Since 2013, Kees Vink has served as the head of the Life Sciences department, Erasmus University College’s STEM department. Prior to his appointment, he served as the head of the Paediatrics Laboratory, a sub-department of the Sophia Children’s Hospital. He is a biologist by training. The chair Vink has held since November 2020 is a so-called ‘networking chair’, involving a collaboration between EUR and the Rotterdam Natural History Museum. Since its establishment in 2013, EUC has collaborated with other organisations in the city on projects designed to educate people on nature. In addition to the Natural History Museum, EUC’s partners include Rotterdam Zoo (Diergaarde Blijdorp), Arboretum Trompenburg and the botanical garden in the Afrikaanderwijk neighbourhood.

On a warm afternoon, we embark on a walk to Het Park (near the Euromast observation tower) from the Natural History Museum, passing Westzeedijk along the way. “Look,” says Vink, “I always draw my students’ attention to this.” He looks at the ever-growing forest of high-rise buildings in Rotterdam. “Surely it’s not right to live like this, so far removed from nature?” At the same time, he does understand the dilemma posed by land shortages – the more high-rise buildings we erect, the less open space need be sacrificed to the construction of homes.

The fox and the rat

People and the city, and how they relate to nature – that, in a nutshell, is the issue he focuses on in his research. For instance, he recently joined the municipal Animal Welfare and Urban Nature Committee, by virtue of his new position. The committee advises the municipal authorities on urban nature, which sometimes involves debates on subjects such as foxes. Some people like foxes, and say that, being predators, they are part of the ecosystem. Others argue that foxes should be got rid of because they eat all the gulls.

They also have debates on rats, which give many people the creeps. “But,” says Vink, “wherever humans are, you’ll find rats, and that’s not rats’ fault. Humans have appropriated the top dog position in nature on cultural and religious grounds, which is actually quite strange. Foxes never asked to have to be considerate of humans’ dominance. We should turn things around, and make sure humans use their power and knowledge to help nature. Because we’ve done a very poor job of that.”

Modern city

So how is the city of Rotterdam doing in terms of nature preservation? “I can tell that many municipalities, including Rotterdam, are now paying attention to nature in the city, but more needs to be done. Rotterdam owes its fame and reputation to its modern-city image, and now we’re getting punished for that. Many big high-rise buildings had to be constructed, but we should really ask ourselves if, in places which already have a lot of bricks, we must really add more bricks, or rather some nature, too. It’s necessary for the biosphere, but also for people’s own wellbeing.”

However, Vink has found that not all residents of the city welcome nature on their doorstep. “Sometimes the municipal government wants to add more greenery to a neighbourhood, only for the locals to say it’s dirty and unsafe. People need to become more aware of the fact that they are part of nature and that nature is necessary for our survival.”

These are a few places of natural beauty in the Netherlands that Kees Vink believes everyone should visit:

  1. Every Rotterdammer must have visited Arboretum Trompenburg, even if only once in their lives.
  2. Cycling along the river Rotte, close to the city and genuinely beautiful.
  3. Meijendel, part of the Holland Dunes National Park, between The Hague and Wassenaar.


Vink is not too optimistic about people’s willingness to do something about things such as sky-high energy consumption. “I find it a little exhausting sometimes. We’ve been told we should all be driving electric cars, but they’re not necessarily a better alternative. Because where does your battery come from, and how is all that electricity generated? That’s right, using fossil fuel. And when I see that everyone – not just elderly people – now has e-bikes, I get a little sceptical.”

“It takes a lot of introspection to change. I’ve noticed that in myself, as well. This summer I’ll be flying to Greece. Maybe it will be the last time I ever fly, or maybe I’ll transition to never flying again more gradually. It’s like quitting smoking or going on a diet. Temptation is everywhere, which makes things hard.”

He is a little more optimistic about this generation of students. “I can see that students are really trying to make a difference. More and more of them are vegetarians, segregate waste and have stopped using plastic cups. Change must be inculcated through the education system. We must discuss the fact that we’re making a mess of things face to face.”

Kees Vink – Historical garden Schoonoord – interview – June 2022 – Ali Alshamayleh 3
Humans should be committed to saving nature, but Vink is not optimistic about that willingness. Image credit: Ali Alshamayleh


But do today’s students know anything about nature? A little while ago, Vink played the sound of common swifts during a seminar. To him, the sound is the perfect evocation of long and hot summer days. His students, however, failed to recognise it. They thought it might be birds having an argument. Yes, that did disappoint him a little. Not that he expects everyone to be birdwatchers, like himself. He himself needs an app to identify plants, because no one can know all things about everything. Vink wants people to become more aware of their own position in nature, to understand what they are seeing and to realise that humans are part of that. Because realising that we humans are part of nature not only enriches our lives, but is a necessity for saving nature.

This is why he has students conduct research on nature in the city. For instance, two of his students will be graduating this year with theses on lichens (which are known indicators of air quality) in the city. One of them compared the incidence of lichens on alders in two different neighbourhoods and then compared those results against air quality data for both of these neighbourhoods. Although the differences weren’t significant, it was found that there were more lichens (and also a wider variety of lichens) on trees in green areas.

His students also contribute to projects carried out by the Natural History Museum and Rotterdam Zoo, be it for academic credits or on a voluntary basis. In short, there is hope yet.

Vink himself is a keen birdwatcher, and he is proud of his surname, which translates to ‘finch’. When we walk to the small, well-hidden Schoonoord Historical Garden on the edge of Het Park, he immediately identifies a robin, which sounds like it’s greeting us, but is more likely announcing that we have entered its territory.