Project by
Lena Knappers
Master Track
Urbanism
Supervisors
Wouter Vanstiphout, Rients Dijkstra, Michelle Provoost

A Rethinking of the Absorption Capacity of Cities

The famous former prison complex ‘Bijlmerbajes’ in Amsterdam has been transformed into a temporary asylum seeker centre. Currently, 1.000 refugees are living here for up to 18 months. Next to this former prison complex from the 70s, students are housed in Wenckehof, a village made up of 1.000 recycled and stacked shipping containers. Some months ago, I was visiting the area and planning to talk to some of the inhabitants. A square and football field are located in front of the entrance of the complex and I saw some people playing a game over there. When I was trying to enter the football field, I was stopped by a guard, who told me I was not allowed to set foot on this space. He said he was protecting both me and the refugees and that the public spaces are exclusively aimed at the project’s own residence. What both fascinated and shocked me is that these 1.000 refugees and 1.000 students are living right next to each other, without making use or sharing any facilities or public spaces. They almost never meet each other. This was the starting point for my research into the organisation of migration in urban space in the Netherlands and the beginning of imagining an alternative design proposal for the Weespertrekvaart Midden area.

Problem description
A tension can be observed between the dynamic nature of migration and urban policy and housing practices, set up by the Dutch government. Dynamic nature implies that people have various motivations to leave or stay, they take various routes, they arrive in many circumstances and communities, and they develop different qualities and perspectives after they have arrived. Institutions however tend to see migration as a short-term problem, put emphasis on sole motivation to migrate – refuge, employment, study, etc. – and often deal with ‘migrant categories’. Entitlements, accommodation and other provisional solutions are organised accordingly.
This project argues that a variegated approach and more experimental solutions are needed to address the variety of forms of movement and types of migrants (Van Hear, 2014) and forms of accommodation. Current policies and housing regimes are too rigid and provisional. The formal structures, frames and accommodation solutions implemented are leading to a loss of urban vitality and segregation and often result in not optimal functioning urban spaces. 

Temporary housing for refugees in Overloon in the Netherlands. While the Netherlands contain many vibrant and diverse areas, developments for newcomers or temporary inhabitants are often creating monotonous and exclusive environments. Source: unknown.

Hypothesis and Research questions
The claim of this project is that the tension between the dynamic nature of migration and static institutional solutions can be made productive from the perspective of a rethinking of the absorption capacity of cities. This rethinking is based on the idea that migration has been used historically as an instrument to build up flexible and diverse cities. The following questions can be formulated:

  • How to facilitate the increasing coming and going of people, while at the same time adding to and building up a more sustainable space for the long-term?
  • How can mixed migration be addressed in spatial terms?
  • Can migrants be ‘absorbed’ within the heart of cities and communities?

Connecting public and private, temporariness and permanence and individuals and communities. Source: author’s own diagram.

Goal of the project
Simplistic dichotomies should be avoided, e.g. the expat vs. the migrant blue collar worker, and the refugee vs. the exchange student, and even more important temporary vs. permanent and public vs. private. Instead of categorising people and putting them in different boxes, this project explores how different temporary inhabitants could be connected and mixed with each other and permanent ones. To succeed in this, structures are proposed on three different scales that connect the public and private, temporariness and permanence and individuals and communities. New forms of public/private space and different levels of openness have to be designed.