I was recently interviewed by the Japanese magazine Moment. Throughout the interview, we spoke about various projects I initiated with Design+Desires, such as Greener than Green, Social City, Open House and Redreaming the Street. Some time has passed since these projects, but they still have an important relevance today. I read in the newspaper NRC that new plans have been presented to the Amsterdam municipality to improve the function and significance of the outskirts of the city. One of the principles of these plans is to connect various parks and to expand existing green areas, so there is a less strict separation between city and nature. This overlaps with a project I conducted with my team in 2016/2017 in a multicultural neighbourhood in Amsterdam New-West: ‘Redreaming the Street’. This project focused on the question: how does the neighbourhood look like when the residents decide?
To gain the residents’ trust, we settled in a bakery slash cafetaria of a Turkish entrepreneur. A week long, we asked visitors if they wanted to make a drawing of how they would ideally see their street. Who wanted to, could have her drawing printed on a T-shirt. This way we connected with the neighbourhood’s inhabitants.
And what turned out? The street we chose was located in the area called ‘Westelijke Tuinsteden’ (western garden cities), one of the most green areas of Amsterdam. Yes, you could see many trees and bushes if you looked closely, but for the residents they were not of any significance. They saw solid walls, empty streets, straight corners, concrete, grey stones and dark places, while they dreamed of mountains, hills, colours, places to play and relax. There is a beautiful park within walking distance, but almost nobody goes there because it takes going through a tunnel that is experienced as creepy and unsafe.
It was clear that the residents we spoke with interpreted the concept of ‘green’ differently than city developers and municipalities. Developers use green to create space between buildings or to separate different functions; as an architectural principle. Municipalities want green that does not require too much maintenance, with a tedious result. The residents saw the green spaces in their neighbourhood as useless. They wanted not only to be able to use it, as a place to play or relax for example, but also to be able to look at it with joy.
In the proposals we made afterwards, every spot of green is usable: for meetings, to play and relax, as landscape and nature, as colour, to grow plants, fruits or vegetables, for animals to explore. One of the ideas was to expand all of the existing green spots with more green, to connect them and to take the park into account as well. We planned to transform the ‘creepy’ tunnel into a passageway; a meeting place with lots of green. This way, it would be as if the residents lived in a park.
The residents responded enthusiastically to the plan, but the commissioner – the municipality of Amsterdam – never turned anything into action. This is a great pity, because we created expectations with the residents, many of them with a migration background. It took a lot of effort and creativity to gain their trust. It still does not feel right.
And now, three years later, plans have been presented to take on just this problem. ‘Our’ neighbourhood in New-West is also mentioned in this regard. I read the plans have been made by design teams. I hope the residents have had their say at the drawing table. Then I can peacefully continue.