Although in collaborative urban development and transformation there is much focus on process and engagement, there is still a very important role for spatial planning and design – albeit in different forms and emphases throughout the process. Instead of designing the final image, like in traditional urban design, we need to design a transformation path towards our goals.
As pointed out in earlier blogs, in transformation areas with a lot of different owners and stakeholders we cannot design a new future vision or masterplan and simply superimpose it on the existing situation. We would then be superimposing our ideal future on somebody else’s property, without having the mandate ourselves to do anything there. If we want to achieve a new future vision for areas like these, we are dependent on many others to take action and invest. Therefore, we need a future vision to be shared, something we all see our own goals and interests reflected in and we all want to work towards.
This is more easily said than done. In existing areas, the majority of owners and other stakeholders are probably laymen in the field of urban development. They may run companies in all kinds of fields and when they look at the area and its future, they will look through their own professional or business lenses. Or maybe they are real estate investors, but they look through a financial or portfolio lens rather than a spatial development one. This is what we found out when trying to kickstart urban transformation in our Amsterdam field lab, a large monofunctional office district with circa eighty different owners and a few hundred companies renting or sometimes owning the buildings.
It is not self-evident that all owners are aware of what is going on in the area and what threats and opportunities the area is facing. Besides, those threats and opportunities may not be directly relevant for everyone. For example, the problem of growing vacancy rates may be very threatening to commercial landlords, but not so much to companies who bought the building for their own use. The same goes for the potential of transforming vacant office buildings into other functions, like housing. Not everybody has the same interest and ambition and not everybody will have an image of where the area should be heading, let alone that they all have the same image. And as a consequence, they may not feel prompted to take action.
Being trained as an architect, I am almost naturally looking at the built environment through a lens of potential alternatives, future improvements and new qualities that could be added. It took me a while to realise that most other stakeholders in the area did not have that. But it makes total sense, every expertise has its own lens through which future potential is identified where others just see the existing situation as a given.
Therefore, in order to kickstart any real change and build any collectivity around the area’s transformation, we first needed to learn how to formulate and visualise it to get it on the different stakeholders’ agenda as something relevant and important to engage in. There was an important role for storytelling and campaigning here, but we also found out we needed to thoroughly redefine the whole idea of an urban vision and redefine how we use spatial planning and design in our overall process. We identified four important changes here, both in role and form, that will help to set urban transformation in motion and keep pushing it forward towards our goals.
1. Conversation starters
Spatial design can be a powerful conversation starter. It makes abstract notions visual and concrete and allows others to have a look through your lens of future potential. It breaks open the current situation and makes people aware of what else is possible by visualising some examples. It inspires and triggers the imagination in other people and invites them to think about how they see the future. Needless to say, this should not be a complete plan you want people to buy into. This is not about convincing, this is about triggering and opening the conversation so that we also learn more about how others perceive the area. What are their own ideas and ambitions, what do they think about the area’s future when they look at these images? What kinds of potential do they see? We used rough sketches (“these are just some ideas, tell me yours”), reference images from other areas (“there is so much possible and here is some proof”) and collages adding new layers to existing photographs from the area (“it can be done here as well”). These visuals were all made in a quick and dirty way but clearly communicated the scope that we wanted to talk about while making it very concrete. They strengthened the local awareness that there was something at stake in the area and that it was worthwhile engaging in it. It also gave a new and positive energy and horizon to the area, which in our case it really needed with its 30% vacancy and first signs of serious deterioration.
Over time we built a local network and collected valuable input that helped us to better understand the area and the different interests and perspectives. It also allowed us to sharpen the outlines of what a shared future vision could look like. However, it would still not be very effective to then design that vision and present it to the network. Instead, we facilitated its co-creation together with the municipality and the many different big and small stakeholders. We provided high quality data and information (both from public sources and collected in the area by ourselves), inspirational images and references, creative tools and professional design support, and invited the local network to discuss and envision their shared future together. What did they find important? What did they miss in the area now? What were their own plans? This led to interesting insights and ideas, varying from acupunctural upgrades to big and bold ideas for the long term. It also clarified the different interests and showed where they overlapped or complemented each other. Those were opportune places for collective action. In this vision stakeholders recognised their own interests, input and ideas and were given concrete tools for action. This shared sense of direction and ownership made it much more likely that individual stakeholders would really commit to take action – and invest in it. After all, they would all reap the benefits.
Next to its spatiality, this type of vision or design has a strong temporal component as well. We need to design how our future vision can play out and evolve over the years. We need to incorporate a lot of flexibility, as we need to be able to adapt to different future scenarios along the way. This temporality has serious implications for how we should design the spatial rules and guidelines for the transformation. We need to profoundly understand how these can play out in different scenarios, so that we don’t create new future problems. I remember a co-creation session where one designer suggested to work towards a continuous building alignment to create a new city street. He showed a beautiful reference that was definitely desirable as a final image but was way too fragile for this specific context. Where the reference consisted of a large building block that had been developed at once according to a top-down masterplan, our situation was made up of almost twenty privately owned and free-standing building volumes ‘scattered’ around the different plots. In order to create this type of city street, all twenty owners would have to redevelop their property. While we could define the rules that they would need to follow if they did redevelop, we could not force them to redevelop. And if they didn’t (at that point there were just a few who were actively planning on redeveloping), we would end up with a clearly unfinished and messy street with bits of alignment and big gaps in-between. This was definitely not desirable. We therefore needed to reconsider our references and our guidelines, respecting the essential layout of the area in the here and now. They needed to be robust and resilient, providing and safeguarding enough spatial quality and liveability at any given point in time, also if some envisioned key projects get delayed or cancelled altogether due to whatever unforeseen event or crisis.
In a way we keep adding layers of new quality, experience and aesthetic impulses to the area, updating and upgrading it with every layer without being overly dependent on the layers after that. Incorporating temporality in our spatial plans is not only important because of this resilience and adaptivity, it also acknowledges the different stakeholders’ timelines and horizons. Not everybody looks ahead ten years, some see their interest on a much shorter term. Therefore, a plan or vision should not only formulate a final image but a transformation path as well. This path identifies key issues to address and initiatives to build on immediately while providing the essential steppingstones for projects on the middle and long term as well.
This transformation path constantly back- and forecasts between the future goals and the current situation. A convincing and inspirational final image accompanied by an adequate set of design rules and guidelines pulls the area into the desired future, while smaller or perhaps temporary interventions and placemaking push the area in the desired direction. In a way we constantly prototype the future of the area, starting small and light. We test and learn from every step and adjust and improve our plans where necessary. With every step we build the tangible proof, conditions and support needed for our next steps, further pushing and pulling the area into the future we desire. We wrote a full blog on incrementality and small steps that dives into this much deeper.
I’d like to wrap up by once more emphasising the important role of spatial planning and design in collaborative urban development and transformation. In order to be successful, we need to fundamentally understand the dynamics and dependencies both in the process and in the area itself. Use design not so much to convince others from your own ideas but rather invite them into an equal conversation by triggering their own imagination and ideation as well. Embrace the fundamentals of co-design in your process so that your future vision is actually a shared one. Be aware of how your ideas and guidelines play out in different future scenarios and design robustness and resilience at their core. Constantly fore- and backcast between future images and the current situation and make sure you design enough small, low-threshold and perhaps temporary interventions as well to set your transformation path in motion and keep providing immediate and consistent quality and liveability in the area. This will also enhance the probability that your desired future and big vision one day become reality.
Saskia Beer, 10 February 2021
(Image comes from “ZuidoostZuid – Paving the Future”, co-created future vision for the South part of Amstel III (ZO!City icw City of Amsterdam, 2015))