Interview with Robert Kloosterman, professor of Economic Geography and Planning
For most of human history, urban centres have exerted a strong pull on individuals in search of social and economic opportunities. Although by no means a novel phenomenon, this process of urbanisation has increased noticeably in recent decades and has been accompanied by fundamental changes to urban areas as centres of economic activity. As professor of Economic Geography and Planning, Robert Kloosterman takes a keen interest in the way the social, economic and cultural transition of advanced urban economies has affected cities in Europe and elsewhere.
What is your exact research interest?
I primarily do research on urban economics and on new economic activities in cities. More specifically, my research runs along two main axes and centres on migrant businesses and cultural industries. What sort of resources are migrant entrepreneurs able to put to use? What exactly are cultural industries? And how dependent are these industries on urban environments? These are just some of the pertinent questions I look at.
I also explore so-called polycentric cities. Within most countries a certain hierarchy exists between cities. However, in a number of countries like Switzerland and the Netherlands this hierarchy is much less prevalent and the urban configuration more polycentric. How do such polycentric cities relate to one another? And what kind of division of labour does one find within them?
New figures by the UN show strong future population growth, especially within urban settings. As centres of economic activity, how will such growth affect cities in the coming decades?
The economic advantages of urban agglomeration outweigh the disadvantages. More people will mean more business activity, a more refined division of labour, more employment and, as a result, more people. From an economic perspective, I don’t think this growth will be accompanied by any major problems in the near future.
From a social standpoint, however, growing urban populations could pose challenges in terms of social stratification. Although cities have always had different economic classes, this segmentation seems to be growing and, if it becomes too great, could negatively affect social cohesion. There are also signs that this segmentation has taken on an ethnic and religious dimension of late, which is cause for concern.
Should local and national governments play a larger role in managing urban population growth?
I agree with the economist Ha-Joon Chang’s view that the state has a greater role to play in society. Current neoliberal orthodoxy dictates that the state should only concern itself with law and order and the safeguarding of property rights. I fundamentally disagree with this line of thought. It also needs to ensure a certain degree of social and economic equity among its population. With a growing population, measures to blunt economic inequality will be essential.
How important are initiatives such as the UvA’s Centre for Urban Studies in identifying and understanding the challenges posed by urbanisation?
Extremely. The UvA made a wise decision to invest in the Urban Studies research priority area and create a Centre for Urban Studies. Besides bringing together UvA researchers from various disciplines, the Centre maintains excellent networks with other institutions around the world and is situated in a city that is ideal for exploring urban-related questions.
The Centre is also responsible for the Research Master’s programme in Urban Studies, which combines various disciplines and provides a comprehensive approach to studying urban change and the opportunities and challenges it produces. While a third of the programme’s graduates end up in academia, an increasing number find employment in the public and private sector, where they are valued for their skills and diverse perspectives on urban processes.