Despite this warning, I’m throwing all caution to the wind and going home to Toronto. As my contract at the University of Amsterdam comes to an end in a couple of months, I am happy to be returning to Toronto to continue my career in urban planning. I think that my experiences here will help me to work with local planners, non-profits, and citizen groups to develop planning solutions to the complex problems that the City of Toronto currently faces.

Amsterdam and The Netherlands has a lot of lessons to teach about planning: anyone who is interested should check out the Municipality of Amsterdam‘s comprehensive research on air quality, traffic safety, spatial planning, and all sorts of other issues. Likewise, the national portal for spatial planning,, allows you to find the spatial, zoning, provincial, and other plans for your neighbourhood and shows you how the national policies on planning apply. The Kennisinstituut voor Mobiliteitsbeleid (Institute for Transport Policy Analysis) does a yearly study of transportation patterns in all Dutch cities. These are the kinds of research and accessibility to information that we need so badly in Canadian cities, where all too often research on housing, transportation, and other critical urban issues is scattered and/or not publicly accessible.

But all is not perfect in the Land of Windmills and Olympic Speed Skaters. My work in TOD has shown how municipalities can identify their strengths and weaknesses in terms of actors, governance, and policies and use policies from other cities to inspire their own programs. In the Dutch context, some cities and regions have been better at others at collaborating, establishing informal networks, improving actor relationships, and developing a vision for the future. Amsterdam, in particular, does not have great relationships between the municipalities and the regions–there are unclear roles for the development industry and the national government in achieving policy innovation and change in TOD. While other cities and regions innovate, Amsterdam remains hesitant, the actors in planning processes stalled by inter-municipal competition and professional silos. Transportation planners don’t talk to spatial planners, and the public aren’t involved in the development of large-scale visions or ideas for the future. The longstanding resistance to “outside” ideas from other cities and countries is only just starting to break down. Does this sound familiar?

During my two years here, it’s become clear that the City of Toronto faces serious planning challenges as well. Toronto is no stranger to odd, melodramatic, and ineffective leadership at City Hall, but I will say this–my Dutch co-workers only asked about Toronto, or Canada, when Rob Ford started making headlines. Toronto residents, and indeed, international spectators, have been puzzled as to the consequences of such actions for a municipal leader. While no one person can be responsible for the problems of Canada’s largest city, the Toronto story demands the question, “Where is this city headed?” Do the municipalities and regional governments within the region have complementary goals? Do transportation plans from one city conflict with another? Are the actors involved clear on their roles in supporting compact growth and development? Is there a grand vision, and if so does the public support it? If you answered “no” to more than 2 of these questions…well, you see where this is headed.

Every city, every region, has its challenges. However, the lesson of The Netherlands is that challenges can be overcome through steady, ongoing collaborative efforts. At UBC, planners were taught that through communication and dialogue, residents, business owners, governments, and non-profit organizations alike would help contribute to better plans and policies. The process, as planning theorist John Friedmann would say, is integral to the success of the plan. The City of Vancouver has had great success in involving its residents in the development of neighbourhood plans and visions for the future. Above all, they have achieved a level of understanding of planning issues in the general public that I have not yet seen in any other city. I think that Toronto is ready to approach its challenges this way: through dialogue, through collaboration, through the development of a shared vision that will help shape the public understanding of planning goals and the public good. This is what I’d like to bring home with me: those of you in Toronto, I’m looking forward to working with you in June!

I started working on the iTOD project at the University of Amsterdam in July 2012. Our goal was to find out what cities around the world had done to overcome barriers to implementation of transit-oriented development. The Netherlands has had some national planning policy focusing on development around railway stations, but has yet to develop a consistent TOD approach at the regional level. Our study aimed to find out whether there were consistent actors, policies, or governance structures that had enabled other city-regions to successfully implement TOD, and whether those would work in The Netherlands.

This is the first study (of which we are aware) to conduct a systematic comparison of TOD cases. Most case studies in TOD have been single-case studies, and those that have compared cases did so in a simple way, e.g. using illustrative tables. For example, a number of studies have mentioned factors like the importance of key visionaries in promoting TOD in their city-region. However, these single-case studies have not been able to demonstrate if one factor was more important than the others in achieving successful implementation. Multiple-case studies in TOD (e.g. study of several cases with the same methodological approach by the same researchers) are also rare. Our findings are more generalizable than previous single-case studies because of the systematic approach that we took: meta-analysis, which included the use of meta-matrices and rough set analysis.

At the end of our first year, in July 2013, I presented our first set of findings at the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP)/Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) conference in Dublin. This article, which has been accepted for publication in Urban Policy and Research, outlines our approach to drawing critical success factors from a set of 11 case studies: Tokyo, Perth, Melbourne, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Naples, Copenhagen, Amsterdam-Utrecht, Arnhem-Nijmegen, and Rotterdam-The Hague. These critical success factors are the key elements of the cases that were instrumental in implementation of TOD, or acted as barriers to implementation. We were also able to isolate the factors that were most influential, and the combinations of factors that were used to achieve specific TOD goals, e.g. a high modal share for public transit, cycling, and walking. These details are outlined in our second article (currently under review). One surprising aspect of our study is which factors were less important than others in successful implementation (e.g. key visionaries and the use of site-specific tools in implementation).

In the past few months, we have been organizing workshops with Dutch planners who work in land use and transportation planning. Dutch planners seem to have reached a consensus that TOD is desirable in both the North and South Wings of the Randstad (that is, in Amsterdam-Utrecht and Rotterdam-Den Haag). However, they are still unsure of how TOD actually happens: who is the lead organization, how does the planning process happen, and what are the legal regulations or policies that would enable TOD to be implemented? A main barrier seems to be the lack of formal relationships between the various actors (e.g. municipalities, transportation departments, and the national government) and a lack of understanding on what the roles are: what can a municipality do to support TOD, and what can the national government do? How can they work together to achieve the goal of more sustainable regions, where one of the means to this goal might be TOD? There has been some progress in developing better informal relationships between the actors, particularly in the South Wing (e.g. StedenbaanPlus, the Randstad Rail project).

As we start to wrap up the project by July 2014, I would say that the understanding of TOD is still very limited to station areas and railway infrastructure. Planners in The Netherlands are not thinking about main streets as transportation corridors involving cycling, walking, and public transit infrastructure (by which I mean sidewalks, cycling paths, trams, and buses). This is very different from the approach in the US and Canada, which has shifted to the smaller neighbourhood scale because this is where the impact can be seen on modal choice. Dutch planners also do not seem to understand the desire to live near public transit infrastructure because the country is so dependent on cycling; the attitude seems to be, “Why should I live near a train station when I can just bike there in 10 minutes?”

And finally, a major barrier to TOD implementation in the Netherlands is the lack of public participation in planning processes. Compared to the US and Canada, where public participation techniques are taught at planning school, Dutch planners themselves noted that they are not trained in these techniques beyond simple consultation on a final plan (as Dutch planning law requires). In a number of the successful TOD cases, planners conducted long-term, widespread public consultation on the future of the region, including sustainability, transportation, housing, and the built form. This level of consultation (which was not based on specific projects, but a general dialogue) eventually led to a much broader understanding of planning issues, which created more public acceptance of higher densities and public transportation infrastructure. Planning in the Netherlands is still very top-down, which is very different from the US and Canada. On the other hand, public acceptance of higher densities and mixed-use planning seems to be high; the Dutch population, even in smaller cities, is quite used to this reality given the history of reclaimed land in this country. Considering the history and cultural context in the Netherlands, which includes dialogue and consensus-building on complex issues such as water management, there seems to be a lot of potential to integrate more public participation in planning processes which may help develop a consistent vision or strategic planning goal for integrated land use-transportation planning in Dutch city-regions.

Planning transportation and land use at a regional level is something that very few urban areas have done well. It’s recognized in The Netherlands that this type of collaboration among municipalities, land use and transportation authorities, regional and provincial governments is difficult, but needs to be done to achieve sustainable, compact urban growth. On November 27, the Province of North Holland launched a new program called Maak Plaats! (or, “Make Way!”) which will attempt to develop a provincial strategy for public transit and the areas within 1200 meters of railway stations. Click here to download a copy of the report (the only English text appears on p230-231, “English Summary”).

No doubt inspired by StedenbaanPlus, the integrated regional strategy and co-operative agreement between TOD actors in the Rotterdam-Den Haag region, Maak Plaats! has integrated the plethora of transportation and spatial analysis provided by Deltametropolis. Deltametropolis has done detailed analysis of each node in the North and South Wings of the Randstad which make it easier for the various levels of government to visualize which areas would be the best for future TOD. Below is some of their work for the South Wing.

StedenbaanPlus analysis of station areas

Deltametropolis analysis of station areas for StedenbaanPlus showing the potential for each node

For detailed analysis of each node in North Holland, see p235-363 in the Maak Plaats! report.

North Holland corridoroverzicht

The eight designated corridors in North Holland

In North Holland, eight corridors have been designated:

  • Heerhugowaard-Amsterdam (pilot)
  • Enkhuizen – Amsterdam
  • Daman – Alkmaar
  • Amsterdam – Leiden
  • Amsterdam – Amersfoort / Utrecht
  • Amsterdam – Utrecht
  • Amsterdam – Uitgeest / Zandvoort / Leiden
  • Amsterdam – Lelystad

The goals are to locate at least 50% of new housing around public transit nodes, prioritize plans that occur within the built-up area, reduce surplus office space in areas that are not transit-accessible, locate regional services in transit-accessible locations, and improve trip-chaining facilities. These are not surprising considering the previous policies such as A-B-C location policy (introduced in 1989), which aimed to concentrate employment growth at station locations but had disappointing results.

Starting in 2014, the province will monitor urban development around public transit nodes, prioritize location of new housing within station areas, and facilitate regional consultations and alliances between public and private actors. Specific grants or investment programs may be used to develop key Provincial Nodes. Partners include municipal and city-regional governments, regional bus provider Connexxion, national rail agency NS, rail infrastructure provider ProRail, the OV office, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, the Universities of Amsterdam and Nijmegen, and Deltametropolis.

As StedenbaanPlus was the first regional collaboration and agreement between transportation and land use actors in The Netherlands, Maak Plaats! can be seen as building upon this success. Deltametropolis has also done a lot to familiarize planners with TOD concepts, mainly through their SprintCity gaming sessions.

So far, the willingness to collaborate on regional TOD strategies has been developed through informal cooperation networks, but not a lot has actually been implemented. Rotterdam-Den Haag is making some progress with the RandstadRail corridor and projects, which include integrated LRT and BRT linking Rotterdam, Den Haag and Zoetermeer.

2013-09-19 14.07.02I’m live blogging today from an international seminar organized by GO-SPOOR, a community of research and practice that brings together the main payers in TOD in The Netherlands. GO-SPOOR is the overarching framework within which my postdoc project, iTOD (implementing TOD), is located. Today’s program includes presentations by researchers on the North Wing (Amsterdam-Utrecht) part of the project, the South Wing (Rotterdam-Den Haag) part, as well as discussions led by international experts:

But what makes this seminar different is that we’ll be travelling to different cities to see their TOD approaches: starting in Arnhem, then off to Den Haag tomorrow and Zaandam on Saturday.

Karst Geurs (University of Twente) introduced the South Wing iTOD project by discussing StedenbaanPlus, a major agreement between regional and local authorities (municipalities, transportation planners, regional governments) to improve the accessibility through development around transit. The idea is to generate development around stations to generate more passengers on the rail network. StedenbaanPlus is unique in The Netherlands because it takes a regional approach to TOD–other projects in the country have been very focused on the areas immediately around railway station, and development was in a sporadic pattern. The project will add about 750,000 square meters of office space and from 25000 residential units, as well as increasing the quality and frequency of train service (these figures reflect major reductions due to the economic crisis and persistent oversupply of office space). One major problem in The Netherlands is that areas designated for new housing are often in suburban areas outside the reach of transit (the VINEX locations I’ve written about in earlier posts). Another area of uncertainty is that Netherlands Rail has not yet agreed to the increased rail frequencies. At this point rail ridership has increased while bus ridership has decreased. Karst’s postdocs Lissy la Paix Puello, Christa Hubers, and Martijn Droes gave more in-depth presentations on the economic effects of TOD. Christa is trying to determine whether two-person households who live near TOD actually use transit, and we had a lively discussion about the low rate of public transit by the Dutch (9% compared to the European average of 17%) and whether the built environment in newer residential developments is desirable.

Luca Bertolini (University of Amsterdam, my supervisor) gave an overview of the North Wing iTOD project, highlighting the fact that while TOD isn’t new in The Netherlands, Amsterdam doesn’t take a regional approach to the integration of land use and transportation. Erwin van der Krabben (Radboud University Nijmegen) gave the Arnhem-Nijmegen context. The project examines “smart governance” and finance strategies in TOD, including urban land readjustment which he discussed in more detail. The postdocs on the North Wing iTOD project (me, Dorina Pojani, and Sander Lenferink) presented our work to date on the project, mine on transferrable lessons from a meta-analysis of case studies in 11 cities, Dorina focusing on policy transfer between countries/cities and government officials and Sander discussing whether value capture tools in TOD can be transferred to The Netherlands. Dorina has done extensive interviews with Amsterdam and international TOD planners to ask them how they learned from other cases and what types of policy transfer happens. Sander has found that Tax Increment Financing, for example, is legally and financially possible in The Netherlands, but the application involves political choice (e.g. at the expense of other services); the consequences of these strategies are still unknown in this country. Ary Samsura also presented on applying gaming approaches to land and property development; this is part of the work on value capture. Sander, Dorina, and I recently presented our work at the ACSP/AESOP conference in Dublin.

We’re looking forward to seeing the real-world examples in the next couple of days!


New housing in Nieuwe Rhijngeest


Social housing in Oetgstgeest, built before the economic crisis

In the Urban Planning group at the University of Amsterdam (UVA in Dutch), it’s become a tradition to end the school year with a trip to one of the VINEX locations. These are suburban locations designated by the national government in 1988 for massive new housing projects, meant to divert some of the population growth from city centers. Ypenburg, near Den Haag, and Almere, to the east of Amsterdam, are a couple of examples of these areas where there were already inhabitants but not at a large scale. Most of the VINEX housing has been built after 1993. Yesterday we went to Oegstgeest, just west of Leiden and a mere 10 minutes by bus from Leiden Centraal Station. Dr. Johann Gomes, a retired professor from our department, lives there and hosted us. Oegstgeest has a population of 23,000 (2012) and has been populated for many centuries (there is archaeological evidence of the Roman empire) although it primarily had a rural character until the 20th century. Several new neighbourhoods, like Haaswijk, Morsebel and Nieuwe Rhijngeest, were constructed in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s respectively–Nieuwe Rhijngeest begun in 2006 and the “Nieuwe Rhijn” (the New Rhine, or a 10-meter wide canal) is currently being dug.


ROC Leiden at Lammenschans Station. The lower level is the grocery store that hasn’t yet opened its doors.


Rooftop social space for students

Before arriving in Oetgstgeest, we learned about some of the work being done by the Municipality of Leiden and developer Green Real Estate on redeveloping several school sites near Centraal and Lammenschans railway stations. ROC Leiden, a technical/vocational school forstudents aged 12-20, decided to consolidate their five locations to two, and located one near each railway station. Construction of the new school buildings has been going well and both schools have classes running for hundreds of students, but the multi-use aspects of the buildings haven’t materialized as promised–notably, grocery stores in the ground floors of the two buildings. The economic crisis has slowed things down and grocery stores are reluctant to open without a guarantee of success, although in the case of the Lammenschans location, the store continues to rent the space out in anticipation of the future growth of the area. Green Real Estate is taking on the role of developing the Lammenschans station area on a long-term basis, rather than just developing and selling the buildings one-by-one across the region. They develop new projects and buy existing properties in the area to develop a more cohesive plan than would happen if each land parcel were developed separately. Construction is underway on several new projects adjacent to the Lammenschans ROC.


Our Urban Planning group presenting our work in 5-minute sessions

Another purpose of the day was to put into action some of our agreed actions to improve communication within the Urban Planning stream at UVA. First, we decided that we would like to hear more about each others’ work, and second, we would like our work to become more visible to the greater planning community. To this end, we began the day with a session in which 21 of us presented our work in 5-minute presentations. There were no questions asked, each presenter merely stuck to the 5-minute limit (with help of course…academics like to talk) and the result was a very interesting summary of the work we do in the department. Recently, the accreditation committee was at UVA and researchers were asked to give 3-minute presentations of their work, so some people had already practiced giving this type of short summary. Really, it was amazing to hear the range of planning issues our researchers engage with, from climate change to sustainable transportation to institutional and actor roles in planning. The UVA Urban Planning blog was also launched; most of us will be posting there as well in the coming months, discussing planning issues in the Netherlands and our research based in other counties. I’ll post the link once we populate the blog with the first posts. I’m really lucky to be part of such a great, and diverse, group of people here in Amsterdam!

King William, the former Queen Beatrix, and Queen Maxima on the Koninklijk Paleis after the abdication

King William, the former queen Beatrix, and Queen Maxima on the Koninklijk Paleis after the abdication on April 30, 2013.

Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day) is one of the biggest holidays of the year in The Netherlands. The Queen often honours citizens for exceptional service to the country on this day: most become members of the Order of Oranje-Nassau. The Dutch also celebrate by wearing the colour of the House of Oranje-Nassau, of which the royal family are members, explaining the seasonal “orange madness.”

Free market in Amsterdam

Free market in Amsterdam

A girl sells her books in the Vondelpark

A girl sells her books in the Vondelpark

Traditionally, Queen’s Day has been the only day of the year when anyone who wanted to sell items could do so without a permit: the nation-wide vrijmarkts (free markets) are famous. Each local market has its own flavour: in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, you’re likely to see children selling their old toys and books, homemade brownies and cupcakes, and performing on their musical instruments for donations from the thousands of passers-by. In my own Turkish-Moroccan-Indonesian neighbourhood, people sold second-hand clothing, china, and homemade snacks like loempia, donairs and onion bhaji.

April 30th, 2013 was a Queen’s Day like no other in The Netherlands: today Queen Beatrix abdicated her throne so that her son Willem could become king. The timing was particularly auspicious: Beatrix turned 75 this year, 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the 400th anniversary of Amsterdam’s Grachtengordel (Canal Belt). Unlike the United Kingdom, which seems to reserve abdications for scandals, there is a long history of abdication in The Netherlands. Before Beatrix, her mother Juliana abdicated in 1980 at the age of 71 and her grandmother Wilhelmina abdicated in 1948 at the age of 68.

Celebrating on the Prinsengracht

Celebrating on the Prinsengracht

As tradition dictates, this morning’s formal abdication took place in the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace) on Dam Square, and was quite a sedate affair: the Queen, Willem and his wife Maxima, and members of the King’s cabinet signed the official documents of abdication. The ceremony was broadcast live and although the setting and occasion were very formal, Beatrix, Willem, and Maxima exchanged quite a few smiles and happy looks in the process. King Willem, Queen Maxima, and their daughters Amalia, Alexia, and Ariane appeared on the balcony overlooking the square shortly afterwards, smiling and waving to the hundreds of orange-clad spectators below. A couple of hours later the king’s coronation took place in the Nieuwe Kerk at Dam Square, and following this the royal party will travel by boat along the IJ River for more festivities. For the first time in 123 years, The Netherlands has a King. The Dutch celebrated as they usually do: partying in boats in the canals, listening to live music all over the city, and buying and selling things in the free markets.

Queen’s Day was originally Prinsessedag (Princess’ Day), first celebrated on the 5th birthday of then-Princess Wilhelmina, August 1st, 1885; it was renamed when she inherited the throne in 1980. When Juliana became queen the date was changed to her birthday, April 30th; Beatrix kept the date as a tribute to her mother. As of next year Koningsdag (King’s Day) will be celebrated on April 27th, King Willem’s birthday.

Those of you following my blog have seen some of my recent writing about Dutch culture, as I navigate the murky waters of Amsterdam canals as part of my post-doctoral position at the University of Amsterdam. Today my article on Amsterdam cycling, “A reluctant cyclist in Europe’s cycling capital”, is featured on Spacing Vancouver and also on the main Spacing website. For all the cyclists out there, you’ll probably accuse me of complaining about the conditions of paradise*, but for the rest of you it might be funny**. Check it out: Part 1 of the article appears today, and Part 2 will appear next Monday.

*Sample comment: “Take a tram those days if you don’t like the rain or snow – or buck up – I assure you, you are not made of sugar…This article really does sound like an “unexperienced cyclist” moaning about what most people get used to in a single riding season and learn to deal with.”

**Sample comment: “For cycling to be seen as “normal” in Toronto, we need more “normal” people to commute on “normal” bikes.”

Anne Katrine discusses "holy cows"

In an earlier post, I described an informal exchange between the transportation planning researchers at the Universities of Amsterdam and Groningen. This week, the University of Amsterdam hosted a similar exchange between our researchers and the fine folks at the University of Aalborg. The idea for the symposium came about last year’s AESOP (Association of European Schools of Planning) conference in Ankara, no doubt through the charisma of our fearless leader, Luca Bertolini.

Luca and Patrick Driscoll (PhD candidate, Aalborg) began the symposium by introducing the group to key issues in transportation planning in the Netherlands and Denmark, respectively. In a session on assessment of transportation plans, Morten Skou Nicolaisen (postdoctoral researcher, Aalborg) summarized his research determining the accuracy of forecasts used in Danish transport project evaluations: he found that for road projects, there is about 10% more demand than expected, while for rail projects there is as much as 30% less demand than expected. Large fixed projects such as major rail infrastructure had the least accuracy; smaller-scale and lower-cost upgrades have the most accuracy. In cases where projects were delayed extensively or scrapped altogether, there was actually 7% less demand than anticipated for the ‘do-nothing’ alternative; this knowledge should impact our valuation of this alternative in our plans. Els Beukers (PhD candidate, Amsterdam) presented her work on using cost-benefit analysis as a learning tool, based on Kolb and Fry’s experiential learning cycle (which I detailed in the post on Groningen). Patrick then presented his work on using ex-post project evaluations as a tool for social learning: we assume that new knowledge will lead to better evaluations, but does it? He discussed several ex-post evaluation attempts, including the Federal Transit Administration’s before and after studies of New Starts projects in the US and the Post Opening Project Evaluation (POPE) of Major Schemes (highway projects costing over £10 million) in the UK. POPE includes a meta-analysis of projects one year and five years after project completion, and has found that the projects give a positive economic outcome, environmental impacts were as expected, and there was no systemic bias.

Lucas and Andres discuss possible collaboration

In a session on transition studies, Andrew Switzer (PhD candidate, Amsterdam) presented his work on the transportation transitions in Munich and Zurich: the history of concrete threats in catalyzing transportation shifts has been observed in both cities (e.g. the threat of climate change, overdependence upon the car manufacturing industry, and loss of historic buildings to road expansion from 1970-1990 was linked to decreased car use). Nina Vogel (PhD candidate, Aalborg) explored Fredericia Kommune in Denmark, a community founded with the aim of reducing CO2 emissions. However, it is located in a very car-dependent part of the country with little transit accessibility, and residents appear to be technical optimists reluctant to pursue transportation demand management routes. Andrès Felipe Valderrama Pineda (postdoctoral researcher, Aalborg) discussed transitions in Copenhagen, which showed the same pattern as many other European and North American cities: a transition to car and bus transit in the 1950s-1970s; slowing of car use, growth in transit, and protests against highway infrastructure in the 1970s-1990s; reinvestment in city centres and increased rail infrastructure from the 1990s-2000s, but still fairly high rates of driving. He took a multi-level perspective to these trends, examining which were rooted in the landscape (very long term, seeing rapid change only through disrupted events), the regime (very stable, rooted in institutions) or niches (short terms of less than ten years, not necessarily local). Michel van Wijk (postdoctoral researcher, Amsterdam) presented his research underway on airport regions which will use Q-methodology to draw strong statements from interviews with transportation and planning practitioners. He will then ask actors who do not know a lot about the topic whether they agree or disagree with the statements, and using Q-sorting will be left with several frames that they can test through serious gaming.

In our final session on conditions to policy success in transport planning, I presented my work on critical success factors in integrating transportation and land use planning: at this time I’m halfway through a meta-analysis of 11 case cities. Anne Katrine Braagaard (PhD candidate, Aalborg) discussed “holy cows” in planning. In her study of Carlsberg Town, architects created a master plan prioritizing cycling and providing less parking, but when it was turned into a local plan and strategies, the municipality allowed the “holy cow” of car use and parking to re-enter, resulting in a watered-down plan. Finally, Jan Duffues (PhD candidate, Amsterdam) presented his study of compact city development in the Netherlands. So far he has found that planning documents attempt to integrate transportation and land use but there is only partial recognition of the effects of densification on the expansion of the car network and little mention of cycling or walking. While transportation planning becomes more prominent and less linked with land use at the higher levels (major projects and initiatives), at the level of project documentation land use is seen as fixed and projects are divided up into pieces so there isn’t an integrated transportation-land use approach–there can even be contradictory outcomes.

Next steps in the new partnership

The following day, we discussed directions for future partnerships between Aalborg and Amsterdam, including joint sessions at AESOP and the upcoming World Society of Transport and Land Use Symposium in Delft (2014), a couple of joint articles, and coordinating a special issue of a journal on sustainable mobility. Jan and Patrick will explore the use of social strategy games and other gaming possibilities in our research. Luca, Morten and I will explore the idea of comparative case research. Patrick has created an online file sharing environment for us on Podio. We will encourage the development of an informal exchange of Masters and PhD students working in each others’ departments, carrying out research on Danish and Dutch transportation and land use issues. I’d say the first Aalborg-Amsterdam Symposium was a great success, with many of us discovering common interests and research strategies. We will continue to build on these relationships over time, hopefully creating a lasting network of researchers and students exploring issues of sustainable mobility: obviously our countries need our help!

University of Groningen's Zernike campus

Researchers are often accused of working in “ivory towers” separated from the real world. Perhaps planning suffers less from this syndrome since it is firmly rooted in practice. But most universities still retain strong boundaries between academic teaching and learning units. Even in an interdisciplinary field like planning, efforts must be made to exchange ideas and achieve some sort of synergy between different groups. While the Department of Geography, Planning, and International Development at the University of Amsterdam seems to have these internal boundaries between groups, several key efforts have been made to link our work to that of others.

Last week several researchers from our transport planning group joined researchers at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen for a unique exchange. A few years ago, our professors Luca Bertolini and Jos Arts discovered that the two departments had a lot in common, and they decided it would be a great idea for the researchers and students to meet up and discuss their ideas. This week’s exchange was the seventh such workshop between the two groups of transport planners. The workshops are organized by two students, one from each school, twice a year.

From Groningen, Assistant Professor Eva Heinen presented her latest research proposal to study cycling in the Netherlands. PhD student Ori Rubin discussed travel trends among family members visiting each other, concentrating on parents visiting their children, children visiting their parents, and siblings visiting each other. PhD student Niels Heeres encouraged discussion on what makes a focus group or a workshop: is one a data collection technique and the other a learning opportunity? Or are both research methods, one centred on a particular issue and the other seeking to develop knowledge or skills? Masters student Marije Hamersma presented some fascinating insights from her study of people living near highways at two Dutch sites–a surprising 80% of people she surveyed had no problem living in these areas, and about 20% chose the location for proximity to the highway.

University of Groningen's Zernike campus

From Amsterdam, PhD student Els Beukers discussed her research on cost benefit analysis as a tool that is problematic for many planners. Her research sought to bring together planners and evaluators to discuss some of the problems they had with cost benefit analysis; the Dutch government requires cost benefit analysis as the final step in approving land use-transport plans for federal funding. Els, Luca, and several other researchers at the University of Amsterdam are attempting to change the policy planning process through these types of projects: bringing together planners, policy makers and members of other professions to hear about innovative practices, reflect on them and try to develop their own policy and plans in focus group sessions. Can planners stage workshops that act in the same way as public health introduces interventions? Andrew Switzer, who is studying transitions to car use in Zurich and Munich for his PhD, hopes to use insights on this historical shift to learn how to shift current trends towards alternative transport modes. Postdoctoral researcher Lucas Harms has been mining data to explore demographic patterns in cycling in the Netherlands, including what percentages are due to population growth, increased distances, or increased trips. Although cycling has increased in the Netherlands in general, it has changed more rapidly in certain age groups and certain regions of the country.

This exchanged offered us the opportunity to hear what others are working on in planning and mobility issues, discuss methods and approaches, and our connection to planners. While Groningen researchers seem more linked to national agencies and organizations, at Amsterdam we tend to meet with local and regional stakeholders. The mix of qualitative and quantitative methods to explore these issues was also interesting, so much that we decided to devote our next meeting to mixed methods approaches. I only wish we had annual exchanges of this type within our own department–I’d love to know what the economic geographers and international development researchers are working on. But we’ll stick to interuniversity exchanges for now: in January we’ll host researchers from the University of Alborg, Denmark in a similar exchange.

Zwarte Pieten arriving from Spain

Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam today, November 18th–not coincidentally, the same day as the Santa Claus Parade in many Canadian cities. An estimated 300,000 children line the canals and streets of Amsterdam to greet Sinterklaas as he arrives by steamboat with his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten. The arrival of Sinterklaas (intoch van Sinterklaas) has been celebrated in Amsterdam since 1934 and transmitted on live TV since 1952. The Dutch maintain a separation between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus, who they call Kerstman (the Christmas Man).

In the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas lives in Spain (where the remains of the actual St. Nicholas lie). In mid-October, he leaves Spain by steamboat and arrives in the Netherlands, in a different Dutch city each year, then travels throughout the country. This year he arrived in Roermond, in the southern province of Limburg. While he stays in town, he’s considered the most important person in town–even more than the town’s mayor. His arrival also starts the traditional Christmas shopping season, which used to go up until December 6th, St. Nicholas Day. On the eve of the 6th, children leave out carrots by their wooden shoes for Sinterklaas’ horse, since he travels from house to house delivering presents on a white horse.

Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain

The Zwarte Pieten, the hundreds of Moorish helpers who work for Sinterklaas, deliver the presents by sliding down each chimney (the Zwarte Pieten also traditionally had the dubious job of catching naughty children and stuffing them into burlap sacks). Traditionally, the beautifully-wrapped present would be accompanied by a funny poem describing the recipient, written by Sinterklaas. It would be opened on December 6th. Children’s shoes would be filled with marzipan and other treats.

The tradition of Sinterklaas was brought to the US by Dutch immigrants, where the tradition of the Zwarte Pieten was presumably changed to elves. The Zwarte Piet controversy can be traced to Dutch colonial times: according to folklore, Sinterklaas had a Moorish servant boy named Zwarte Piet. During WWII, Canadian soldiers who liberated the Netherlands noticed the joy that the tradition of Zwarte Piet gave to the local children during the wartime years, and held a Zwarte Pieten party with many of the characters. Today, the intoch van Sinterklaas features over 700 Zwarte Pieten. The Dutch have tried to dispel the obvious racial overtones by rewriting the story to suggest that the Zwarte Pieten are not people of African descent, but are merely dirty from sliding down chimneys all night. (Just last year, the Dutch community celebrating Sinterklaas’ arrival in Vancouver with the Zwarte Pieten resulted in opposition by the African-Canadian community). The controversy hasn’t dimmed the excitement of the local children: when I attended this year’s intoch, the children cried out for Piet, not Sinterklaas, and many sported Zwarte Piet medieval costumes and hats. Sinterklaas is dressed as a priest with red robes, bishop’s hat, and gold mitre. The Pieten hand out pounds of candy and pepernoten, bite-sized ginger cookies. Large taai-taai, shaped as Sinterklass, can also be found in local shops.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piete on wrapping paper

It’s interesting to see the progression of St. Nicholas from a third-century Greek bishop known for generosity and kindness to children, to stories around the world of his protection of the poor and of sailors going away to sea. In cities from Montreal to Amsterdam, the church of St. Nicholas stands at the main port of the city as a symbol of protection at sea. In Greece, the coastline features many small white chapels dedicated to St. Nicholas. After WWII, American soldiers dressed up as Santa Claus to give out toys to children in war-torn England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and later Germany and Japan. In the Netherlands, during the weeks leading up to December 6th, kids can watch the Zwarte Pieten news on TV to see what’s going on with Sinterklaas. In Canada of course, we all await Santa’s arrival from the North Pole, where he makes toys for good boys and girls with the help of his elves. Dutch immigrants to Canada, as well other ethnocultural groups such as Greeks and Ukrainians, have helped shaped our Santa Claus tradition, which includes a parade in mid-November.