‘The economic function of inner cities must once again be at the fore’

The economic function of inner cities should not be displaced by too much emphasis on housing. That message is now being widely echoed, such as in the recent ‘Exploration G6 inner cities – governance towards transformation’. The question of how space for work can be secured was central to the BT seminar ‘Companies for the city centre!’. According to speaker Gert-Joost Peek, it starts with embracing new roles of various stakeholders in the city centre. Then come the economic and spatial instruments.

Many inner cities are undergoing overhaul. However, the space freed up by reducing store space is rarely used for new financial functions. Or it must be the facilities for new residents, which are assigned a key role in the town center plans. As a result, cities fail both the economy and their inner cities, said chairman Theo Föllings of Stichting Kennisalliantie Bedrijventerrein Nederland (SKBN) in Trouw.

Space must be organized to work in inner cities. By owners who have to make concessions for quick profit. And municipalities, which must reconsider the function of the inner city.

This is the message from Gert-Joost Peek, lecturer in area development and transition management at the Hogeschool Rotterdam, who opened the seminar on Wednesday 6 July with a presentation of the research ‘Ecosystems of work in the city: securing space for work in urban environments’, that the architect and the urban planner Bernardina Borra and her colleague Gert Urhahn were commissioned by his professorship and the municipality of Rotterdam.

NV Zeedijk as savior

One example that Peek cites is the metamorphosis of Amsterdam Zeedijk after the heroin epidemic hit the street in the 1970s. NV Zeedijk was the driving force behind the metamorphosis. A traditional approach did not work because individual owners and investors were not willing to take the high risk of investment.

It was Amsterdam merchant Jack Cohen who eventually came up with a rescue plan and founded NV Zeedijk in 1985 together with the Oude Stad district centre, the Amsterdam City business association and later also the municipality of Amsterdam. It can be read in Work ecosystems in the city.

According to Peek, Zeedijk shows that transformation only starts when the stakeholders stick their necks out in a changing interplay of forces and do something they are not used to doing. In this case, it was an entrepreneur who started the process. New roles, according to Peek. NV Zeedijk still exists.

Spatial reality

Such a changing interplay of forces is also the successful transformation that Rotterdam has undergone as a residential city in the last twenty years. Success has a flip side. Due to exploding house prices, the homes are now in danger of displacing other functions. And space freed up by closing shops is quickly transformed into residential space if you let the market take its course. This is contrary to the municipality’s objective to direct more activity towards the city center (read also: Rotterdam wants more businesses to the city centre.)

During the seminar, Gerlof Rienstra from Rienstra Policy Advice and Policy Research will outline the spatial reality that companies in the city face. In recent years, 4,600 hectares of industrial land in urban areas have disappeared, often through conversion to housing.

Rienstra concludes that approximately 25 percent of all users of business parks actually do not need to be in a business park at all, because they do not cause environmental nuisance. These companies may also be incorporated in centers or along city radials. But you have to have a policy on that. It is independent of the question of whether the companies also want this. Space in business parks is often cheap and therefore attractive.

Guarantees affordability

Unlike housing, the space to work in the new Rotterdam coalition agreement has not been quantified, says Esther Roth, economic policy advisor in Maasstad. However, the aim is to secure affordable space (under 100 euros per square meter) for business activities in the center of the city. This requires good cooperation with the municipality and property owners. In addition, a fund for ‘vital core areas’ has been set up, with which the municipality can buy properties in crucial locations and thus retain control over the use of those properties.

In the new living and working area ZoHo near the old Hofplein station, half of the commercial premises have a price ceiling, of which 80 percent have a maximum of 100 euros and 20 percent a maximum of 70 euros per square meter. The nearby Schiekade block will not be demolished, but will be largely rebuilt with rooms that will be available as business premises for at least fifteen years.

The question, however, is how the work can also be secured in the longer term. Establishing a management or operating company is a solution that is being considered. Roth even suggests the possibility of a cooperative model.

Tenancy and area plan

Marcel Michon, managing partner at Buck Consultants International (BCI), was involved in previous studies in Rotterdam on the possibilities of the inner city economy. He points to the possibility of using ground rent to get and keep track of the position. Or to treat environmental categories differently and to ‘specify’ the zone or environmental plan.

In the current situation, the destination in the center is fairly free, so owners can easily convert their retail properties into residential. This means that space for new economic functions is lost. Finally, Michon insists that the municipalities bind visions in concrete planning with the help of hard measures.

Mix retailers and companies

Independent consultant Arno Ruigrok (places|properties|people) explained his vision for the future of city centers on behalf of Kern (the new name of the Netherlands Council for Shopping Centres). His most important message is that shopping areas and especially city radials should not be turned into housing too quickly, as this creates an irreparable situation.

According to Ruigrok, you get the dynamism out of a city with a concentration policy. He prefers former retail properties to provide shelter for alternative economic functions which, in his opinion, support the amenities of the city core. He believes that the ‘life card’ should not be drawn too quickly.

Ruigrok is in favor of a mix of retail and alternative activities, a self-reinforcing mix, he says. One condition, however, is that the core areas and city radii have a robust base that can be used for a wide range of economic functions.

Walking street or not?

Finally, there are the entrepreneurs themselves. They will get an indirect face at the seminar through the Streetwise Foundation from Heerlen. Over the past eight years, founders Leonie Kuepers and Sjaak Vinken have guided more than 500 entrepreneurs to a building in one of the city centers of Parkstad Limburg and now all of Limburg. With success: more than 90 percent of entrepreneurs survived so far.

Ensuring dynamic, vital city centers is the goal of Streetwise, which works on behalf of the municipalities. Entrepreneurs are a resource. Streetwise is emphatically targeting a new generation of entrepreneurs who differentiate themselves from traditional retailers through an innovative and creative approach. According to Kuepers and Vinken, this includes more and more non-retailers. According to them, the town center is much more than just a collection of shops.

When asked what these entrepreneurs want and what the authorities can do to keep inner cities attractive for businesses, Kuepers replies that accessibility is an important theme. Vital city centers and car bans sometimes do not go together, except for the one real shopping street where the pedestrian still has the exclusive rights.

According to Gert-Joost Peek, Streetwise gives substance to such a new role, which is neither taken up by the government nor the market, but is indispensable for vital city centres. And it creates opportunities for the work function in city centres. According to Peek, Rotterdam municipality is also doing well by taking on a new role in the city centre. “It is these and other practical movers who ensure the return of activity in the city centre”, concludes Peek.

Limits to living

Housing does not always correlate well with the dynamic character that a center has in principle, concluded the researchers Geert Das from Bura Urbanism and Martijn Exterkate from Stec Groep last Thursday afternoon during the presentation of ‘Exploration G6 inner cities – governance towards transformation’, an initiative from six major cities (G4 + Eindhoven and Groningen) and the ministries EZK, BZK and Security and the Ministry of Justice. Co-referent Cees-Jan Pen emphasized that cities can squeeze in, that so many people want to live in inner cities, but that the report shows that there are limits to living.

Pen has been fighting for the work function in cities for years. According to him, the city center fulfills a necessary socio-economic function. Researcher Das emphasized that conditions apply at the city planning level to keep activity in the city centre. For example, a plumber who works from the city center needs to be able to park his car. Exterkate emphasized that it is important that these work functions generate spin-offs for the city center as a whole. The affordability of the workspace is also an increasingly important issue.

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