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Detroit Is THIS Podcast: Jan Peelen Shares Insight on Urban Planning and Smart Cities

In Episode #4, Detroitisit Founder and Host Ivana Kalafatic is Joined by Jan Peelen, for Former Attaché for Water Management at the Netherlands Embassy, to Talk United States and Netherlands Infrastructure, Climate Change and Innovation in Rebuilding Detroit

Detroit Is This podcast is hosted by Ivana Kalafatic, founder of Detroitisit. The show follows thought leaders, community change agents, makers, innovators, and entrepreneurs as they share their personal and professional stories. 

Through these conversations, we’ll explore opportunities and solutions for the new times we find ourselves in.

In Episode 4,  Ivana speaks with Jan Peelen, the Former Attaché for Water Management at the Netherlands Embassy. Jan is a public entrepreneur with a talent for strategy development, project & program management. He is a passionate expert in the field of infrastructure, climate adaptation, corporate responsibility/sustainability, and (international) governmental relations.

Tune in to the podcast and subscribe to it where you normally would listen to all your podcasts, for further insight on Jan Peelen speak on Smart Cities, infrastructure, Urban Planning and incorporating the greatness of water into the rebuilding of Detroit:



I’m originally from the Netherlands, I was born and raised about 20 minutes north of Amsterdam. I went to the University of Amsterdam, where I studied urban planning. And like an awful lot of kids, you don’t start to think, oh, I want to go into Urban Planning. I actually never had an idea about what I wanted to be.

One day our geography teacher took us on a field trip and he showed us how our rather suburban area is connected by public transportation to Amsterdam International Airport, to the city and how it all relates to each other. I remember walking into the International Airport and if you’ve ever been to Amsterdam Airport, you know it’s huge. There’s an awful lot of things that aren’t directly related to an airport and people just work there. There are businesses, offices and so many stores. I was basically marveling at how all these worlds collided right there at the airport. I was in awe by these international travelers and local people who were just going to their job, and how it all almost seamlessly works together. I thought it would be so cool to work on your own to make something like this function.

I never wanted to work for the national government, but here I am. The first job opening that really appealed to me was for the national government and I have never looked back. Since then I’ve been working on big infrastructure projects. People always say happiness is in small things for me professionally, happiness is in big things. So I worked on highways, energy infrastructure, and railways for a couple of years and then moved onto the water department.

Then all of a sudden, this opportunity comes up to work and live in Washington D.C. for two years. So I did. That’s more than six years ago. So I liked it and I stayed. The work is just not finished after the rebuild program from Sandy that I did when I first came to the United States. Basically, our influence there just stopped and there was so much other work to do other cities that had questions about water management but I also engaged cities on sustainability, smart cities, and urban development.



People ask us “what’s the secret of the Netherlands? How do you how do you develop this?” It’s of course, skill and experience, but the fact that we are a very small country. We are almost 60 of the state of but we do have 17 million inhabitants.

So we’ve learned to really work with space and sustainability, smarter urban planning is basically our second nature because we don’t have that much space. So every square inch has to be used utilized to ensure everything is working correctly.



We are actually one of the few countries that might have more bicycles than people and we actually have parking garages for bikes at stations. We do have collisions sometimes but practice makes perfect. Part of it has become part of the culture and part of the lifestyle. And actually, it’s funny you mentioned because we actually have seen an uptick, due to this Coronavirus, in requests for information about how you manage bikes and how do we create bike lanes and bike-friendly environment/policies, we actually see a huge uptick in the United States on that.

Most people have their own bikes, but we also have a public transportation bike. We don’t sell tickets anymore. Basically, everybody has a pass, and you can charge credit on it and you use that to take the train or the bus or the metro. It works in every city. So no matter where you are, that pass works, and that you should, you can also get rental bikes. So with your public transportation guards, you can actually get a bike for that last mile.

One of the brilliant things coming out of the Netherlands is solutions for cities that are either like-minded, on water and solutions for human-centric design. Talk to us a little bit about how you see that happening from the Netherlands perspective.

On smart cities I think that’s a question asked a lot “what do you mean with the smart city?” I’ve been involved in that discussion with, for example, several cities and federal government. What you see in the United States is a lot of the emphasis is on the tech side and data, using data using sensors, interpreting data to create better policies. In the Netherlands, tech is definitely a part of that discussion but we actually integrate tech immediately into sustainability or the social benefits of the city.

It’s not so much tech, it’s tech that helps us actually connect different parts or functions of the city and basically combining these functions that otherwise have nothing to do with each other. That creates added value. I think that’s what really sets the Netherlands apart from Americans. What we need to work on it ensuring people see the added value.

In a smart city, you have to make sure it resonates with your citizens. For example, with smart cities, you’re talking about Detroit, you’re talking about cars. There’s an awful lot of research now on autonomous cars and you see that some people are not happy with their city being a test site. And that’s clearly an example of that, you know, where there’s a disconnect between the tech and the city.


With the “Q” Line in Detroit, it’s a heavy investment and could take a lot of time to see the added benefit. I think it really is about people seeing the value of it and the benefit of something being able to prove itself as the city grows, traffic starts to increase, and then all of the sudden you’re very happy that you actually put a light field there because you see things around that developing. With Smart Cities, it’s usually lighter, it’s more added to the infrastructure.

With Amsterdam, which basically decided to become a living lab for smart city technology, it’s if you have a good idea, come with us, and we’ll see how we can implement it. The good thing about such a living lab is that you can see, like, what kind of initiatives are successful and whatnot, and of course, it can be success or failure that are dependent on the idea itself, how you can execute it, but also the kind of ideas that that really get traction very quickly. And some just take a year or two to catch on. It’s a safe zone to play and fail if necessary.



The problem is if you’re talking about platforms there’s an awful lot of failure in both on the US side, and the Netherlands, and Europe. There are so many ideas for people who come with a platform for exchange. For example, databases, everybody puts their expertise in it and you can share it and there’s a community. Actually, that’s something that we worked with our U.S. counterparts to create a U.S. and Netherlands community or an international community on smart cities sharing experiences because all these cities are in the same boat. I wouldn’t say it failed but learned after a year it did not work as we expected because we didn’t get that community feels that we wanted.

We pivoted to a strategy where we could connect people who have the same problem. Because then it’s much easier for people within a company or city to make time for it and explain to their boss that it is actually important to have this conversation with this person in Detroit, or Austin, Texas, or in Amsterdam, or Rotterdam. It connects people. We changed the idea as we went because originally it was too idealistic. It has to be quick, easy, and give people instant gratification.

To succeed, you need great leadership from a mayor or a great CEO of a company. You need leaders and a good team that can be innovative. You also need open-minded leaders within the community that will support you and vouch for you. That’s what we see as a constant need between the United States and the Netherlands.



Well, this is actually a topic that comes up an awful lot in our work. My background might show that mostly work on coastal defense and we do but an awful lot is on the flood issue in U.S. cities. We’re faced by situations that we thought we would happen to us sometimes, but now actually, it’s becoming the new normal.

That changes an awful lot and that’s changed the mindset with people who work on infrastructure, because, when you design something for 50 years and you have an idea of what should be able to withstand and then the framework starts to shift.

Unfortunately, for example, the case in Detroit, but also another a lot of other American cities, there’s also the case of the backlog in maintenance. Infrastructure exists and it’s quite expensive. So we’re actually working with the federal highways and Institute and our counterparts are also making investment strategies and thinking about what is really critical infrastructure. For example, if you have something like the breach of a dam in Michigan and we’re going to invest in the infrastructure, we think about what highway or railroads should definitely be available at all times.

We are trying to help each other because we learn from the United States on how to invest in reinforcing critical infrastructure. But the question is, how do you decide which is critical? How do you decide what to do? That’s something that we are literally figuring out as we go and it’s actually a very interesting field to see because like I said, money is usually scarce and there is so much work to be done. So we ask, where are you going to invest? And also, what do you what is important?



Well, for us, we were a small country, we’re very densely populated and we’re also a very flood-prone country. I actually was born and raised below sea level. Until my 20’s, I never lived above sea level. About 30% of our country would flood if we wouldn’t have flood defenses. 60% is just prone to flooding, from rivers. So we are as a nation and as a society, keeping a pretty keen eye on the water and the weather.

Climate change, there is no question about it. It’s here. How bad it’s going to be, that’s just something that, we have predictions, but we don’t know if predictions will be accurate. I always explain how we as a nation are prone to flooding and why that’s important and why we actually have 800 years of experience in managing water. And then I start telling about our moonshot projects, making the country safe, you know, in the 20th century, and this was actually called the muscle barrier.

Previous floods in the late ’90s have really opened our eyes and made us realize okay, we can’t engineer ourselves out of each problem, we’re going to be faced with new challenges every day. For example, after those floods, we now have a great system there. Now, we have to challenge that we have very dry summers, can you imagine that, like the country that has 800 years of experience in keeping the water out, is now trying to figure out how to keep the water in. We are aware that we will face these challenges, and the challenges will change over time. We also accept that we don’t know how it will happen. So we have thus created the Delta program. It’s a framework for a policy. Basically, we create the conditions for us as a government to handle whatever nature is going to throw at us in the next 50, 60, 70 years. Overall, my job is to just help others have a better, safer city.



I’m not sure if people from Detroit are aware of their unique situation. As I am in Urban Planning, I always look at the city and its environment and you are in the dead center of the Great Lakes. If people aren’t aware that they have such a big water reserve, that can cause issues. Currently, the water levels are high – people are saying they have never seen it so high before and then there is another issue with the algae bloom. With so much fresh water, people couldn’t use the water for drinking water because of algae. There are a unique set of issues there and people are finally realizing that something needs to be done. First creating healthy lakes that will give you fresh drinking water and also give you the added value of beauty.

We have had so many conversations about the redevelopment of Detroit. You never realize that you are in a potent water location. When thinking about rebuilding, maybe you should consider giving the water a bit more presence through green roofing, highlighting ponds and streams, and the Detroit River. Don’t hide the water. Embrace it. Make it seen.

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