Van Traa is standing next to a scale model in his office, located inside the World Trade Center. The enormous model displays the high-rise area that will be built here in the next ten years. „People sometimes assume that you’ll only find big business at the Zuidas, but that’s a misunderstanding.”
Could one say that you’re the mayor of the Zuidas?
„No, and I’d like to emphasize that. I have a very explicit task to complete. We’re developing the area; that means we’re talking about housing, creating space for employment, traffic, infrastructure, but also greening the public space, developing public facilities such as a library, or building bicycle parking stations. It’s such a large project that it exceeds the power of the city district, which means we’re allowed to operate more independently. Others focus on other important issues, such as loneliness among seniors or public order and safety.”
Still, does it sometimes feel like you are the mayor of this area?
„I’m mostly motivated by walking around here, whilst being aware of what has previously happened behind the scenes. It’s such a large and complicated project. I really enjoy having that information and then witnessing a good space being created, whether it’s a station or a residential tower. But it’s a collective achievement. I don’t see it as my baby.”
What has been the most challenging about this project?
„It’s been a lot of work to bury ring way A10 underground in order to expand the Amsterdam Zuid station. But that creates space to build more residences and give the station the capacity it so desperately needs, due to the considerable growth of public transport. Eventually, international trains from Paris, Brussels, London and Berlin should be arriving here. This will hopefully create a good alternative to short plane flights.”
What do you think of the antipathy some inhabitants of Amsterdam experience towards this part of the city?
„It’s not really something we focus on. The difficult part of designing cities is that you’re making choices that will only become visible after a long time. I’ll never be able to solve that. People sometimes assume that you’ll only find big business at the Zuidas and that they’re all tax evaders, which does little justice to the truth. The days of only old, white men in grey suits are over. Actually, we’re creating an area in which people can live affordably, go see a movie at Rialto in the new ‘Nu.Vu building’, where children can go to school, students can study and people can work in sciences or in logistics for RAI.”
What does the Vrije Universiteit mean to the Zuidas?
„A lot. It means that there are a lot of intelligent and ambitious people walking around here looking for internships, that conferences are being held and that start-ups are looking for working space. Finding office space isn’t easy in the Zuidas area, which is why we – in collaboration with the VU – want to help and offer these young companies space to work from.”
How did you end up at the Municipality of Amsterdam?
„After having studied Social and Organisational Psychology, I thought to myself: what now? I didn’t see myself working as a consultant and I didn’t feel like working for a multinational, selling toothpaste or laundry detergent. During my time in university I had been involved in student politics here and there and that’s how I ended up at the municipality. Becoming a municipal official at 23 doesn’t sound very appealing, but I loved it. The variety in topics, the complexity and working for the city that you love. I became mayor Cohen’s speech writer and advisor, among other things.”
What did you think of studying psychology?
„Essentially, psychology is a kind of liberal arts course, before that concept even existed. You are taught how nerve cells work, you learn how to make statistical analyses with your calculator and you learn why some protests lead to a change in behaviour, while others don’t. The combination of different disciplines all mixed together is very valuable at the start of your time in university. On top of that, we often see that innovative ideas stem from the intersection of different disciplines.”
Which skills do you still apply to your current job?
„The conversation techniques have been very valuable. I still use those during meetings and when giving speeches. How do I structure my arguments as well as possible? But statistics and the philosophy of science have proven to still be relevant as well. Where does this knowledge originate? How do you approach the world in a critical but constructive way? These are all academic skills that make life better – and hopefully more useful.”
In November 2019, the fifth edition of the exclusive VU programme The Boardroom will be launched. David van Traa is one of the alumni who will be giving a master class on February 13th 2020. Are you a master’s student and interested in participating in The Boardroom? You can apply here.