While the war in Europe is still an everyday reality, people around the world are starting to think about the rebuilding of Ukraine. This weekend, for example, University College London is hosting an online symposium about the reconstruction of Ukraine. In this article, Hedwig van der Linden and Oleksandra Tkachenko explore how the Dutch professional community of urbanists, planners and architects could help Ukraine to build back its cities together and better.
Since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the Russian-Ukrainian war has been causing unimaginable loss and grief. Constant shelling is destroying homes, amenities and infrastructure. Some cities like Mariupol have been almost completely wiped out due to the Russian tactics of ‘burned land’. While Ukraine fights for its freedom, politicians, professionals and citizens are already thinking of reconstruction plans for this diverse and extensive territory. It might feel strange and uncomfortable to discuss the reconstruction of a country that is still at war, but the lessons from the reconstruction of Rotterdam tell us to prepare now.
How could the Dutch professional community support Ukraine in reconstructing its cities? Many Dutch cities were bombed during the Second World War. The city that has identified itself most profoundly with post-war reconstruction is Rotterdam. Moreover, Ukrainians view Rotterdam as a model of city rebuilding. Ukrainian urbanists such as Urban Reforms and Alex Shutyuk have independently published their own Rotterdam analyses.
Of course, you cannot literally transfer one historical reconstruction situation to another one. Furthermore, the reconstruction of Rotterdam has not been an unconditional success: it was a top-down strategy with hardly any public involvement. The focus on economic and technological recovery was too one-sided and based on faith in a trickle-down effect from the port. And because Rotterdam lost its connection to the pre-war city, there was little room for commemorating the bombardment or preserving heritage, either tangible and intangible. Conceptually, several things can be learned from Rotterdam – both positive and negative.
Before the war
The reconstruction of Ukraine will involve many different types of cities. These differ from one another because of when they developed and the geopolitical and design visions of the time. Some are more liveable and comfortable than others.
Over the past decade, the central Ukrainian government has invested money in local governments and communities by implementing a strategy of decentralization. Cities were empowered to deal with their urban development in a more integrated manner, and some of them were supported by international aid from GIZ and USAID. But still, in most cases, Ukrainian local development is fragmented and focused on day-to-day issues, without any long-term strategic approach. A city vision proved useful for Rotterdam in moving forward in a certain direction, but the city could still adapt to changing realities. And when we talk about city-making processes, there is often a lack of involvement of Ukrainian experts and local citizens. The Rotterdam experience demonstrates the danger of this approach.
Looking back at the Rotterdam experience, we see how pre-war movements dictated post-war reconstruction. Even before the city was bombed in 1940, there were ideas about what a modern city should look like. When Rotterdam was being planned after the bombing, concepts were developed such as providing light, air and space. The Basic Plan of Rotterdam is often seen as a purely functional plan, but it is based on several ideals about the experience of the city that had already been conceptualized before the war. Every urban plan is a mirror of the urban concept of the time; today our ideals are based on creating green, liveable cities with enough room for slow traffic.
During the war
Beautiful pictures with happy people living in the Ukrainian cities of the future are popping up in Ukrainian media. Some commentators claim that they are inappropriate and disrespectful, since ‘the dead bodies are still warm’. There seems to be pressure for images to encourage donations and interest, although there is a need for time to reflect on identity, methodologies and a vision.
When we talk about the reconstruction of the country, it is important to preserve the Ukrainian identity by involving Ukrainian planners, architects and designers. There has been international attention from famous architects such as the British architect Norman Foster, who proposed a masterplan for Kharkiv and wrote a manifesto to rebuild the city. This has annoyed and inflamed local architects, and questions were raised about how much it will cost and where the money will come from. Is this the right moment to be fishing for massive acquisitions? Moreover, a lot of Ukrainian architects are without work now and are more than willing to contribute to the reconstruction of their country. International expertise is much needed, but reconstruction should be led by local professionals with the involvement of inhabitants.
For Ukrainians, it is clear that they should start acting now. That is the only way to cope with the situation and remain sane. However, we often hear the question “Isn’t it too early? The war is still going on.” Looking at Rotterdam during the Second World War, we learn that on 18 May 1940, four days after the bombardment, the city council appointed city architect Witteveen to come up with a plan for a new city centre. Within a few weeks, Witteveen presented his Reconstruction Plan: a monumental plan based on pre-war urban planning ideas. A group of Rotterdam businessmen began to voice criticism of the rather traditional Reconstruction Plan by Witteveen. This led to the Basic Plan by urbanist Van Traa, which was neither a reconstruction of the pre-war city, nor an improved version of the historic town, but a proposal for a new centre with answers to the problems of that time. Over the following years, several booklets were published to show people what was possible after the war, illustrated with visualizations and the ideas behind these possible futures. Moreover, during and directly after the war, space was allocated for temporary interventions and experiments. Example include the emergency housing schemes and shops, which were characterized by an unbroken row of shopfronts with homes above, along a pedestrian zone. Some of these temporary solutions provided inspiration for permanent designs, as shown by the Rotterdam icon the Lijnbaan.
Therefore, Ukrainian cities should not fear using this period as a laboratory for innovative spatial solutions, to explore and seek various alternatives for a future we dream of and to create room for experiment because it can lead to new ideas and architectural typologies. Moreover, the value of involving residents in this process of exploring and reconstructing cannot be underestimated; it can also be a good way of coping with trauma. And the Ukrainian community – both at home and abroad – is mobilized and ready to contribute to the reconstruction, which must be steered in the right direction.
If we talk about Ukraine in this preparatory stage – in tandem with fixing urgent needs – there should be a focus on capacity building among Ukrainian civil servants and urban professionals, as well as on the involvement of local communities. To achieve this, Dutch expertise in organizing the process and managing the juridical aspects of urban area development might be of help to Ukraine. However, if and in what way Dutch planning politics are applicable in a different country should be explored.
Build back together
One of the urgent needs in Ukraine is to provide housing. Some Ukrainian architecture offices focus on building dwellings in a quick, temporary and decent way. However, when we talk about permanent housing, the complete absence of social or affordable rental housing models in Ukraine and the full focus on home ownership become huge issues, since these models will need to be developed from scratch. In the 1990s, Ukraine shifted from publically provided homes to over 90 percent privatized housing. Moreover, these permanent houses should be built in the right locations. Ukrainians are and will be moving throughout the country, leading to a redistribution of inhabitants per city. We must accept that some cities will shrink and others will experience rapid population growth. Another risk that the need for massive housing construction brings to light, and one that should be prevented, is the possibility that Ukraine will repeat its own Soviet experience and build homogeneous copy-paste neighbourhoods where social problems arise.
In tandem with the demand for housing, there is a need for employment opportunities. We can seize the rebuilding as an opportunity to replace industries with more future-proof sustainable economies. And the reconstruction of these industrial cities can be a chance to create new forms of productive cities. These questions contribute to the notion that there will be very different types of strategies for rebuilding cities.
When we look at creating future sustainable and resilient cities, one could state that the Basic Plan of Rotterdam has proven to be future proof and flexible. It has been able to incorporate new ideas on city making, to offer room for densification and for new modes of mobility. On the one hand, reserving space for future dynamics can be seen as one of the lessons from Rotterdam’s reconstruction. On the other hand, this modern city centre alienated Rotterdammers from their own city and was for a long time a place devoid of people after shopping hours, because of the small number of residential buildings – all according to the modernistic aim to separate functions. It took decades before Rotterdam became a beloved and vibrant city.
During and shortly after the war, no substantial reconstruction work was undertaken in Rotterdam due to logistical problems and the scarcity of building materials. Instead, intact and ruined buildings were demolished to create a tabula rasa. The suffering and the war damage were immediately erased, and there was little room for pain or sorrow within the reconstruction of Rotterdam. The city was very much focused on the future and almost immediately transitioned into active and almost aggressive city marketing. In retrospect, it becomes clear that collective memory needs to be given a dignified place and space.
A lesson for Ukraine is to take the time. Consciously deal with collective memory. Do not take the creation of a totalitarian, overall plan and the demolition of battered buildings as a starting point for the reconstruction of a city, but take existing street patterns and landmarks into consideration and try to restore buildings or even keep them as ruins. This is especially the case in Ukraine, since its culture is and has been under constant attack.
What can we do?
There cannot be an immediate image of the reconstruction, because this takes time. But in the meantime, billions of dollars will be pumped into the country because of urgent needs and structural changes. Now is the right time to form networks and coalitions to be able to mobilize when the war ends. For example, the Ukraine Netherlands Urban Network (UNUN) aims to support Ukrainians in building back together and better the country through knowledge sharing, capacity building and technical assistance. It has several focuses, and for each aspect, local bodies join with a local Dutch institution. Firstly, in collaboration with the Board of Government Advisors (College van Rijksadviseurs), the focus of facilitating basic needs, such as finding jobs for temporarily displaced urban professionals and getting some outsourced tasks for offices in Ukraine that are without work. Secondly, together with the Architecture Institute Rotterdam and Het Nieuwe Instituut, devising inspirational programmes for Ukrainian professionals, such as studio visits and lectures. Moreover, Dutch educational institutions that are looking for opportunities to support their Ukrainian colleagues – who are now suffering major cuts – could help with visiting research programmes for doctoral students and some places on their courses or semester studios for refugee students. Lastly, UNUN offers thematic workshops on rebuilding cities for professionals in the field, which started with the support of the Post-War Reconstruction Community Rotterdam and the Independent School for the City.
Do you want to join UNUN or do you have any suggestions or comments about this article? Please do not hesitate to get in touch. The website UNUN is under construction.