The Architecture of Urban Transformation

26 March 2019, Saskia Beer

In November last year I had my official goodbye from ZO!City in Amstel3, after having worked on the transformation of the area for eight years. At the same time Transformcity launched the improved version of its online platform and brought in a new business partner to help organise our growth. And then I suddenly found myself having some time to reflect again. I tend to use keynotes or guest lectures for students as moments for reflection on my work, but lately I have had so many conversations with cities and real estate companies, that I needed to synthesize all these new insights, critical questions and mirrors.

Our approach to urban transformation as illustrated by the Amstel3 case receives a lot of interest, but it remains difficult to pinpoint what it is exactly that makes it so special and distinctive. Is it our guerrilla storytelling? Or are we such good networkers and community builders? Is it our creativity, vision or our local business model? According to some it is the fluidity with which we manoeuvred through the local stakeholder network with our equally fluid toolkit with storytelling, public space interventions, matchmaking, spatial design, local data, light-hearted mediation and champagne. Precisely because one couldn’t really pinpoint us, we could move around freely, creatively and unconventionally, at times testing the boundaries and constantly evolving with the area and its transformation.

This fluid role is very valuable in urban transformation. This value is most clearly recognised by the parties involved as they experience it themselves and to the outside world it generates an impressive and wide range of anecdotal evidence. However it would be a mistake to think that just being in an area, making connections and shape shifting to the situations and needs at hand make for successful urban transformation. There is a deeper, more structural layer that needs to be in order as well. For me it has always been an obvious thing to connect creative and personal action with structural and strategic thinking. Until last week somebody said that this is probably my architectural background. After I had sketched out the different layers of our approach and their interconnectedness, he responded that this actually looked like a rather complex architectural design. Not a building or an urban design, but an urban transformation design. A grand scheme with both structural elements and ornamental details. Based on a clear set of principles yet always different depending on the local context and adaptive to future changes.

Now this made me wonder. Since I adopted Amstel3 in 2010, after having lost my job as an architect due to the crisis, I have had a love-hate relationship with my old profession. Although I clearly recognised the design-thinking and the spatial aspects in my work, I didn’t feel like an architect anymore. However, I didn’t feel like a marketer, a real estate agent, a community leader or a process manager either. And now suddenly, the idea of being an urban transformation architect felt surprisingly comfortable, loosely capturing the different layers, aspects, shapes and expressions of our work. And that made me think that the sketch I had made was actually an architectural drawing of our urban transformation design.

In urban transformation we cannot simply design a new vision or plan and superimpose it on the existing situation. We are often dealing with dispersed property and many different stakeholders. We have limited control over the exact outcome, as we are dependent on others to take the initiatives and invest. We need to constantly navigate along two axes at the same time. The first one is the path towards a shared future vision, constantly connecting long-term goals and ambitions with short term issues and actions. The second one is about making sure we build the necessary support base and engage all different stakeholders into an actionable collective.

Instead of designing the final image, like in traditional urban design, we design the transformation process towards our goals. This transformation design has a strong spatial component, but a temporal one as well. It needs to incorporate flexibility as we need to be able to adapt to different future scenarios. It needs to provide spatial quality at any given point in time. And it needs much more emphasis on the start rather than the final image for many stakeholders mostly see relevance in the area here and now – and that is also where they take action.

How we frame this start relies strongly on the stories we tell. A strong and multi-faceted story reaches out to all different stakeholders and activates them to get engaged by highlighting their specific interests in the whole transformation. By bringing them together we start to build trust and relations. We identify where their different interests overlap or match, so that a sense of collective develops. By providing high quality inspiration, information and design support, we co-create a shared future vision while also formulating issues and initiatives on the short term. Within the collective we can then negotiate guidelines, actors, plannings and investments and facilitate collaboration.

The first concrete results reveal the area’s potential and add a layer of show-don’t-tell branding to the storytelling. This inspires new projects and attracts new parties into the area, further growing the collective and catalyzing the urban transformation. At the same time we make sure everybody stays on board, so we always have a diverse mix of interests caring for the area and developing a variety of big and small initiatives. Like this we can keep adapting to unexpected changes – both good and bad – and to new insights and goals. Our cities are never done, so there are no final images. Only constant transformation.

The beauty of this approach is similar to the beauty of being an architect. You have your methodology, a set of design principles, but every location is different and so is your work. This makes being an urban transformation architect so interesting, it is not a trick we repeat but it is a challenging and creative piece of work every time. So did I find the answer to what makes our approach special and distinctive? Throw Le Corbusier and Barbapapa in the mix and you should be close. Although our shape may always keep shifting a bit.