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Interview Urban Solution

From space to place


Words by Kristina Foster

Illustrations by Aart-Jan Venema

Photos by Ben Earl

Jesse Jorg loves cities – and he’s lived in a fair few of them: Amsterdam, Manchester, Brussels, Helsinki and Bangkok. As an urban geographer, he has a sharp eye for reading the cityscape and realising its potential, whether for a vibrant meeting spot for a cup of tea or the opportunity for a verdant green space. He freelances as an ‘urban creative’ with his company We The City, striving to help create sustainable public space projects in Amsterdam. He talks to us about his latest project, a green rooftop festival called Roef.

What is We The City?

We The City is something that I started in 2013. It has a very clear goal – presenting the city as a canvas that can be coloured by everybody through different urban planning projects. It very much focuses on making public space truly public. To describe it simply: as individuals we find it very normal to decorate our own houses but with We The City, I want it to become the norm to decorate public space. Not just on our own but in large groups because these are spaces that belong to all of us.


Which green public spaces have you decorated in the past?

I’m part of the team that started De Ceuvel in the north of Amsterdam. It’s an old shipyard that’s been transformed into a sustainable workplace. We were able to clean up its polluted soil by planting different flowers and grass. I was also involved with a project called Placemaking Oosterpark. The municipality wanted to double the size of the Oosterpark (which is already a large park in Amsterdam) and we thought it was important to involve locals in the decision of how this new space would be used so we organised meetings every week to brainstorm with them.


What exactly is ‘placemaking’?

‘Placemaking’ was a term coined in the USA in the seventies. It describes the transition from space to place. A ‘space’ is something that doesn’t really have an identity. A ‘place’, on the other hand, does. In the seventies you had architects creating buildings, city planners focusing on the quickest way to get a car from A to B and you had the spaces in between. It was only after people started doing something with these spaces that the term ‘placemaking’ was coined. These became important for the people not moving from A to B, for those who just wanted a relaxing place to interact with others. Greenery is an extremely important element in this. It gives spaces meaning, makes them inviting, and well, turns them into ‘places’.



Tell us about the current urban green project you are working on, Roef.

Roef is a festival that aims to celebrate the green possibilities of the rooftop landscape. We see this project as a catalyst for a much larger movement of using disused rooftops. Our mission is a three-step process: show, grow and connect. ‘Show’ means showcasing the immense green potential for these spaces at the festival. ‘Grow’ is the idea of growing this project over time. This edition in September will be hosted on 6 rooftops, but next year we want it involve 20 rooftops and the next year 50, gradually taking over the city’s rooftops with green over time. The final aim is ‘connect’ – if we have these amazing roof landscapes then why not connect them and turn them into a beautiful elevated park?


How exactly do you plan to ‘grow’ the festival?

We are trying our best to activate the networks of our partners. This way we hope to reach another important target group for this festival: the companies that have buildings with empty rooftops. Inviting them to this festival introduces them to the opportunity to transform these rooftops into green spaces. We’re also going to start selling tickets for the next edition of Roef this October; if you buy one, you will be invited to the openings of new rooftops throughout the year. This way, people can literally see the project grow and feel like they are part of a movement.

Research has shown the positive effects of green in our lives so why not make it more accessible? Why not create a city on a city?

Why do you think it’s important to promote green rooftops in the city?

Obviously green rooftops solve larger problems like pollution but moreover, in a city that is so densely populated, it’s important to think about alternative spaces where people can relax and find balance in their lives. The festival will take place in an area in Amsterdam that we have rebranded as ‘The Knowledge Mile’, which runs from Amstel Station to Nieuwmarkt. This stretch is a ‘knowledge intensive’ place with many innovative companies established there and more than 60,000 students attending knowledge institutes in the area. This work-life balance is particularly important to them. Research has shown the positive effects of green in our lives so why not make it more accessible? Why not create a city on a city? There is an entire landscape above us that has yet to be revealed.


And the festival itself? What’s on the programme?

Rooftop guides will lead guests to each roof and share information about what can be seen from this height. We really want to play on all these different viewing angles so you can watch music performances via binoculars from one roof to the next. Live streams will project what’s happening on each rooftop. There will also be poetry readings and circus acts – it’s a real theatre of events.

Photo via wethecity.nl

As someone with a close connection to the city, what do you think about the current relationship of your city and green spaces?

I really like the way that parks are used in Amsterdam; they are like a blank canvas where anything is possible. You bring whatever and do whatever. That behaviour turns parks into very vibrant places. There are also some great green initiatives such as Park Around The Corner, which is a project trying to turn boring squares into little public parks, and De Balkonie, which is helping turn Amsterdam’s balconies into miniature green oases.


And how do you see this relationship developing in the future?

There are going to be loads of opportunities once the self-driving car is introduced in the near future. Cars will no longer be stationary and therefore parked cars will no longer occupy public space. We’ll be able to claim back so much area and these are huge opportunities for new green environments. In San Francisco, for example, they had this very original idea where instead of putting money into a parking meter, people donated money to create a park in the middle of the street.


Why would a park like this be an important aspect to public space?

Green spaces are invitational spaces; people can turn them into anything they want, from the host of a festival to an afternoon picnic, the list is endless. They can organically be changed according to the needs of residents and don’t require much. You don’t even need a bench, you can just sit on the grass, and I think that’s beautiful.