Dutch cities are getting on wonderfully – so why is Geert Wilders set to do so well in the election?

Your local neighbourhood far-right politician now comes with detachable dyed peroxide-blond hair, as if it weren't bad enough already. Image: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Europe's cities.

Life in the Netherlands is pretty good. GDP per capita is the fifteenth highest in the world, the national Human Development Index is the fifth highest on the planet, and inequality is the ninth-lowest worldwide.

They’ve conquered the seas with an intricate system of dykes and dams making life in Europe’s toilet boil relatively pleasant, and they’ve got the art of the cycle lane down to a particularly strangely-pronounced tee.

It’s the land of brownie-munching liberal paradise Amsterdam, international legal rights enforcing hub The Hague, and hip-and-happening mega-port Rotterdam.

Even outside of these huge centres, cities in the Netherlands are faring very well – particularly when compared to our own urban blobs here in the UK. Unemployment is lower:

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Amersfoort has the lowest unemployment level, at just 2.56 per cent, whilst even the city with the highest unemployment rate, Groningen, clocks in only 7.14 per cent.

By contrast, the range in the UK is from 3.31 per cent to 14.06 – almost double.

Similarly, GVA per worker – essentially, how much each individual worker contributes to the economy – is a lot higher in the Netherlands.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Productivity in the lowest-performing city of Enschede runs at £46,300 – much higher than Britain’s worst figure, Doncaster, at £38,100.

And even the powerhouse that is London – £68,900 – can’t compete with the Netherlands, where Amsterdam comes in at £75,200, and Groningen churns out £80,000 per worker per year.

Dutch cities are more inventive, too. By patent applications to the European Patent Office, the Netherlands’ cities come out ahead of the UK’s:

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

The general range of Dutch cities stretches from just 3.31 patent applications per 100,000 people in Almere, to 19.28 per 100,000 in Arnhem. But then along comes Eindhoven, smashing everyone out of the park with 251.63 per 100,000. It’s not really fair, is it.

Even with the outsize beasts of Oxford and Cambridge included, Britain can’t rise above a piddling 74.05, while the full range of our pathetic pitiful lack of invention stretches down to Telford, with a formidable 0.9 applications per 100,000 people.

On the skill of its workers, too, the Dutch come up ahead.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Cambridge and Oxford again sit vastly ahead as outliers in the UK, and the proportion of the workforce classed as high-skilled varies, from 18.61 per cent in Hull, to 50.39 per cent in Edinburgh. But once again, though, the Dutch powerhouses roust us – from Haarlemmermeer at 28.49 per cent to Utrecht at 56.66 per cent.

And, on the flip side, it has fewer lower-skilled workers.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

While Dundee registers an astonishing 46.65 per cent of the workforce as low skilled, the Netherlands can’t scrape above 32.9 per cent, in Rotterdam.

So with things this peachy, why is the extremely extreme far-right PVV party of terrible-haired peroxide-blond demon Geert Wilders jostling for first place in the polls – with one eye on becoming Prime Minister of the Netherlands?

Part of the answer, as ever, is that cities function as different political organisms. The gatherings of people in close quarters change the way people think, order priorities differently, and affects their political leanings.

The most Dutch-countryside picture I could find. Image: Peter Hessels.

But that doesn’t explain everything. After all, the PVV is polling around the 20 per cent mark, and between 82 and 85 per cent of people in the Netherlands live in cities.

So even if – as is most certainly not the case – every single person living in the Dutch countryside voted for the PVV, Wilders would still be picking up a fair few votes in urban areas.

Analysis of results and polls from the Netherlands’ last general election in 2012 suggests the clue may be our age-old friend in politics: education, education, education. The more qualified the population, the lower the level of support for the PVV, whether you’re in a city or in the countryside.


Which is why Amsterdam, full of nerdy well-to-do folk, tends not to rush into Geert Wilders’ arms, while a less educated city like Rotterdam does so to a slightly greater extent.

So the solution, long-term, may be a very simple one: whether you’re a city mayor or a rural regional official, get your education, education, education in order. And the rest will, hopefully, sort itself out.

In theory, anyway. 

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.