Prof.ir. R.J. Dijkstra

Professor of Urban Design - Department of Urbanism

A successful urban planning design is not something one achieves with a slick image, but through intensive dialogue with the user. This can keep designers from veering to extremes and increase added value for society, says Rients Dijkstra in his inaugural address on ‘Design and Society’.

Designers, come down from your ivory towers: this is the message of the brand-new Professor of Urbanism to his colleagues. As an urban developer, you should put yourself in the service of the design task, not vice versa. Failure to do this will inevitably lead to resistance. “The gut response of lay people is socially determined: they tend to be unenthusiastic about change. This changes if you enter into a discussion. If users feel that they are contributing, more becomes possible,” explains Dijkstra, who is also the National Advisor on Infrastructure and the City, in his new study.

Why isn’t this a standard approach?
“Because our profession is a world unto itself. The things that it considers important are very different from those that society considers important. That’s a distorting mechanism. We have our own jargon, conferences and journals, and they are more focused on exceptional designs than on the question of which design has the greatest added value for society. It’s like getting the butcher to inspect his own meat. It opens the way for extremes.”

How do you determine what is relevant to society?
“That’s quite hard, because it’s not something you can map out by asking twenty people in the surrounding neighbourhood their opinion – because in that case, short-term desires tend to take priority. What society wants is then pushed into the background. To move forwards, we need to have a meaningful discussion. Designers are good at visualisation and should provide images to help people make important choices.”

Then how do you approach it?
“A decisive experience for me was the approach to the former EON power plant in The Hague. In the area that had been cleared, the city wanted to build houses for families with children, among other things, but the participation process was a disaster. It was talking for the sake of talking, and the atmosphere became worse and worse. People wanted to know what was going to happen. We were called in and immediately started designing. This then became the focus of the discussion. It provided a basis on which to start exchanging knowledge. People were opposed to high-rise buildings and we explained the financial implications; that there wouldn’t be any budget left for the park, for example. Then we got results. It’s about taking people seriously and contributing your expertise.”

Does this also earn you points in the papers?
“No, while the ultimate satisfaction of the residents should in fact make front page news. The design is an illustration of the quality that you’re delivering. It’s strange if the design is in the spotlight and the rest of the story is for devotees. There’s a fear within the profession that we’ll lose the oversight, it’s easier to focus on what you’re discussing with colleagues. That’s something you also see in other sectors. Old-fashioned traffic planners used to have models to develop traffic flow and traffic safety systems. Roadways, parking places and kerbs were stamped onto these, and what was left over was called public space. Designing public space was a question of repairing what had gone wrong after the traffic system had been put in place.”

So we’ve actually made progress?
“Certainly; people have come along who have ensured that car traffic is no longer approached in a sectoral way.”

And a similar about-turn is needed in urban development?
“I’ve only just been appointed, but also within the faculty, we could seek each other out more. As a National Advisor, I’ve seen that ministries work in a deeply sectoral fashion. Exchange is minimal. That doesn’t reflect lack of willingness; everyone has priorities and budgets are always limited. If your shopping list is longer than your budget allows, you scrap things until you’re left with the essentials.”

What precisely do you want to achieve at Architecture and the Built Environment?
“Research shouldn’t just be about bringing in funding or publishing articles. We shouldn’t confuse the means with the end. Training competent practitioners shouldn’t be pushed into the background. One of my ambitions is to keep an eye on the balance between practice and theory. And I want to put the social value of design on the agenda. I want to convey to up-and-coming designers that they need to join the discussion. Not with slick images, but by sketching a realistic picture. We shouldn’t use romantic, exaggerated, sunny projections of the end-result, often from a birds-eye-view, but images that help you to understand what you really see or experience.”

You’re not suggesting we convince future users of your design with images of dog poop and rubbish in the street?
“Well, I’m actually all for that. And it’s also something we do sometimes, if the client doesn’t object.”

You’re best known as the designer of the urban development plan for the Leidsche Rijn neighbourhood. Does that plan reflect this philosophy?
“Absolutely. I think that we score highly if you ask people whether they enjoy living there. It’s a good example of how you can break down the barriers between professional groups. We had a fight with the people from the Ministry of Waterways and Public Works, who thought they were the only ones permitted to talk about motorways. Their sectoral plans for widening the A2, flanked by noise-reducing panels, would have separated the new town for 100,000 residents from the city of Utrecht. The plan has prevented it from becoming a satellite town on the other side of ‘the Wall’. It’s thus about finding ways to enter into a conversation with road-builders, ways of convincing them that you’re not a threat, but that you’re bringing new opportunities.”

CV

Rient Dijkstra (born 1961) graduated in urban planning from TU Delft in 1989. After graduating, he worked for Architekten Cie and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Over the last twenty years, he has worked with his own firm, Maxwan, on master plans for the Leidsche Rijn neighbourhood, Leiden Central Station, Rotterdam Central Station, the Antwerp ring road, and public space and neighbourhoods in Moscow, among other things. Since 2012 he has been the National Advisor on Infrastructure and the City. In this capacity, Dijkstra advises the Dutch government on spatial programmes and themes such as coherence in mobility and urban policy.

Rients Dijkstra