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Rotterdam restores the optimism of city planning

WILL ALSOP

I am sitting in the public function room of Rotterdam Town Hall for a discussion with the business community about my masterplan for the city.

A series of murals, which look as though they date from the 1950s, show the destruction of the city in the Second World War and the subsequent rebuilding of the fabric, which is still going on.

The form of the evening is much the same as for a similar discussion held last night for the community in general. For the past month, everyone has had the opportunity to study the proposal at the city information centre, where they could ask questions and observe drawings, models and video fly-throughs.

Now the time has come for the people to pass comment.Each person is able to stand up and address questions to the chief planner, the alderman in charge of the environment and the director in charge of business development. Everyone is helped by a facilitator, who treats everyone with a firm and direct hand.

Tonight, as last night, the proceedings are orderly and polite.Compared with similar UK proceedings, no one talks over anyone else and everyone gets their say. We do not find a hint of aggression.

Furthermore, these people, who are all interested in the future of their city, are not negative. Unlike in parts of the UK, all debate starts from a positive point of view. People have embraced the idea of change, so they ask questions relating to practical points and to programming aspects, and make useful suggestions of either help or ideas.

This openness to the future is refreshing and stimulating.Communities that spend their time protecting the past tend to ossify and die. London, which has embraced a lot of change and new buildings in the past 10 years, has become much more vital because of it. Not the least spin-off is the explosion of restaurants and bars.

The evolution of Rotterdam is a very public debate based on an audience of optimism.This collaboration between the public, the publicans and the design team provides an opportunity to discover better possibilities for the city.There is no room for the idealism of the urban genius here.The city becomes the lobby of the people.

One advantage of the near total destruction of the city within living memory is the eradication of the notion of a physical history to protect. I do not mean the past is not respected, but in the absence of built edifices that feed the worst aspects of nostalgia, people can enjoy the past in terms of their memories and achievements.

There is literally physical space to visualise possible futures.The quality of life lies as much in the virtual world of the imagination and the real world of discussion as it does in realisation, so why not leave space in cities for meaningful speculation?

Our arrangement with space in cities is much more complex than planners and conservationists would have us believe.The process of discovering the future is the reality and is there to be enjoyed.So often debates are seen as painful and confrontational.As more and more people become interested in their environment, we must find new ways of giving meaning and depth to the process of change.

One day, urbanism could rank alongside cooking and gardening as a popular pastime. I think such a world would be both healthy and delightful.

Will Alsop from the round table in Rotterdam Town Hall

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