Thom Aussems: ‘Rules don’t interest me’

He is well known in the world of urban renewal. His approach as director of housing association Sint Trudo, in the city of Eindhoven in Brabant, was completely unorthodox. He went against government policy by opening neighbourhood restaurants, organising community activities and setting up an integration project for people with a residence permit. Because in his opinion, physical and social projects should be linked. Thom Aussems, who is now retired but still going strong, is quite frank: “Rules don’t interest me, it’s all about people.”

The former housing association director became well-known throughout the country when Sint Trudo bought industrial buildings on what used to be the grounds of Philips in Eindhoven, and transformed these into mixed complexes with housing, studios, catering establishments and lofts. And he did other things that, in the housing association world, were deemed out of the box. For instance, he initiated the Trudo Weekend School, set up the community business Buurtonderneming Woensel-West in collaboration with the municipality and the residents’ association, started up community restaurants, housed the homeless and set up an integration project for people with a residence permit. He also gave new tenants a monthly discount of € 100 if they did activities with the children from the school for 10 hours a month. The reason why he operated outside the usual scope of his position? “Without social projects, the work of associations is meaningless.”

“I have great admiration for the high-tech development in Eindhoven and the way in which people work together in this area.”

Fringes of society

On the second day of the CWF2019, Thom Aussems will talk about the question of how to continue to develop and make progress as a city. He will be doing this in Eindhoven, the city he has committed himself to for decades. But with mixed feelings. “I have great admiration for the high-tech development in Eindhoven and the way in which people work together in this area. It really is top level”, says the rebel within the Dutch housing association world. “At the same time, I have a love-hate relationship with the government; it seems very hard for them to connect with those on the fringes of society.”

And this worries him. “Thanks to the high-tech industry, the economy in the region is blossoming. On a nationwide level, the growth is above average. Every job in this sector provides three-and-a-half to five new jobs in the service sector; education, catering, you name it. So you would also expect those on the fringes of society to benefit. But they don’t! Private initiatives show that it is possible. The organisation Springplank 040, for instance – which I helped to set up – is able to get the homeless, the hardest group, working and is extremely successful in doing so. Big employers, such as VDL, collaborate in this, too. So I think: if this works with the homeless, then it should work with any group of people. It demands a different attitude from the government and a strategy according to Moretti’s (Italian-American economist, ed.) multiplier effect. But it’s difficult to get this into their heads.”

“All over the world you see that a large proportion of the cake goes to those who have made the investment.”

Blue collar versus white collar

A second paradox Aussems wants to address concerns income. “If, as Brainport Region Eindhoven, you are the second economic driver in the Netherlands, you would assume that the incomes of the inhabitants would also be good. But that is also not the case. All over the world you see that a large proportion of the cake goes to those who have made the investment. Therefore, capital is rewarded better than labour. And the same goes for Eindhoven. Here, the average income is way below the national average. This has everything to do with the past as an industrial city. The city grew mainly because Philips needed blue collar (workers, ed.). Philips’ white collar brigade, those with middle and high incomes, settled in the surrounding municipalities. This resulted in spacial segregation in the region, with Eindhoven becoming the drain in the bathtub. There is still a big difference in incomes between the city and the surrounding municipalities, and the result is increasingly separate worlds. But I notice the transition of division into separate worlds within the city as well. In the past, people of all classes were connected via the church, school and social institutions but nowadays this has almost disappeared. The result is that people of all classes no longer come across one another. This is a great risk because it forms a breeding ground for populism among people who do not benefit from that high economic growth.”

The place to be

Thirdly, during the CWF conference, Aussems presents the visitors with a challenge: as a city, how can you make this ‘the place to be’ for foreign employees? His answer: by offering quality of life at a high level. “In order to guarantee and expand economic growth, Eindhoven needs numerous highly qualified technical employees. Many more than all the universities in the Netherlands together can produce. This means that those people have to come from abroad. And that’s the crux. Recent research among 64,000 academically educated people in Europe showed that few of them have considered Eindhoven as being a place in which they could live and work. The city came a mere 361st on the list. That says something about the quality of life, doesn’t it?”

“The speed at which changes are taking place is so slow that it is creating an implementation gap.”

Aussems makes a comparison with the turbulent growth of Philips a hundred years ago. “The company had outgrown itself in Eindhoven and wanted to expand in the direction of Strijp and Woensel. To be able to do this, Philips had to go into conclave with several municipalities. But the catholic bourgeois, the conservative establishment that ruled, dug in their heels. Thanks to administrative fragmentation – the metropole region of Eindhoven includes no less than 21 municipalities for 800,000 inhabitants! – the same thing is happening now. Things are going too slowly when it comes to the improvement of the quality of life and this has lead to an implementation gap. In his time, this would have made Anton Philips dead nervous because it is a serious risk for business.”

Better cohesion

In his most recent book, Urban Complexity, Case Eindhoven, Thom Aussems recommends viewing the city in a more coherent way. “Cities are complicated. Urban development is not only about the physical space, which is the case for many urban developers, but also about socio-economic interventions. So if Eindhoven wants to continue to grow as a high-tech city, things like empathy, diversity, segregation and sustainability should certainly not be forgotten.”

Meet Thom Aussems at day 2 in Eindhoven >

We are using cookies on our website

Please confirm, if you accept our tracking cookies. You can also decline the tracking, so you can continue to visit our website without any data sent to third party services. More information can be found in our privacy statement.