Rotterdam to Cape Town : an interview with Hedwig Crooijmans-Lemmer | FUTURE CAPE TOWN

“Because Rotterdam was almost completely destroyed during WW2, it had become the test kitchen for new spatial forms and ideas… On the contrary Cape Town’s history did not offer a blank canvas but rather an actual disfigured urban form”


Future Cape Town hears about how public spaces compare between Cape Town and Rotterdam from the dutch born Hedwig Crooijmans-Lemmer








Hedwig Crooijmans-Lemmer talks to us about how public spaces compare from Rotterdam to Cape Town with her experience stemming from the Netherlands and South Africa. She grew up, studied and worked in Rotterdam before spending 20 years in the Eastern Cape. She was a director at The Matrix Urban Designers and Architects as well as part time lecturer at the school of architecture at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. She moved to the Western Cape last year. She is currently an urban designer at GAPP Architects and Urban Designers, a committee member for Urban Design Institute of  South Africa and part time lecturer at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

Elizabeth Novacek : How do you think the histories and philosophies of Cape Town and Rotterdam have played a role in the development and use of public spaces in each city? In a sense both cities have gone through some form of destruction or destroying of the urban fabric.

Hedwig Crooijmans-Lemmer : Because Rotterdam was almost completely destroyed during WW2, it had become the test kitchen for new spatial forms and ideas. The end of the war also brought a shared optimism and goal. This in combination with it having the biggest harbour in the world at the time, has made the city dynamic, exciting and fast changing. Real attention for public space and the link with water probably only developed when the harbour activities moved out of the city towards the coast and there was opportunity to reconnect with the river. On the contrary Cape Town’s history did not offer a blank canvas but rather an actual disfigured urban form that only transforms through different types of interventions. This is the challenging task we are facing here!


EN : Is there a particular example of an innovative uses of public space have you seen in Rotterdam which would be relevant to Cape Town? How do you think the cities could exchange and apply these practices?

HC-L : There are great people with innovative ideas in both cities. I am very excited about the public space pop-up trend that we see happening both in Rotterdam as well as Cape Town. It is a great way to activate new areas, test ideas, get people’s response and create different dynamics. Organisations like Open Streets in Cape Town are doing great work in this regard. It is probably taken to the next level in Rotterdam by architect Winy Maas who build a giant temporary staircase from Central Station Square onto the roof of the Groothandelsgebouw, for people to change their “perspective” on the city! I think design by experiment is an exciting new trend which can lead to better and happier spaces.

EN : Both Cape Town and Rotterdam are inhabited by several cultures and ethnicities. How have these cities each used public spaces to integrate comparatively?

HC-L : Wow, that’s a difficult one! The way of living in Holland is maybe less segregated by default since almost everybody uses public transport at some stage (instead of always in a private car if you have one), public streets (instead of privatized shopping malls), and parks (instead of private gardens, because most people just don’t have that). I believe however both cities strive to create inclusive spaces but there are many aspects influencing the outcome. Probably the biggest difference is that it is much less acceptable in Holland to create privatised type of open space like controlled shopping malls and residential enclaves. The creation of these type of exclusive spaces is to the detriment of an integrated shared living environment for all. It makes that poor and vulnerable people feel even more excluded.

EN : When you presented at “The future of public spaces II: Design by activism”, you talked about the activism lead transition in the Netherland in the 1970s to make cities more bike-centric. How could this movement happen in Cape Town? Would it be possible?

HC-L: Anything is possible! Probably the necessary ingredients are: critical mass, a few great champions and a bit of luck! That bit of luck in the case of The Netherlands was the looming oil crisis which made the petrol price go sky high and suddenly made cycling also the economic alternative. It also created political will to invest in alternative infrastructure. There are however quite a few habits and perceptions that would need to change but it would be great to sow the seed for the #CarsMustFall campaign. Who knows, maybe the proposal from the City of Cape Town to extend the freeway will trigger this campaign! It is however in the long run really important to work on both ends of the spectrum: we need to discourage car-use and create feasible alternatives at the same time. I only bought my first car when I moved to South Africa. When I was living in Rotterdam CBD owning a car would be a bigger liability than an asset. Bike and public transport did the job far better. Now I am myself a regular one-in-a car-commuter between Stellenbosch and Cape Town. How bad is that?

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EN : What is culture of collaboration among sectors/fields/professions when delivering public space in Cape Town and Rotterdam comparatively? How have your professional opportunities to collaborate compared?

HC-L : More and more I realise the importance operations and management in the proper functioning of public space. The interdisciplinary teams working on public space need to start and finish here. I guess both Rotterdam and Cape Town battle with silo’s and lack of integration of responsibilities on municipal level. Public space typically has many different role players and responsibilities that needs to be combined. For me personally most significant is actually the role of the users/residents in this. The South African context is much less forgiving in this regard. If residents and end-users are not properly consulted and their views not sufficiently translated in projects the consequences are more severe. This is also a strength because it means should mean that on the other hand there is a foundation for creating more “ownership” by users for the public domain.

Read more about public space : 

Image credits : 

  1. Feature image : Gino Kleisen
  2. Bree Street, Cape Town :
  3. Parked bicycles : Hedwig Crooikjmans-Lemmer
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Elizabeth was born and raised in Vancouver. Graduating high school in 2010, she moved to Prague to complete her bachelor in International Relations. In 2014, she traded the European city life for an 8 month municipal internship in rural Alberta where she developed an interest in urban planning and design.