The first park director in the Netherlands

With every tree, every blade of grass, even in the park near the Euromast, people feel an enormous commitment, notes the new park director Nienke van Wijk (47). Right in the Parqiet, the old carriage house in the park, a man interrupted her. He was disappointed by the dichotomy he thought he saw in the planting. “I’ll find out,” Van Wijk promised. The man smiled, packed his scarf and stepped out into the cold.

Nick van Wijk: “Wrong choices have been made over the years.”
Photo Hedayatullah Amid

The ambitions of the very first park director in the Netherlands are big. The story of the park must be told, believe the municipality and the philanthropic Droom en Daad Fond, which has invested in the renovation in recent years. The park must have an identity with its own programming and the park director monitors the cultural-historical value, following New York’s example.

Van Wijk feels the involvement constantly and from all sides, now that she has been the very first director for a few weeks. 1,200 people signed up for the newsletter, while the website is barely up and running, she says. She met the professionals involved in recent weeks – much more than expected. City management, boas. The experts who monitor whether father and son Zocher’s design from 1852 is followed. Entrepreneurs.

And then the thousands of users. Dog owners, walkers, sunbathers. But also less visible. Like the man who just pulls up his pants between the rhododendrons when Van Wijk makes a lap. “People sleep here. That’s also the history of the park.”

You have extensive experience in the cultural sector. What’s up with parks?

“I like the view of the horizon in the countryside, but also the concrete of the city. I grew up in the south of Rotterdam, but I also lived in a housing group on a farm in Alblasserwaard. We kept chickens, made gardens, had a forest nearby. Because I love the green so much, I followed a dynamic urban agriculture course and a beekeeping course. I kept a colony of bees on the roof of my house on Noordereiland, which I had to leave after a move. I always had to choose between concrete and green. It comes together in this feature.

“I see the park as a work of art whose story needs to be told so that people understand it better, learn to read and appreciate the landscape more.”

How did the story disappear?

“It has been used very intensively, and there were times when the city paid less attention to green public spaces. The basic structure, the paths and waterways, were all still intact. Most of the large trees are really 180 years old and were planted by the landscape architects Jan David and Louis Paul Zocher and their people. But over the years, wrong choices have sometimes been made. In the design of Zochers, for example, each bridge in the park was different. For simplicity, it was decided to make all bridges the same. The paths were paved, while Zocher wanted to create a nature experience.

“In recent years, the park has been renovated by Rotterdam municipality and Stichting Droom en Daad according to the original idea: a romantic walk. It’s almost done now. All paths meander again, sight lines and water disappear around corners. It gives the illusion of fantastic views. The water is like a river: when it bends on one side a bulge, on the other a concave.”

How will you tell that story again?

“There is an old TB pavilion in front of the Norwegian church. It once belonged to Dijkzigt Hospital. It is a place where people who were not sick enough to go to the hospital could lie down in the fresh air, in the sun, surrounded by greenery. Now it is a municipal farm. From the end of 2023, after a renovation, it will be the office of the foundation of which I am the director, the home of the gardeners and a public place with exhibitions, poetry and concerts.

“The exhibitions will be at the crossroads between culture and nature. We want to show you how to make a resilient city and how nature and greenery are part of it. We also want to keep people informed about developments in the park, because people feel involved in every blade of grass, I note. We already provide guided tours, courses and workshops in and about the park.”

On whose behalf are you a director? On behalf of plants and animals or on behalf of humans?

laughing. “On behalf of everything. You have to find a balance in that. Between the invented and organized and the desert. I find the idea that there is an opposition between nature and people strange. We live in the same world and influence each other’s existence.”

Still, I find it quite difficult to find a balance.

“In the renovation phase, which is not my responsibility, many choices have already been made. Together with a team of gardeners, I take over the management after the renovation and we continue with Zocher’s original idea. In line with the imagery of the past and with what the city’s residents now demand and expect from this city park. The municipality is responsible for the basic maintenance, but a park that is a work of art requires much more love and attention than basic maintenance. “

It also sounds as if you, as a citizen, are taking on tasks that the public sector should take care of.

“I think it’s great that the residents themselves take the initiative to look after their own living environment. You cannot leave everything to the government. That way, it also becomes more meaningful for you.”

Is the balance you are looking for a place for festivals?

“There are all sorts of different needs in the city. The liberation festival will definitely be here, but there must always be a balance between different interests. The municipality and Stichting Droom en Daad have invested a lot in restoring this national monument to its former glory, so we do not want it to be damaged. My role for festivals will only be an advisory role, but we have made agreements. We’re not going to put too much pressure on the park.”

Based on which criteria do you advise?

“The park must not be damaged. And the park should not be claimed too long for a particular public.”

If the park is a work of art; what do you think of the housing that will most likely be built around Euromast?

“It is outside the park’s boundaries, and I don’t think I can immediately say that it is a threat to us. I understand the choice to build. The city is becoming denser, house prices are rising rapidly, the housing shortage is enormous, so you also want to house people.

“I hope that we can participate as partners. For example, that the houses are not too high. It would be a shame if everyone ends up in the shade when they want to sunbathe in the park. And with a lot of shade, the planting plan must also be different. But surely the project developers will understand that?”

Wim Pijbes, director of the Droom en Daad Foundation, said earlier in the NRC that the park needs clear direction and rules. He was looking for someone to make sure people behaved.

She smiles. “Oh, did he say that? I’m not a supervisor. We especially want to live life and not be too strict, I don’t think that works. For example, look at the municipal garbage cans and furniture. They show little confidence that you will handle them properly. They’re foolproof. Almost like you can destroy them.

“If something is maintained with care and attention, it also arouses care and attention from the users, I think. We therefore want to design slightly different designs in our park. For benches, for example, just a different color that suits Zocher’s design better. Also so people feel that this place has its own identity.”

What do you ultimately hope to achieve?

“I hope that Rotterdammers will eventually embrace this fantastic park as a home. That everyone enjoys here. Barbecue guests, but also those who keep track of the duck population or discover new mushrooms. Like a beehive, where everyone has their own task, in harmony.”

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