 

A socially-engaged resident who sees gentrification changing their neighbourhood. That, in short, is the profile of Alexandre Furtado Melville. He is in his thirties, grew up in Cape Verde and lived in and around the outskirts of Rotterdam until the age of 22 – after which he moved to Zuid. He started but never finished majoring in Consultancy at the EUR, but still ended up consulting on social issues: as an art director, photographer, writer and designer. ‘Call me a multidisciplinary researcher of the urban environment,’ he laughs.


Furtado lives at the Kop van Zuid-Entrepot, one of the ten neighbourhood that the municipality is determined to get popularised – with people like Furtado himself. ‘Yes, I’m one of those broad shoulders – even if my income doesn’t reflect that,’ he adds. Furtado works for Gemaal op Zuid, a cultural meeting spot at the Afrikaander square. There he gets to experience first hand the widening gap between the worlds of the rich and the poor. ‘Take, for example, all the new houses and towers rising out of the nearby Katendrecht. You can already tell by the way they’re making the commercials for these places that they’re meant for highly-educated people, all these images of hipster guys with moustaches. The people living in these neighbourhoods are on a completely different rung on the ladder.’

In early July there was an informative evening on the renovation and new-build project Tweebosbuurt in the Afrikaander neighbourhood. At the end of this evening, many of the residents ended up at Furtado’s terrace of the Gemaal op Zuid, cursing the municipality and the housing corporation. ‘They already had complaints that have been ignored, and now they’re told to leave their homes. Some of them will be able to come back, but what will they be coming back to, and at what price? We have to get out and make ourselves scarce, that’s how people feel.’ According to Furtado, it’s a certain lack of understanding and humanity that creates these situations. ‘As if new bricks make everything better. Someone has to stack those bricks, and it’s the workers ho work on these builds that are entirely disregarded.’

And yes, of course the young entrepreneur wants the city and its residents to thrive. ‘No one is opposing change. It’s about the way change is taking place.’ Furtado argues for keeping and supporting mixed neighbourhoods, even if that means that the ‘broad shoulders’ live in the more expensive houses. Living in expensive homes also means spending more time working, less time investing in a livable neighbourhood. Furtado also stands for what he calls interventions of integrity: ‘make sure that everyone is getting theirs. Don’t chase people out, but give good alternatives and perspectives. Wish for a brighter future for every Rotterdammer.’

Furtado tries to contribute to that by putting old and new residents in touch with each other. He does this by putting together an art programme at ‘his’ Gemaal. ‘Oftentimes that’s the first time people get to interact with something like this. Art-loving people and this new crowd appear to go really well together.’ He’d also like to see a future where outside spaces, like the Afrikaander park, are more welcoming for people and make it easier for them to come together. ‘Right now that park is dirty, full of trash from the market. It doesn’t feel like a safe space for the residents.’ His advice: appoint a manager and make sure there’s regular programming. ‘A community doesn’t materialise out of nowhere – you have to work on it. This park is a nice place to do that – it has a great view of the city. But right now it’s mostly a gathering place for the birds.’

After a long period of give and take, the Rotterdam coalition (VVD, D66, CDA, ChristenUnie-SGP, PvdA and GroenLinks) presented their new plans on June 26th. As far as the city’s living environments go, the Coalition Agreement 2018-2022 means that the focus on middle-income households will remain the same. Rotterdam will be focussing on making neighbourhoods more family and child friendly, and on the diversification of the housing market in Zuid. The takeaway is that the coalition has decided to reduce the number of affordable-housing demolitions by 3000. Additionally, they will invest in the renovation of 5000 affordable houses. On a side note, however, those renovated homes will be made easily accessible for middle-income households, which means that the market for these houses will become more competitive. The housing market for ‘narrow shoulders’ will be made better by getting rid of the ‘income criteria’ (part of the so-called Rotterdam law) for lower-income neighbourhoods. The additional criteria – meant to reduce public disturbances – will remain, which means that people with a contested background can face rejection from the housing board.

  • ‘The desire to broaden their social circle is there, but they don’t have the time to do so.’

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