How you start an urban transformation process and how big or small the steps are that you can take, depends on many factors. One obvious factor is the economic situation. In times of economic decline or crisis there is less available capital and less trust in predicting the future. As a consequence, less attractive urban areas – the ones that are outdated, deteriorating, facing vacancy and generally in most need of transformation – will be lowest on the list of potential new projects for many investors. Too uncertain what will happen there in the future and too risky. Therefore, there will probably be few private (re)development initiatives in these areas.
As a local government however, you may have urgent challenges in precisely these areas that you need to address. These can be for example livability or sustainability issues or the need to provide more housing. When the ownership in the area is dispersed and acquiring land or real estate too risky financially, you will have to find a way to activate the different owners, trigger local initiatives and unlock local execution and investment power. One of the first challenges you may encounter here is the fact that most local owners and stakeholders are not developers and don’t look at the area through development glasses of future potential. For them, the area is not a transformation area. It is simply their everyday environment and it is what it is. Some may actually like it that way. You need to somehow define a new point zero in the area and shift the local perspectives towards positive future change and transformation and then activate the owners and stakeholders to join in and take action.
This process takes time, outcomes are unpredictable, and budgets are limited, so you cannot take very big steps. You start small, open the conversation, test the response and adjust and refine your approach. Slowly the local mindset shifts, and the conditions and support base needed for next steps build up. This is what we saw in many urban initiatives that started during the financial crisis, including in our own Amsterdam field lab. We started with very small actions, supported by a big story. This story functioned both as an activation campaign and as a pull for our process, while we kept pushing with small actions and stakeholder conversations. Over time, the local enthusiasm grew and thanks to the increasing network and support we could keep upgrading our activities.
Initially we had perceived much bigger steps to start with in the area. We wanted to start with building a few public pavilions and take it from there. This soon proved way too big, we simply could not gather the necessary resources because the trust and the enthusiasm for collective action was not yet substantial enough. We had to break down our plans into much smaller steps that aimed in the same direction but could be realised a lot more easily – and autonomously. This breaking down into smaller steps helped us to realise small but real results and to be present in a positive way continuously. It also allowed us to adjust and improve our plans when we got valuable feedback or new insights or encountered unexpected problems or opportunities. Small and low-budget actions can also have strong activating power. They are clearly not final results that stakeholders can consume, they are cries for change and invitations to join in and create something bigger and better together. Last but not least, the step-by-step approach gives the many different stakeholders in an area the time to grow awareness, set their mind and engage when they are ready. There is a lightness and openness to this approach that supports the local collective to keep growing.
Though initially driven by scarcity of resources, I can say that a continuous, lean and incremental approach based on small but steady steps actually made the project much more successful and sustainable than if we had realised big projects immediately.
When the economy started booming and investments were flowing to the city again, space to develop new projects got scarcer and the less attractive areas as described above suddenly became interesting opportunities. When you own the property as a government, you can now decide to publish a new vision or masterplan and attract developers through for example tenders. In areas with private property, existing owners may now reconsider what to do with their real estate and next to that, new investors and developers may acquire plots or buildings here with new development plans in mind. Instead of having to kickstart and push the urban transformation process from scratch, as a local government you now mostly need to respond adequately to these initiatives. Also, you may want to seize the opportunity of a local initiative to elevate the whole neighbourhood and address your own public goals as well. For example, a redevelopment initiative introducing housing in an industrial area opens up possibilities for making the area greener and more socially safe in the evenings – and for addressing these issues with other existing stakeholders as well.
For planners, designers and developers who are used to big urban or building projects, it can be tempting to think that in a booming situation like this, you don’t need all the ‘small and fluffy stuff’. There is enough commitment from developers and investors and logically you want to seize this opportunity and create critical mass in the transformation before another crisis hits, so you want to speed up with big steps. Small steps and community activities can be seen as ‘nice-to-haves’ or something for on our list once the building projects are secured or even fully realised. In a way this is of course understandable, but we see that the reality is more nuanced.
First of all, even in a situation with many development initiatives in an area, urban transformation takes time. You cannot simply design a masterplan and superimpose it onto the existing situation and stakeholders. Next to the development initiatives you still have a lot of existing owners who may or may not agree with the transformation or develop initiatives themselves in the future. You cannot force them to take initiative, so the area also needs to function well if they don’t. But if they do, your visions, zoning laws and other guidelines and regulations need to facilitate them in a way that they play out well and consistently with their environment. You need to safeguard a proper functioning of the area in all different possible scenarios.
This is a very complex process and needs constant back- and forecasting, running through scenarios, testing, calculating, negotiating and mediating. Not only between the local government and the individual developments, but also between the different developments as they often have various mutual dependencies. New initiatives keep coming and going and the attitude in the area and also the local political climate may change over the years, influencing current processes and requiring reviews.
Of course, this collaborative urban transformation process is still relatively new, so everything may take more time now than in the future when we have appropriated this more as a common practice. However, it can still easily take up to ten years before you see the first big results in actual building redevelopments. In order to eventually achieve results, you need to keep the trust and commitment from local developers and investors and also the other stakeholders over a long period of time when sometimes it may feel like nothing happens or the process got stuck.
Keeping momentum can be seriously challenging with the different developers and investors, but even more with the other stakeholders. They probably don’t look ahead five or ten years or more, but mostly see their interest and relevance in the area here and now. While working on your future visions, big plans and development agreements, you also need a smaller, lighter and very visible process layer to keep everybody on board and keep pushing the process forward consistently. This is crucial from a collaborative perspective; we really need to keep the energy and vibrancy in the area and in the process. After all, we cannot expect people to keep their appetite for engagement in the transformation process when they have to wait years to see any tangible results.
This ongoing and incremental approach with a lot of small and light actions is not only relevant for the local government. It is essential for the private developers as well. In an area with many different owners, the success of your initiative is for a part dependent on other initiatives and external conditions. You cannot transform the area alone and your project is not an island.
A new development can add value by itself and can also trigger new initiatives to further catalyse the transformation of the whole neighbourhood. By elevating the whole neighbourhood, the project then also adds value to itself. An interesting cycle. In transformation areas it is extra important to take up an active role there as a developer, because of the complexity described above. When the local government does not have the top-down control over the exact area transformation, developers and stakeholders depend on each other to create the best possible result. Therefore, you need to take time to get to know the area, not only spatially, but also socially. Who are the other stakeholders? Are there active local networks and other initiatives? Who is living or working in the area already and how can this work together with your new target groups? Who can be your allies to optimise your project or to create new projects in the area?
This soft landing in the area and building local knowledge, relations and trust is something that requires time to grow and to breathe. It is important to realise you cannot address this with the same hurried pace as you may be working on securing your development plans. It has more similarities with the incremental process with the small and steady steps that we saw emerging during the crisis. In fact, you need both. You need to seize the opportunity of big initiatives and investments; they can be powerful drivers and catalysts for the whole neighbourhood. At the same however, you need to take the time to keep your local network and culture of positive change and collaboration active and energised through ongoing smaller actions and projects.
Like this there is ongoing visible progress in the area. It keeps the energy and optimism around the transformation alive among both initiatives with a long-term (development) interest and among stakeholders who experience the area on a more everyday basis. And it helps yourself to keep your own energy high throughout the tougher parts of the process. Last but not least this approach provides a steady stream of positive content and publicity for the area, and this is something the different initiatives can tap into to attract new target groups for their projects and save on individual marketing costs later on. For example, when you are going to introduce housing in an industrial area you will need to reframe how people perceive the whole area. It needs to become a place where they can see themselves live happily and pursue their dreams. This process of reframing needs time and consistent messaging and proof, ideally not only from your own project but from the whole neighbourhood.
It is a very powerful combination when you have big development plans that really pull the area into the future and create critical mass and scale, while also having ongoing small and more collective activities and projects to push the area forward steadily. The alluring image of the future and the urgency of action today can really amplify each other. Together they grow an attractive and authentic neighbourhood with a well-connected and engaged local community step by step.
In short, we can say that for urban transformation you need ongoing action and energy and a combination of patience and perseverance. This brings me to one of the most powerful tools that we discovered during ten years of pushing Amstel III’s transformation forward. The power of celebration. Every big and small step provides the perfect opportunity to celebrate the progress together. It highlights the positive movement in the area, acknowledges the people and organisations behind the different actions and it allows for regular informal catching up and strengthening relations in the area. And of course, it makes the whole transformation more fun, social and personal.
We have been celebrating a lot in Amstel III. We even put celebration and champagne at the core of our storytelling. Often we did not only finish projects by celebrating, we also started them by raising our glasses together. We celebrated actual progress and used celebration to stimulate progress when needed. We shared our celebrations with the outside world, showing Amstel III as a vibrant area where people were having fun. And sometimes we celebrated when there was actually nothing to celebrate. In an interview with the ‘Parool’ local newspaper in 2012, I finished by admitting that whenever a plan succeeds, I open the champagne. And whenever a plan fails, I do the same.
The header image is a capture of an audience poll during Saskia Beer’s keynote speech at SBE 2019 conference in Helsinki.