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Colloque "les problèmes culturels des grandes villes", 8-11 décembre 1997

The cultural strategy of Rotterdam

La stratégie culturelle de Rotterdam
Jan Buursink


This paper deals with the cultural policy and strategy of Rotterdam, in particular with regard to its designation as the 'European City of Culture' for the year 2001. Having been a port and manufacturing city for many years, with a large proportion of lesser educated people, the city's first goal has been for many years to ameliorate the cultural climate of the city to the benefit of its residents. Since 1987, however, this cultural policy has received an increasingly market-oriented emphasis. The eternal rivalry with Amsterdam, the absolute cultural capital of the country, and the expectation that a cultural image would enhance the attractiveness of the city for economic investments, are the main factors in this reorientation. Rotterdam's prospects in the market of international urban tourism are, however, weak, because this city does not possess an attractive historical core. Therefore, modern architecture has become the trademark of Rotterdam.

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1The Dutch city of Rotterdam owes its world-wide reputation mainly to its port, which is the largest of the world, and definitely not to its cultural climate. For, since its rise as a big port in the second half of the 19th century, Rotterdam has first of all been a city of production and money-making, but not of culture. Rotterdam was a city of merchants, bankers and dockers, each group contributing to its image of 'the industrious city'. This traditional nickname indicats both its strength and its weakness : a hard working city without cultural life of any significance. This uncultured image may not be altogether correct - in fact Rotterdam has a rich variety of cultural institutions - but it is nevertheless hard to remove and replace. Part of the problem is the subordinate position of Rotterdam to its eternal rival, Amsterdam, the commercial and cultural capital of the country. The rivalry between Amsterdam and Rotterdam is a deeply rooted aspect of Dutch urban culture.

2In order to upgrade its image, Rotterdam wanted to be designated as a 'European City of Culture' in the year 2001. After a long campaign of lobbying the city succeeded, although it has to share the honour with the Portuguese city of Porto. This goal, however, is only part of a broader strategy : culture is generally considered a promising growth sector for cities that have lost their manufacturing basis to a high degree, such as Rotterdam.

3This paper analyses Rotterdam's cultural strategy, starting from a general model of such a strategy. For 'culture' is a very broad concept, ranging from theatre performances for bankers to pub entertainment for sailors. We also need to distinguish between mass culture (such as festivals) and high culture (such as museums of modern art), between culture for the local population and for tourists, between material culture (architecture) and immaterial cultural (literature).

4The ultimate question, however, is whether the Rotterdam cultural strategy serves the image and reputation of the city or the well-being of its citizens. This question, however, may concern all cities that compete with each other on culture.

City and culture

5Culture has always been a natural element of cities, ever since the time cities emerged and developed. The first cities in the Middle East were temple cities that owed their existence to religious ceremonies. The same occurred in other regions of the world. Originally, religious ceremonies involving dance, songs, music, theatre, and sports had the function of connecting man with nature and the super-human world. In modern times, profanation and professionalization of cultural functions made culture a more or less independent sphere. Its relation with the urban environment remained, however, during the long history of urban development. Culture, in some form or the other, has always been present in cities. For instance, almost immediately after the first months of its existence (1835), young Chicago developed entertainment outlets and other, higher forms of culture for its first residents. This example suggests that cultural policy is perhaps as much a natural aspect of cities as culture is.

6Anyhow, today no self-respecting city would be without its cultural department and a money-devouring cultural policy. Culture has become big business for cities, which compete with each other for permanent and temporary attractions and for tourists. Urban culture today is thought to be the most prosperous business of cities. As Sharon Zukin wrote :

"With the disappearance of local manufacturing industries and periodic crises in government and finance, culture is more and more the business of cities - the basis of their tourist attractions and their unique, competitive edge. The growth of cultural consumption (of art, food, fashion, music, tourism) and the industries that cater to it fuels the city's symbolic economy, its visible ability to produce both symbols and space" (Zukin, 1995, 2).

7This quotation not only offers an explanation of the cultural efforts of cities, but also makes clear the conceptual problem of how to define culture. For culture is a very broad and misty notion. To a certain extent, all we do and think is culture. Watching TV and fun shopping, for instance, are forms of culture for many people ; and going to church, school, sports events, or house parties is essentially no less cultural than visiting a museum, the opera house, or making a trip to a cultural capital like Paris. Culture is a mental stimulus we need to detach us from the hardships of daily work. So, culture means entertainment, in one form or the other, to all people who can afford this luxury, be it in their place of residence or elsewhere.

8Furthermore, we need to make a distinction between the culture of citizens and the culture of cities. The culture of citizens concerns their way of life. The culture of cities concerns first of all their attractiveness to non-residents as places to visit and stay for a while. Their cultural consumption means jobs for other people. At the very moment that people leave their working life for a moment, they become a target group for producers of culture and entertainment and their personnel. So, culture enters the world of economics. The cultural strategy of cities is not primarily a matter of keeping up their cultural image, but more and more a question of urban economics and, by consequence, of urban competition. Culture no longer is just a highly esteemed quality of urban life, but a rather vulgar economic commodity which is offered in the market. In this way, the city of culture becomes a market place where cultural goods are offered and bought. The production of culture becomes a source of employment and economic growth.

9Cities increasingly compete with each other for cultural consumers and their spendings. Cities indulge in festivals for different target groups and, in consequence, become objects of 'festivalization' themselves (Häussermann, 1993). This is accompanied by an explicit cultural policy and cultural strategy, both backed by large public funds. Bassett (1993) warns us not to exaggerate the economic impact of cultural strategies. It remains to be seen whether investments and revenues will ever be in the balance. Bassett also stresses the tensions between the aims of cultural and economic regeneration of cities.

"Cultural regeneration is more concerned with themes such s community self-development and self-expression. Economic regeneration is more concerned with growth and projects and place marketing. The latter does not necessarily contribute to the former" (Bassett, 1993, 1785).

“Industrious Rotterdam”

10The quotation from Bassett is of much relevance to the present case of Rotterdam. Although this city has a worldwide reputation because of its large seaport - which has been the world's number one for many years - the city of Rotterdam proper has, however, remained relatively unknown, particularly in comparison with Amsterdam. Whereas Amsterdam enjoys a great reputation as a tourist attraction all over the world, Rotterdam is lagging far behind. Only sailors used to be fully familiar with the charms and pleasures of this port, but today their ships tie up far away from the city. In social science, too, Rotterdam has remained an 'unknown city', because literature on Rotterdam in the English language is scarce.

11In contrast to this shortage of internationally accessible literature, Dutch-language texts on Rotterdam abound. This makes Rotterdam a typical national city everybody in the country knows, for its positive and in particular its negative aspects. Time and again, Rotterdam hits the headlines because of its ambitious plans and eternal quarrels, its drugs scene or its riots by hooligans. For several reasons Rotterdam is very prominent in the daily news of the country.

12Furthermore, few cities in the Netherlands are so frequently and intensively discussed in local writing as Rotterdam, in the past and in particular in the present. The literature on Rotterdam is booming. One could say that Rotterdam is constructed not by its architects, but by its local writers. The city has a bookshop that is exclusively specialized in Rotterdam literature. Rotterdam manages rather succesfully to include the intellectual power of its local university in the process of urban imagineering (Zijderveld, 1996). 'Brain City' is the significant name of a business and science prk next to the Erasmus university. This university, specialized in economic and medical sciences, even has a chair of economics of culture.

13Another step in this social construction process concerning Rotterdam is a joint project of the university and the municipality to establish a research institute, called Euricur, for comparative urban studies of European cities, such as Rotterdam. Consequently, Rotterdam has set up a league of 'Eurocities' (of course without Amsterdam !), and the city is frequently portrayed in the reports of this institute (Van den Berg, Van den Borg & Van der Meer, 1995). All this writing contributes to the imagineering of Rotterdam as a dynamic and interesting city.

A workers' city

14'Industrious Rotterdam', however, is still predominantly a workers' city, where middle and high-income groups are only small minority. These categories left the city, preferring to live in the suburbs or even farther away. The social structure of the present population is thought to be unbalanced. Rotterdam's present population (600,000) is the social residue of an industrial city, that is to say a city that lost a big part of its manufacturing base. In order to counterbalance this one-sidedness, the housing policy has recently been adjusted, by reducing the share of social housing and increasing the proportion of luxury apartments.

15The presence of a large subpopulation (30 %) of cultural minorities - most of them unskilled - creates socio-economic problems in a city where a large part of the population already suffers from the effects of de-industrialization and the rationalization of goods conveyance in the port. It also makes Rotterdam unmistakably a multicultural city. In particular the Antilleans and Surinamese add to the cultural climate of the city with their folkloristic festivals.

16What the city, however, lacks is the presence of a substantial subpopulation of typically urban residents who make a city a cosmopolitan environment. This is the very difference between Rotterdam and its eternal rival in the country, Amsterdam. The lack of cosmopolitanism is precisely the reason why Rotterdam cannot retain its target groups. It does not have the local breeding-ground for a strong and independent local cultural life. Moreover, nearby Amsterdam is too prominent a national and international cultural centre to leave any scope for Rotterdam.

Rivalry with Amsterdam

17As the second largest city of the Netherlands, after Amsterdam, Rotterdam suffers from all the pains and worries that are peculiar to second largest cities. For many generations, the Rotterdam inhabitants cultivated an urban inferiority complex with regard to Amsterdam, which was, of course, complemented by a strong Amsterdam feeling of superiority.

18The Rotterdam feeling of inferiority is, however, part of a long tradition of urban rivalry between Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Nowadays, this rivalry finds mainly its expression in the football competition, in which Ajax (Amsterdam) and Feijenoord (Rotterdam) have been fighting each other in the top positions since almost a century. The rivalry between both cities finds its historical basis in the competition between the merchant elites of both ports in the 17th century. Originally, Rotterdam was a small inland fishing and port town in the Rhine/Meuse/Scheldt delta, located at the confluence of the small river Rotte and the river Meuse. Rotterdam had a poor and lengthy connection with the North Sea for many centuries, like its rival Amsterdam, Rotterdam however being worst off. Until the 20th century, Amsterdam maintained its supremacy thanks to its trade with the colonies. However, this situation changed drastically after the completion of the New Waterway (1872), a new man-made rivermouth of Meuse and Rhine together, that gave Rotterdam the shortest possible connection with the sea.

19Due to this New Waterway, Rotterdam became the main seaport for the industrializing German hinterland, in particular for the Ruhr area. From that moment on, the small city of Rotterdam rapidly increased in population and also expanded its territory by absorbing neighbouring municipalities. Rotterdam's port took the lead and dwarfed Amsterdam, although this city too had obtained a better connection with the North Sea. Amsterdam's connection with the German hinterland was, however,less favourable. The transport function boosted industrial development (shipyards, foodstuffs, chemicals), making Rotterdam the first industrial centre of the country. Therefore, the Rotterdam region is considered the 'economic engine' of the Netherlands. This metaphor, invented by its university supporters, is cleverly exploited by local policy-makers vis-à-vis the national government, when claiming financial support for new infrastructural projects in the seaport.

20In reality, the nearby city of The Hague (seat of the government since the 17th century) is a more serious competitor to Rotterdam than its imagined enemy Amsterdam. Many well-to-do people from Rotterdam prefer to live in The Hague or its suburbs (even the former mayor did so). In contrast to both Amsterdam and The Hague, Rotterdam is not a very attractive place to live for high income groups or young urban professionals. Nor was Rotterdam the place where the city's most famous inhabitant - Desiderius Eramsmus - has lived for long. Erasmus, who was born in Rotterdam in 1466, lived there only for the first couple of weeks of his life, never to return to his native town.

21Nevertheless, Rotterdam exploits the accidental event of being the birthplace of one of the world's most famous men to the utmost. The name of Erasmus has been connected with Rotterdam from even the 16th century onward. The German geographer and contemporary of Erasmus Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) paid special attention to Erasmus of Rotterdam, and to Rotterdam as well, in his famous Cosmographei (1550) - the only other Dutch entry in his book being the city of Amsterdam. And Erasmus already got his statue in his birthplace Rotterdam in approximately 1640. This early glorification of a famous man by the city where just he was born is quite remarkable. It is striking, just because Erasmus himself was fully aware of the idleness of this. For in a letter to a friend he wrote (1520) :

"In my opinion it does not matter where one is born. I think it is a vain kind of glorification if a city prides itself on having bred a man who became a great person by his own efforts and without the assistance of his native country. The country that made him a great person is more entitled to boast of that man than his native country".

22Nevertheless, Erasmus is Rotterdam's sole cultural hero who can boast an international reputation and Rotterdam uses its famous citizen of short duration for its desired image as a cultural city where possible. So, the Rotterdam School of Economics has been renamed Erasmus University and the city called its new bridge (1996) across the river Meuse, a piece of modern architecture and a true landmark of Rotterdam, after Erasmus. The rivalry between Rotterdam and Amsterdam is strikingly illustrated in the physical appearance of both cities. For, although Rotterdam is an old city (14th century), it lacks the historical qualities of an old inner city that are so prominent in its great rival Amsterdam. Even The Hague, always a fashionable place to live but not a historical city, has more historical monuments. Rotterdam lost its historical buildings in the course of time, mainly in the Second World War (1940). The city centre as rebuilt, but in a modern style. The (modest) skyline of tall buildings gives the city a rather 'un-Dutch' appearance. This is, however, a bad starting-point for attracting foreign tourists (as Amsterdam does).

23But Amsterdam also succesfully counters the Rotterdam efforts to profile itself as an office city with modern tall buildings. In particular, the new Rembrandt Tower of Amsterdam, a landmark that can be discerned from a great distance, appears to be a strong instrument to attract new head offices (Philips !) to this city, whereas at the same time Rotterdam is loosing its rare head offices (Shell). The irony in this story is precisely hidden in the name, for Rembrandt - totally different from Erasmus - lived in Amsterdam the greater part of his life. More than three centuries after his death, Rembrandt, being one of the city's main tourists attractions, still does a lot for his home town by contributing to its imagineering as an international cultural city. The memory of Erasmus, on the other hand, does not contribute at all to the cultural image of Rotterdam.

The cultural policy of Rotterdam

24"There is much cultural suffering in Rotterdam", the prestigious national - but Rotterdam-based - newspaper De Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant recently wrote ironically. The city has two enemies who are difficult to beat : Amsterdam and its own past. Of course, Rotterdam suffers most from its eternal second-rate position and tries to find a cultural image that both abolishes the uncultured image of 'the industrious city' and provides a distinct face as a city of culture. For instance, Rotterdam wants to become the seat of the National Centre of Photo- and filmproduction, but Amsterdam also claims this new national centre with the argument that most professional photographers and filmmakers live and work in this city. This exactly is the problem : Amsterdam is the place to be for artists and cultural producers of all kinds and countries. Rotterdam is eclipsed by Amsterdam in every cultural sector.

25This does, however, not mean that Rotterdam does not have any cultural amenities that are of national and even international significance. If we restrict the concept of culture to 'high culture' for the moment, we can point to its famous Boymans-Van Beuningen Museum (already 150 years old) and many other museums, its philharmonic orchestra, theatres, a ballet company, and many other things. But he city lacks a cultural atmosphere : there is no real substrate for cultivating a cultural standing that is comparable to that of Amsterdam.

26Before 1987, Rotterdam's cultural policy was predominantly aimed at offering its residents an appropriate cultural environment, not in the last place to educate and emancipate its large working-class population. Since 1987, this domestic policy has been extended, if not overshadowed, by adopting a market-oriented policy of urban culture as a means of promotion. As already has been said, Rotterdam prefers to invest in modern architecture as demonstration of its dynamism and modernity. And it must be said, at present the city has much to offer, besides the Erasmus Bridge, to those interested in modern architecture. Already in 1984 the central government decided to build the new National Institute of Architecture in Rotterdam, much to the disappointment of Amsterdam. The establishment of this institute gave rise to the development of a Museum Park, next to the Boymans-Van Beuningen Museum and the Hall of Arts. The original plans for a museum park date back to the seventies, when, in accordance with the then cultural policy, it was meant to be an eductional facility for the local population. By now, the Museum Park has become a prestigious element in the new market-oriented cultural policy of Rotterdam (Van Aalst, 1997).

Becoming European City of Culture

27After 1987 the emphasis on the Rotterdam cultural policy has been shifted from mainly local aims to exterior goals. The main aim of the present Rotterdam cultural policy is to make money from culture. The cultural infrastructure of the city nowadays is predominantly aimed at attracting tourists from the rest of the country and from abroad. These visitors should be lured to stay in Rotterdam for some time - especially for some nights - and spend their money in the city. The possibility of being elected as 'European City of Culture' has been discovered as a proper means to revalue the city's cultural status and, in consequence, its attractiveness to foreign visitors.

28The idea of annually designating a city in Europe as 'European City of Culture' was launched in the early 1980s by the Greek minister for Cultural Affairs, Melina Mercouri, In 1985, Each year another city from a different EU-country should be elected as cultural capital of the European Union, in the expectation that this would enhance the European spirit. Athens became the first 'European City of Culture', Amsterdam followed two years later. Since that time, Rotterdam has waited for its opportunity. After twelve years a second round was started and Rotterdam, as the second city of the Netherlands, considered itself to be a serious candidate.

29As a rule, each year one city will be designated by the Ministers of Cultural Affairs to be 'cultural capital of Europe' for one year, but 'Brussels' does not provide any substantial financial support. A city that has been designated just obtains the status from 'Brussels' and then has to earn the money in the market. The designated cultural capital has to provide by itself almost all the money that is necessary to organize the event. The experience is that in the last five or six years more and more money has been invested in the event, for the organizing of temporary manifestations and, in particular, for the restoration of monuments and the building of new projects (museums of modern art). After some years the interest of cities to become designated 'European City of Culture' has risen to the level of severe competition. This fits into the view that cities are mere 're-presentations' and 'imaginations' (King, 1995 ; 1996), constructed by their local authorities who compete (in vain ?) with their cities on a diffuse market.

30Rotterdam missed the round for the year 2000, in which even 9 (nine) 'European Cities of Culture' (this time also from non EU-countries) at the same time will present themselves to the public. Rotterdam thought, however, to have good opportunities in the next year (2001) and started a intensive lobbying campaign. The city had some serious competitors and, moreover, the ministers of cultural affairs could not agree unanimously. Some countries insisted on having again a larger number of cultural capitals by designating all candidates, like in 2000. So, there was a severe competition between several candidates, like cities that want to host the Olympic Games. After long negotiations eventually two cities have been designated (in 1998) to be European City of Culture in 2001 : Rotterdam and Porto. Rotterdam immediately started the preparations for the event. Compared to the previous cultural capitals (Stockholm, Thessaloniki, Copenhagen) the budget of Rotterdam is, however, rather moderate (about 25 million euros). Even Porto has a larger budget (about 35 million euros). The city tries to evade the mistakes of previous cultural capitals, where the superabundance of events (Stockholm for instance organized about 1200 manifestations) missed the public. The lesson of Glasgow (1990) may be of use to Rotterdam : give priority to the local cultural climate and to the local public. The first signs, indeed, indicate that Rotterdam emphasizes the involvement of the many population groups of this multicultural city. So, after all, Rotterdam seems to be inclined to return to the pre-1987 aims of its cultural policy.


31The ultimate question is : why are cities so eager to be designated as 'European City of Culture' ? What does a city stand to gain from being (having been) the cultural capital of Europe for one year ? For, as we know, this is just an honour, granted by 'Brussels' without any substantial financial support. The designated city has to procure the money for organizing the event from its own pocket, or from central government and trade and industry. Rotterdam, for instance, expects that these sources each will provide a third of its budget. But, what will eventually be the revenues ? Are costs and profits in the balance ? And, do we first of all care for financial returns, or do we have to expect immaterial benefits (cultural climate, image) ?

32The evaluation of the first round of the event has not yet been fully accomplished and this will be a difficult job. Evidence of the lasting effects from previous European Cities of Culture is scarce. Moreover, most of these cultural capitals that were deignated in the first years of the event were already main destinations of cultural tourism, such as Florence, Madrid, Berlin, and Paris. The effects of having been the official cultural capital of Europe is not easily to be isolated in these cities. A far less renowned centre of urban tourism, 'Wonderful Copenhagen', that invested large amounts in its temporary status, reported an increase of overnight stays of only 12% in the year (1996) of its designation. Many projects turned out to be a financial disaster. "The concept of cultural capital is a useless muscle puffed up by steroids", was the critical judgment of a Danish newspaper. The big public was not interested in the event. Stockholm (1998) had the same disappointing experience. Moreover, the attendace of the international cultural tourists stayed behind the expectations. After a few years nobody will remember the names of previous cultural capitals. What counts is the presence of restored monuments and new museums and theatres that without the impetus of the event of 'European City of Culture' would not have been there to please the local population and to attract tourists from abroad.

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Jan Buursink, « The cultural strategy of Rotterdam », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Dossiers, document 115, mis en ligne le 08 décembre 1999, consulté le 12 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jan Buursink
Department of Human Geography, University of Nijmegen, Netherlands

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