Rotterdam is quite resilient, but it could be much better

View of rotterdam
Straat in Rotterdam in de zomer.

The corona crisis seems to be over its peak - at least in Europe. Through various measures, we are trying to make the impact of the war in Ukraine manageable. However, more ‘shocks’ await us as a result of the changing climate and the globalising world. What makes a city and its inhabitants resilient, allowing them to handle far-reaching events? And how resilient is Rotterdam actually? Dr Jan Fransen, a specialist in urban development and resilience, gives us his view on the matter.

What does ‘resilience’ mean when it comes to a city?

“Resilience is usually regarded as flexibility. Something is out of balance and it springs back, back to normal. Take the coronavirus crisis, for example. We adapted by working from home, and that went pretty well. But once the crisis was over, we all got stuck in traffic again. We shoot back into automatic patterns. As a scientist, I also see resilience as a kind of self-reflection, an opportunity to say: ‘Something drastic has happened. That gives us a shock, gets us thinking and we can regard it as an opportunity for improvement.’ This is not yet happening enough. We saw that the air was much cleaner during COVID, for example, but aren’t doing much with this insight. Even though the environmental issue is one of the biggest challenges we are facing.”

Jan Fransen
Jan Fransen

Which factors make a city resilient?

“There are a lot of them. For example, a city that is economically strong and innovative is usually better at handling changes. But for me, it’s primarily about the people. It's great that we have all our systems in order, such as transport and the water supply. They can cope with the odd knock or two. But you can see that the most vulnerable people often have more difficulty recovering from a shock. Take the coronavirus crisis once again. The care system remained intact and the economy didn’t collapse. But freelancers were the first to lose their jobs and children from Rotterdam Zuid found it more difficult to study. They were often not sufficiently helped by the systems.”

In her Dies speech, our Rector magnificus mentioned diversity as a prerequisite for resilience.

“That is certainly true. A disaster always comes out of the blue and no one immediately knows a solution. You often have to think out of the box. Diversity means that you have people with different backgrounds and knowledge to call on. You can only benefit from this if you are inclusive, so if you really listen to each other and if there is a certain degree of equality. Unfortunately, this is still an issue. In Rotterdam, we are also benefiting far too little from the numerous visions and innovations that we have at our disposal.”

You aren’t just focusing on Rotterdam.

“I have carried out research in more than 25 countries. At the moment, the focus is on Kenya and Indonesia. I’m conducting research in Mathare, a huge slum in Nairobi. The pandemic has brought many residents below the poverty line here. We carried out fieldwork and went into the neighbourhood. How are these people surviving, which agencies are helping them? Our aim is for civil society organisations, such as the church or a neighbourhood association, to be able to provide better help to this group of the very poorest. And how can we organise this in a more systematic way?”

''We brought parties that don’t usually talk to each other into contact, to give vulnerable groups a voice in contact with the municipality.''

“We carried out a similar study in Reyeroord, a district in Rotterdam Zuid. Reyeroord+ is a project that aims to initiate a transition to a safe, liveable and environmentally friendly neighbourhood together with the residents. A lot of great ideas and initiatives came out of this. We recently presented the results to the city council. We brought parties that don’t usually talk to each other into contact, to give vulnerable groups a voice in contact with the municipality. According to the people from Reyeroord, this was the main added value of the project. If something drastic happens now, you can use these networks to quickly track down the most vulnerable people to see what they need. This also makes a city more resilient.”

So how resilient is Rotterdam actually?

“Compared to other big cities, we're not doing so badly. But we could do better and are working on that. As scientists at Erasmus University, we support the municipality’s Resilient Team. Together, we discuss how to shape transitions. Two questions take centre stage here: how do you keep systems running in the event of a disaster, such as food production and healthcare? And how can you ensure that the most vulnerable groups receive appropriate help? A broad, holistic scope is needed, as it is clear that we will be faced with more shocks. Both due to climate change and because everything is interlinked in our global economy. The next shock could be a cyber attack or a flood, for example. You never know. But we need to make sure that we are prepared.”

Cycling through the centre of Rotterdam.
Jonathan van Rijn

You have to do it together.

“Definitely. With residents, with the municipality, with fellow scientists. The Erasmus Initiative ‘Vital Cities and Citizens’ gives us a fantastic network of researchers. We have also set up the International Centre for Frugal Innovation together with the universities of Leiden and Delft. Here, we investigate how innovations can have a positive impact on the resilience of the living environment. One example is the use of a new digital payment system in Kenya. With M-Pesa, you can receive donations, borrow money and, if possible, save money using a three-euro phone – that's all people can afford there.”

“We are also learning from foreign countries. In Nairobi, we work with so-called ‘community researchers’: neighbourhood residents who have been trained as researchers. They know their neighbourhood, are close to the residents and ensure that research results benefit the neighbourhood. It’s a great model. This could also lead to greater resilience, as these local researchers in turn have local networks. We could also develop this in the Netherlands.”

Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC)
The aim of the Erasmus Initiative 'Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC)' is to strengthen the quality of life in cities by networking with municipalities, civil society organisations and initiatives, businesses and the creative industry, and sharing knowledge based on scientific research in order to arrive at concrete actions. Prof Jurian Edelenbos, academic lead at VCC: "How do residents deal with changes in their environment? How can a city accommodate diversity and give residents a sense of belonging? How do you achieve that they can actively contribute to a sustainable, equitable, smart, resilient and inclusive development of the city and its inhabitants? All questions that scientists at VCC are looking into. Our team consists of people from different disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, public administration, pedagogy, communication, art and culture, history, development studies, economics and anthropology. I see and experience the cooperation with the municipality of Rotterdam as very valuable. From that cooperation, we work, among other things, on a resilient Rotterdam and how the municipal organisation and social organisations and initiatives can take an appropriate role in this."

Dr Jan Fransen
More information

Dr Jan Fransen is a university researcher in Urban Economic Development and Resilience at the Institute of Housing and Urban Development Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. He works all over the world. Fransen has carried out projects for the United Nations, the World Bank, Cordaid and the European Commission, among others. He is involved in the Resilient Cities and People theme of the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens.

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