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Talking Headways Podcast: Culture Is Designed Every Century

This week we’re joined by Dutch architect Ton Venhoeven.  We chat about Utrecht’s new tram station TOD, the difference between the 15 minute and Micro City, planning policy and its history in the Netherlands, and the future of cities.

For those of you who get your news through your eyes and not your ears, there’s an edited transcript below the audio player. If you want a full, unedited transcript (with some typos!), click here. If you want to listen, here you go:

Jeff Wood: You were the chief government advisor on infrastructure for the Dutch government for a while. I’m curious how you make policy, how does the government write the policy so that everybody will follow those plans to make the station areas as the places where they need to develop, the transport operating the way it’s supposed to? How does the policy work so that everybody in different cities enacts a similar process and policy, is there like a planning document for the country? How does that work specifically? I’ve always been curious.

Ton Venhoeven: We used to have, especially after the Second World War, a very strong planning system. Because of the need for lots of houses, the housing sector was extremely powerful. So, planning of new neighborhoods, planning of apartment buildings, et cetera, everything was organized on a national level with subsidies and deadlines for the subsidies. So if you didn’t follow the rules, you didn’t get money, things like that. But from the 70s on the oil crisis and neoliberalism by Thatcher and Reagan, big government was seen as a bad thing and against economic development.

So a lot of the powers were taken away from the Ministry for Planning also in the cities, the right-wing liberal politicians, like how can I compare them? Let’s say conservative, conservative liberal, liberal in a sense of free-market conservatism.

Wood: I guess we’d call that like libertarian here.

Venhoeven: Like libertarian. Yeah. It’s not as extreme as in the states, but you’re also at the municipal level. A lot of power was taken away from urban planners. And now you see that there is a trend that people acknowledge that only urban planning can solve a lot of the issues. We regained some power where even talking at the national level about creating a new ministry for planning. It would be a revolution if that happens.  It’s really exciting. So what, what happened is that during my time, spatial planning was part of different ministries.

In one period, it was part of the environmental ministry, in other it was part of the infrastructure and ministry, but it was not even allowed to mention planning as a name, as a name. It was not allowed to mention that. So what we did was let’s say, prepare for a future, if you cannot influence the policy of next year or the year after that, or the year after that, you just think okay, let’s come up with solutions that, that we know we need in the coming 20 years.

So when I left as government advisor, I wrote a book as a legacy about multimodal node development. And that’s the first time that I already wrote down about the [transport] hubs, because there was such a strong tendency to support the car and subsidize the car. It was only allowed to talk about multimodal access. And so not a model shift, but multimodal access. So that’s where, what are used most within the ministry to get the minds of car believers to shift, to acknowledging that also in certain areas of public transport was very important.

Wood: You’re thinking on the future of cities. I know that you helped put together a piece thinking about 2050 in the future. For me, when I was reading through it, I think, you know, one of the things that I really liked was it was focused on a number of different items, climate change, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, pollution. All of these issues that we think are really important in this era of thinking about climate change. But it was kind of refreshing to think about the whole system rather than just the planning or just the transportation aspect. I’m curious to what your thoughts are on, on the future of the city. And looking forward to 2050.

I think we cannot afford to first solve the transportation crisis and then solve the energy crisis and then solve the biodiversity crisis. Then it’s 2100 and everything is lost. That’s one. The other is that a lot of these systems are so interdependent that if you only talk about changing the infrastructure, there are just too many lock-ins. So it’s fully related with the economic system we have. If you think about biodiversity loss in the Netherlands, we are at a second agricultural producer in the world, and we that because we import the soy beans that our cattle needs.

For that, the Amazon is cut down. So everything is related. So we really need to big systems change. I think it’s the task of urban planners, not on a daily basis, but if you’re asked to, can you help? And we were asked by the ministries by ministries in the five big cities in the Netherlands, can you help us to visualize what is needed for the future of our cities? So then we went all out. I felt like people must have felt who were working at Bauhaus in the 20th century, you know, or in the Russian constructivist. I studied a lot of those historical movements.

Venhoeven: Yeah, exactly. So what you see is that people in those ages, they looked at the whole system and they designed the new culture. I was taught by other people or other people told me, culture is something you cannot change. It’s just like that. And it goes on and on, and your design should fit into that culture.

No, no, no. Culture is designed every 100 years. We make a radical shift because systems don’t work anymore. And that’s a where you can see also this challenge.

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