What are the most wicked problems of cities nowadays?

The conference ‘Empowering Cities and Citizens’ took place on November 6th at Maassilo, Rotterdam. The conference capped the 60th anniversary celebration of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), and was organised in collaboration with researchers from the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens. The conference reflected on contemporary wicked urban problems, on how cities deal with climate change and on how they can empower their inhabitants. 

The Maassilo in Rotterdam is a big and iconic industrial building situated at the foot of the river the Maas. The building is quite special: 75 percent of it is made up of – nowadays useless – grain silos. The bottom and top floors currently function as a nightclub and as cultural workspaces. Under the awning of the building’s enormous concrete halls the conference ‘Empowering Cities and Citizens’ was held. 

Old vs. new
Demolishing old buildings and structures and building new ones in their stead is cheaper than re-using old buildings – which is why many old industrial buildings are being demolished. That, in a nutshell, was the one of the discussion topics in the break-out sessions. The Maassilo in Rotterdam is a good example of what it looks like when the opposite is done: this building can stay and is re-used. In the Netherlands we have quite a lot of these re-used buildings. A glimpse into the various Dutch ways of dealing with building re-use was given at the exposition that accompanied the conference. 

Sustainable and livable
One of the thematic areas of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), called Urban Heritage Strategies, is exactly about this: to develop a better understanding of the complex relationship between urban development and heritage management. The conference 'Empowering Cities and Citizens’ was a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the IHS, an education and research institute of Erasmus University Rotterdam. For 60 years, it has been their mission to develop human and institutional capacities, to reduce poverty and improve the quality of life in cities. 
It was organised in collaboration with the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens. ‘Together, we aim to make cities vital, well-managed, livable, sustainable and fair,’ to quote the latter. But, as became clear over the course the conference, there are some big challenges to take on in order to achieve these goals.

A few topics kept returning during the day and throughout the different keynote presentations, plenary panel discussions and breakout sessions. One of these topics was migration and diversity, an important theme in all big cities worldwide that begs the question: how to guide migration well? Another topic was sustainability: how to make cities more sustainable? A lot of the lectures and sessions were interactive either by inviting the visitors to vote or by encouraging them to participate in certain thought processes. 

Migrants are citymakers
One special guest was anthropologist Nina Glick-Schiller: emeritus professor at the University of Manchester, School of Social Sciences, who now lives in her city of birth, New York. Although she was recovering from a back-operation, Glick-Schiller was at the conference to give a keynote lecture, and to receive an honourary doctorate at the Dies Natalis two days later. ‘Migrants always been the citymakers,’ she stated. ‘There are many different ways in which migrants have built cities.’ Her recommendations for city planners and policymakers were: to stop integration policies, and start the support of ordinary life in cities for all people. [Read an interview with Nina Glick-Schiller here].

‘What are the most wicked problems of cities nowadays?’ was the question the first panel session opened with. Finding sustainable solutions and trying to reduce climate change are two of the big challenges that cities face. Another challenge is the question of how to solve inequity and inequality in cities, for example the inequity in health. 
Jan Fransen, the Deputy Director of IHS, shared his perspective on urban development: ‘To reduce inequality, governments should stimulate the active participation of citizens and address them in the right way. In Brazil, for instance, the government has a so-called participatory budget. Citizens can apply for this in order to improve their neighbourhood.’ 
[Read an interview with Jan Fransen here]

Urban identity
Another keynote speech was given by Liesbet van Zoonen, professor of Sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam about the ‘smart city’: how much information is the city collecting on its citizens, with or without them knowing about it? 
‘Liesbet van Zoonen is one of my promotors,’ said Anne van Eldik, PhD Candidate at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication. Van Eldik hosted one of the breakout sessions called ‘Empowering Children through Media’. How do young people use social media in relation to cities, and how do they create an urban identity on social media outlets like Instagram? Van Eldik explained: ‘Often we see in a super diverse city as Rotterdam that for young people, urban identity is way more important than the national identity. They feel more ‘Rotterdammer’ than ‘Nederlander’.’ For children, especially those who are, for example half-Moroccan, it can be empowering to belong to a certain group and to create a city-identity.  

The breakout sessions in between the plenary sessions offered several different themes, like ‘Major Urban Regenaration Projects: Feyenoord City’ – a sport-related urban plan in Rotterdam Zuid; ‘How to make Urban Labour Markets more inclusive’ by ISS-professor Peter Knorringa; and ‘How to Bring Water into Mainstream Education’ by Mansee Bal Bhargava, Professor at Nirma University, India.

The public – about 350 visitors – was as diverse as the topics. They came from different cities and disciplines, and therefore were able to inspire each other during brainstorm sessions. At the end of the day everybody went home with a lot of urban topics to consider. 

On a big chalkboard in the main hall people could write down their own idea of what a livable city should be like: ‘fair to all’ – a fair city – ‘an inclusive city’ – and a sustainable city – ‘where current needs are met without compromising with the needs of the future generations’. Let’s hope these chalkboard notes are not just wishes but a compass to guide future cities and city makers.


More information

On November 8th 2017, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Erasmus Trustfonds have launched Challenge Accepted; a joint campaign that calls on all alumni to contribute to advancing three ambitions that help shape the future.

In the 21st century, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities. Asia and sub-Saharan Africa in particular are experiencing a rapidly growing urban class. Globalisation, new technologies, international mass migration and social inequality give rise to several questions. How should social organisations and institutions respond to the effects of migration and urbanisation? What conditions could prevent social exclusion and its corrosive effect on society? How can cultural diversity and creativity be leveraged? 

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