At 1300 kilometres, the Rhine is Germany's longest river. From the Swiss Alps, it flows through the rolling German wine regions and the heavy industries of the Ruhr, via the Dutch delta to the IJsselmeer and the North Sea.
The cities along the Rhine have much in common, says TU Delft PhD researcher Lukas Höller: "In my research, I try to map what connects cities that lie within that highly integrated territory. These are often neglected cities that lie outside the capital bubbles and do not always keep up with the global economy. Therefore, it is important to explore how they can work together to still ensure the well-being of their citizens.'
Since September 2021, the 28-year-old Höller has been working on his PhD research 'Second-tier Port Cities as Gateways to Healthy Territories' within the Department of Technology Urbanism in Delft. In it, he tries to connect cities like Rotterdam, Duisburg or Mannheim. He is also part of the PortCityFutures research group of partnership LDE (Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities).
Last autumn, Höller was in the Indonesian capital Jakarta with a team of LDE scientists to participate in the LDE-BRIN Academy. 'Its overarching aim is to produce publishable papers on interests that Europe and Indonesia share,' he says. 'For me personally, it is also an opportunity to exchange with Indonesian colleagues on global topics of interest to all. As a PhD researcher, you are often completely immersed in your own topic for four years. This Academy is a nice opportunity to break free from that.'
The purpose of the research Höller is conducting is twofold, he says. First, shared geography between port cities on the same river can create new space in decision-making processes. Urban governments acting together would be better able to develop an alternative to the overarching economic policies of national governments: which, according to Höller, increasingly revolve solely around the capitals and metropolitan regions that play a central role in the global economy.
Waterways are a good example of how city-networks can take shape.'
Secondly, the young German also wants to see policy indicators formulated that focus on citizens' well-being rather than just economic growth. 'My research has a lot to do with counter-movements in the global economy. Analysing the cities along the Rhine using a shared geography means, for example, looking at how cross-border infrastructure projects or decision networks can improve the well-being of citizens across that territory.
Doing so requires daring to think beyond the neoliberal focus on economic growth. Waterways are a good example of how such city networks can take shape. After all, rivers are almost always cross-border in Europe.'
Relatively small cities in Germany have more in common with Jakarta within the global system than you might initially expect."
For Höller, it is important to think about how to design urban environments in a way that serves the well-being of residents. 'Second-tier cities along the Rhine are interesting because of their smaller size. On the one hand, they do not have the economies of scale that Berlin or Paris have, but they do have a much more direct connection with smaller villages and rural areas in their hinterland. If such cities manage to build networks among themselves, you immediately include the areas that are currently empty in the development.'
Compared to the Rhine cities Höller studies, the metropolitan region of Jakarta, with its 30 million inhabitants, is of a very different order. Yet according to Höller, the Indonesian capital and the smaller European cities can indeed learn from each other: 'Relatively small cities in Germany have more in common with Jakarta within the global system than you might initially expect. Everywhere the question is how people relate to the urban environment they live in.'
If we look at metropolitan problems in a slightly looser way, we can learn from our colleagues in the global south.'
'The Dutch, for example, tend to want to plan everything very tightly. However, adhering to that can also hinder when a city grows faster. Looking at metropolitan problems in a slightly looser way is something we can learn from our colleagues in the global south, for example.'
Global problems such as increasing drought and floods, but also inequality in cities and the question of how to shape a sustainable economic transition, concern everyone on the planet, Höller stresses.
'This is precisely why scientists should look for similarities in different countries. As a scientist, you are often so focused on the hard research in your own research. By going to Indonesia and talking to all kinds of people with diverse backgrounds, I hope that a free and creative space can emerge. After all, that's where the ideas are developed that benefit us all.'
LDE Global is the programme of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities that supports inter- and transdisciplinary teaching and research with partners from the Majority World on global societal challenges.
Text: Hans Wetzels