«A Happy City is able to show a "beating heart" of a "living community"».
Cees, when did you start working with cities? What does fascinate you the most about working with cities today?
I started working with cities already during my graduation from Technical University in 1975… I was challenged to transform the site of an old hospital in the center of the city for a new housing area.
Next phase was when I bought my own private rowhouse in the White Village, Eindhoven in 1978. Instead of painting my own house white again to do maintenance, I used my energy to create a Maintenance Fund for that small neighborhood to do it together! By doing that and getting the cooperation of at least 100 private owners to sign a contract for 12 years for 25 euro a month, we could be seen as a 'housing company' and could get the same privileges and funding from the state as those companies had. It was the start of a new community, not only for maintenance but also for organizing events like Kingsday, social dinners, parties and more. We became a national monument because of this! Right now, after 40 years the White Village is still one of the most popular places to live. Especially for young families with kids. It is one of the luckiest places in Eindhoven with a beautiful balance between independent privacy and community spirit. A real village a city.
«Witte Dame» building in Eindhoven
After that, I kept developing my social involvement in the city, starting a public dialogue program QAFE in a small theater nearby to discuss the quality of life in the city. I was developing the initiative for 7 years. During the time as many 'necktie-people' from building companies as T-shirts from students and architects came there to take part in the dialogue. Always 'full house'. One of the first topics was not to demolish the first factory building from PHILIPS when it became empty in 1991. Although the city government and PHILIPS wanted to demolish it, we were able to convince them to re-use this «White Lady». The new mayor asked me to join the City Department and it became my daily job and not only volunteering in the evening. It was the start of the transformation process of our former industrial city into a new identity as a «Design city». The factories became popular for new «lofthousing», especially among young people. I started a career in saving and reusing beautiful old schools, factories and even offices for new apartments and communities. This process is still going on. Due to that success I was appointed to start up a program «City as a Laboratory» at the Technical University in 2000 to cooperate and to get new bright ideas from young students about future of the city.
In 2010 I went to Russia for the first time to share my experience in Moscow Design Act and 3 weeks later in 1st Ural Biennial in Yekaterinburg. It became my passion to do this. This visit to the Forum of Living cities will be the 52nd to Russia already. And it's all about sharing knowledge, passion and inspiration. So, it makes me happy to be here to do so.
What fascinates me in this 'movement' of living cities is to meet likeminded people who can inspire me and give me new energy for living. It gives me a bright and positive look at the future.
Especially also the work with students. To get new and bright ideas how to solve questions from life, such as 60+/30- project, and to keep the right balance in 'getting older' and give back things you have learned in life.
This year Living cities forum's manifest is «To know. To be able to do. To act». What would be your advice for newcomers in city development, leaders and initiators of urban projects on how to move from "what I know and can do" to real actions?
I call this the 'cocktail of practices'. First step is to get inspiration on an event like this, to meet likeminded l people, feel part of this new 'movement in society of citymakers, get connected online for direct communication and go and experience abroad if possible. Second step could be to start «at your own front door» with small interventions or actions to improve the «involvement in society». This could be realized in helping your neighbors in small activities, sharing and taking care, guiding little children like grandparents do, organizing a street dinner or little party. Next step could be a maintenance fund or collaboration in maintenance and house-rules in an apartment building.
To leaders and initiators of new projects I would like to advice to become a part of this «Living cities» community and stay tuned. Perhaps you would get inspiration to start up such a project yourself. It can prove that creating of this kind of communities has an extra value for the future. It's an investment in new structures for a healthy society. People will love it and prove that this value will linger on and increase in the future like it did in my own little White Village. The most popular place to live in my city at the moment.
Trust, cooperation and communications are the core principles in any development, of a city, community or a company. In your experience, what are the main pitfalls in building trust, quality communications and cooperation in city development?
Working together on a voluntary basis may be sometimes fragile. It depends on an ability of people to accept each other's specialties not only in terms of skills and positive intentions but also in bad habits. So, one of the pitfalls could be the human or primary reaction on such kind of habits. It's about tolerance and personal qualities to accept these natural elements of behavior to be able to trust each other and become a sort of family in this cooperation.
Living cities forum 2014
It's not a business with a goal in earning money, but it's a social cooperation with respect to each other's independency.
Therefore, communication and transparency are very important. But sometimes decisions have to be made so it's also important to have a structure in which those decisions could be made.
Also, envy could pop up if success is there. Therefore, tolerance is important or open dialogue to overcome these hiccup's in the process or collaboration.
How would you describe a living and happy city?
A Happy City is able to show a «beating heart» of a «living community». So, a sort of a living room in the city where people can meet if they want to. To share experiences, discuss the news, communicate about activities and start up actions and innovations to improve live. It could be the building they are living in, the street in front of the building, the park around the corner or the shop or restaurant nearby. But nowadays also even an APP-group in the internet.
Besides the formal structure in every city having a city council, mayor and City Department there is a need for a place for human exchange of care and share, of collaboration and community experience.
Like in the brains there is a left and a right part, one is for order, structure, mathematics, counting and numbers. The other part is for emotion, sensitivity, behavior, nature, love. In a happy city, both parts are in balance.
Thank you, Cees!
Cees Donkers — architect, urbanist, founder of QASE urban studio from Eindhoven, Holland.