Successful urban transformation strongly depends on the active involvement, initiatives and investments of many different owners and other stakeholders. And all these stakeholders depend on each other as well, as I’ve discussed in more detail in an earlier blog. These dependencies limit the control over the exact outcomes and timelines of an area’s transformation. You cannot simply design a new future vision and superimpose it on the existing situation. You need to constantly fore- and backcast between where you are and where you want to go, while maintaining enough flexibility to adjust to different future scenarios and while engaging more and more stakeholders as partners in the process.
In order to engage and activate stakeholders and set the area transformation in motion, we need to frame it in a way that it appeals to many different perspectives and horizons. This is not one size fits all. After all, in existing urban areas we are not only dealing with professional urban or real estate stakeholders like project developers or investors, who look ahead five or ten years or more. They may be convinced and base their investment decisions on an appealing future vision. However, we are also dealing with local businesses, organisations and of course citizens. And they mostly see their interest and relevance in the area here and now – and that is also where they will engage and take action – and possibly invest.
Urban transformation therefore needs as much emphasis on the start as it does on the final image, perhaps even more. In our Amsterdam field lab, Amstel III, I realised this after a first round of conversations with everyday users in the area. Urban development is simply not a topic that many people feel connected to in their daily lives. Most people in the area are busy and may not have the awareness or feel the sense of agency to do something about their everyday environment. They often feel that that is a task for the municipality and other professional companies and institutions. Even if they had ideas for improvement, the municipality surely would not allow them to execute them?
There is an increasing role for storytelling in urban transformation. Not to turn it into fiction but to reach out and relate to the many different stakeholders, big and small, and activate them by highlighting their specific interests and potential role in the whole transformation. It can be one core story with different aspects – like facets of a diamond – that align with the different interests on the short, middle and long term. This helps to explain the urban transformation to a large and diverse group of people and organisations, making it very relevant for them to get engaged.
For some stakeholder groups we may need some campaigning first to raise aweareness. We need to somehow take the long-term and rather abstract urban development goals for the area and translate them into a very relevant, recognisable and personal narrative calling for immediate positive change. Depending on the level of engagement, history and community activity in an area, the campaign can relate to existing activities or earlier projects or start from scratch to create a new buzz.
When you really want to shake things up, your story should be catchy enough to get people’s attention and trigger their imagination about the area and how it can change. This campaign however is not separate from the serious and long-term aspects of the transformation. After all, with all these mutual dependencies among stakeholders we want everybody to join in on the same process. The core narrative for the area transformation is consistent. Depending on your perspective one facet is highlighted for you. As soon as you are interested, you can easily look at the other facets, find out more details and perhaps get more deeply involved.
In Amstel III we created a very light-hearted campaign, the Glamourmanifest, and used metaphors to start the conversation. We demanded champagne on rainy Monday mornings, rose scent next to exhaust fumes and poetry next to annual reports. The Glamourmanifest made people rethink the area as it is now, imagine possible alternatives and engage in making that happen. Even though I didn’t work in the area myself I felt a very personal urge to get something done there and I wanted to trigger and activate others on a very personal level too.
After a short introduction on social media, we stepped out and organised all kinds of guerrilla activities and interventions in the area, always using recognisable glamorous props. Step by step we started building a network of people and gathered valuable input about their ideas and wishes. We also made sketches and collages to unveil what potential we saw in the area or what wishes I had collected for the short term. A spa, rooftop bar, more benches outdoor, pavilions in the park, etcetera. We used them to talk to the real estate owners, companies and municipality as well, getting a better understanding of their views on identifying where the energy was to work together on real projects. In everything we did, the story was very active and productive. Glamourmanifest branded the process of turning Amstel3 into a great place rather than branding Amstel III as a great place. Which it wasn’t. Yet.
The story was also interactive and dynamic. It was an invitation to join in and create something new together. Over time an increasingly large collective of different people, companies and organisations grew – from everyday user to institutional decisionmaker – and we co-created new future visions for the area and discussed themes like mobility, sustainability and liveability. Moreover, an increasing number of initiatives and events was organised by others as well now. This increasing level of engagement and co-production had an impact on the local narrative. Initially the Glamourmanifest had been about us and our hyper-local activism. Now the story was about the area and all the people and organisations who were sharing ideas and developing initiatives.
From telling stories ourselves we went to collecting, facilitating and sharing other people’s stories and initiatives. Glamourmanifest had been a conversation starter, a manifesto to unleash action in Amstel III, initially even using myself as the (masked) face of the revolution. Now we’d take a step back and lead the attention to the area itself. We changed the name into ZO!City, using the existing local prefix ZO for the Southeast part of the city. We became the platform for local people, stories and initiatives.
At the same time, in 2015, the economy recovered. Suddenly the first large-scale redevelopment projects landed in the area, proposing spectacular high-rise and mixed-use buildings to replace the old offices. This added a whole other layer to the storytelling in Amstel III, as the area now really needed to be branded as a place you would not only want to work, but actually want to live as well. This branding layer was not so much aiming at existing users but targeting large groups of potential new residents coming from the rest of the city and region.
An interesting new dynamic emerged with a lot of different big and small initiatives, stories and messages. Actually, they could really benefit from each other. Some bottom-up or temporary initiatives were bringing liveliness to the area and attracting new target groups through popular events or club nights. In a way they were demonstrating the proof that the area is a really nice place with lots of interesting things going on. At the same time big real estate developments could provide space, expertise and investment power to get local initiatives off the ground or to the next level, for example by accommodating now temporary cafes in their newly built projects. We organised all kinds of activities to bring them all together, stimulating new connections and unexpected alliances. However, there was also the risk that the large branding campaigns, focusing on the future image of the area, would unwillingly replace the smaller and more delicate stories that had built up over time by overpowering them instead of empowering and working with them.
In transformation areas the existing local energy, engagement and sense of ownership are something all stakeholders have a serious interest in and they should cherish them. They bring resilience, liveability and attractiveness: fertile ground for all kinds of big and small initiatives to grow and flourish. Imagine how nice it would be when you arrive in a transformation area as one of the first residents and you can plunge into a very active and well-connected local community that organises all kinds of things? And where you yourself are also invited and inspired to help shaping your new living environment from that point onwards? After selling the apartments, the story of Amstel III is not finished after all. On the contrary, it is just being shaped, told and lived by different people and initiatives over time.
In short, we can say that storytelling plays an important role in engaging all the different stakeholders needed for successful urban transformation. It is important however to realise that the same thing goes for storytelling and local narratives as for future visions and actually the whole transformation itself. It is ultimately a co-production over which you have limited control. Don’t just superimpose it on the existing situation as a definitive thing. Don’t expect stakeholders to embrace your story and become ambassadors for it. Don’t get too attached to it. Your initial story is a mere conversation starter to get to know the different people and organisations and to invite them to rethink their everyday environment and to actively engage in transforming it. The more they engage, the more you will learn about the area as well. It is only then when you can start shaping a new shared story together, owned by all stakeholders. This can then inform a shared future vision for the area – and ultimately the collective action and ambassadorship you wish to achieve.
Saskia Beer, 28 January 2021