Guest blog by architect Martine Zoeteman:

"We should fight for space for disruptive communities"

Architect Martine Zoeteman has been studying (temporary) creative hubs in relation to urban development in The Hague, and beyond. In this guest blog, she ponders the real value of pioneer colonies in the city. We should discuss how to preserve these opinionated and progressive communities that breathe life into our cities, she argues. We gladly present her contribution below.

The recent dismantling of squatters collective De Vloek and the near-closure of surf village F.A.S.T. in Scheveningen have caused a great deal of controversy. It is a well-known phenomenon: a group of pioneers colonize an abandoned site or building and build their own ‘world’ over time. As soon as real estate developers take over again – using the market potential that is often co-created by the pioneers – the pioneers themselves are forced to leave.

Most tragic about the debate that pops up each time such places come to an end, is that it illustrates the inability of our society to recognize the real value of these initiatives. All parties concerned seem to focus mainly on whether or not that specific place can be preserved. From the perspective of the pioneers this is understandable, because they have put a lot of time and effort in developing it. But from the perspective of the city as a whole it is far more important to discuss how to preserve these opinionated and progressive communities that, time and again, breathe new life into our cities. It is the innovative potential of these communities, which is decisive for a dynamic and future-proof city, where we should fight for.

Maximising innovative potential

The relevance of the ‘creative city’ concept – as introduced by the American sociologist Richard Florida (2002) – is already widely adopted. But the struggle of the local government with communities as De Vloek and F.A.S.T. shows that the current policy is dominated by ad hoc decisions. It is still a question how to include the different innovative forces in our cities in a durable manner.

The growing attention for the so-called Creative Industries in combination with the sudden stop of large urban developments due to the financial crisis, have lead to a significant growth of the amount of creative hubs in the past few years. Nevertheless, there are limited studies of how such places and groups function on a small scale. To be able to formulate specific physical and organizational conditions that maximise the innovative potential of communities, we have to study these communities more closely and acknowledge the vastly different group dynamics and ways of working.

What recent history tells us

We could, for example, look at the recent developments in the industrial area the Binckhorst in The Hague. It contains a mix of industrial warehouses and relatively ‘old school’ offices. From the outside nothing special, but these buildings house an eclectic series of work communities; from multinationals to small scale family businesses, from heavy industry to craftsmanship.

Around ten years ago the first creative hubs entered this area as new phenomenon. Some of them were established in renovated buildings, like Caballerofabriek and Binck36, others as temporary infill for buildings soon to be demolished in the context of the large-scale development plans of OMA, like De Besturing. Meanwhile, these large-scale plans are history and the area houses an increasing number of creative entrepreneurs, both in relatively new hubs as Billytown and MOOOF as in independent offices.

The short history of creative hubs in the Binckhorst shows that each community contributes to our society on a different level. Fast growing start-ups generate new jobs. Innovative products and services strengthen the innovative profile of the city. New cooperative business models reduce the vulnerability of artists and graduates. Experimental educational projects activate new ways of knowledge production and establish novel networks.

The differences between these hubs demonstrate that each community requires their own physical and social structure. Some benefit most from ready-made workspaces directed to service and convenience, others need maximum spatial and organizational freedom to make use of their innovative potential. However, all communities have in common that their spatial context is supportive to, and sometimes even the result of, the way they work and the social interaction within the group.

Stay tuned

The synergy between different types of space, creative entrepreneurship and innovation will be further explored in my next three blogs. Based on observations of several creative hubs, three dynamic urban patterns – the creative caravan, oil stain and snowball – will be introduced that could form a guideline for a more consistent planning policy in regard to facilitating creative, positively disruptive communities.

Architect and writer Martine Zoeteman is founder of Stadvogels, an architecture studio for research and design. For several years she studies (temporary) creative hubs in relation to urban development. Besides being part of De Besturing, a collective of artists, designers and cultural entrepreneurs that runs its own studio complex in the Binckhorst.

Photo credits: “De Besturing” by David Galjaard