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Searching For Soul At A Higher Level A discussion about Oosterhout’s high rise strategy The city of Oosterhout, in the south of The Netherlands, faces the challenge of creating a new high-rise strategy. They have recently had a negative experience with a high-rise plan in its centre. In this ErasmusPC Salon, we discuss the relation between three elements: High-rise, Soul and Process. There is a lot of soulless building going on everywhere. This is extra painful with high-rise. After all, the higher a building, the bigger the impact. High-rise can be great and create new soul and meaning to a city, but unfortunately, there are many negative examples too, perhaps more negative than positive. So how could we create a kind of high-rise that strengthens the soul of the city? Of course, first we would have to answer the question “what is the soul of Oosterhout?” If we knew this, we could propose a better high-rise based upon the soul, a high-rise that could not exist anywhere but only in Oosterhout, and makes Oosterhouters feel pride. But then still, if we have found these keys, the soul of Oosterhout, and the way this should be translated into high-rise, we would still be nowhere. After all, many people distrust high-rise plans, because of the combined impact and negative experiences. Especially with a recent experience of process failure, the process of building a new high-rise strategy for Oosterhout requires extra care. Could this negative experience provide exactly the key and energy to do it right this time?

Welcome to Oosterhout Oosterhout is a city of contradictions: • •

• • • •

Oosterhout is a medium sized city with big building plans. It’s a small city in the context of the province. Oosterhout is an important shopping town. People come from long distances to do their shopping here. But in the evening people prefer Breda or other cities, where there are more possibilities for leisure. Oosterhout is an immigration town, with import from north of the rivers, the Rotterdam area. It’s a North-Brabant’s town, proud of its roots and characteristics. Oosterhout is a green town, with beautiful surroundings. Enter the town from the wrong direction and you’ll find yourself in an industrial town. Oosterhout is a new town with an old centre Oosterhout is centrally located, but there’s no train.

Contradictions give character. It makes Oosterhout an interesting city.


A contradiction Oosterhouters that has lead and still leads to a big public debate on the development of Oosterhout is the question: are we a village or are we a city. Local planners are working on a number of high rise development plans. Plans that symbolise the step from being a village to becoming a medium sized town Experiences a few years ago with plans for high-rise and intense land use in Oosterhout designed by Ashok Bhalotra led to a big public controversy. The current elected local government intends to learn from this experience and wants to develop a high-rise policy. A policy that ends controversy and marks the way for Oosterhout to say farewell to the village days and become a medium sized city for once and for all. The Oosterhout-professionals decided to start the process of developing a new policy with a number of inspiration-meetings. Meetings where they invited external experts to inspire them with ideas about high-rise policy. ErasmusPC was invited to organise one of these meetings. Five members of the ErasmusPC network meet with Yves de Boer, the alderman responsible for high rise policy of Oosterhout and his top civil servants. During a pleasant and inspiring afternoon we exchange ideas and try to develop a process that could lead to a high-rise policy. The main question during the afternoon is: what’s the importance of high-rise for Oosterhout? We start the afternoon with 6 short presentations (20 slides, 20 seconds per slide) about different aspects concerning high-rise. In the presentations we discuss different angles of high-rise: 1. High-rise from an urban designer’s point of view. 2. High-rise as characteristic of the soul of the city 3. The process of developing a high-rise policy After the presentations we discuss if and how the city should develop a high-rise policy. The results of the afternoon will be used by Oosterhout in developing their plan to develop a high-rise policy.

High-rise First we focus on urban designers concerns about high-rise. Kirsten van den Berg of ErasmusPC and Mia Verhoef-Scherer of Oosterhout give a short presentation. Kirsten starts of with a general remark: if you love high-rise ĂĄnd you love your city, you are dealing with an exciting and challenging undertaking; but if you love high-rise only to give your city finally some identity, you are at more risk to end up with a feeble policy and strategy for high-rise.


She raises three questions in her presentation: •

What are the characteristics of a city like Oosterhout? Where does high-rise fit in or not? Points raised here are partly those of urban design. Where does high-rise fit, where not? Where can high-rise strengthen spatial or programmatic features of Oosterhout? Also the interest of market parties is of concern. What kind of product does the market want to invest in, and where? And of course, the local culture is important too. What do people of Oosterhout think of high-rise; can high-rise be used as a symbol for local pride?

If you allow high-rise in a city, how can you guide the process in a way that makes highrise plans fit? A number of points were raised here. Elements like wind, the price per square meter and how to use the ground floor. Elements that, if not taken seriously in the process of developing high-rise, can cause a lot of problems. During a high-rise realisation-process it is very hard to have new demands, so be sure to be clear about criteria for fitting in before a process starts.

What kind of policy is needed for such a process? How can you develop such a policy? Learn from other cities. But don’t copy too quickly. Make real Oosterhout policy, not a policy that can be used in other cities too. There are few subjects in urban development as emotional as high rise. So a very intelligent process is necessary. Starting the Oosterhout process with inspirational meetings like this one is a smart first step.

Mia grew up in a village. She has clear memories of all the postcards the received from people travelling abroad to big cities. Postcards with scenes like Manhattan, the Eiffel Tower, or in Rotterdam the Erasmus-bridge. Her conclusion: for a lot of cities highrise is part of their urban profile. Her goal: I want a postcard from Oosterhout I can send abroad. Mia makes several points on high-rise; for instance: •


Neighbouring city Tilburg has been a “flat” city for years. The famous Interpolis building accidentally landed in the city centre. This was a lucky moment for the city and has helped to create a high-rise profile in Tilburg. High-rise has been a gift to Tilburg. Oosterhout is not visible enough: If people travel to Oosterhout for the first time, you notice a load of traffic signs to Oosterhout from the national roads. But the city itself is almost not visible. It’s a flat city, easy to hide behind some trees, with few churches or other high-rise. An important question for the city: Oosterhout is growing, from a small city to a medium sized city. The building programme is ambitious. How does Oosterhout want to present itself?

High rise is a chance here that could be used for a new profile. Of course high-rise is a megainvestment for the city. So you have to know where you allow high-rise and you can go for quality. And you have to find a way to deal with opposing groups.

Mia’s goal for some years from now: To send a postcard from Oosterhout, with high-rise local people are proud of.

Soul After the focus on design elements in high rise we broaden the discussion to the soul of the city. If you manage to grasp the soul of the city in your development policy, chances of success will rise, is the hypothesis we started with. Csaba Zsiros of ErasmusPC and Hans Redert of Oosterhout give two presentations about elements of the soul of Oosterhout and the chances for a high-rise policy Csaba starts with explaining how high-rise touches the soul of a city. A successful city manages to grasp its soul while trying to accommodate the development of the city. The soul of the city at the one hand is hard to grasp. On the other hand it’s everywhere. Csaba gave some examples of how to find elements of the soul of Oosterhout. •

You can look at Oosterhout in the context of other cities with similar spatial and cultural development questions. Like Brabantstad (the network of the 5 biggest cities in the province of Brabant) - you can start “The pearl network Brabant”. A network where the medium sized cities of the province of Brabant discuss and make coalitions on how to solve the spatial and cultural questions with in mind the cultural historic background of Oosterhout and Brabant. High rise cannot be seen apart from its surroundings and history. A cultural historical survey can help to tune future interventions to existing qualities. The focus of the survey should not be “preserving existing qualities” but on ”searching for opportunities” Opportunities which do justice to - and can incorporate the existing character of a city. Finding and communicating this part of the soul, the spatial logic of an area, leads to understanding of the weak and string points and therefore increases willingness for change. But you can – and should- also focus on people. The different groups of people help to connect you to the soul. A method to get into contact with the soul can involve using big stories and small stories of the city, famous people or “normal” people. As long as you really manage to get into contact.

If you can grasp the soul of the city, you can organise coalitions to develop the city. Coalitions on disciplines, coalitions on target groups and use these coalitions as a source of inspiration


Hans starts by expressing the inspiration he feels from the book “100 jaar hoogbouw in Rotterdam”, 100 years of high-rise in Rotterdam. The book shows that highrise can add something to a city. In Oosterhout, one of the main questions is: will we stay a village, of become a city. There are criticasters and fans. Some people want to stay a village, some want to develop as a city. Some people like high-rise, some don’t. A discussion about allowing high-rise in Oosterhout is – to a certain degree – a theoretical one. High-rise in Oosterhout is already there and will continue to grow. In the city an apartment tower is being built of above 20 stories. So it is happening already. The main question is not: should we allow it to happen, but, how can we guide marker pressure? Where do we want high-rise to happen, what kind of quality and quantity do we want. Hans went for a walk in the city and took a lot of photos. Photos of high-rise. On all the photos there are trees and green. Somehow, the trees always seem larger than the high-rise. Oosterhout and green cannot be divided; it’s a green city. Some other relevant points Hans made: •

If you focus on high-rise in Oosterhout, you focus on the special features of Oosterhout in the context of Brabant cities. Brabant cities are different from the Randstad. The area should not become like the Randstad but should stay close to itself. Why developing a high-rise policy in Oosterhout? The city is very accessible. Within one hour you can reach so many areas between Rotterdam, Antwerp, Eindhoven and Middelburg; it gives the city an exciting strength. If Oosterhout doesn’t choose for high-rise, high-rise will choose Oosterhout anyway. The market pressure will rise. High-rise is emotional. It is seldom appreciated when it’s developed. But quite often people love it when it’s there. Credits are always given afterwards.

Process The last subject that is presented during the meeting is the process management involved in developing a high-rise policy. Two presentations are made by former Culemborg-alderman, now consultant, Jean Eigeman and Oosterhout alderman Yves de Boer. Jean starts with recalling one of the lessons his predecessor told him when he became alderman. Being an alderman means taking care of the shop; but there can always be dirt under the carpet.


Jean raises some important questions about organising a process for high-rise. Some examples: •

To bring the city to a higher level it’s important to use the talent of the community. But also to organise withdrawal, a circle of criticism. • Central aspect in the way to organise a process is communication. • There are different process instruments you can use. Maybe building a second life for Oosterhout is a good idea. • But important is to find and use proud citizens. Be aware of the value of every contribution. “all contributions have value not all can be used” • Do it in a professional way. Phasing, organising, planning: don’t rush, focus on quality.

Oosterhout alderman Yves de Boer starts with the motto of the city’s coalition: Oosterhout family city. It’s a good statement. It shows that Oosterhout is there for the whole family, young, old, everybody. In Oosterhout there’s a lack for housing for the group between 18-35. They leave the city. If you can seduce them to stay, the city will become stronger. High-rise can help. In some cities high-rise seems to be a crime. People use it as a symbol for unwanted elements. • •


High-rise can be a quality, it can bring icons to the city. Oosterhout should go for quality. We should not settle for compromises. A good umbrella can be a bad roof. The city should take matters in their own hands and set the course for a better Oosterhout. High-rise can be a part of it, and can make the city stronger

Discussion Hans Karssenberg chairs the discussion about how to develop a high-rise policy for Oosterhout. He summarises the main conclusions of the afternoon: •

High-rise is not a goal. It’s a method. First you have to discover for what problem of opportunity high-rise is a solution. A possible key to success: Develop a policy that grasps the soul of the city: Organise a process in which you discover how high-rise can be an element to help develop the city Chances of high-rise for Oosterhout are mainly: o to enrich the already strong historical and cultural city with more actual / updated features and appearances o it can attract and / or keep young inhabitants to the city, o it can strengthen the beautiful and strong contrasts that are there in the city, contrasts of open <> dense city parts, green <> built spaces, close to each other

The conclusions are recognizes by people present and were followed by an intense debate about elements that should be addressed in the process of developing a high-rise policy: 1. Will Oosterhout stay a village or become a town? Maybe you should make the question not as big. Being a village or a town is just a way to describe elements of the city. You can also be a town while feeling like a village. Just as parts of cities like Rotterdam or other big cities feel like a village. 2. What kind of urban quality do we want to realise. What chances do high-rise bring us? Maybe a discussion about high-rise should be started with a discussion about green spaces and the. 3. Don’t aim for a high-rise policy. Aim for a policy to develop the city. High-rise is a part of a broader discussion. 4. What is the soul of Oosterhout? The selforganising power of the city and society. That power can be used much more for these kinds of processes. 5. How to involve people? Maybe the alderman should write his own discussion paper. Jean did it once in Culemborg. It gave a big shock to civil servants (what is the alderman doing!). Make a connection with people and parties who want to invest in Oosterhout 6. Cherish the quality. But use the dynamics 7. The forces of the market are important. There is demand from the market, but it is still to be developed. Involve market powers in developing a policy


8. Search for, and use, stories about Oosterhout. Maybe one story can be: It is ok to expand Oosterhout on the other side of the highway. You can consider it to be part of a technique to save open space and green space in the city. High-rise is another way to save open space in the city. 9. There has been a lot of debate about the development of Oosterhout. Obviously communication is a problem. Architect Ashok Bhalotra was hired to develop a plan. But the way his ideas were communicated to the people from Oosterhout were not smartly done. 10. How to make the people visible who like high-rise. Just imagine: Letâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s put an add in the paper tomorrow. Who wants to live in the Slotbossche tower just centre? Centre. Could you think of a process that makes the group visible that is now invisible? 11. Local people need to be taken seriously. You have to guide them into the unknown. Discover with the local people the future of Oosterhout you want to work on. Take them with you in the process to find the extra options high-rise brings you. 12. Find and use the people who are proud of the city. There are loads of them. Find co-developers, to help build Oosterhout 13. Do not focus on a policy about high buildings, focus on quality in the public domain, and focus on the opportunities.

Conclusion We started the day with raising the question: What is the importance of high-rise for Oosterhout? After the afternoon we realise: We still donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t know. But more important is that we realised that we probably raised the wrong question. Maybe we should have raised questions about the development of Oosterhout. Oosterhout is growing, and will continue to grow for years. The position of the city is getting stronger, its popularity is rising. How can the city expand in a way that it still remains Oosterhout? What elements of the city should be cherished? What elements can be built on while developing the city? Maybe high-rise is an answer, maybe not. The challenge to continue developing Oosterhout while trying to grasp the soul of the city during the process is a huge and potentially inspiring one for city and citizens. If the city of Oosterhout manages to organise coalitions with partners and opposition, and to create a process that people will recognize and feel inspired by, the city can look forward exciting years for those living and working there. For ErasmusPC it was a pleasure to maybe inspire and help the city a bit in organising this process.


Participants Oosterhout Yves de Boer Hans Redert Mia Verhoef Theo Simons Hans van Zeggeren Ad Burger ErasmusPC Kirsten v.d. Berg Hans Karssenberg Jean Eigeman Csaba Zsiros Jeroen Laven

ErasmusPC Searching for the Soul of the City 2007




The city of Oosterhout, in the south of The Netherlands, faces the challenge of creating a new high-rise strategy. They have recently had a...

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