You must dare to tell a different story

You must dare to tell a different story

05/14/2024 - 16:28

Joost Kleinhaarhuis studied Urban Planning at NHTV (BUas). In 2005 he graduated in Mexico City, where he travelled for over three hours to get from one campus to another. He has since found his niche as a traffic planner in his own student city. Breda!
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Let us start in Mexico. What went wrong?

‘I was doing a graduation project at the university. Together with a fellow student, I had found a student flat on the campus. That’s what we thought, but the university appeared to have three campuses in the city, and we lived near the wrong one. In this way, we were travelling 3.5 hours twice every day. Firstly, a short walk, then a bus, by tube, all from the beginning of the line to a mega hub, catch another line there, then a tram for half an hour, and eventually a ten-minute walk. Fortunately, we found another student flat two weeks later!’

Quite funny, if you think you were there to conduct research into public transport?

‘I got to write a master plan about the redevelopment of a public transport hub. So yes, I experienced the whole customer journey!’ (laughs) ‘Good story, but it was a mistake of course. You do start to put traffic situations in the Netherlands into perspective when you lived in such a mega city for a while. By the way, it was before Google Maps made its appearance, mind you. You couldn’t just look it up.’


After your Mexican adventure you started to work for a consultancy firm straight away? How about that?

‘Nice and instructive. You have just completed your studies and you realise that you know very little. I was mostly writing reports for municipalities and provinces, without really understanding for whom and why a report was so important. Then I thought, in order to become a good consultant, I should actually sit at the other side of the table. So I went to the municipality of Roosendaal. For some two or three years, was the plan...’

But things went differently?

‘I worked at the municipality of Roosendaal for ten years and have worked in Breda for over six years now.’

Why that move to Breda?

‘A job opening became available and I already knew some people from the regional meetings; a lot of graduates from VAT and NHTV (forerunners of BUas, eds.) work there anyway. We now have 13 people on mobility. That seems a lot, but it makes sense, given our central position in the region and the Benelux. By comparison, in Roosendaal I was the only one responsible for mobility policy, together with someone from Control. Here everyone has their own specialisation, but we all work with the same principles of course. As a traffic planner, I’m responsible for the city centre and Crossmark, which is the area around the railway station including the former CSM site (former sugar factory area). A beautiful urban area to develop. And with the necessary challenges in terms of accessibility, sustainability and livability. Extra housing is really badly needed.’

Do you yourself live in Breda, too?

‘Since I got off the train for the introduction days in Breda in August 2000, I’ve never left. Well, I did for those six months in Mexico, of course.’

And where did that train come from?

‘From the east. Oldenzaal. In the beginning, I went home every weekend travelling three hours twice back and forth for my football club and friends living in Twente. Soon back on a Monday morning became Sunday evening and, eventually, I stayed in Breda almost every weekend.'

A strong connection to the city, then?

‘From the first moment, Breda felt like home. If you also work there, that creates a bond even more easily. If I’d gone back to Twente, I wouldn’t have come up and down for a guest lecture at BUas so readily. Although it does work if you are asked personally. Loek Hellebrekers asked me and now every year in October I give an intro lesson on the field to first-year students of BUas. I always start with the question: who lives in a student room or flat in Breda? I think about 10% raise their hand. OK, maybe 10% are still asleep on Monday morning, but still. So it’s very few and I get it!’

That’s what I take for granted. You work for the municipality of Breda!

‘I know, I said for a reason that extra accommodation is desperately needed. It is not easy to find something, but I don’t have to explain how valuable it is when you stay in your student city 24/7. Student life really enriches your development as a human being.’

You mentioned an intro class on the field. What does that class entail?

‘We give a talk about the city of Breda and tell what projects we are working on. I often work on 50 projects at the same time. These are mainly (housing) construction plans and mobility projects. It ranges from the street level, for example realising a new bicycle route, a roundabout, to a complete vision on mobility for the city. I always give this lesson together with a colleague from Urban Development. That integrated cooperation is really good in Breda. The main purpose of the lesson is to introduce the students to the city of Breda and to give the civil servant a face.’

The civil servant. You say that with a wink. Don’t you?

‘Yes, kind of, but I notice that students do have a certain image of a civil servant.’

And then they see you! Is that a civil servant, they then think?

‘Something like that yes, I hear that more often. Above all, I want to get them excited about the profession. Tell them what we do and why. I also do that with Breda residents at information meetings. Sometimes there are fierce discussions. You have to be able to stand it. You must also dare to tell a different story than the one people want to hear. When you’ve just finished your studies, you may be inclined to think up a plan from your office garden. That’s not how it works anymore, in this age of citizen participation. And that’s just as well! You learn to deal with it. But you learn that mostly in practice. After getting your diploma. It’s just like your driving licence, you only really learn to drive well when there is no instructor sitting next to you.’

That’s why work placements are so important, right?

‘I agree, but you don’t learn how politics works in a sec during a work placement. It takes more time. And there often isn’t any. In a smaller municipality, such as Roosendaal, there is simply little time to give a student on placement the attention he or she deserves. It is also not always easy to formulate an assignment. I mean, it has to be manageable for a student, which means that you delineate and then there is the danger that it becomes so small, that you think, if I go and type it myself, I’ll have it ready in no time. BUas could be more involved in that.’

How do you envisage that?

‘I think we should look at a workable form together. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice to help students. The municipality of Breda regularly has students on placement from BUas. But it should fit and the schedules of BUas and the municipality do not always match. If something is relevant now, you want it sorted out now. A bit of flexibility is needed from both sides, I think.’

For you do want to have them, those students on placement?

‘Definitely! They bring a lot of new insights. And as an employer you naturally want to help new talents. Municipalities need to rejuvenate anyway. With my 43 years, I'm pretty much the youngest in the department (don’t write it down, ha ha!). So I say, invest in them, make sure that as an organisation you are and remain attractive to young people.’

And you started – let me calculate – aged 27 at a municipality. Where are all those graduates aged 27 and younger?

‘At consultancy firms, I think, as I was at the time. They are attractive because it has an image of being young and dynamic. But also look on the other side, where it really happens. The function of the inner city, for example, is taking on a whole new dynamic. The world of mobility is changing rapidly and, as a city, we must constantly respond, move with it and implement it. It is a political playing field in which I move. Sometimes a municipal executive councillor is under fire or a newspaper dives into something. I find that much more fascinating than just the advisory side where you are – to put it briefly – judged on the hours you write.’

Not boring, then?

‘Quite honestly? If you are interested in society and you want to achieve something, choose a job in a municipality. As a consultant you have hardly any influence, but as a civil servant you do. OK, you have to want to work regularly in the evening during residents’ evenings or council meetings, because those are the moments when you can make a difference for a beautiful city like Breda with a convincing story!’


Interview: Maaike Dukker-’t Hart