Floris Alkemade: Beijerlandselaan’s social problems are partly a spatial issue

The streets Beijerlandselaan and Groene Hilledijk in southern Rotterdam will undergo a comprehensive transformation over the next few years. The current stretch of call shops, closed metal shutters and dilapidated pavements will become 'Boulevard op Zuid', a safe, attractive shopping street that will draw local residents and visitors from miles around. To realise this vision, the city of Rotterdam launched the Hand in Hand area plan at the end of March. A major goal of the transformation is to reduce organised crime and other crimes that harm the social structure. How can spatial, programmatic and social design be used to tackle such problems?

Giving the street a facelift and reducing crime are interlinked. In the first place, bringing down serious crime is a must if Beijerlandselaan is to become more attractive. And inversely, street-level interventions can themselves reduce and counter socially harmful activities.

Last year the Dutch Chief Government Architect’s office invited PosadMaxwan to join a multidisciplinary team to generate ideas for solutions to make Beijerlandselaan safer and more attractive. These ideas are set out in the Hand in Hand plan. Recommendations aimed at improving the area include placing more focus on accessibility, visitor experience and retail policy. A trump card will be the setting up of the Sociale Winkelbouw Corporatie (Social Retail Corporation), an innovative solution for tackling crime on Beijerlandselaan in a positive way. It will reward local businesses that act to make the street safer and more attractive by lowering their rent and impose rent rises on those that do the opposite. The benefits will be both social and spatial.

We spoke to Chief Government Architect Floris Alkemade about Beijerlandselaan, spatial solutions to social problems, and more.


Why did the Chief Government Architect’s office commission this study?
“The Chief Government Architect’s office was approached by Loes van der Wees, a public prosecutor in Rotterdam. She was looking for ways to reduce socially harmful crime on Beijerlandselaan. Right now the street is a string of call shops, currency exchange offices, jewellers and bridal shops. Yes, those virginal white wedding dresses can be a cover for money laundering too. Tackling this problem isn’t only a law enforcement issue; I also see a spatial issue here. What kinds of positive effects can result from making spatial changes?
We’re not trying to claim that design can solve everything. But I’m convinced that you can achieve a lot by combining forces and mixing disciplines and insights. You want to paint the most comprehensive picture possible and then translate the situation and the options into a different kind of street that will encourage different behaviours and expectations.”

What role did the Chief Government Architect’s office play?
“Our role consisted of conducting the initial conversations with the city, the public prosecutor, local police officers, and the Nationaal Programma Rotterdam Zuid (Nationaal Programme for Rotterdam Zuid) in order to select the right parties to do the study. Only by involving the proper disciplines can you formulate an appropriate response. We ultimately chose the developer-architect Cihan Bugdaci from Gentlemen A.R.T., the criminologist and urban sociologist Gwen van Eijk from Erasmus University, and the urban planner Han Dijk from PosadMaxwan. And we stayed in close contact throughout the study.”

Did the project yield the results the office had hoped for?
“Definitely. The research has answered the question of how to connect the urban, social and programmatic aspects that will play a part in solving the problem of socially harmful crime. And the team’s final report looks at how we can direct efforts to achieve that. For example, how do we attract the types of stores that will help the area to move forward instead of just being another negative influence? We now have a complete picture and a thorough analysis, accompanied by possible solutions. And we were pleasantly surprised by Cihan and Han’s proposal for the Social Retail Corporation. It’s a nice follow-up step that uses a completely new method to make the street more fun and interesting, and therefore safer.”

What will happen next with the study?
“For me, delivering a project is never the end; with everything I initiate, I want to follow up. I presented the findings to Marco Pastors, the director of the Nationaal Programma Rotterdam Zuid. The report can be viewed as a detailed partial study for the programme, whose goal is building a healthy future for Rotterdam Zuid. The NPRZ is partially funding the Hand in Hand plan. The city will work to implement it with a number of organisations, like Woonstad Rotterdam and Inholland University of Applied Sciences, as well as NPRZ.”

Can the research results be applied in different situations?
“The problem of socially harmful crime in shopping streets does occur elsewhere, of course. I think the method of observation and analysis we’ve used here can be applied in other places too. But first let’s wait and see what happens with Beijerlandselaan. It would be going too far to say that if it works here it’ll work anywhere. But it’s certain that the likelihood of success elsewhere will increase considerably. Improving Beijerlandselaan is necessary and useful for the street itself, but it’s also a fantastic test case.”

What has the Chief Government Architect’s office learned from this project?
“That it’s useful to link spatial studies to social problems. The Beijerlandselaan research has yielded valuable insights on how to conduct a spatial study. Designers can make anything look good, but if you don’t approach it from the right perspective you’ll get it wrong. We see this with Beijerlandselaan. The neighbourhood has a particular culture, with traditions and customs. If you only look at the spatial side, you ignore that valuable context. It starts with doing a much better job of observing and understanding the underlying mechanisms. This is the kind of situation where designers can really use their ability to take a broader view and draw new connections.“

The Social Retail Corporation has been included in the Hand in Hand plan. Do you have any other recommendations that will help this concept to succeed?
“Call on the city of Rotterdam to take it up as part of the Environment and Planning Act. Bottom-up initiatives will be part of that, and this will embed the project. The municipalities are still figuring out how to interpret the law. And the research that led to the Social Retail Corporation is very compelling in itself, so I think it stands a good chance of succeeding. But they’ll need to keep an eye on it and provide direction where necessary. Especially now that the economy is thriving again, it’s very tempting to take the easiest, most lucrative path. But the need for structural improvements is great at the moment. Beijerlandselaan has a terrific past – now let’s give it a wonderful future.”