Rotterdam is a maritime city, home to the largest port in Europe and one of the largest ports in the world. It was bombarded during WWII, and was redeveloped in a way that differentiates it from every other city in the Netherlands. Today, Rotterdam’s public realm feels akin to a city-building lab, filled with life-size urban science experiments. Residents, businesses, planners and architects have created an environment where anything, it seems, is possible. The outcomes of Rotterdam’s urban planning journey are a testament to the city’s innovative and industrious working-class roots.

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A short history of urban planning in Rotterdam


Rotterdam was bombarded on May 14, 1940, during WWII. Most of the historic downtown core, 260 hectares in total, marked today by the fire boundary, was destroyed. While the basic fabric of some of the arterial roads, like Coolsingel and Hoogestraat, was maintained, the devastation was immense. Nearly 100 hectares of streets, 25,000 dwellings, 2,350 shops, 2,000 businesses, 1,450 offices and 725 public facilities were destroyed.


The development of modern-day Rotterdam was facilitated by the expropriation of two thirds of the land in the city centre, 12,000 parcels in total, providing the city with the ability to reconfigure the urban fabric.  


Today, the vast majority of the buildings and the street network in the city centre are less than 80 years old, with the exception of some buildings and monuments, including City Hall (Stadhuis), the old post office (Post Rotterdam - used today as an event space), Saint Lawrence Church (Sint Laurenskerk) and the White House National Heritage Site (White Huis skyscraper).


Reconstruction of the city centre began immediately after the war (you can find a timeline of some of the key milestones here). These efforts were based on the city’s reconstruction plans - first the Witteveen Plan of 1941, which was never fully realized, then C. Van Traa’s Basic Plan of 1946.


Some of the key features of the Basic Plan included:

  • Achieving openness and grandeur - the plan provided for roughly 15,000 fewer dwellings than previously existed in the city centre, and a reduced the floor area available for commercial and retail uses by about 150,000 square meters

  • Providing residents with “a window to the river” - achieved by extending and realigning Coolsingel boulevard and opening up access to waterfront views along the Maas River

  • Facilitating the efficient flow of traffic - achieved through the introduction of grid features within the road network

  • Separating land uses - achieved through the introduction of a zoning framework which set out rules for functions and uses within the city centre. The result was the separation of industrial, business and residential and land uses

The urban development projects featured in the Rotterdam City Guide tell a story about downtown revitalization in the downtown core. Central to the city’s efforts has been a focus on developing clean, safe and high-quality public spaces that attract people to the city centre. In recent years, plans have focused on developing Rotterdam as a city lounge by developing public spaces that are safe and foster social interaction.

rotterdam Stats


  • Population of Rotterdam: 635,389

  • Population of the Rotterdam Metropolitan Area (a legal entity made up of 23 municipalities):  2,200,000

  • Population of the Randstad (an urban conurbation made up of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht): 7,100,000

  • Population density: 3,043 people/km2

  • Roughly 90% of the city lies below sea level

  • Hundreds of millions of tons of cargo pass through the Port of Rotterdam every year


Authors and Contributors

  • Sofie van Brunschot, Urbanistas Rotterdam

  • Sarah Marchionda, Pop Cities

on-the-ground tours

Recommended Reading

  • Bruntlett, Melissa and Bruntlett, Chris (2018). Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality. Island Press.

  • Komossa, Susanne et al (2005). The Atlas of the Dutch Urban Block. THOTH Publishers.

  • GW Rotterdam (October, 1992). Samenvatting Planvorming Binnenrotte-Gebied. Zuid-Holland.

  • Gossens, J. (1995). Public Space: Design, Layout and Management of Public Open Space in Rotterdam. 010 Publishers, Rotterdam.

Year published: 2018

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