Urban Sociology in Practice: 20 Years of the Master Metropolitan Issues

How do you make a city more liveable and equitable? How do you make policies that respond to social developments and improve the lives of diverse city dwellers? And how do you actually find out what residents want? University lecturers Erik Snel, involved in setting up the Master's and Thomas Swerts, coordinator of the programme, teach this to their students.

'Rotterdam is a laboratory for urban sociologists,' says Erik. 'It is a city where clear contradictions exist, for example, between North and South. In addition, Rotterdam has developed from an industrial city to a city with a large service sector.' Rotterdam has long had the reputation of being a city of problems. 'But that is changing. Rotterdam and the State are investing in various areas, such as with the National Programme Rotterdam South (NPRZ). With this, a lot of money became available to catch up and improve living situations.'

Nuanced picture

On paper, liveability in a neighbourhood often looks very bad. Take the Netherlands' most unsafe neighbourhood, Tarwewijk, in Zuid. Erik: 'If you go into the neighbourhood and talk to the residents, a much more nuanced picture emerges. Residents often experience safety very differently. Residents collectively develop resilience in these neighbourhoods, enabling them to deal with problems better. For instance, they tackle problems in the neighbourhood through civic initiatives. Thomas: 'Students are sometimes positively surprised after a neighbourhood visit that residents from stigmatised neighbourhoods participate just as actively.' 

Talking and collaborating with residents

For example, residents in Bospolder-Tussendijken claimed a square and thereby reduced drug nuisance in the neighbourhood. It started with a single mother sitting every day on a playground used mainly by drug dealers. At first, she sat there alone; after a few days, a friend joined her. By persisting, the dealers eventually left, and liveability increased. The neighbourhood manager and other officials 'with guts and decisiveness', as Erik calls them, also provided financial support in cooperation with residents and civil society organisations.

Thomas: 'Rotterdam sociology is a distinctly public sociology at the service of society. Students of our Master's learn to engage with vulnerable groups in society and build a more just city. That is the sociologist's job: to show how diverse groups experience the city and draw lessons from this that are useful for policymakers and other actors.'

Making visible

In the Master's programme, students use data from the municipality of Rotterdam for quantitative analyses. This gives them a good insight into all kinds of facets of the lives of Rotterdammers. 'We see, for instance, that very promising middle groups are emerging,' says Erik. 'Also in Zuid. These are the children and grandchildren of migrants from the 1960s and 1970s. Researchers at Erasmus University, ' Peter Scholten and Paul van de Laar, have recently shown that Rotterdam is a migrant city par excellence. By investing in urban development, it will also remain interesting for promising residents with migration backgrounds to stay in Rotterdam'.

Future dominated by super-diversity

'The urban future is dominated by super-diversity,' Thomas adds. 'That is also why we deliberately pose near the new 'Moments Contained' statue at Central Station for a photo.' The huge statue of an anonymous black young woman in trainers recently provoked criticism that it would undermine the idea of social merit. 'This statue is a powerful statement because it makes it clear that the same groups in society who experience all kinds of barriers are the heroes of our society. They are the ones who, despite everything, work in care, put food on the table and make their neighbourhoods a better place. The ability of diverse city dwellers to act in difficult situations is what we want to make visible.'

Giving undocumented urban dwellers a voice

This is especially true for marginalised groups like undocumented people surviving on the urban margins. Twenty years ago, Jack Burgers and Godfried Engbersen, who founded the Master's, mapped the 'unrecognised city' of undocumented people. Thomas will continue this work for the next five years. He has just received funding for this, especially intended for talented researchers. Thomas: 'Irregular migration was long considered an international or national problem. But European cities face the daily reality of undocumented urban dwellers in many ways. My project maps how urban migration infrastructures in European transit hubs locally facilitate the arrival, transit, settlement and departure of undocumented migrants. By giving undocumented urban dwellers an active role in the research, we will work with local stakeholders to find answers to their questions.'

Benefit for students

Students with this Master's degree appreciate the strong link to practice. Of course, theory is needed to gain knowledge and develop insight. But there is definitely also a focus on the empirical side. They do qualitative research in the neighbourhoods. They go there to do research, talk to people.

Erik and Thomas regularly visit the municipality and social organisations themselves. And almost always, they meet a former student of the Master. 'That has to do with the character of the programme,' says Erik. 'Every year, 30-40 students choose the Master's in Metropolitan Issues (Grootstedelijke vraagstukken). About a third of our students already work in urban practice. They want to deepen their knowledge.' 'There is a mentality in Rotterdam to experiment', Thomas adds, 'policymakers want to innovate'. You see this, for example, in the project of the digital twin city that Thomas is researching together with researchers from BOLD Cities. In a digital environment, all of Rotterdam is recreated in 3D. This model is supplemented with 'live' data on the use of the city. Is that lamppost lit? Is that parking space occupied? Is that rubbish container full? And so on. All this information then forms the basis for the development of all kinds of new applications. Think of online participation in the redesign of a square. The question here is what this means for inclusiveness and participation. Can just anyone use the digital city? And how does this affect participation?

20th anniversary

In 2024, the Master will exist for 20 years. 'That also happens to be the year I retire,' says Erik. 'Together with Godfried Engbersen and Jacques Burgers, we shaped the master.' '20 years later, this Master is more topical than ever. And it is still taught in Dutch,' says Thomas. 'I feel we should celebrate!' laughs Erik.

More information

This interview is part of Spark. With these interviews, we aim to draw attention to the positive impact of the faculty's education and research on society. The stories in Spark give an insight into what makes ESSB students, alumni, staff and researchers tick.

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