Walking into a Thought Experiment

It has been a rather strange couple of weeks since my return from the wilds of Scotland. Perhaps it has something to do with the length of time I spent away from this hub of activity, but it has taken longer than normal to acclimatise to the hustle and bustle of city living. So, it occurred to me that a little stroll might do the trick to restore some balance.
Rotterdam is, in that respect, a great city to live in. While the centre is confined to a few city blocks, the surrounding areas offer a wealth of diverse sights for the enthusiastic walker. I’ve lived in this city for ten years altogether, and yet I still discover new bits on a weekly basis. Usually, of course, I do this on a bicycle, but last Sunday we decided to explore the South side of the river on foot. A handy little map (see above), procured from a local book store, showed a number of interesting spots to visit, but as I am fond of islands, we decided to walk the 7 or so kilometres to the Van Brienenoord Island. This island is actually the result of a splitting of the Meuse River back at the beginning of the 19th century and takes its name from the man who bought the island for the purposes of fishing sturgeon and salmon.
Today it is an oasis of green and a protected area for birds and, oddly enough, a herd of Scottish Highlander cattle. It is also home to a number of allotments or ‘volkstuintjes’ (gardens for the people), which are owned by residents who do not have a garden attached to their house.

The walk to the island is a lovely stroll through old and new neighbourhoods alike and crosses bridges and footpaths that take you all the way along the river bank down to the entrance to the island. Behind the island, the imposing sight of the Van Brienenoord Bridge, a throughway for motorists on the ring road, looms over the treetops, but once on the island it is easy to ignore it as you wander through grassy pastures and along tree lined paths.

On this particular Sunday we were in for an added surprise. Unbeknownst to us, a local initiative called ‘Zicht op Rotterdam’ (Looking to Rotterdam) were also on the island preparing a guided tour and evening meal for any interested visitors who wanted to find out more about their ideas for the future of our fair city. This is only one of a number of groups active in and around Rotterdam who are trying to find solutions to our modern problems (pollution, socio-economic gaps etc.).
Having recognised a couple of the participants as friends of my better half, we decided to sign up to see what it was all about.
We were taken on a walk around the island where various artists, performers and poets had set up camp along the way to show a visual representation of their ideas. Inspirational words shouted out from trees and plants as flags that waved defiantly in the increasingly stronger breeze. However, near a frog pond, where a twelve year old had been mayor for a day and given the adults a poignant lesson in seeing things clearly, the heavens opened and the walk ended in a mad dash for cover.
Our tour guides did not let that get in the way, though, and the tour continued indoors with a slideshow and short film exhibition of Rotterdam’s poets singing the city’s praises.

It was an interesting, if perhaps not entirely eye-opening, afternoon. The conclusion that they as a group had come to was not exactly clear, but in their own words it wasn’t meant to be. The initiative was started to get people thinking and talking about how they want to see their city in the future. The main question of the day: what will Rotterdam be like in 2024?
It is, to say the least, a question that tickles the imagination. As a rule, Rotterdam is constantly in a state of renewal when it comes to infrastructure. Old buildings are torn down to make way for new on an almost monthly basis, unless they are categorised as monuments. It is a city with a steady stream of incoming and out going migrant workers and a walk down the street in the city centre will provide your ears with a feast of different tongues. That is one of things I love about this city. It is one of the few places in the Netherlands where cultures really do mix it up every day. The main market square is proof of that every Tuesday and Saturday.
However, the current geopolitical climate also has an influence on how people interact and I have certainly noticed a slight increase in tension on the streets. Is this something that we can eradicate in the future? Can this country avoid a widening gap between rich and poor? Will we solve the problem of our youth steadily becoming disconnected from nature as developers try to get their hands on every available green space? These are all difficult but important questions that I wouldn’t dream of trying to solve in a blog post, but it certainly did me the world of good to see a group of people working creatively and sincerely towards starting the conversation.

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