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‘Urban Marine’ wages guerrilla war in problem neighbourhoods

City provides carte blanche

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

ROTTERDAM – The major Dutch port city of Rotterdam has gained wide attention for its controversial innovations, adapting policies to meet the serious problems of crime and drug addiction. In 2002, plagued by serious problems, the municipality following an electoral upheaval, hired six people to help solve crime and drug use in a number of lower-class neighbourhoods. These so-called ‘urban marines’ were given carte blanche in dealing with citizens and municipal offices, and answer only to Rotterdam’s Mayor Opstelten.

Their mandate is as straightforward as their approach: solve all problems once and for all. The unit (no women as of yet) is a far cry from the military image of a marine however, but has cutting edge experience in the field and at city hall, in dealing with red tape. To successfully fill their mandate, they have direct access to the Police Commissioner and the District Attorney, and where necessary, to the Mayor, an appointed career official.

The urban marine in principle stimulates others to work together to solve (their own problems), or controversies with other groups, in record time. The coordinator keeps tabs on the progress of such endeavours and ensures that agreements once reached, are viable and are attained within the allotted time frame.


At times, the role of the urban marine is to act. Governed by definite goals, the urban marine can call on any of the parties involved to live up to their part of the agreement. Having the backing of the municipality and the various law and order agencies serves the ‘marines’ well. If stimulation and mediation does not produce results, they can force the issue, leaving the parties involved no other option but to comply.

The territory of the urban marines consists of problem streets in many neighbourhoods, the scene of the usual mix of drug use and trafficking, theft and other property crime, and violence. A contributing factor is urban decay, overcrowding and the presence of disenfranchised youths, often of an ethnic background. This volatile mix creates a multitude of problems, which frequently are intertwined. Wielding a double-edged sword forged by the arrangement, the urban marine sometimes copies the act of the legendary Alexander the Great by cutting the Gordian Knot instead of trying to unravel it.

Public safety is the main concern for everyone involved in the process. In 2002, ten of the municipality’s 64 distinct neighbourhoods were known as unsafe areas in. At the time, Mayor Opstelten vowed that no neighbourhood would be unsafe within four years.

Dealing with the problems of unsafe neighbourhoods often can be described as looking in a kaleidoscope, one move and the image alters. One such area is called Old West, which is located near the central railway station. The station is a gateway for people from outside the city, many from abroad, to a densely-populated neighbourhood where cheap drugs can be bought at any street corner. There are over 10,000 people dwelling in the neighbourhood, nearly 75 percent of them were born outside the Netherlands, thus known as ‘allochtones.’ The neighbourhood also is home to the St. Paul’s Church, a relief centre as well as a magnet for hundreds of drug addicts. The Old West Quarter now is the only neighbourhood in the city, which has not yet earned the distinction of being safe.


To achieve the ‘safe’ status, the urban marine responsible for Old West pulled out all stops. Among his accomplishments was the addition of twenty policemen and 17 so-called city watchmen’ or auxiliary police. With a budget of $2.5 million a year, six more surveillance cameras were installed last year in record time, thanks to the urban marine being able to bypass traditional channels in the bureaucracy. Such surveillance cameras are important tools in curtailing crime. Offenders avoid them, thus crime is reduced, although it may move it to a different area of the city.

Some of the other issues urban marines faced were the unwillingness of a housing corporation to lock apartment complex lobby’s, and resistance to new security measures, the clean-up of playgrounds, and the beautification of overgrown vacant lots. In many cases, funds from the municipality paid for the most urgent remedies. In other instances, citizens themselves took the example to heart and paid for cleanups.

Although the urban marines originally were hired for four years, it is very likely that their mandate will be extended. Other municipalities may well decide to follow the Rotterdam example.