A while ago I wrote on Instagram about the defensive intervention I stumbled over in front of the Weenahouse in Rotterdam. Just a short recap, to refresh the memory:
Double trouble! Or no, triple trouble! or should I say tripping trouble? Stone strips are glued onto the pavement of the urban arcade along the Weena in Rotterdam. The steel bars and marks on the column behind it indicate this measure aims at preventing skating and grinding here.
But the cure is worse than the disease, as the raised surfaces may cause pedestrians to trip over them. The result is utterly defensive, not only towards skaters but also towards pedestrians, not to mention people who depend upon wheelchairs and other mobility aids. It is next-level defensive urbanism; I call it offensive urbanism.
The past months it kept floating around in my mind and an intriguing question popped up: who should you sue for compensation if you stumble over the strips and break something? The city or the owner of the building? Who is liable?
Time for further investigation by the Public Space Detective!
This specific space is part of a series of urban arcades lining the Weena, one of the main boulevards of Rotterdam. The arcades are part of the post-war urban masterplan in which the Weena was to become an important axis, connecting the eastern with the western part of the city. Lining both sides of the boulevard they tie together the several large-scale corporate and mixed-use buildings along the Weena, dotted with entrances and retail- and office spaces.
They were also meant to ensure a comfortable and safe urban space for pedestrians to move through, an alternative to the exposed adjacent sidewalk. A praiseworthy objective, as the Weena has become quite a hostile environment for pedestrians. A harsh windy urban canyon, dominated by traffic: public transport, bikes, scooters, but above all cars.
Not on my Doorstep
So far so good but the point is, this urban space looks public but it is not. Since it is contained within the building’s perimeter it is private property; a semi-public space, or a so-called POPS standing for ‘Privately Owned Public Space’. Which is in reality as paradoxical as it sounds, pseudo public space.
Typically, a POPS is part of the public domain but it is designed, installed, and maintained by the owner of the property, usually with a commercial goal in mind. It is common knowledge that owners of commercial property are not happy when their buildings are used differently than intended. A rough sleeper in front of a shop or potential customer knocked over by a skater is bad for business. Thus so-called ‘hygienic’ design strategies aimed at preventing unwanted behaviour are very common in POPS, ‘Not on my Doorstep’ the motto.
In this case, the smooth floor is very inviting for skaters, hence the stone strips, set in a decorative pattern in a clumsy attempt to hide their true nature. Yet, they impose an obstacle for any rolling material: besides skateboards, roller skates, and autopeds also wheelchairs and the like. People who depend upon rolling mobility aids are forced upon the adjacent public sidewalk and in addition, ‘normal’ users face a hazardous situation.
This has probably been done without asking permission or even consulting the municipality. There appear to be no regulations whatsoever as to what degree and what kind of defensive measures private parties can install within the limits of their property.
This is problematic since Rotterdam likes to present itself as hospitable and accessible to everyone. Both residents and visitors have to feel welcome, must have the opportunity to participate in public life, and be able to move about the city safely. As expressed in the most recent municipal policy plan: “Rotterdam aims to create a hospitable and socially accessible public space where everyone feels welcome and safe”.
One could argue that interventions like this, compromizing not only the accessibility but also the hospitality of the city’s public spaces, including POPS, should be approved before installing them, comparable to the procedure for publicity in public space. Since billboards and public signs on buildings have a significant impact on the cityscape it is required to present them beforehand to the municipal Aesthetics Committee for authorization.
So, back to the issue at hand here: who’s liable and would you have to sue for compensation in case of bodily injury caused by tripping over the strips? The property owner or the municipality? I would say both: the owner for installing it and the municipality for failing to do something about it. This situation is an affront to a city that has proclaimed the ambition for its public spaces to be accessible and safe for all.
So I went back to the crime scene to express my disapproval. Thus the Weenahouse arcade has the dubious honour of a double first; the coining of the term ‘offensive urbanism’ and the first public space in Rotterdam to receive the predicate ‘DISAPPROVED by the Public Space Detective’.
With thanks to Olivier Scheffer, Jacky van Heist & Frank Schipper.