what is my backyard?

This is a follow-up to a previous post on viewing The Netherlands as one very green polycentric metropolis. To avoid repeating myself too much, reading the below assumes that you are familiar with this predecessor….Here I focus on what this implies for anyone, but especially the more recent foreign arrivals (expats, internationals, whatever your preferred label), based in brainport.

There are a few immediate implications of thinking about the Netherlands as a city-state and these not only matter to us residents, but also to those in the business of making brainport as attractive as possible as living environment. I am puzzled by the seeming lack of interest in this perspective in anything that I come across from the latter and am going to end this post with some speculation on why that might be the case. But that isn’t to be taken too seriously: there is way too much overconfident opinionating out there in cyberspace. I is not my intention to add more noise to what is already a deafening and counterproductive soundscape. However that may be, the seemingly inward-looking perspective of efforts to improve the brainport living environment makes for some obvious low-hanging fruit that remains as yet unpicked.

Let’s list the implications first:

When one resides in a particular urban neighbourhood, the whole of the city tends to be seen as ‘where I live’ . It may take time but many, even most I would hope, will expect to get to know ‘their city’ well enough to find their way around it, and check out much of what is highlighted as characteristic/interesting/special. It is a matter of scale but I would argue that this expectation is stronger than for its ‘this is the country in which I live’ equivalent. An expat moving to a new place may look forward to seeing a lot of the country, but will feel less tempted or eager or to visit all highlights, than to know most of her immediate environs proper. However this scale thing has both an objective and subjective aspect to it.

Objectively, The Netherlands are a very small country, so small indeed that one can make the argument that it is in many ways a city-state. This suggests that the country as a whole deserves a much bigger place in any highlighting (and improving ) of what makes living here attractive than is true for cities/areas in large countries.

Subjectively, those moving here from large countries, often tend to draw the circle around what is ‘close by’ much wider than those who have grown up here. This suggests that many internationals are open to descriptions of ‘local’ attractions that to Dutch policy-makers seem ‘far away’.

Caveat: I make assumptions here about internationals that may be unfounded. While guilty as charged, others, in casu those working on improving the attractiveness of brainport to foreign knowledge workers, do the same. My assumptions are rooted in my personal experience of living and working overseas. Theirs seem to be based in their native sense of place. I have come across very little, research-based solid up-to-date evidence about how (various segments of) the community of internationals looks at brainport as a living environment. It has puzzled me since my arrival: so much talk about internationals, but so little hard data.

The importance of the above is two-fold:

First: if it makes sense for Amsterdam city-branding to label major sights in the country Amsterdam ‘something’ (beach, castle, mountain….see what the ‘Amsterdam design & science district’ is below?) to convince tourists to look beyond the overrun city itself, it makes sense for those ‘selling’ brainport as an attractive place to live to claim the whole country as their residential backyard.


Second: if Brainport is seen as a neighbourhood in a much larger city-state, it becomes important to think about what makes living in this particular neighbourhood attractive. In what follows, I assume interesting work opportunities as a given and focus on what matters otherwise.

Let’s explore both a bit more:

Amsterdam’s the-country-is-our-backyard claim is driven by the need to entice tourists to look beyond the city. In case you are not aware: its carrying capacity may not yet be overstepped in Venice-like ways but it is getting there. Its problem is not attracting people but ensuring it remains livable. Eindhoven/brainport marketing is driven by its (perceived?) competition with cities like Amsterdam for skilled foreign labour. It focuses on the city/region trying to make the most of its ‘underdog’ position. To give but one silly example, the intro to a list of nine reasons to visit this “off the beaten track city” by the city-marketing site thisiseindhoven.com says that Eindhoven “…is generally not considered to be the most beautiful girl in class,  but it is definitely the most exciting girl in class”.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that the marketeers’ assessment of Eindhoven is unrealistic. The point is if it makes sense to try to beat Amsterdam on its home turf – the wow factor – when thinking about how to improve livability of the city/region. and its attractiveness to foreign knowledge workers. Amsterdam is a prime example of the fact that too much wow is a problem. So much so that they desperately try to spread the crowds into ‘their backyard’. I would argue that piggybacking on Amsterdam (and other globally recognized Dutch must-sees) rather than desperately trying to come up with ‘things-even-more exciting’ is a much less costly, much quicker way to acquire enough wow to satisfy even the most discerning expat.

Eindhoven/brainport positions itself as being in competition with other Dutch regions in need of foreign knowledge workers, but has a lot to win by incorporating all that the rest of the country has to offer into its self-presentation and focusing on its competition with other European (and even beyond) regions. Anything that is special about the Netherlands becomes an expat’s new environment when they move to brainport. Eindhoven as the ugly duck, trying to compete with city specific events (Dutch Design week, etc.), revamped industrial heritage (the Strijps), urban street culture (graffiti)? All commendable and real nice to have close by, but still somewhat underwhelming, comparatively that is.

Even if trying to market Amsterdam as the Eindhoven ‘grachtengordel’ sounds like too much to you – it does to me – city centre eindhoven to city centre Den Bosch, one of the oldest and most intact historic cities of the Netherlands, is 20 minutes by public transport. Anyone who has lived in a real metropolis will tell you that is around the corner. Yes, I agree, calling Saint John’s ‘Eindhoven’s cathedral’ would be silly – as silly as calling brainport the ‘Amsterdam design & science district’. So I am not arguing for adopting the particular marketing tricks used by Amsterdam, but I do strongly believe that anyone interested in making brainport attractive to foreigners has a legitimate claim on anything the whole of the Netherlands has to offer. A mystery why a region so ‘obsessed’ with design has as yet proven unable to design itself into something bigger than its current ‘administrative’ and arbitrarily small self-definition. A bit more on that ‘administrative’ in my speculative conclusion…

So if moving to brainport gives you immediate access to as much globally recognized ‘wow’ as moving anywhere else in the Netherlands, what are attractors for living in brainport, its Unique Selling Points (USP)? I would argue that brainport’s USPs as a neighbourhood of the Dutch city-state is not the particular within-neighbourhood events, heritage and cultural quirks but things like:

The opportunity to live in the greenest, most villagesque corner of the Dutch city state that is right next to unbeatable work opportunities would be such a USP. Remember brainport as part of mosaic metropolis of Brabantstad/Zandstad has the most distributed, village-like settlement pattern of all urban conurbations in the Netherlands and beyond. And just to remind you, lest it had slipped your mind: The Netherlands as a whole has as much claim to be the ‘city in a garden’ as Singapore. Let’s be a bit more self-confident: it has a much bigger claim, given its size. And compared to most other areas in Europe, the Netherlands has a surprisingly large diversity of landscapes.

This is more or less true wherever you live in the Netherlands, and the country’s superb cycling infrastructure ensures one can easily escape any urban environment, but on top of that the brainport/Zandstad neighbourhood offers an unrivalled network of largely unpaved walking trails, as well options for mountainbiking and horseriding.

Housing is a big factor in any Dutch resident’s fixed monthly costs. I am not saying that a house with a garden comes cheap in brainport, but what you’ld get for the same amount in the Randstad wouldn’t come close.

Last but certainly not least I want to highlight the distinct advantages of brainport’s eccentric Southeastern location within the Netherlands. The Randstad, (‘rim city’), the urban conglomerate of the four biggest Dutch cities (Rotterdam-The Hague, Amsterdam and Utrecht), and perceived in brainport as the biggest Dutch competitor on the internationals’ recruitment market, has the Netherlands as its backyard extending into two comparable polycentric metropolitan areas, one across the Belgian border (the so-called Flemish Diamond – Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp and Leuven), the other across the German border (the Rhine-Ruhr area – too many urban centers to list here). But brainport is right in the middle of these three (larger) metropolitan areas, so way closer to the Flemish Diamond and the Rhine-Ruhr than the Randstad. On top of that, if one accepts that brainport may as well consider all of the Netherlands s its backyard, its eccentric location within its own country implies that all of Belgium, Luxemburg a bit of Northern France and a substantial chunk of Germany can also be included, illustrated by the circle below:

Given the very noticeable differences between all Northwest European countries (language, architecture, food, landscapes, all kinds of cultural quirks, brainport’s multi-country backyard beats that of its rival Randstad by a mile.

I cannot state the following with any level of evidence-based confidence beyond my personal experience but I assume that quite a few internationals (thinking about) moving to the Netherlands actually frame this as a move to Europe. Of the major Dutch expat locations brainport’s backyard is easily the most European. National differences are very real, but are also and to a considerable extent 19th century nationalism constructions. Go back a little further in time – lots of heritage of those earlier days is still very visibly available – and the centres of economic, political and cultural power most determining for what happened in the Netherlands were not located within our current borders. It shouldn’t be too difficult to highlight e.g. the close connections between Dutch Brabant and its (currently) Belgian heartland attractions for internationals not so brainwashed as us locals by 19th century nationalist history frames. There is as much visible and ‘historical relevance’ reason for a new brainport international to explore cities in the Flemish Diamond as to explore cities of the Randstad. Let the Randstad be self-absorbed, proud to be the heart of the Netherlands, brainport could easily claim to be the best residential neighbourhood in that Dutch story as well as being the part of a much broader European story, lots of which is within easy visiting reach.

None of the above is rocket science, nor new. It is a distillation of my limited and unsystematic reading over the last 8 months or so. Lots of what I mention can already be found in publications that are more than two decades old, from the time when Eindhoven was planning for a post-Philipstown future. And keeps being repeated without making much of a difference. The lure of an Eindhoven/brainport metropolis scenario, with an emphasis on competing with rivals by trying to build a more attractive version of what they already offer, seems irresistible. The alternative proposal to “abandon the goal to be a metropolis. Increase accessibility…By using the extensive facilities of nearby urban areas, the existing qualities of Eindhoven as rather rural green village-like city can be enlarged” (quote from a project document about Eindhoven’s future from June 2000-source see below*) keeps falling on deaf ears.

Maybe there is nothing wrong with having metropolitan ambitions for Eindhoven/brainport. Who am I to say what the region should aim for in the long term? Because that much is clear, those ambitions are going to take decades to result in changes that might make a difference to the region’s comparative standing in the recruitment market What I don’t understand is the (seeming?) lack of interest to use what is right there for the taking: making the most of brainport being part of what can legitimately be presented as a city-state, and making the most of what distinguishes it as a living environment within that city-state. A lot of this is about presentation, which should be negligible investment compared to any hard infrastructure ‘metropolitan’ development. As ‘low hanging fruit’ as it gets.

I do agree with the author of the above quote (Ester van de Wiel) that taking the USPs of brainport as one’s starting point would also result in fruit that is more difficult to pick. “Increase accessibility” is expensive. Good public transport costs money. And that is what better accessibility in a country like ours means. I have little hope this is going to happen in any substantial way. Dutch public transport is OKish, but car-centric planning has dominated for decades and significant improvements of public transport connectivity seems not in the cards for the foreseeable future. With “significant improvements” I refer to what I have e.g. seen in some Asian regions. The difference between the scale and speed of metro/light-rail as well as bullet train development over there and the snail pace minor improvements here is just too big. So I won’t pursue this particular angle of anything beyond the lowest hanging fruit here any further.

Leaves us with my speculations on the ‘why’ question: what prevents serious efforts to pick what seems to be the low hanging fruit?

My professional background and life experience suggest that issues like this never have one-dimensional causal explanations. Societies are just incredibly complex….But if there is one thing that comes to mind as definitely inimical to what is at heart of the perspective that I am arguing for, i.e. thinking-about-the Netherlands-as-a-city state, it is the way the Dutch state is organized. Despite the country’s city-state size, it is being governed as if municipal government is the best level for deciding on most of what matters for Dutch citizens.

CLICK ON IMAGE FOR LARGER VERION (Source: https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lijst_van_Nederlandse_gemeenten#/media/Bestand:2021-NL-Gemeenten-basis-2500px.png)

We currently have 352 municipalities, less than before because of mergers (in 1950: 1015 and in 2000: 537), but still plenty, and in recent decades with increasing decision-making powers, but basically underfunded for much of what they have been given implementation authority over, and in competition with each other for other provincial and/or national level funding. National government in the meantime has outsourced near all of its (remaining) implementing responsibilities to quango’s and the private sector. In a country that already had a tradition of arranging lots through civil society organizations and public-private partnerships, as well as a preference for (at least the semblance of) consensus-based decision making (polderen) the resulting need to collaborate between municipalities, implementing agencies, provinces, and ministries to get anything done regarding anything that matters has created a stupendous amount of collaborative policy-making and implementation platforms – near all sectorally organized, and thus unable and/or hesitant to overstep their mandate and address cross-sectoral issues. Obviously, most issues have cross-sectoral aspects and the need for ‘integrated’ planning and implementation approaches is evident to all but a sectoral institutional framework doesn’t naturally facilitate that. Furthermore, funding mechanisms and realities often disincentivize collaboration and even stimulate competition. It is my distinct impression that the complexity of the policy-making and implementation realities has increased over the last decades. Lately, awareness of the need to adjust this governance ‘system’ in ways that prevent the increasing ‘messiness’ and unintended consequences its current incarnation results in also seems to increase. But it will be a difficult, and for sure slow process to rebalance the current way of planning and implementing things. By now, the direction of the wind of incremental change upon incremental change has blown from one direction for four decades. If wind direction is indeed changing, the ‘polderen’ tradition implies that hopes for quick drastic changes are futile.

The above is very likely a crude caricature and only one factor in municipal level decision-making and collaboration being internally and ‘regionally’ (‘region’ normally not extending beyond set of adjoining municipalities) oriented. But for now it is the only plausible contributing causal factor that I can come up with to understand why municipalities don’t think in country terms. Even when doing so could be all to their advantage, without any financial or other downside that I can think of.

  • Project E+ (juni 2000) De gedroomde toekomst van de metropool Eindhoven. Ontwerpers van naam en faam prikkelen ambities

What is the Eindhoven/Brainport region series


2 thoughts on “what is my backyard?

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