The Tarwewijk case

In 2011 the renowned American critic Bruce Nussbaum posted a blog with the title “Is Humanitarian design the new imperialism?” This controversial statement came into my mind when we were confronted with cynical inhabitants of the Rotterdam neighbourhood Tarwewijk.

Tarwewijk has always been a problematic neighbourhood in the South of Rotterdam. It is one of the poorest and most densely populated districts of Rotterdam, inhabited by a high amount of immigrants who leave the area as soon as they get a chance, resulting in a 20% vacancy rate. There is also a high percentage of unemployment and illiteracy. It is one of those neighbourhoods that we would call “disadvantaged” and therefore, it is destined to attract a lot of well-intentioned temporary interventions by all kinds of parties including artists, designers and social workers. I think every city has such a pampered neighbourhood—an ideal target for social design.

A model

Our ambitions for Tarwewijk were triggered by Open House, a oneday event we did in New York’s prototypical suburb of Levittown in 2011 in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro. “Discover your inner service provider” was the motto as inhabitants collaborated with designers to establish businesses in their homes. The aim was to bring more vitality and interaction into the suburb, and also to improve its economic circumstances. A number of inhabitants opened their homes for a one-day business—including an unemployed teacher who opened a classroom and an avid gardener who opened a backyard farm. Architects Hayley Eber and Frank Gesualdi of EFGH created a model proposing ways of modifying existing regulations in order to enable such a bottom-up service economy to emerge in the suburbs.

Open House presented a model that we then wanted to test in a totally different kind of neighbourhood. We found Tarwewijk, a place where residents already were running their own businesses behind the facades, businesses like hairdressing, travel advise and radio broadcasting. Together with the inhabitants we wanted to make the existing network of hidden business activity visible and to celebrate Tarwewijk as a business district. At the same time we wanted to propose new strategies that would re-introduce work into daily life within the neighbourhood, loosening regulations and creating affordable workspaces. With a team of designers and our partners we have been working to make this happen.

One of those short-lived initiatives

However, when one of our collaborating design teams, TD, approached the inhabitants, they were confronted with stark cynicism. The residents considered our project as one of those short-lived intitiatives that they have encountered so many times before without any significant results. They accused the government that they were helping people to start a new business just because they want to get them off welfare support and to bring them into the tax system. They accused the architects that they steal their ideas: “You take our ideas, use them elsewhere and then you are gone!…Sorry, but we don’t trust you architects”. The residents of Tarwewijk seem to be fed up with all these patronizing attempts to help them. Instead of convincing the residents to continue with the “collaboration”, TD made a documentary, revealing their reactions instead.

At first I was shocked by these accusations but soon I began to realize that they were right. There is a gap between the design world and the people that designers want to reach. I started to distrust all this social work. I don’t doubt all the good intentions but who specializes in social design also needs victims—it’s their bread and butter. It’s time for a more strategic and long-term approach that has real impact.

Actual installations

We decided to cancel the one-day design event and to restrict ourselves to implementing the longer lasting concepts and strategies. We installed The Economat by Thomas Lommée, a converted photo booth which invites inhabitants to capture, describe and locate their personal “demands” or “supplies,” mapping and expanding the existing network of hidden homeworkers. The Green Machine by Doepel Strijkers, a production unit for compost that connects children to urban agriculture was installed in a centrally-located playground and connected to an existing family network.

Proposed strategies

Wouter Vanstiphout (Crimson) who was also participating in our project placed our project rightfully in the tradition of “incidental, exogenous and superficial attempts that an extremely short-lived, fashionable interest linked to a misleading optimistic tone”. The proposal he developed with Maxwan architects stood out because it is a strategy to stimulate long-lasting entrepreneurship in the neighbourhood. Tapping into the 20% vacancy rate in Tarwewijk, they allocated existing building blocks as a Special Economic Block, a safe area from municipal regulations, thematic zoning policies and trends in urban renewal and creative industries: “Freed from this, the blocks will attract the entrepreneurial energy, investments and jobs potentially already existing in the neighbourhood”. The Special Economic Block is worth investigating. It will attract entrepreneurial energy and it will create jobs. The rest is left for the inhabitants.

The question that is left behind is what is the role of designers in solving the socio-economic problems of these kind of neighbourhoods? Do those neighbourhoods need well-intentioned design stunts or are they better off with different municipal policies, loosening regulations, and more space and tools for self-organization. If we look at Dharavi, the pampering child of Mumbai, we see that the informal economy of this slum is blossoming (though of course there remain many pressing problems). And we see that the informal activity does not happen in isolation. Dharavi supplies luxurious hotels and restaurants in Mumbai. It is interesting how the formal and informal economy are co-dependent. Of course, circumstances are different in our part of the world, but giving space for more informal developments by the residents themselves should be recognized as a key way of moving forward. This is the role of design—to see how the informal activities that are happening already can be connected to broader strategies. Design should make the step from short-lived interventions to long-term strategies that cover all dimensions of the situation.