‘A good city is like a good party’, but not everyone is invited

‘A good city is like a good party’, but not everyone is invited

Marguerite van den Berg and Danielle Chevalier

In an attempt to successfully compete and prosper in the new economic era, the port city of Rotterdam strives to move beyond its ‘masculine’ industrial past towards a more ‘feminine’ entrepreneurial future. Gender figures heavily in public discourse and policy, both in wording and concrete interventions. ‘Rotterdam needs tits,’ said the social democrat alderman Hamit Karakus in 2013, but at the same time the city’s administration is eager to demonstrate ‘who’s the boss’ in the public realm of the city, mobilizing quite ‘masculine’ repertoires. The city planning programme that ran until 2018 was guided by the concept of a City Lounge geared towards making the city a ‘soft, warm and hospitable’ space that is attractive for middle-class families to settle.

At the opposite end of spatial interventions a city-wide ban on gathering is in force, regulating the coming together of two or more people who are perceived to assume a menacing stance or have ill intentions. The ban on gathering ostensibly targets male non-white youth ‘loitering’ in public space, feeding into majority society’s perceptions of insecurity. These interventions beg the question what precisely encompasses ‘lounging’, what encompasses ‘loitering’, and how the difference between ‘lounging’ and ‘loitering’ ties in with gender, space, race and class.

Rotterdam is a quintessential seaport. From 1962 to 2004 it was the largest harbour in the world and remains the largest port in Europe. The port and the work it offered attracted large migrant populations, first from the Dutch provinces and – after World War II – from Mediterranean countries such as Morocco and Turkey. Rotterdam has been the paradigmatic Dutch industrial metropolis for over a century and migration has played an important role in its growth and success. Since the 1970s onwards, however, many port-connected labour activities have disappeared because of the robotization and automation processes or moved across the world to lower-wage countries.

Many Rotterdammers today do not easily connect to the labour demand of service industries (Van den Berg, 2017). Compared with other Dutch cities, Rotterdam is not doing well in terms of employment levels, mean income levels, and early school leaving. Unemployment and poverty have become real concerns for Rotterdam (Van den Berg, 2017). The municipality has identified the demographic makeup as one of the most important causes of the city’s contemporary problems. At the discursive level, Rotterdam prides itself in its working class industrial identity in which masculine tropes such as imagery of rough dockworkers figure: workers who put action over talk, or, as a well-known Rotterdam phrase expresses it, ‘scrubbing over bullshitting’ (‘niet lullen, maar poetsen’). At the same time, the city is intently and explicitly reaching out for an image that is coded heteronormatively feminine, as the urban administration strives to reinvent the former industrial city and meet the demands of the new era.

Rotterdam is not an exceptional case: deindustrialisation has hit hard in many formerly industrial cities. In adjusting to new economic realities these cities compete to attract businesses, visitors and certain groups of inhabitants in order to ‘revitalise’ and secure economic viability. Consequently, imagining a new future encompasses imagining future populations and how the city can accommodate and attract such ‘desirable’ populations. The municipal administration in Rotterdam has explicitly formulated policy on attracting ‘prospect rich’ (kansrijken) populations and displacing ‘prospect poor’ (kansarmen) populations. The ‘prospect poor’ are often defined as people with a very low income or those dependent on welfare, i.e., typically the poorly educated, unemployed inhabitants, often youth. Alternatively, the ‘prospect rich’ are high-earning inhabitants aged 30-45, often specified as higher dual-earning inhabitants with children.

Importantly, besides operating as a euphemism for class, the profiles of these ‘prospect poor’ and ‘prospect rich’ populations are highly gendered and racialised. Especially the working-class masculinities of the sons of migrants are considered an obstacle on the way to the future consumption-based economy and more often than not the racial and ethnic background of the ‘prospect poor’ is central to what the municipality identifies as problematic. As working-class masculinities signify the industrial and Rotterdam aims to move beyond its industrial past into a post-industrial future, this exclusionary reasoning operates on both symbolical and practical levels: as Linda McDowell and Anoop Nayak, among others, observe in the UK context, it is precisely working-class masculinities that struggle with adjustment to to post-industrial conditions (McDowell, 2003; Nayak, 2006).

Against this backdrop, two concrete policy measures target specific, non-concurring populations.  The City Lounge concept guided ‘the development of the city centre into a quality spot for meeting, staying and entertaining for inhabitants, corporations and visitors’. The cover of one of City Lounge programme texts summarizes the gist in a powerful image, depicting a Sunday morning yoga class facilitated in a main square in the city centre (see the image above). It is an extreme representation of passive leisure in public space, one of white middle-class consumerism – in stark contrast to the image of a working-class ‘rough’ dockworker with rolled-up sleeves.

The City Lounge ambition to accommodate a passive leisurely enjoyment of a consumption-based city urban economy is flanked by a safety programme guided by the overall theme ‘Rotterdam is my home’. As passive leisurely consumption, the home likewise conjures up feminine connotations of feeling secure and withdrawn from public space. Public safety has been a top priority of municipal policy since the early 2000s. One notable measure of the safety action plans is the ban on gathering, that -in the words of the director of the municipal directorate of safety-is meant to show ‘who’s the boss’ on the street. The ban on gathering is not merely symbolic legislation: in 2015, for example, a total of 174 fines (mounting to a total sum of €13.833,00) were issued for violation of this ban. The municipality states that ‘nuisance caused by loitering youths contributes to subjective feelings of unsafety of consumers, passers-by and residents’. In Rotterdam’s safety action programme, the ban on gathering is explicitly declared an effective instrument to guarantee the ‘good use of the public space an deterrence of disruption of the public order’.

Whether using public space for hanging out and chilling is considered lounging or loitering is dependent on where it happens and who is involved. Rotterdam states that ‘A good city is like a good party’, which begs the question:  who is invited? In an attempt to move beyond its ‘masculine’ industrial past, Rotterdam employs feminine rhetoric of needing ‘tits’ with masculine policy measures to show ‘who is the boss’ to highlight its features that connote white middle-class femininity. It is a move from a rough seaport that offers work to ‘low-skilled’ male migrants to the safe haven of a ‘home’ that accommodates high-earning middle-class families and the feminine consumption preferences of the ‘prospect rich’ to ‘lounge’. The act of hanging around in public space with friends, using public space as a place to meet and socialize, is no longer connoted as lounging when it concerns the post-migrant working-class male youth. Instead, it becomes loitering, and loitering thwarts the sense of safety and security that affords the leisurely enjoyment of lounging and yoga. A good city is like a good party. But not everyone is invited.

McDowell, Linda (2003). Redundant masculinities? Employment Change and White Working Class Youth. Oxford: Blackwell.
Van den Berg, Marguerite (2017). Gender in the post-Fordist Urban. The gender revolution in planning and public policy. Basingstoke: Palgrave.


Marguerite van den Berg is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. Danielle Chevalier is Assistant Professor of Law and Society at Leiden Law School, Leiden University. This contribution is based on a longer article: van den Berg, M., & Chevalier, D. (2018). Of “city lounges”, “bans on gathering” and macho policies-Gender, class and race in productions of space for Rotterdam’s post-industrial future. Cities, 76, 36-42.

Image: Fragment of a cover image of the City Lounge plan, Municipality of Rotterdam, full image available here.


The articles in this special issue of Discover Society were written and are based on research conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak, and thus do not engage with the new lived realities of urban youth in a global pandemic. Yet we hope and believe that the discussions presented here will continue to be relevant in rethinking urban futures in the years to come.