brainport’s real highlights

Third and final episode on ways to think about what is special about living in Eindhoven/brainport. The first episode reflected on what it means to be a Dutch city, the second on what that implies for the feeling of place of those, especially expats/internationals, living there, and for those trying to figure out how to attract them to move there. Here I keep it much closer to home than in the second episode. There I focused on making the most of this region being best seen as a neighbourhood of the Dutch city state, with particular competitive advantages. In this post I look for ways to make the most of what is available in brainport proper and its more immediate surroundings.

This is what a policy document of the Stedelijk Gebied Eindhoven (SGE, the “Urban Area Eindhoven”, a collaborative network of the nine of brainport’s 21 municipalities that self-define as the urban core of the innovation region) that triggered the second episode, focuses on. The SGE participants strive towards a shared strategy for the future “as if we were one municipality” collaborating on the area’s economic development, housing, facilities & events, and spatial planning The document, called “Groots. Een hoogstaand en toegankelijk voorzieningenaanbod in het SEG” (“Grand. A high quality and accessible facilities offer in the SGE” – only available in Dutch) describes the shared ambitions for facilities & events for sports, culture and recreation.

Basically Groots proposes specific collaboration and coordination intentions for achieving the aimed for high quality and accessible offer of facilities and events. Such an offer is believed to make brainport more attractive as a region of residence for the sought after employees that its industries need. I am not qualified to dispute this rationale, let alone opinionate on specific suggestions of that policy document. Most made perfect sense to me. But it made me think about what else/more comes to mind when I personally think about the attractiveness of places as living environments.

For this final episode I am unashamedly going to argue from personal preference and without much, if any regard for practical feasibility. Policy makers do not have that luxury, and thus tend to ignore possibilities that seem financially, politically, or otherwise currently impossible. But no harm is done by wandering outside the current frame of thinking and practical possibilities. Who knows, some of the below may turn out to be feasible after all.

My way of coping with life and finding enjoyment is walking and running. Having lived in cities that were a dream come true for that , but also in the kind that doesn’t look very attractive for such a pass-time, even unfeasible, I’ve learned that the best, maybe only way to find what I am looking for is to look for what is actually there. Love hiking and running mountain trails like I do, but live in a concrete jungle? The first step can only be to shelf any thoughts about mountain trails, stop whining about what your environment is not, and start exploring with an open mind, open senses, and a willingness to be where you actually are. You’ll soon find out that there is a legitimate perspective on concrete jungles being there own ‘natural’ habitat, with lots of interesting features. Quite a few of my posts touch on that insight (e.g. here and here for some that address it directly).

Fine, next down the rabbit hole, is that some cities are walking-friendly treasure troves of heritage and/or spectacular modern architecture with lots of fascinating human animal street activity, others, Eindhoven being a prime example, are (seen as) ugly ducks, with ostensibly little going for them. Again, a focus on the positives, on distinguishing characteristics that make for a unique feel of place, is the way to go. However implausible it may seem, I’ll guarantee that there always is such a feel.

The immediate surroundings are what policy-makers in the business of attracting internationals focus on. As I have argued in the second post of this mini-series their approach is to look for what they see as lacking to be able to compete with the wow-factors of the competitor regions. My take would be to look at what is there, and see how one could build on that. I’ll zoom in on three aspects. More attention to any of them would strengthen Eindhoven’s unique feel and character, but integrated, mutually reinforcing work on all three of them simultaneously would create a city with a one-of-its-kind wow-factor.

Whatever the merits of the “turn-Eindhoven-into-a-world class-metropolis” approach that is followed by current policy-makers, the best that it can possibly deliver is an Eindhoven that looks more like its competitors. It won’t make for a unique, “one of its kind” city. To the extent that these competitors are “metropolitan” and have an additional distinguishing unique feel/appeal, something that is e.g. indisputably true for Amsterdam, the current approach thus might somewhat increase Eindhoven/brainport’s comparative attractiveness but never make it a winner.

Enough intro, on to the three aspects that offer entry points for giving the city/region a more stand-out unique character:

Architecture. What Eindhoven has is reconstruction (wederopbouw) buildings, industrial heritage and associated (largely Philips) company build or commissioned or requested facilities for its employees, and heritage from its catholic church dominated past. The last one I am going to leave for later (see urban planning).

Obviously, the industrial heritage and some of the associated facilities have and do receive plenty of policy attention. However, that attention – all very understandable – is building by building, or block by block (the Strijps) at best, with, admittedly, some really nice and impressive results, However, I would argue that making the most of this characteristic would require making Eindhoven-the-company town , in its comparatively unique scale , i.e. as a whole, much more visible. A couple of thoughts on what would help:

  • When old buildings/industrial sites are redeveloped, ensure that enough of the original is kept to make even the most unobservant immediately aware what it formerly was. Strijp-T, for obvious reasons (it is still an ‘industrial’ site, just new occupants) comes close but because it is not multi-use doesn’t feel part of the ‘residential’ city, Strijp-S and NRE do better, Strijp-R has lost the feel of having been a large site. Often when sites are abandoned by the industrial users but not yet redeveloped, municipalities allow artists and small businesses to set up shop for an agreed time frame. sometimes in combination with anti-squatting arrangements. The resulting multi-use community is often the hottest place in town as long as it lasts. One core element in the vibe of such places is that their industrial past is not yet prettified away. My thought is that redevelopments should stay as close as possible to such true-to-its-past incarnations as possible.
  • What makes Eindhoven a company town goes beyond just its old industrial sites. Companies, especially Philips were ‘responsible’, in many different meanings of that term, for housing, education, all kinds of other facilities, parks, etc. etc. Some of these (Philips dorp) are marketed for what they are, many not really. Eindhoven is incredibly proud of e.g. Strijp-S, but that redevelopment in itself is less awe inspiring then realizing that most next to it, and lots of next to that, and on it goes, is basically also ‘industrial’ heritage. The TU/e is, the fruittuin is, ‘t Hool is, and these are just a couple of well-known examples. It would not have been there or been what it is, without (especially) Philips. For a city that already puts all its branding bets on “Technology, Design and Knowledge” (TDK) this company-town aspect of its history makes eminent sense, but it needs to be made much more visible.

Eindhoven is richly endowed with post-WWII reconstruction architecture. One may like or dislike this particular era’s aesthetics but it is certainly distinct. Philips post-war boom and the preference for a befitting metropolitan modernist rebuilding of the heavily bombed inner city are connected. Without the company, which was thus co-‘responsible’, Eindhoven’s reconstruction would have looked different. In that sense this architecture is part and parcel of the company town and should and can be presented as such. Mainly because of civic engagement/lobbying this architecture has now the attention of city planners, but not being deemed automatically disposable and overlooked is not the same as making the most of it. A very first step might be to have a municipal policy that forbids owners/users of such buildings to plaster their facade with commercial signage and/or (partially) hide it behind some outside add-on. E.g., how different would the Demer look if the interesting architecture would dominate your immediate first impression?

Another way to focus more attention would be to do what Nijmegen, also heavily bombed in WWII and thus rich in such architecture, recently did: publish a map:

Taking the above full-heartedly on board could and should include celebrating the wederopbouw period residential neighbourhoods (and even those from more recent times) – a lot of them in one of our countries biggest urban extension ‘projects’, Woensel – that architecture buffs will not immediately rave about but that are nevertheless visually distinctive in their uniformity. Neighbourhoods of the same period all have subtly differing unique personal architectural signatures, those of different time periods differing more because of changing aesthetic fashions and a changing market (e.g. because Philips Eindhoven moved away from production toward R&D and white collar work).

Similar to my rationale above for industrial heritage, this shifts the focus from individual buildings/sites to a much more inclusive ‘company town’ perspective. I argued earlier that this perspective is easy to merge with the adopted city/regional brand of being a TDK hub. Quite evidently that seems true for even the most recent city extensions like Meerhoven, catering to professional knowledge workers employed by Philips successors like ASML.

Even the availability of a nice map, or small booklet with several maps and some basic info on the (many) neighbourhoods, would already make a big difference.

Urban planning. Eindhoven’s status as the country’s primary and utterly distinctive company town is visible in another way, equally known, but equally ‘underutilized’: what we all know as Eindhoven is a collection of merged adjoining villages. The ‘original’ Eindhoven was the (land and population wise) tiny, market centre at their core The current city originated in this 1920s merger necessitated by the planning and executive advantages that merger brought to the municipal ability to address the needs of (especially) Philips. Thus Eindhoven is a city of villages, and even post-merger, its urban planning vision, based on the ideas of the Catholic church (the all pervasive dominant force in this part of the Dutch ‘pillarized’ socio-political landscape) for shielding the simple labourers and their families from the perverse evils of city life, was to build new neighbourhoods as self-contained villages, centered around a church, with schools, and other facilities in the ‘village’. So when the extensive agricultural and ‘wild’ lands around the original centers of the merged villages were developed for housing the fast growing population, a patchwork of planned ‘villages’ within the former villages’ administrative borders emerged. A sort of super-charged version of Eindhoven as a city of villages.

A I argue in my previous post, for decades now, the villagesque character of Eindhoven has been mentioned as something to treasure. The churches, schools and other religious heritage are important but often underutilized or even neglected markers of that character. Hardly anything is in active religious use anymore (and for the few churches e.g. that still are that mostly means closed doors unless there is a service…).

However that may be, if Eindhoven’s village-living-with-city-facilities is a strength, why not make the most of whatever remains of the centers of the villages that Eindhoven merged with? And of all their new extensions planned with a village lay-out in mind (new church, etc. etc.)

Green walking (and cycling) city. This aspect is actually part and parcel of urban planning but its my personal hobby horse so allow me put some extra spotlight on it.

Let’s kick off with the green: for a city that tries to distinguish itself by its village-like environment it makes sense to prioritize anything that adds to the ease of escape into our country’s garden-like nature. Eindhoven as a city always emphasizes its ‘green wedges’. If one looks on the map, these wedges are indeed prominent but a closer look reveals that they are not necessarily treated as city priorities. Private owners/users -some of whom control huge (the Wielewaal – formerly Frits Philips’ personal estate), or at least substantial areas (e.g. the Herdgang PSV training grounds) often means large chunks are basically inaccessible. And what is accessible seems to be treated piecemeal rather than with a vision toward connecting green areas with each other so as to make for larger habitats, even if only for us human animals.

Like any other Dutch city, Eindhoven seems to be content with new green taking its time to reach its full potential, Compare the planning doc for the Vestdijk with how it now actually looks and you’ll know what I mean. The small trees will need a fair number of years before they match their landscape architects’ PR vision. Is the cost differential really worth a decade (or two?) wait before the green effect becomes tangible?


This brings me to a related hobbyhorse of mine: the huge difference of uninterrupted walking/cycling possibilities for for how livable a cityscape is. Like all Dutch cities, Eindhoven has to deal with a very car-centric lay-out, the result of post WWII modernist thinking. I am aware that, depending where one comes from, the Netherlands may impress as frontrunner regarding cycling/walking friendly urban design. Canadians Melissa and Chris Bruntlett of Building the cycling city (celebrating Dutch cycling culture) followed that first book up with Curbing Traffic, based on their experience of living in Delft (for an excerpt, see here) and rave about how much more pedestrian and cycling friendly and thus livability-focused Dutch city planning is compared to its North American counterpart (they moved to Delft from Vancouver, there must be worse places….). However, an equally recent Dutch book on the same theme (Thalia Verkade & Marco te Brömmelstroet‘s Het recht van de snelste, begs to differ that Dutch cities get it right. Comparatively the glass may be half full but in light of what would really make for a great walking and cycling city “bicycle professor” te Brömmelstroet’s argues (one can download a free academic e-book that complements the Dutch language publication here and enjoy his argumentation below) that more radical changes are needed. As a walking/running aficionado I am obviously of the glass half empty school and very much agree.

The most noticeable move toward unimpeded connectivity are efforts to create cycling fast lanes, but even those take forever (The as yet unrealized Eindhoven-Helmond one was conceptualized in 1994…). My fantasy of a city that maximizes its village feel would be a much more radical approach toward slow movement connectedness. Various aspects of that, neither comprehensive, nor in any order of importance:

  • Pedestrianize, pedestrianize, pedestrianize…
  • Way more walking/cycling only streets. Eindhoven has some really nice conversions, like the Oirschotsedijk and Oude Bosschebaan and more of those would make a big difference.
  • Designing infrastructure for fast cycling, which includes e-bikes (a in my honest opinion very unfortunately development, but this is not the place…), separately from infrastructure for slow biking and walking.
  • But, even more importantly, designing preferably unpaved infrastructure for walking only, wherever that is possible. And it is possible at way more places than currently available. This thought contains two elements:
    • Separating walking and slow cycling infrastructure wherever possible. When one has broad corridors, the two don’t bite each other much, but sharing a one-lane or even two-lane cycling track is always going to be somewhat uncomfortable for one or the other and often both.
    • And going for unpaved walking trails – and this doesn’t necessarily mean bumpy, muddy, etc., smooth gravel/shell paths are fine. The unpaved experience is qualitatively hugely more “nature” like.
  • Ensuring unimpeded connectedness of cycling and walking infrastructure. This costs money (under/over passes, elevated walk and cycle ways etc.) but nothing improves connectivity more than removing the barriers of endless waits at traffic lights. On top of that: such infrastructure can totally turn around parts of a city that seem beyond slow movement recovery can and make them attractive (very attractive even) again. My favorite example is Shanghai’s skyscraper hotspot Lujiazui:
  • Making much more explicit use of existing green corridor possibilities. (I have a whole series of posts on looking at green Eindhoven differently in which I look as open-minded as possible at all obvious candidates). This would require a mix of improving connectivity and branding such corridors. Branding here means: making people aware through active marketing, and proper signage on the ground., and using any opportunity that presents itself to highlight and improve the corridor. An Dutch example would be the Leiden singelpark.
Leiden Singelpark. SOURCE:
  • Another obvious entry point for better unimpeded connectivity would be to look at the larger green areas, like the wedges and look for possibilities to create better connections. E.g. is it so difficult to link the Philips de Jonghpark/Herdgang green zone, at both ends with the Grote Beek green zone?

As I said earlier, integrated attention to all aspects simultaneously, exploiting the many mutual reinforcement possibilities that then present themselves, would make for a uniquely distinct environment. I will not bore you with speculations about why that seems so unlikely to happen anytime soon. There are many others better qualified to opinionate on that than yours truly.

Let me summarize, with the risk of sounding like a stuck record, my core argument for an approach to making Eindhoven/brainport an attractive living environment for (foreign) professional knowledge workers that is fundamentally different from trying to “out-metropolitanize” competitors: build on the core strenghts of the city/region, rather than pursuing an impossible-to-win catch-up game. However, this doesn’t mean any ‘metropole’ worthy grandiose project would by definition conflict with the above. However, it does mean that such projects and developments would (need to) be assessed on if and how they fit into a one-of-its-kind village-network, walk and cycle friendly, super green company town.

My thoughts may be naive, politically, financially unfeasible, impossible to practically implement, or otherwise deeply flawed, but I haven’t come across a good argument yet against their underlying premise that it always makes more sense to build on whatever attractor strength a city/region has (same premise as resulted in the TDK branding strategy…), than to try and build something you are not, and (importantly!!) are never going to be. Eindhoven visionaries may feel at a disadvantage re their local competition which are substantially bigger and ahead in the Dutch ‘skyscraper’ understanding of what makes a “real” metropolis, but also those cities – e.g “seaport” Rotterdam and heritage trove Amsterdam would be better off exploiting their actual core strengths than to aspire to something also they will never really be.

I’ve lived in a couple and and a real metropolis, whatever the huge differences between them, of which there are countless, is qualitatively very different from what we have here in our delta on the North sea. And that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Don’t read anything into the below toetje (desert) of a metropolis video, I could have chosen plenty others, all quite different. It is just that this particular metropolis has grown on me so again, it is again just a reflection of a personal like.

What is the Eindhoven/Brainport region series


2 thoughts on “brainport’s real highlights

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