The Generational Thinkers: John Jacobs

Every month, design agency Verveeld � Verward interviews a leading, future ancestor from the design field about generational thinking. Dorine Baars and Jonas Martens delve deep with their inspirators, discussing substantive work, legacy, and generation-transcending design approaches. This time, they speak with John Jacobs, a guru in city climate adaptation.

Type Update
Published on 21 July 2023
The Generational Thinkers: John Jacobs
Part of
John Jacobs

We are in the old red-light district of Rotterdam, at the Keilewerf. We are sitting in our blue-painted office in the middle of the old industrial port area when John Jacobs takes a seat across from us at our somewhat wobbly table. John knows us, he knows the place, and we know John – John is a mastodon of Rotterdam’s future-proof approaches, at the same time, he has always been a mentor and an inspiration to us, even though he would never want to admit it.

May we begin?

Does something need to be finished before you die?

John laughs. “My life,” he answers. Having something finished in terms of content makes it finite, and he doesn’t believe in that. It will become apparent that John is someone who plants seeds, and dares to let things grow, both strategically and based on what is right considering our current knowledge. Within the municipality of Rotterdam, he has obtained a somewhat free role within the city management department as a long-term strategist.

Future-proof Rotterdam

Normally, a municipal city management department deals with the management of infrastructure issues in the here and now: benches, trash cans, streetlights, and parks, or long and complex sewer replacement projects. But that is certainly not the case with John. With Jacobs, it’s about the cities’ logical need for climate adaptation – necessary adjustments to urban areas due to coming climate change. Or, as he aspires to, “technically logical but often innovative solutions in the city of Rotterdam, driven by knowledge and science. Think of increasing heat, droughts, extreme rainstorms, groundwater shortages, land subsidence, and sea level rise.” In short, together with his colleagues, he works excessively hard to keep the consequences of climate change manageable in the current and long-term future.

Rotterdam is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Residing so low below sea level the city functions as some kind of bathtub, a heavy rainstorm flows directly into the urban sewer, causing it to become overloaded. According to the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), it rains more frequently and more intensely in Rotterdam due to its location. Therefore, Rotterdam is significantly more affected by rainwater, because the sewer system constantly needs to pump excess water to higher grounds: somewhere beyond the dikes. Exactly: the city management department. “The sewer system could be considered more than just a system of pipes below ground”, according to John, “but rather a whole system of above and below ground water systems that retent, buffer, and store water in various ways”. He proved his point by jumping various hoops in organisations, and from that moment – years ago now – above-ground water could also be collected and redirected. And, money could be spent on it as well. The water square was born. Jacobs played a key role from the municipality’s side and facilitated this immensely crucial innovation in urban climate adaptation thinking worldwide. A ‘water square’ functions as temporary water storage to relieve the sewer system, and with its playground-like design, it contributes to an improved liveability of the city. Urban climate adaptation is interesting, John said, but the fact that no one really cares about climate-adaptive measures is equally interesting. We do care about school playgrounds where children can skate and play basketball, or where nearby churches can hold their outdoor services.

At the end of this two-hour conversation, we don’t know if John is pulling the strings or if he even came up with the idea so that others could execute it. To which he grimaces and says, “I’m actually quite clever.” Whether that was sarcastic, we’d like to leave that open for interpretation.

Always curious in Hasilpur

John takes off his black jacket, it’s warm. Underneath, he wears his famous (in his own circles) black T-shirt, black jeans, shiny pointed shoes, and hairdo clearly inspired by Einstein. He quickly brushes it away from before his eyes, and immediately it statically sticks out in a completely different direction.

Statistically speaking, organisations should house more people like Jacobs, if you ask us; someone who dares to think regardless of what is being said, who dares to break open complex problems, who dares to question established paths instead of simply start walking. John seems to unfold as a paid system hacker before our eyes. He is technical, graduated civil engineering from Delft University of Technology, but that was too boring, especially at that time, he says – he preferred to attend psychology lectures. This seems to be where John’s started resonating. He started building bridges between technique and social values instead. The quest to question systems for their effectiveness or logic and then to tackle the challenges uncovered through a path of simple humanism. The best technically possible solution, but within the human context to generate support for change. He simply wants the people around him to have the best possible life they can.

About 30 years ago, John graduated in Hasilpur, Pakistan. In this remote area, he was asked to develop computer models to automate complex water management for cotton production, water safety, sewage, and drinking water. He had simulated lock systems that could be controlled by software to manage water in a very smart manner – as requested by his graduation company. However, in the village, there was frequently no internet, power outages were common. So instead, he embraced the local insights and the people from the village, who eventually – like many who work with him – became friends. At the same time, John became increasingly sceptical about the added value of a computer-controlled system for a local population lacking even knowledge to fix it when down. Would it truly help them with their drinking water supply if the locks were frequently inoperable due to power outages? That’s why, in addition to what was asked by the client, he also devised a lock and dam system with simple wood boards and channels and primarily invested in “definitive change: knowledge development”. A system that considered the build and maintenance of complex systems but built on top of local knowledge and means: adaptation.

Willem Rose

Epidemics and a singelplan

“Don’t be afraid of complexity,” says Jacobs. He refers to Willem Rose. Like now, about 180 years ago, things were going well in Rotterdam. Many people flocked to the city, and the pressure on urban water increased. And this was at a time when there was no functional sewerage or running water. Waste and excrement were simply dumped into the canals. The water couldn’t move freely and remained stagnant, causing an enormous stench and its associated consequences. As the Rotterdam city architect, Willem Rose designed a water system of five canals connected to the Maas River, which would in his design provide daily fresh water to the canals. He cleverly made use of the nearby Maas River and its tides to improve the quality of life and reduce the consequences of still waters. However, the plan was rejected due to high costs. It was only a decade later, after many people had died from the consequences of two severe cholera epidemics, that the plan was implemented. Had they only done it before? Other landscape architects would eventually design the winding canal paths for urban dwellers – and now, most of the canals, pumps, and pump stations are protected cityscapes. According to Jacobs, the “waterplan” or Singelplan was originally born as a technical solution (sewerage and water system) but became linked to a social necessity (disease epidemics). 

John emphasises the importance of always try to reverse the question.

Rose, in his Singelplan, sets an example for involving the true long-term perspective. “The canals where people walk and stroll have an important function in the water system – the clever part is combining interests, and that broad support leads to embracing change without people necessarily always needing to know why it is truly necessary.”

Nothing is as permanent as something temporary

2,500 kilometres of underground sewage pipes, 3,000 pumps and pumping stations, everything will eventually need to be replaced, everything needs to keep functioning. Therefore, John has reversed the question. “From pipes to public space” is not coincidentally the title of the new strategic document of the city management department. Thanks to John and his colleagues, Rotterdam’s sewer and water systems are enriched with innovations driven by water and soil. With comprehensive programs like Water Sensitive Rotterdam or Weerwoord (Weatherwise Cities) the Rotterdam municipality supports complex projects and takes on challenges to embrace climate change. The track record built by the city management department and John is clearly seen in a trail of green parks and social innovations within the development of urban public space. Even the local soccer club can count on a guaranteed green playing field during their most important seasons even though we are in a drought, thanks to a water system that stores rainwater and uses it for watering the soccer field. For centuries, John has been working on these issues through his programs, gradually creating new space for one of the best technical responses to climate change: more greenery, more nature, more biodiversity – from parks to green corridors and routes to charming little front yard gardens. And we, we want it all, simply to go for a stroll, walk our dog, or skate through our urban playground.

Wateropvang en opslag in Rotterdam

If you look closely, John’s name is on almost everything related to urban resilience, with a sharp eye on the distant future. But he will never lose sight of the connection with the current. Jacobs’ main driving force seems to be involving ordinary citizens in the complex changes that are required: “today, we do that by making temporary interventions in the streetscape and using the results of those experiments as a search for permanent, locally supported, climate-adaptive solutions: we call that placemaking.” It’s no wonder that he hopes to bring the Placemaking Europe conference to Rotterdam next year.

For John Jacobs, there is only one possible answer to the question we posed earlier, and that answer is: “Nothing needs to be finished before my death.”

"Something is only finished when it begins."
— John Jacobs

The interview series is part of Design for Generations: a comprehensive collection of projects, designs, traditions, and ideas that transcend generations.

The interviews themselves are an exploration in the broadest sense; what does the term “generation thinking” mean for us as designers and developers? This series is both an internal and external quest that we, as designers, feel; when is something good for the real long term? Is our design industry the cause of short-term thinking when our business model is coming up with new things? What would we do differently if we better understood our role as ancestors, or how would decisions be different if we took into account the well-being of our distant family in our current choices? Is breaking the cycle of short-term thinking necessary at all, or have we already been too late for a long time? What is the legacy of our design world?

Design for Generations is a project by Verveeld � Verward, made possible by the World Design Embassies, and all the designers and thinkers who have contributed.

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