Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Book - Transformation Strategies for Former Industrial Cities


In the current times the topic of change is big, Life is changing and the awareness of this consumes a lot of the attention both, individual as well as collective. The Financial crisis has just rocked the world for the whole of the last year, health concerns dominated the media with the pig flu virus and wars are not won quickly any longer, to name just a few of the current big topics of change. Global climate change would be an other big topic. However there is a common topic to all of them and I believe this is the awareness of time as an aspect of the topic description. You could almost say it hasn’t featured to such an extent at any point in history. The second element is the global awareness, we all share the same planet in the end.
Big changes are also discussed among cities and it is true that the construct city faces a really dramatic change. It has become a global phenomena how cities grow and predictions point still upwards. Cities or better city regions are at current extremely attractive. However the extent of the change we are facing in structural, organisational or social terms, hardly anyone can grasp.
The crowded, dense and dirty instalment of the industrial city is long gone and new identities have to be found or most likely invented. A whole series of heavily industrial cities struggled with decline over the past fifty years. This was already pointed out by the Shrinking Cities Network or by the Shrinking Cities Project lead by Philipp Oswald. In a series of publications V1, V2 and an Atlas of Shrinking Cities, the group has researched case studies of mainly former industrial cities struggling with decline. To some extend this project was an eye opener for a lot of people did it for once divert from the cliché of the ever growing, pretty and strong city. It lent an image to the deserted city centres and run down neighbourhoods. If you wanted you could accuse them of simply moving beyond the empty industrial building in the inner city location stylised to a trendy urban loft and sexify the decline of the city as a whole. But this is probably going too far.
Since we now have the shrinking in our repertoire of capitalist planning reality, we can steer our attention back to the growth of the cities. Growth is one aspect of the solution these cities are working with. There are other aspects too, for example sense of place or identity are other factors to play an important role, not only for location marketing. In a recent NAI Publishers publication ‘Comeback Cities - Transformation Strategies for Former Industrial Cities’ edited by Nienke van Boom and Hans Mommaas (2009), brings together a documentation of eight cities’ strategies to develop themselves into the twenty-first century. The different places are Tilburg, Entschede, Manchester, Huddersfield, Tampere, Forssa, Ghent and Roubaix. However oddly the whole setting is created around the city of Tilburg and its anniversary celebration of the fact that it received its municipal charter two hundred years ago from 2009. This is really an odd context or such topic as immediately one gets a sense of actually becoming part of a cities promotion effort, quite literally, marketing between book covers. This is clever, if it then is and reaches a different group. What better way to promote than to become a model.
Anyway, we leave this discussion aside for now and look more at the content of this as usual with subtle design decisions surprising publication. NAI Publishers really love their books, you can tell. This one here has textured covers that give it a nice touch as you hold it.
The content is preceded by fact sheets documenting anything from population size to type of fiber used in production to levels of education. It seems almost that this kind of quick context creation starts to become a common feature of a serious book. I ultimately think of ‘the Endless City’ book by Ricky Burdett, Deyan Sudjic, where the facts even crept onto the covers to make the point. This element of the book is of course also the perfect stage to clarify the publications graphic design position. The ‘Endless City’ is bold black on bright orange, to underline the fact that they are talking fact. Here in ‘Comeback City’ the information is communicated through diagrams represented by sewing thread bobbin (I had to look this one up, what a creation. It is probably also long lost together with the tradition of the industry in cities.) So no the first few page you get a really good sense of the material these industrial cities worked with and in all sorts of colours. At times these bobbins almost transform into characters.


Image taken from ‘Comeback Cities’ p28/29 / Opportunities

The main art of the book the is a series of chapters named ‘Case Study’ each comparing two of the example cities, out of the eight. These texts are structured as similar analysis writ-ups starting with some history, talking about the years of suffering and then the slow change highlighting the different players and their roles in the context. There are detailed descriptions of political processes right down to who was the major during which period and what were his interests. It does end up in propaganda paragraphs at times, in a series of cliff-hangers from positive aspect to positive aspect. Having said that the amount of detail is astonishing and even if at times extremely one dimensional it is valuable and gives a good insight to understand the mechanisms almost on the level of daily business (in case you wana run your own city). So you end up with a bunch of creative cities, highlighting their cultural potential and practice mixed up with cafes, restaurant entertainment and a big bit of higher education. Anything the cliché of a contemporary dynamic city would ask for, right out of a third year architecture students project presentation. But I guess this is the reality we live in and consuming is a westerners main occupation. To some extent this raises the question whether these cities are not on the road to buy right into the next big mono functional bubble after escaping battered the industrial gripper.
However the one phrase that really jumps out from all the descriptions is ‘the DNA of the City’. It is used in most of the city portraits as a subheading and it is an element I really can not relate to. After having read all of the paragraphs I can still not understand what the authors describe with the phrase. It is probably thought to refer to the basic, fundamental building blocks of the city, but I doubt those are creative industry and knowledge. The only element I can think of that could maybe fit the shoe are the citizens, the society living the cultural context the city is created in, but there is little talking about them in this book.


Image taken from ‘Comeback Cities’ p82/83 / Industrial halls in Tilburg at different times.

There are two intermezzo elements to the book structure, each a photo essay illustrating the feel of these places then and now. These are beautiful parts where the reader can put together the puzzle of descriptions and sense the extent of the drama covered by the book. You see black and white or sepia photographs of mainly women, but also men in vast halls standing at machines with hundreds of threads going off and then you see a contemporary group of people looking at art work in a similar building. This really illustrates the dimension of change and for me helped to understand the struggle described in the text. It also directly talk about the memory of places that might not be accessible for outsiders but are the essential element of identification.
However nice the book is designed sadly the sections with the photographs is pretty unfortunate. Somehow the framing of the images, the blue colour of the page background, the wiggly line, the black of white frame and the description text box do not make sense, a real pity.

The book is concluded with a section documenting student projects developed in the context of Tilburg addressing the issue of change and identity. This is a refreshing section and underlies the potential and the capacity these cities have, both actual and for marketing.
I guess in this sense the review can be concluded, a refreshing book that does not always follow the much used paths of documentation, plays with the subject even as part of the book, fails in some cases but succeeds in others. A valuable contribution to the debate around the creation and recreation of an identity of place.


van Boom, N. & Mommaas, H. eds., 2009. Transformation Strategies For Former Industrial Cities, R: NAi Publishers.

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