Eindhoven and unimpeded forward movement

Connecting interesting bits of townscape to each other into one uninterrupted walking and cycling area has a huge impact on usage. Take Shanghai’s Huangpu river quays. During my four years in this metropolis the city added dozens of kilometers to its landscaped, fully  pedestrianized riverfronts and connected them by one unimpeded bicycle path.

When I arrived and started exploring the city on the run I wondered about the unintelligible underuse of the various bits of really nice riverfront. Sure a couple were very popular: its major tourist attraction, the Bund, its opposite bank counterpart and one stretch a bit further West. But how come that all the other obvious and easily accessible escapes from the surrounding hectic urban mayhem did not attract more people?

And then magic happened: as soon as the formerly stand-alone bits were hooked up by the opening up of the connecting parts of waterfront, usage boomed. When fully ready in the not too far future the city is going to have what must be the world’s most ambitious riverbank development, around 50k of unimpeded landscaped walking and cycling connection, on both sides of one of the busiest rivers in the world, cutting through the heart of Shanghai’s twin cities of Puxi and Pudong. The increase in people hanging out at the riverfront is mindboggling and highlights the importance of adopting an uncompromising stance on the need for full-on connectivity. If that takes new bridges, building boardwalks, prioritizing public access over private ownership, etc., so be it.

How is Eindhoven doing? Mmmm, I’m not impressed. You should know that I suffer from a strong glass-half-empty predisposition, so my judgement is certainly biased. If it is unfair I leave to the reader. You navigate its streets as much as I do and can decide for yourself. Nevertheless, let me make up for what is to follow with something positive:

I know, many governments neither have the discretionary power, nor the capital to realize grand visions and with respect to many visions one can only say ‘luckily so’. But given the widely acknowledged disastrous effects that car-centric urban planning has had on the livability of cities, Eindhoven being a pretty good example of that, I would love a bit more decisiveness regarding the possible. Even within the pretty complex governance context of the Netherlands, with sufficient political will, more and quicker changes for the better should be possible. And the sum of lots of small incremental changes, as long as they complement, strengthen and boost each other, over time, can make a real difference.

By way of an intermezzo, let me make a promise : I am going to devote a couple of future posts to the arcane and Byzantine governance context that Dutch politicians and policy-makers operate within. Most expats, are unaware (as are many locals) of the historically grown particularities of how-we-do-things-here, and of the way this context has pretty much turned into a quagmire under the decades long moulding and eroding influence of neoliberal policy assumptions and values. Don’t worry, I won’t soil the nest too much, life is still pretty good here compared to most other places.

Time for some traditional Dutch joy de vivre, may anything above or below that has upset you be washed away by this stoically frank expression of how we really think about ourselves, despite the deluge of newspeak on following your passions, seeing opportunities wherever you look, and visualizing yourself into riches, health and happinez.

Getting back on topic: the generally accepted story about assumptions and priorities underlying Dutch city planning is that the post WWII period was car centric up until the 1960s, but that the tide turned in the 70s. Who am I to disagree but to understand this properly one needs to take the following into account:

  • What did turning the tide mean in practice?
  • What did it mean at the level of particular cities?

The 70s saw a shift from a car-centric to a livable city perspective but the shift was gradual and, given the continued dominance of cars, never total. It certainly didn’t help that this shift in urban planning was soon followed by a general ideological infatuation with privatization, with its associated decrease of government (at all levels) control over housing and public transport decisions (more on that in future posts – see above). Nevertheless, the shift was crucially important: without it, Dutch cities (Eindhoven included) would have been way worse off. The 50s and 60s planning climate had no eye for historical heritage – Eindhoven lost its beloved neogothic town hall in 1967 – and envisioned a city for cars – resulting e.g. in the Fellenoord neighbourhood being a huge traffic circle – an abomination that, if current plans actually materialize, will only be fully remedied by 2040. Much of the little that was still left of the historic city centre would have also disappeared had the 1973 city plan not run into the by then strong headwinds of a changed urban planning ideology and popular opposition.

Nothing better than visuals to get a feel for that vision of a modernist city for cars. Enjoy this 1960 footage of Eindhoven:

It is a pity that the history of that popular opposition is nearly forgotten. Policy paradigm shifts on their own often lack the political umph to change the direction of the technocratic bureaucracy in charge of implementation. A bit of visible people’s power can then make all the difference. The street parties organized in the early 70s by Paul Panhuysen to save and/or regain streets as spaces for meeting each other are an interesting example (for more pics, see here).

The 1973 founding of a civil society pressure group called Stop de Kindermoord (stop child murder) in Eindhoven is another. Sure, Eindhoven was only a minor locale in a globally fought war of ideas, but had the ‘enemy’ won, some of the worlds most iconic cities would have looked very different and not for the better. You may know about the battle over New York between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, but you for sure are unaware that a lot of Amsterdam’s heritage survived a similar kind of clash of visions. Pretty amazing, even horrifying to realize that what in 2010 was declared a unesco world heritage site, was considered disposable real estate by city planners just a couple of decades earlier.

The modernists may have been well intentioned, and some of their priorities were certainly understandable. The city centre had been severally damaged by bombing and needed reconstruction. In 1947 the local newspaper Eindhovens Dagblad reported the city had the biggest housing shortage In the Netherlands. But the municipality had to wait until 1953 before receiving the provincial green light for its suburban extensions (especially Woensel, but also Burghplan, Genderdal, etc.), and had to operate under the constraint of a shortage of building materials due to rationing by the national government (to ensure sufficient stock for industrial and infrastructure projects). In such a setting, a rational modernist planning, based on a separation of living, working and recreation, and prioritizing cars as the preferred means of transport, seems the way to go. But call yourself lucky that this myopic vision on what matters in life, and the attendant blindness to its consequences was deweaponized before it was too late. all

Having said that, given this planning ideology being the dominant game in town everywhere, it is difficult to imagine that a different set of Eindhoven specific push factors would or could have led to another outcome. What makes Eindhoven special is that what is now the fifth largest city of the country, was only created in 1920. The city is a collection of villages surrounding and connected to an important but small urban market hub, overlain with a modernist car-centric city plan of radial and ring roads with lots of open space that was filled with new housing developments, much of it post WWII. The five constitutive municipalities agreed to merge because 19th, and early 20th century industrialization and its attendant rapid population growth and all the issues that came with that (housing, transportation, etc.) required planning capacity and implementation authority across their collective territory. The planning took off immediately but most of the implementation only happened in the gloriously modernist 50s and 60s (first WWII, then bureaucratic hurdles caused delay, see above) and continued for some time. The last upgrading work on the outer (still partial) ring was only completed a decade ago.

I am fully aware that current planning cannot undo all the harm of decades of car-centric  urban development, that the ‘perfect’ is often the enemy of the ‘good enough’, that resources are limited, that choices have to be made.  But the reality is that when I walk/run/cycle the city, I regularly feel I’m competing with cars for right of way and neither of us is getting a good deal. Unimpeded continuous movement is impossible for anyone, and disconnections between interesting bits of townscape are too plentiful. Eindhoven’s claim on a green, and walk and cycle-centric orientation seems not yet matched by a convincing level of implementation. I would love to be proven wrong!

Having said that, Eindhoven’s room for manoeuvre is limited. The reality is that a Dutch city is virtually toothless regarding fundamentals like ensuring adequate public transport alternatives that can replace cars. What undergirds the ambitions of cities like Shanghai and Singapore for turning the car-centric organization of their territory around is ongoing massive investment in superb subway systems. Eindhoven’s ambitions on the other hand are framed by a national policy environment – in charge of public infrastructure – that for decades has been, and still is prioritizing the “freedom” of the individual car owner over the common good. A priority that is evocatively exemplified by our prime minister’s VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Demcracy) self-identifying as the “vroomvroom” party.

For opaque reasons the below cri de coeur speaks to what my inner pedestrian would want to see prioritized for that green, and walk and cycle-centric orientation to have the impact it needs to have.

Updated 09-12-2020, with many thanks to René Erven (Architectuurcentrum Eundhoven) for input

2 thoughts on “Eindhoven and unimpeded forward movement

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