Devil’s hill, Berlin

January 2014, German chancellor Angela Merkel is publicly not-amused by the news that her cell phone is being monitored by the NSA. The United States and the European countries are in a crisis of confidence. I am in Berlin, about to visit a notorious Cold War relic: the NSA “Abhörgelände” (spying station) on top of the Teufelsberg.tberg1

From S-bahn stop Grunewald it’s a 20 minute walk through the forest. The area, distant from Berlin’s core, was already pointed out as a good site for a meteorological faculty by the nazis. Things developed differently though. In the early 1960′s, the part of Berlin occupied by the allied forces became a walled island within the DDR. Millions of tons of rubble from the war period still had to be carried out of the city. As West-Berlin was a very limited territory, the rubble was piled up in the parks. The Teufelsberg (Devil’s hill) is the highest of Berlin’s rubble hills, 120 meters high. In the 1950′s the intention was to shape the hills into a ski slope (part of the area actually has this function). The Cold War, however, made the area into a tactical outpost for the Americans to spy on the Russians and the countries of the Warsaw Pact.

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Few years after the unification of Germany, in the early 1990′s, the complex was sold to a project developer, who wants to build a luxury residential and leisure resort. Until today, the plans have been unsuccesfull because the investments are quite high and the housing units would under the current circumstances be too expensive. In the meantime, squatters have broken in to the complex several times and have destroyed some of the buildings and facade materials. At this moment, an independent association leases the area in order to organize guided tours and grafitti festivals, while protecting the structures from further depredation. I joined one of the two-hour historic storytelling tours. In my group one guy appeared with his drone, to actually film the old NSA spying towers from above – is this the world turned upside-down or what?

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Besides the technical and historical information, juicy details were also supplied by the tour guide. For example, that about 7 years ago film director David Lynch tried to buy the premises to turn it into a University for Floating (a meditation technique developed by the Indian guru Yogi in the 1950′s). The plans didn’t go ahead.

Photo by Merten Nefs

Art work inside the main dome of the spying station.

Despite the clear importance to maintain the complex as a Cold War relic for future generations, the strategy of the organization doesn’t totally convince yet. They disapprove of any type of private use and investment, all use should be public (art galleries and studios for example) and all investments should hence come from the tax payers. Just straightforward Berliner activism perhaps, something we’re not used to anymore in the all too pragmatic lowlands. So for the time being things remain temporary and mysterious, also very much in the spirit of Berlin.

Photo by Merten Nefs

View towards Berlin through the tower facade of the spying station, ripped open by squatters.

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GFT-avenue at IABR 2014

The project GFT avenue (by Merten Nefs, Janneska Spoelman and Lucia Dossin) was nominated in the multi-disciplinary design competition Designing with Flows (Ontwerpen met Stromen). GFT-avenue proposes to increase local recycling of food and other organic material near centres of consumption in central Rotterdam, hereby cutting transport kilometres and stimulating urban agriculture.
The competition is organized by the Dutch Architect’s Association (BNA) and the International Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam, where the three nominee projects will be displayed. The winner will be anounced in June 2014, during the Biennale, which carries the theme Urban by Nature.

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Beijing Design Week 2013

During the Beijing Design Week 2013, architecture studio Venhoeven CS organized a workshop called ‘The Sino-Dutch Approach‘, commissioned by the Creative Industry Fund. This year, Amsterdam is guest city of the BJDW. In a group of 12 Dutch designers I travelled to Beijing to work on transformation strategies for the Fengtai industrial district, in the Southwest periphery of Beijing. The aim of the workshop is to generate crossover concepts with our Chinese counterparts, for sustainable development in the capital city. Many of China’s major challenges are found in Fengtai: air quality, water management, congestion, economic shift from production to services, migration and gentrification. The district has the potential to become a creative subcentre and gateway to Beijing.

Case 1: Dahongmen
The Dahongmen area consists of fashion wholesale complexes. There are plans for fashion retail zones, focusing on the exclusive brands. The challenge here is to develop the entire value chain, from production and creation to the consumer, in order to attract and maintain a variety of professionals and social groups in the area, necessary for an innovative environment where Chinese brands and trends can emerge.

Case 2: Yongding river
Beijing has a dramatic relationship with water. On the one hand there is so much water shortage that water is brought in from the Yangtse river in the South. The Gobi desert is approaching and the Yongding river itself is dry most time of the year due to dams and water usage upstream. On the other hand heavy rainfall has caused severe damage to the urban structures in Beijing, for lack of permeable surfaces. A new type of green living environment may revive the Yongding river floodplains and redirect rainwater to feed the river.

Case 3: Fengtai railway station
The new high-speed railway station and subway links will strengthen the position of Fengtai as gateway of Beijing. Passengers traveling from Hong Kong and Shenzhen to Beijing will pass through the area. The station surroundings therefore have the potential to become a hotspot of activities and meetings, that may function in a complementary way to alleviate the congested central area of Beijing. Rather than redeveloping the whole area, a stepwise strategy could provide a lively area of reused industrial buildings, bike and pedestrian routes, densified ‘hutongs‘ and function mix of housing with amenities and work spaces.

Fengtai station strategy
Development proposal for Fengtai station area

Smart City
The main exhibition of the Design Week is about Smart Cities, held in the China Millennium Monument Museum of Digital Arts. Curated by Lei Yang, it features many tools to use big data and new media to plan and enhance the city, such as Urban OS and OS City. The SprintCity planning support tool may also provide opportunities for cities like Beijing.
The irony is however, that at the moment the Chinese authorities do not give access to urban data and have to a large extent control over what happens at the Chinese social media. This prevents civilians from using and improving many of the smart tools.

Download the presentation of the Sino-Dutch Approach, by Ton Venhoeven.
Also read the daily reports by the Creative Industry Fund, and my travel journal (Dutch), including the names of all participants.

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Shrinking cities as retirement cities? – publication

With an international group of researchers (The Netherlands, Turkey and Germany), I have explored some of the advantages that shrinking cities may actually have over other urban areas, especially concerning green areas and living costs. Our article was recently published in Environment and Planning A (2013, volume 45). In June this year, the work was presented in La Coruña (IAPS 2013), and earlier in Eindhoven (Environment 2.0).

Shrinking cities as retirement cities? Opportunities for shrinking cities as green living environments for older individuals
Merten Nefs (Deltametropolis Association, Rotterdam), Susana Alves (Okan Üniversitesi, İstanbul), Ingo Zasada (Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research, Müncheberg), Dagmar Haase (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Leipzig)

´Increasingly, policy makers and planners must develop strategies to cope with urban shrinkage. This paper proposes that active retirement migration and health tourism can be parts of such strategies. Shrinking cities, normally observed as less competitive, could develop advantages over other cities with respect to attracting retirees if their spatial conditions were used effectively. By converting vacant space or improving access to  high quality green space, shrinking cities can attract retirees in search of quality of life, who in turn might represent a crucial catalyst in urban renewal for shrinking cities. The authors conclude that the potential of shrinking cities as green retirement cities can be considered
by integrating existing research concepts: eg, green space typologies and the functionality of public space for older individuals. Furthermore, recent practical studies suggest that the potential for shrinking cities as retirement cities exists. However, the potential has led to specific policy to only a limited extent. Despite substantial opportunities, many challenges arise when this idea is put into practice. Therefore, recommendations are made at the end of this paper for addressing this topic in future research and urban planning.´

Keywords: retirement migration, ageing, living environment, environmental affordances,
green open space, urban green space, shrinking city, quality of life

Read the full article here

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