Johan Cruijff and spatial planning

Cobouw column by Jaap de Koning

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Johan Cruijff continues to exercise people’s minds: no longer on the pitch or as trainer to clubs such as Ajax, but in the world of spatial planning. Shortly after the legendary footballer’s death in March 2016, it was proposed that a public square – Amsterdam’s Stadionplein – should be renamed ‘Johan Cruijffplein’ in his honour. This is no longer likely, not least because the local authority has withdrawn its support on the advice of the Naming of Public Spaces Advisory Committee. It seems that the correct procedures had not been followed, as revealed further to a request made by local residents under freedom of information regulations. The story reads like a Kafka novel. Who was to blame? Some have named the recently deceased Eberhard van der Laan. This much loved and respected mayor of Amsterdam (who has since been elevated to near sainthood in the city) was a great admirer of Cruijff. He had frequently expressed his support for renaming both the Ajax home ground (Amsterdam Arena) and Stadionplein. It seems that, in his enthusiasm, he may have tried to cut some corners.

Yesterday’s heroes are subject to more critical scrutiny today. Many of Amsterdam’s streets and squares bear the names of seafarers of the Golden Age. Coenplein, for example, is named after Jan Pieterszoon Coen. He was a prominent member of the Dutch East India Company but was also responsible for the conquest of the Banda islands in 1621, leading a siege in which thousands of the islands’ inhabitants were killed. Heroes of the past enjoy that status based on image. The less recent their exploits, the more difficult it is to determine the facts. Today, however, digital technology and the internet have made information both transparent and accessible. There is no point in trying to conceal matters: the truth will out.

Naming a public space after a real person will always carry some risk, even if only because the proper procedures are not followed. Perhaps we should make all our streets and squares less personal. It is certainly appropriate to rename the Amsterdam Arena after Cruijff, by virtue of his service to football. It may not be so appropriate to give his name to a public space with which he had little connection during his lifetime. This may be disappointing for Mr Van der Laan, but Cruijff’s memory will surely live on with or without a square.

Jaap de Koning
Manager Witteveen+Bos office Amsterdam

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