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Joris van Etten

A Passion for Cities


Joris tried his hand at being a chef, but a calling for cities was way too embedded. Read on how early his dedication for urban development began.

August 2017

An undeniable Dutchman, senior urban development specialist Joris van Etten misses biking around.


Still, while Manila is not the most conducive for his preferred mode of transportation, he remains steadfast in staying in Asia. “There’s no immediate rush to run out,” he says. His family has been living in the region for more than a decade and enjoys traveling and visiting friends in neighboring countries.


More importantly, he has no favorite city. When asked where in the world he’d like to live, he says: “I think every city has its plus and minuses. Each city has an opportunity and that’s also the beauty of the work I’m in.”


In the course of the conversation, his replies show an earnest interest for all things urban. Seeing the development challenges and trying to address these, as well as working with colleagues in ADB, are the most exciting parts of his job. He calls his path a natural progression, from working on capacity development to service delivery, and now with ADB, where both are combined through infrastructure financing. Here’s an excerpt of the interview with this 2014 World Cities Summit Young Leader:

“ Every city has its plus and minuses. Each city has an opportunity and that’s also the beauty of the work I’m in. 

Joris van Etten
Senior Urban Development Specialist

Tell us about your professional journey.

 Joris: It’s quite interesting. I studied Public Administration and Public Policy in the Netherlands. However, I was thinking the other day how for one of my final pieces of work in high school, I wrote something about cities. I guess I was always thinking about cities, although I came from a very small village in the south part of the Netherlands. However, while I was interested in urban planning, I chose a more generic degree so I could go into many different directions.


It was during my final thesis for my master’s degree, when I went to Indonesia to do a study on public-private partnerships for urban poor housing, that I got to know this Dutch organization (the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies), which trains development professionals in developing countries. I spent the first 6 to 7 years of my career with them… Eventually, we had more and more work in Indonesia so I convinced them to come to Asia and since then I haven’t returned to the Netherlands anymore. 


What brings you to ADB and what is your role as senior urban development specialist?

Joris: I came to the Philippines in January 2010, working for CDIA (Cities Development Initiative for Asia), and already working very close with ADB. But I started in ADB in January 2016.


My main portfolio is to manage the ADB side of CDIA. Most of the funders provide resources to CDIA through cofinancing agreements with ADB. It’s about managing those resources and making sure that they are used in a meaningful manner, preparing sensible projects that can be picked up as investments by ADB and other financing agencies. What we do is help cities who apply for support through the prioritization of urban infrastructure needs.


What do you look forward to these days?

 Joris:  Another part of my work is handling the Smart Systems TA and doing peer reviews and knowledge work. For November, we’re preparing a retreat for all urban colleagues. We’re also doing something similar for all the international financing agencies in Frankfurt. This is the Urban Roundtable in September. Before, it was very much an everybody-tells-how-great-they-are session. The way we want to do it now is to have two persons per institution to jointly work on a case, such that they can roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty on a particular project. I think through working together we can learn a lot from each other’s approaches.


What I also like is how I can use my past background as a trainer, as a capacity development person to deliver these. In a recent mission to Suva, where we did a workshop, we had a great turnout and there was great energy. I love facilitating these kinds of events. I think in ADB we have very good professionals and there’s a lot of knowledge; but we can do much better in the way we share this knowledge, especially to the outside world.


Would you say that’s a challenge, roping people in to collaborate given the silos?

 Joris: Of course there are exceptions but by and large, everybody is keen to collaborate. But since we are all busy, people are prioritizing what they want to collaborate on. You have to find the right entry point for each person. What will make that person excited to work with you or what can you provide to this person which will be meaningful? Essentially, that’s what SDCC or the Urban SG Secretariat is about, what can we provide to the regional departments that are of value.


You’ve been living in Asia for 16 years. What can you say about its development?

 Joris:  You know one of the big changes since I’ve arrived is how local governments now are much more vocal. Mayors are directly elected for higher office. They are stronger or more resolute with their visions. Look at the former mayor of Davao and the former mayor of a small city in Indonesia—with whom I was working with in 2011 for CDIA—became governor of Jakarta and then became President. You see how these mayors who have practical experiences on the ground, providing services to people, have become this whole new group of visionaries, star mayors pushing boundaries and innovation. I think that’s exciting.


Work aside, what do you like about living in Manila?

 Joris: There’s this great change happening close to where I live, in Poblacion (Makati). It’s really changing. Again, it shows that these cities are dynamic all the time and that Poblacion area is where I brought new colleagues for dinner the other day. That’s one of my favorite areas. It’s less artificial than the Fort. Still has a little edge to it. 

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