Homes for all #9: Heerlen with Maurice Hermans

Homes for All is a video series commissioned by Stadsleven in which correspondents from all over the world report on the state of the housing market in their city. In episode 9 about Heerlen, Maurice Hermans, author of the book ‘The anti-city’, shows us how we should rethink depopulation: instead of a problem it is a chance to re-invent the city.

Blog written by Sanne van der Beek

Urban triumph? Not for all cities

When we think about the housing market in cities, we almost always talk about the crazy crowded ones in successful cities. But there are many cities that struggle with the opposite side of the problem: depopulation.

The ‘Triumph of the City’, as Edward Glaeser’s famous book is called, is quite a recent phenomenon and not unique. There were always times in which cities were successful and there was a wave of urbanization. In 1850 for example, many agricultural workers moved to the city to work in factories. But in the fifties and sixties, people started to move back to the countryside.  

In this podcast Jan Latten, statistician at the Dutch demographic organization CBS, tells the tale of this era of deurbanization: the rich moved out of the city to spacious homes in the countryside which they could reach with the car they could afford. In that period Amsterdam lost hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, and the poorer lower class stayed behind. In the late nineties the big cities started building more housing for sale in order to bring the middle class back. And it worked: people came back to the cities, mostly to the Big Four – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. 

But the success of the cities has drained the smaller cities and villages. In the Netherlands, there are 20 depopulated areas struggling with decline. One of the first was the ‘Mijnstreek’, a former mining area in the south of the Netherlands. The city of Heerlen is in the heart of it. 

Heerlen: rethinking of depopulation

Heerlen was a very successful city. It grew in no time from a farming village in 1900 to a boomtown at the end of the 1960’s. During the years after World War II, Heerlen even was the second – after Rotterdam – fastest growing urban economy of the Netherlands. But Heerlen’s downfall was dramatic. With the decline of the mining industry, Heerlen and its surroundings became the city with the highest unemployment in the Netherlands. It also became known for as the heroin town of the Netherlands.

But we shouldn’t stay stuck in the image of Heerlen as the ‘Detroit of the Netherlands’, as Maurice Hermans shows in his ‘Homes for All’ video. Heerlen is for example also the street art center of the Netherlands. And there are more signs of vitality and viability. In his book ‘The Anti-City’ (in Dutch: De Antistad), Hermans writes about how our standards for the success and attractiveness of cities are based on population growth, or the broad network of museums, galleries and other cultural places, or good public infrastructure.

Those standards won’t suffice to describe the attractiveness of a depopulation area. And if we only describe depopulating cities as anti-cities, as losers and unattractive places, how can we start a real conversation about the investments we should make? How can ‘anti-cities’ also get a place at the table of the urban conversation which is now dominated by successful cities?

Depopulation is about loss, vacancy and ruin, so Hermans suggests we should talk from a new perspective about these anti-cities to create a conversation about how to ‘grow smaller cities in a happy and sustainable way’.

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