Gerben Helleman is an urban geographer from the Netherlands. At the moment, he works at a housing association that provides homes for those who would not otherwise be able to obtain housing on the open market, where he focuses on urban/neighbourhood regeneration and livability in and around residential complexes. Since 2011, Gerben has written about different urban issues as a freelance writer as well as on his own blog, Urban Spingtime. Gerben’s blog is about the interface and connections between the Planned and the Lived city, and he writes about the beautiful, funny and exciting sides of the city. Read more about Gerben here.
Gerben Helleman on Arrival City Chapter 10: Arriving in style
The need for precision
Immigration in the Netherlands
The Netherlands is a densely populated country in the Northwest of Europe with 17 million inhabitants. After the Second World War a lot of Dutch households from the countryside moved to cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. In the 1960s and 1970s these cities were faced with international labour-motivated migration, especially from Suriname (former colony), Dutch Antilles (an autonomous Caribbean country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands), Turkey and Morocco. In the last few years migrants from new member countries within the European Union (Poland, Romania and Bulgaria) have made their appearance.
In general, the immigration and settlement processes in the Netherlands do not differ much from the other countries which are described in Arrival City. In this part of the world, newcomers also prefer to settle near nationals or even fellow villagers. They are trying to find a fit between their own traditions (language, religion) and Dutch society. Some newcomers consider the cities a gateway and move – when they can – to the suburbs where they find new housing and more security for their kids. Others stay, root and acclimatize in the city, drawn by the ambience, the smells, amenities, and dynamics of the city. For some the urban environment works as an emancipation machine, for others the springboard doesn’t work.
An important difference with other countries is the context in which the migrants arrive. ‘Arriving in style’ might be a bit exaggerated, but there are some certainties, privileges and advantages in the Netherlands that can make life just a little bit easier on arrival. The Netherlands is developed, properly organized and regulated from above. Government takes care of utilities, infrastructure, public space and facilities such as schools, libraries and community centres. The government also helps through grants, fees and assistance in poverty reduction, for example.
So there is a lot of social assistance and arrangements. If the arrival city in the developing world is a place where you climb the socioeconomic ladder, you can speak of an escalator in this part of the World.
The planned versus the lived city
In other words: planning, organizing and social engineering abound in the Netherlands. This orderliness and intervention from above is also present in the way housing is managed, for example. Besides the advantages there are also a number of drawbacks. When so many things are organized and settled, citizens can get somewhat complacent, causing some to sit back. But more importantly due to the level of regulation there is (or there seems) less room for small, spontaneous initiatives that can respond faster and are cheaper and better suited to the ever-changing needs of city dwellers. So, the escalator falters sometimes.
In this context the story of the Dutch Somali is interesting. A considerable part of the Dutch Somali community experienced such high levels of coercion, limitation, and deprivation of liberty in The Netherlands, that they decided to migrate to Great Britain. According to them, the Dutch migration policy is so patronizing that migrants are not stimulated to show initiative with regard to education or labour participation (Van den Reek & Hussein, 2003). This in contrast with the British situation where economic activity is less constrained by rules and laws (see also chapter one).
This conflict can be summarized by the distinction between the planned and the lived city, a struggle that you see in more European countries and which also surfaces in the book on occasion. Wouter Vanstiphout (2011), professor of Design and Politics at the Technical University Delft wrote a wonderful article about the riots in Paris (2005) and England (2011) in which he nicely sums up this contrast: “I do not think that […] politics and planning have realized their limitations to shape society. I think […] that urban politics and hence planning and urban design are too often treating the city with ulterior motives, instead of actually working for the city itself. […] Treating the city in this way means that we are constantly passing judgment on what the city should be, and who should be there, and what they should be doing, instead of trying to understand what the city actually is, who really lives there and what they are doing.”
That being said, Saunders has a point when he mentions that arrival cities in the Netherlands were planned from above (outside) for far too long. An immigrant neighbourhood that grows organically, evolves over time, deviates from the “average” and benefits from an informal economy goes against the grain for most urban planners.
Arrival City shows that this tussle is not unique for the Netherlands. In many countries there is a disagreement about the analysis, the vision and the preferred approach for what a migrant neighbourhood should look like. In terms of analysis, for example, some prefer to look at general national, regional, metropolitan or neighbourhood figures. But should you compare countries or cities with each other on the same temporal reference date? And should you compare your district with the urban average, or with a similar district in another city? Others prefer – like Saunders – to follow the individual outcome.
But the starting point you choose will have quite an influence on what conclusions you will draw. For example, if you look at The Netherlands from a distance (in time and scale) you see the same upward social mobility for newcomers as we saw among the native-born population after the Second World War. The sons and daughters of the first generation of immigrants are doing much ‘better’ than their parents. This is a positive trend and one should conclude that the process of social mobility is therefore a matter of time (and generations). But if you zoom in on some individual events (the murder of a filmmaker in Amsterdam, conscription of Jihad fighters in different Dutch cities) and the fierce debates and discriminatory public opinions, your conclusion will be less positive for the integration issue.
On a neighbourhood level I often miss a good analysis of the function of a neighbourhood in a city (or region) and an approach consistent with that role and identity. Saunders makes a good point that many settlement strategies don’t recognize (or, in some cases, even destroy) the rural-to-urban dynamics at work, and fail to leverage the function of these springboard or gateway communities.
The main issue is that too many people don’t understand the paradox of arrival cities (see also chapter three). Neighbourhood statistics say nothing about the career of a single household. To explain this I always use the metaphor of a primary school. Every year ‘dumb’ kids come in and ‘smart’ kids go. But the school remains just as smart (or dumb). So, there is nothing wrong with this school, so why interpret an arrival city differently?
Saunders sums up this issue very well when he is describing what kind of place Thorncliffe Park (Toronto) is: “It is, depending how you view it, either a successful antechamber to urban life or a place of dangerous isolation and poverty”. That is exactly the bone of contention. None of them are true, mostly it’s a mix, but in most (political) discussions there is no room for nuance. As a consequence, every supporter or opponent of arrival cities seeks his own statistics, stories and incidents to support his or her opinion (Table 1).
Table 1 – For or against exclusive (immigrant) neighbourhoods?
Even though I have my preference, the one side in the diagram is not automatically better or worse than the other. I plead for a more thoroughly and balanced analysis, vision and approach in which problems aren’t trivialized and opportunities aren’t ignored.
Let’s go back to the metaphor of the primary school. To function well, it is important that this ‘school’ is properly equipped with good teachers and a leak proof building. That is exactly the task of governments: to keep the emancipation machine working. Sometimes this means physical adaptations to the housing stock, or adding (public) transport links, but mostly it means supporting social processes. Language skills are the first priority. Fortunately, in recent years Dutch municipalities have invested a lot of time and money in evening classes for adults and preschool facilities where kids as young as two and a half years old can learn the Dutch language.
The government should also focus on education in general. Labour market disparities are caused mostly by differences in education (opportunities). An effort which should of course not be limited to the arrival cities. The goal is optimum opportunities for development, regardless of race, income level or family history. But if you want effective and efficient policy you should also take into account to some extent the differences. Especially on the neighbourhood level one should recognize that libraries, schools with adult education, meeting places and small, cheap business properties are of greater values in migrant communities than elsewhere. In this way immigrants can become full city citizens.
By Gerben Helleman
This is a summary of an article about ‘Immigration and migrant neighbourhoods in the Netherlands‘ that was recently published on the blog Urban Springtime.
Gerben Helleman & Frank Wassenberg (2004) The renewal of what was tomorrow’s idealistic city. Amsterdam’s Bijlmermeer high-rise. In: Cities, Volume 21, Issue 1, Pages 3–17.
Gerben Helleman (2014) Arrival City. Blog Urban Springtime.
Gerben Helleman (2011) To be or not to be? Blog Urban Springtime.
Esther van den Reek & Adan Igeh Hussein (2003) Somaliers op doorreis. Tilburg: University of Tilburg.
Wouter Vanstiphout (2011) Back to normal? Building Design Online.