Our history: 65 years of making cities work

IHS was established during the period of Rotterdam's post-Second-World-War reconstruction. As the international arm of the Bouwcentrum, IHS had the task of communicating the knowledge gained, through the development of the city and its housing, to government authorities in developing countries. 65 years on, times have changed. Worldwide, cities are growing at an explosive rate. Along with the considerable expertise IHS has accumulated during the last half-century, the institute has built up an international urban management network enabling IHS to help managers, government officials, and policymakers improve how cities function across the globe.

The 3rd of November, 2023, marks exactly 65 years since the first International Course on Building (ICB) started at the Bouwcentrum. The course had nine participants and lasted for five months, and it was the start of what would later become IHS. Since the course began in 1958, several thousands of urban professionals have undergone training at the Rotterdam-based institute. Hundreds of professionals have participated in tailor-made programmes held in their countries of origin.

Continue reading below for a detailed history of IHS. 

Course participants IHS
The early days of IHS

course participants

IHS course participant
IHS course participants

The Bouwcentrum: rebuilding Rotterdam

The Bouwcentrum was a private, non-profit development institute for housing, building and physical planning. It was established in 1946, immediately after the Second World War and was an initiative of the Association of Dutch Architects and the Central College of Construction. 

One of its main missions was to develop methodologies and technologies to foster the rapid construction of affordable and adequate housing in response to the shortages of the post-war period, as a bombardment severely damaged Rotterdam during the Second World War. The Bouwcentrum officially opened in 1948 in what was known as the round building in the heart of Rotterdam. It grew rapidly into a huge institution renowned for its extensive knowledge and experience. Rotterdam, meanwhile, grew to become a city known internationally for its innovations in housing and architecture.

International training wing

The foundation of IHS is associated with the Bouwcentrum and the knowledge and experience that emerged from this institution. In response to an increasing international demand for the expertise of the Bouwcentrum, an international training wing was created in 1958 to provide international education and transfer knowledge to professionals from developing countries seeking solutions in the housing and construction sectors.

Jan van Ettinger Senior, managing director of the Bouwcentrum, established the International Course on Building (ICB) in 1958. His objective was to acquaint planners, architects and engineers from developing countries with the methods required to achieve a systematic solution to building requirements. Professionals from Western countries were also interested in the programme. The five-month course was divided into theoretical and practical elements. The theoretical part contained planning, programming, techniques and organisational skills. The practical aspect, which lasted four months, allowed participants to specialise. During practice, each participant was coached by a staff member while placed at an institute or bureau. Part-time director Frans Verschoor oversaw the organisation of the courses. In 1968, Jan Ettinger Junior was appointed permanent director.

Bouwcentrum International Education (BIE)

On June 30 1971, ICB's educational activities were transferred to Bouwcentrum International Education (BIE), which stayed in the round building. The remaining activities of the Bouwcentrum were housed in new premises in a high-rise building.

With the move, a clear physical and financial distinction was made between the two, with BIE gradually becoming more independent and self-sustainable. With the changes, qualified staff filled administration posts, and permanent academic staff was appointed. BIE also set up its own library. In February 1972, a newsletter was launched; it became a bi-annual publication. BIE specialised in low-income housing projects and providing technical assistance to developing countries. In addition to the standard course available, more and more specialised courses were added to the teaching programme.

From BIE to IHS

A new phase began in 1982, under Cor Dijkgraaf, appointed in 1976 when BIE changed its name to the Institute for Housing Studies (IHS).

In 1990, the name changed again to Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies, but the acronym IHS remained unchanged. After focusing increasingly on the complexity and integrated nature of problems faced by cities, the institute redesigned its programmes to promote skill development with which to solve problems in the local context. At the same time, the institute began linking its short courses to developing a Master's in Urban Management and Development, pioneering the design of two major courses for urban management and urban environmental management. 

During the '90s, activities overseas intensified. IHS was responsible for establishing and strengthening more than a dozen international training, research, and capacity-building institutions abroad. Longer-term institutional development programmes evolved, and participating students were assigned to significant sector studies, looking at housing reform and municipal development projects. There was also a substantial increase in projects involving multilateral and bilateral organisations, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Cooperation established with UN-Habitat and its various programmes - particularly with its capacity-building activities and the Sustainable Cities Programme - brought the parties involved close.

Joining Erasmus University

In January 2000, IHS moved premises to the Woudestein campus of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. At the time, IHS was undergoing a complex reorganisation process that resulted in an institutional adjustment of the way of work and programme offered.

The activities were organised, as they still are, around the triangle "Research-Training/Education-Advisory services", where each feeds into the others. In 2004, IHS became an independent company associated with Erasmus University Holding. The move resulted, in January 2005, in the appointment of a new supervisory board, with Nico van der Windt as a director. The Master's programme was redesigned as a one-year unified Master's degree in urban management and development, containing six specialisations.

More and more experience is drawn from the various faculties of Erasmus University and newly-formed collaborations with other institutes in the Netherlands and abroad. In Rotterdam, which is seen as a centre of modern architecture, IHS functions as a bridge to the rapidly urbanising world in developing countries and as a bridge between academic disciplines and practice.

A centre of excellence

In 2007, IHS received the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour award for leading the way as a global centre of excellence and knowledge through its high-quality teaching programmes in housing, urban management and urban environmental management and planning.

This award is granted every year on World Habitat Day, a day established by the United Nations General Assembly to raise awareness about the state of human settlements.

"This is the most prestigious award given by the United Nations in recognition of work carried out in the field of human settlements development." (UN-HABITAT Executive Director Mrs Anna Tibaijuka)

Making cities work

In 2008, humankind reached a historic milestone: more than half of the world’s population lived in urban areas.

IHS recognizes the global impact of cities and the importance of sustainable development. In line with the mission statement, "Making cities work", IHS develops human and institutional capacities to reduce poverty and improve the standard of living in cities. Our research, educational programmes and advisory services provide valuable assistance in tackling the multi-faceted challenge of urbanization.

In over 55 years of activity, more than 8,500 professionals from 140 countries have received training at IHS. The IHS alumni are active urban experts, ranging from architects, social scientists, economists, public administration workers, civil servants, and government officials.


65 years and counting

In these decades, IHS has contributed to sustainable urban development globally through its projects and programmes, while building a strong network of partners and over 10000 alumni worldwide. In November 2018, we celebrated our anniversary by organising the "Empowering Cities and Citizens" conference in Rotterdam. In 2023, at the 65-year mark, we will organise a one-day event to reflect on our impact and look further into the future. 

Header photo source: wederopbouwrotterdam.nl | Fototechnische Dienst, Stadsarchief Rotterdam, 1965-1967

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