Making Rotterdam’s First Resilient Neighborhood through Social Cohesion

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Resilience is the dot on the horizon and it’s really very unique. We have the ambition that the BoTu neighborhood becomes the first resilient district in Rotterdam, and this has created a really powerful feeling there.” 

Arnoud Molenaar, Chief Resilience Officer, Rotterdam, The Netherlands  

How do you build up a district and a community as your city and country wrestle with issues of immigration and identity, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and poverty and equity? Rotterdam is in the middle of a powerful investigation into just this question as part of the city’s resilience strategy, a project called “Resilient BoTu 2028.”  

Launched in 2019, Resilient BoTu empowers the two adjoining neighborhoods, Bospolder and Tussendijken, to become the city’s first “resilient district,” by directing transformative infrastructure construction and social programs that help people manage debt, access education for both adults and children, find better employment, and improve their housing quality. The program is managed by a foundation they created for the purpose, and which prioritizes social impact and community leadership.

BoTu has the lowest social resilience scores—a survey-based index of people’s connectedness, satisfaction, capacity, participation, and living environment—in the city, is one of the five poorest neighborhoods in The Netherlands, and has received attention and investment and supported for years intended to address this, but had never managed to have a breakthrough. 

Resilient BoTu builds on the work that the city began in the district over the past decade, and has already seen a transformation in the lives of BoTu residents. They have reached roughly 1,500 people so far with support to help them reduce debt, address social isolation, access education opportunities, and find work. Just as importantly, Resilient BoTu has garnered the active, ongoing participation of roughly 500 people from BoTu. They’ve seen the people in the district, and the network these people form, flourish and take significant ownership of the work, which they hope will integrated long-term resilience building into the fabric of BoTu. 

Why BoTu? An Investment in Building Neighborhood Resilience and Social Connection 

Interest in transforming BoTu began with Mayor Aboutaleb. When Rotterdam was beginning its resilience process, the mayor was already interested in integrated thinking and community building, looking for the right way to address the stresses and challenges that persist in BoTu. More than 60% of the housing stock consists is rental housing, often old and suffering from overdue maintenance. BoTu is home to a population that is 80% new-Dutch, 70% non-western background, and quite young. An above-average number of residents there do not have a diploma, feel lonely and unhealthy, or depend on welfare. Tussendijken’s residents rate their quality of life the lowest in Rotterdam. 

When the resilience strategy process began, the Mayor approached Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) Arnoud Molenaar about the idea of making BoTu the model district for how to achieve resilience in a community. He posed to Molenaar the challenge of bringing climate resilience, the city’s energy transition, and water solutions together as tools to achieve a higher level of social resilience in BoTu. And he wanted to see BoTu go through this social transition within the next decade or so. Hence, Resilient BoTu 2028. (SEE REPORT)  

Resilient BoTu 2028 set out to address these challenges in a holistic, integrated way. It lays out three areas of focus.: 1. Work, Language, and Debt. 2. Healthcare, Young People and Parenting. 2. Energy, Housing, and Public Space. And it identifies three areas to focus on in the district, Schans-Watergeus (the waterfront), The Heart of BoTu, and Resilient Schools and Public Spaces. These spaces all face integral challenges, elaborates Molenaar, so this is where local stakeholders and healthcare, work, and energy issues must come together. 

Resilient BoTu 2028 is a direct, application and interpretation of cutting-edge Urban Resilience thinking. It combines a number of tracks of work in the city, such as transitioning to sustainable energy, upgrading housing stock, building to live with water and heat as climate change adaptations, and social inclusion and integration. It weaves them together to find projects that achieve multiple benefits in a highly consultative process that is very responsive to the needs of most-impacted inhabitants. And it emphasizes extracting scalable lessons that the rest of the City, and indeed cities all over the world can apply. 

Resilient BoTu 2028 consists of so many projects, initiatives and associations, and they all reach out to different groups of residents. What they have in common is that residents take back control over their own life or neighborhood and are supported in their efforts by city officials.

Marleen ten Vergert, Neighborhood Manager & Coalition Organizer for BoTu

Resilient Botu is thus a combination of a multitude of projects, at various stages. But at its heart, it’s about the people of BoTu, and giving them control over how they improve their own social resilience. Rotterdam’s resilience team knew that to achieve impact that matched their ambition, they needed to find a way to anchor the resilience thinking in the district. They knew how to go about planning for the infrastructure aspects, but were not confident about how to approach the social resilience-building work. 

How to Integrate Community Action into Social Impact 

Resilient BoTu 2028 consists of so many projects, initiatives and associations, and they all reach out to different groups of residents. What they have in common is that residents take back control over their own life or neighborhood and are supported in their efforts by city officials.

Marleen ten Vergert, Neighborhood Manager & Coalition Organizer for BoTu

Inspired by a visit to Brownsville, New York, to learn about building social resilience from the community there, they found an answer. Taking lessons from this trip, a coalition of key stakeholders including the housing cooperation, a community-led district cooperation, several departments of the city, and others. Led by coalition head Marleen ten Vergert, they decided to create an independent foundation to oversee the project, backed with funding from the city, to prioritize developing and strengthening local networks, and to lead with a “Social Impact by Design” competition. This was relatively new territory for Rotterdam’s city government, but Molenaar and his team were able to get them on board with investing in social impact work, instead of just the infrastructure-based projects they were knew well. The city supported the work enthusiastically, assigning a budget of €4.6 million for the first five years.

From the beginning, one belief underpinned the BoTu coalition’s approach to this work. “Whenever we do a project, such as an energy transition encouraging private homes to switch from gas to renewable energy, we must design the intervention so that the local people benefit directly, involving them from the beginning, whether that means creating job access, providing them education, or fostering a social benefit like community cohesion,” explains Marleen ten Vergert. 

The first step was to understand and connect with community organizations in BoTu. Resilient BoTu managers reached out to every organization they could identify, whether oriented based on religion or ethnicity, or just connected to one of the schools, and offered them support and a chance to participate in the work. They are still working to stretch and strengthen these networks and organizations, of which they have identified and integrated over 150, by encouraging and stimulating collaborations between different initiatives and organizations (“thickening the web” by spinning more and more wires), and by reaching out to, involving, empowering, and activating more individuals to join Resilient BoTu (adding more “individual” knots to the web). 

The result is a new way of working, involving significantly more of the community in the program than Rotterdam had ever done, and involving them more deeply. It situates the locus of ownership within the district and the community, with resources and support, instead of having external “experts” control that power.

The execution of projects demonstrates this perspective, even down to the desire to have locals take the reins and do the execution as much as possible, whether that means searching out local talent, or bringing in the right people to help interested locals develop that skill. For example, one of the ways the BoTu project is facilitating locals’ ability to transition to renewable energy is by creating a partnership with local schools. First, they train locals to install solar panels—six have been trained to date, while others are going through the process now—so that they can contribute to this program and then go on to have a job in the energy transition sector. With the installation crew trained, they find schools who are willing to lease their unused roof space to install as many panels as possible.

Locals can then lease access to the power generated by one such panel, giving them solar energy at a fraction of what it would cost to install solar on their home, if they even owned the home or had access to a roof to do so. After 15 years, ownership of the solar panels and control of their electricity allocation will revert to the school, helping that campus achieve its energy neutrality goals as well. In this one intervention, the BoTu project achieves so many goals: job skills training, facilitating a move to green energy in the neighborhood, and making the energy transition accessible and affordable for low-income BoTu residents.

The effects of this inclusive approach are obvious in the people impacted. The act of reaching out to individuals to enmesh them in these networks and the Resilient BoTu work has completely changed peoples’ lives in this diverse community.

For example, Sandor is a young man who moved to The Netherlands from Hungary a few years ago. He had been living in the Hague for a few years before moving to BoTu in 2018. With no family, no children, no roots in BoTu, and not speaking Dutch well, Sandor was desperate to become part of a community and connect with people. When he learned of Resilient BoTu’s outreach, he eagerly offered to participate.  

“I never hoped to feel this welcome,” he says of his experience. “I entered a whole new world that I was not familiar with. I now feel member of a community. I can contribute to important topics. Not through formal events or theoretic discussions, but in a fun way, both organic and dynamic, where I can meet with other people, find alliances or even friendships, and work together on new ideas or initiatives!”  

Sandor is one of the “BoTu 12,” a group working on improving BoTu’s public spaces and schools. He also assists on a project to reduce CO2 output, and is closely connected to one of the five teams participating the Social Impact by Design process. 

Social Impact by Design is the result of another lesson Rotterdam learned as part of the Resilient Cities Network. Rebuild by Design is a Rockefeller Foundation-backed organization that used a challenge model to select resilience-building projects in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in the New York and New Jersey areas of the United States. The BoTu Foundation borrowed this model to create Social Impact by Design, which invited stakeholders and inhabitants of BoTu to propose projects to help the district address some of the district’s specific resilience challenges, including climate adaptation, family support, debt management, job preparedness, and public spaces. The community answered, and after a selection process requiring expert input and community support, from 50 proposals, five teams remain.  

The five projects are currently in the third phase of this work, developing business plans. Their areas of focus are: connecting children with programs in the district that match their talents, providing basic skills to residents that struggle to access the job market, empowering parents through cultural activities and interactive sessions, reducing debt and changing the money mindset of residents with financial problems, and improving outdoor spaces with climate adaptive measurements. The plan is for all five teams to begin pilots before the end of the year.

BoTu is a unique experiment where we are finding out REALLY in an integrated way how to work on resilience at a relatively large scale, a whole district. It’s the WHOLE package, not only about climate adaptation or energy.” 

Arnoud Molenaar, Chief Resilience Officer, Rotterdam 

The future of Resilience in BoTu and Greater Rotterdam 

As the Resilient BoTu project was ramping up, COVID-19 hit, which took the Rotterdam city government’s commitment to resilience to the next level. The work happening in BoTu was a shining example, especially of the role that social resilience qualities like social cohesion play in how a city can respond to a crisis. Mayor Aboutaleb began to talk about resilience more, and is already proposing the city take what they’ve learned from the experience in BoTu to invest in another neighborhood in the southern part of the City. 

Within the next decade, Molenaar and the BoTu foundation have their sights fixed on bringing up BoTu’s social resilience index to at or above the average for Rotterdam. Even before that, they expect to impact thousands of BoTu residents and involve at least 1,500 in the processes, and to train “resilient” professionals, starting with two groups of 15 in the next six months. In addition, they have very specific goals for Social Impact by Design. By 2028, they want all five projects to not just still exist, but to be flourishing in their reach and impact. All seven schools will enjoy new, resilient, energy-neutral infrastructure, coupled with programs for identity enhancement and citizenship, by that time, and one-third of the houses will have transitioned natural gas to sustainable sources of energy. Overall, they aim to reach 5,000-6,000 people over the lifetime of the project, about 40% out of the district’s residents. 

At a high level, all this work will trend towards addressing priorities that are very important to all of Rotterdam: tacking extreme rainfall and heat stress with physical design, especially schoolyards, fully operationalizing the energy transition in an integrated way, and creating sustainable areas populated by people that have good jobs and a high quality of life. Their ability to see these outcomes achieved will dictate how Rotterdam can use BoTu as a model for other districts. They have partnered with The Field Consortium, an organization comprised of local experts, to monitor and document Resilient BoTu, in order to identify the lessons learned and be sure they can be scaled and exported to the rest of the city.  

The capacities of individual residents, informal networks and communities, institutions and businesses form the foundation for make BoTu the first resilient district of Rotterdam by 2028. This means in figures that BoTu will attain the urban social average in the social index within 10 years. This result will not be reached solely by attracting new, more highly educated residents to BoTu. The aim of the Resilient BoTu 2028 programme is first and foremost to invest in the current residents of BoTu. 

5 to 6K

people to be reached over the lifetime of the project, about 40% out of the district’s residents.

1,500

BoTu residents involved in the process.

150

identified and integrated networks and organizations, encouraging and stimulating collaborations between different initiatives.

Making Rotterdam’s First Resilient Neighborhood through Social Cohesion