Large-scale transformation or redevelopment of (urban) areas with many different existing owners is a question of collaboration. Our world is changing very fast and unpredictably through global investment flows, technological disruptions, political shifts, societal movements and consumer trends and demands. Cities are immediately and strongly impacted by these changes and plans and business cases for urban development projects may be outdated before they are even finished on paper. This makes it very risky to pursue large urban transformation projects from the top down, acquiring a lot of land or real estate up front and then starting a long process of planning, realisation and putting it on the market. Chances are real that something happens along the way that seriously threatens your plans – and your finances. We have seen this happening in the financial crisis, where some municipalities have gone bankrupt on large-scale acquisitions and preparations for new top-down urban development projects that could then not be realised according to the initial plans and calculations.
Collaborative approaches are becoming more common in our field, especially the ones focusing on the municipality and the owners. In some cases, this can work very well. When the number of owners is limited or when an area is almost completely vacant for example, the municipality and the owners can set up a public-private consortium to redevelop the whole area. This is of course complex enough, with all different parallel challenges and transitions that need to be addressed, new target groups that need to be attracted and plannings and business models that need to be agreed upon.
However, as the area becomes larger and more pluriform and the property more dispersed, the more difficult it is to set up a relatively comprehensible partnership for its redevelopment or transformation. Especially when the area is still (fully or partly) in use, there are a lot of other stakeholders who need to be involved as well. As mentioned in an earlier blog, all these stakeholders have their own interests but also their mutual dependencies. These can make or break your project and cannot be ignored for the sake of keeping the process comprehensible and controllable. This type of urban development or transformation is fundamentally a multi-stakeholder challenge.
This is where it becomes more complex – but also more interesting I believe. There is so much heterogeneity in an average local stakeholder web. You have big corporates and institutions but also small shop owners and citizens. Some have a lot of power, money and political influence, others don’t. Some are professionally interested in the urban project and have a long-term perspective, like for example project developers, whereas others perceive the area mostly in the here and now. Some are already organised to some extent while others operate as an individual. And of course, some have a commercial interest and others don’t. How do you organise all these different stakeholders in a way that is still comprehensible and manageable?
I often see two tendencies in organising collaboration with different stakeholders. The first one roughly approaches collectivity per stakeholder group or per theme. For example, a local community of citizens and small business owners focusing on small placemaking initiatives and liveability issues in everyday life, a business association of bigger companies focusing on business issues that may include for example mobility, and a coalition of owners and developers focusing on the spatial and real estate development in the area on the long term. Of course, there will be additional participation there in the sense that citizens for example can respond to spatial development plans or owners are engaged in the mobility plans as well. But generally, there is limited connection between those different collectives. They have their own goals, topics, budgets, networks and circles of influence. Mutual dependencies among these different stakeholder groups can easily be overlooked here and opportunities for cross-fertilisations missed.
The second approach may be a conscious response to this disconnectedness as it tries to bring everybody together into one big multi-stakeholder collective, bringing everybody around the table to discuss and collaborate on all different local topics. This one is based on the wish to be fully integral and inclusive, acknowledging how everything in an area is connected to everything and wishing to capture that connectedness into one big local process. This approach in principle makes a lot of sense, but in practice it bears the risk of becoming too heavy in its ambitions to ever become real. Growing a network that is so large and diverse takes a lot of time. Before you are half-way, the first ones will have probably lost their patience and interest. A community like this can be a theoretical ideal, but how do you make this actionable? Both tendencies share an underlying need to be very clear and very complete, albeit in almost opposing ways. And I believe that is where the bottleneck is, in the need to be in control. The local reality is fundamentally messy and too dynamic to be captured in one big and complete coalition or a set of clearly distinct smaller ones.
In my experience there is a powerful solution in thinking in layers here: layers of formality, topics, scale and financing structures. The basic idea is to keep it light and open where possible and add layers of further formalisation or stricter conditions where necessary. In our Amsterdam field lab, we initially aimed for the type of all-inclusive and fully integral super collective that I described above. We brought together the municipality, real estate owners, companies renting the office spaces, individual employees of those companies, housing corporations and residents from the adjacent neighbourhoods, utility and infrastructure companies and collaborated with various local organisations, non-profits and business associations. We built a sense of community among these very different types of stakeholders, first through social events and later also through workshops and co-creation sessions about the area. Initially this collective was completely informal and later it got formalised into a foundation. The community events we organised were open to all stakeholders, but the organisation was financed by modest annual contributions from real estate owners and the municipality. Those were the two stakeholder groups who had most at stake financially in the area, also on the long term. For them it made sense to invest in this basic layer of community building and management, branding and pr. The contributions were modest enough so that it was not too problematic that not all the eighty owners were contributing. It was a coalition of the willing and it kept growing every year.
Our initial idea was to expand this foundation not only with all owners, but also by bringing in (smaller) contributions from companies and even individuals, making it complete and all-inclusive. However, over time we realised that it made much more sense to be a bit more lean and flexible here and not wanting to control everything into one big organisation run by ourselves. In retrospect I believe it is actually so much more powerful that the different stakeholders themselves started to organise new initiatives and take ownership over the development of the area. In one part of the area, a group of owners of office buildings felt the wish to further formalise into a Business Investment Zone (BIZ). By doing so they could make more solid plans, agreements and investments in their direct surroundings. A BIZ would help them to make sure that all owners would play their part. Where on the basic layer of our area foundation a certain number of free riders was not a big problem, of course it would be when talking about a lot larger and more direct investments.
In other parts of the area project developers had taken position by acquiring some of the old and vacant office buildings. They had big individual plans for redeveloping those buildings and needed to collaborate with the municipality and each other to create a shared future vision for that specific part of the area, turning it into an attractive and coherent mixed-use neighbourhood. They needed to agree on a fair set of guidelines and regulations for all their projects together. One developer then took the initiative to set up a new foundation to run various placemaking and public space projects in that neighbourhood together with the other developers. And of course, on top of all their collective plans the municipality had to make strict agreements with every individual developer about their specific project.
Furthermore, on the scale of the whole area a discussion had started to pursue the cooperative purchasing of solar panels for the different roofs. This was interesting for individual owners, but the BIZ could also join in as an entity here if there was enough interest among its members. At the same time there were different smaller initiatives in the area, varying from a one-day event initiated by a local entrepreneur to a temporary pavilion that came to life during a community workshop. These were not only relevant for everyday users in the area, but also resonated with the upgrading goals of the BIZ and the placemaking interests of the new developers’ foundation as described above. Therefore, these initiatives could tap into the large and diverse community of our foundation and then built smaller, project-based coalitions on top of that. The event brought in one-off sponsoring from the local companies and developers while the pavilion was funded through crowdfunding, bringing in big and small contributions in cash and kind from all different types of stakeholders, including individuals, real estate owners (some of whom were also part of the BIZ) and infrastructure companies.
As you can see, all these coalitions and projects are independent but also connected. They all build on the layers underneath, tapping into the large multi-stakeholder community in the area with its shared goals and profiting from all kinds of cross-fertilisations. In a way every coalition forms around specific themes, locations or interests but builds on the fertile ground of the bigger community and the ongoing activities that are being organised there. This is strongly related to the platform-thinking discussed in my previous blog. You bring everybody together to discuss an open agenda on all local topics, but you allow different types of coalitions and project groups to be formed to follow up and execute real projects. Some of these coalitions can be formed rather quickly, capitalising on sudden opportunities or adequately tackling a local problem as it arises. They can be lean and mean because they generally don’t depend on heavy decision-making or financial commitment from the overall community. Other coalitions are there for the long run and really work towards sustainable shared operations and ownership.
In this layered approach, some stakeholders may only contribute by sponsoring one specific event. Or never contribute. Others may be an active partner in a lot of different coalitions, simply because they have a lot at stake in the area and are highly invested in its success, now and in the future. Both are fine, as long as the sum of the different investments and rewards are in balance. And that balance is a lot easier to safeguard when you organise investments and rewards quite specifically and directly. It is not one size fits all for every stakeholder.
There is another important advantage to this layered approach. Formal coalitions like BIZ generally take time to grow. They require not only shared goals and investments but also a culture of collaboration, transparency and trust. If you want to build this from scratch, you run the risk to get stuck in endless meetings before the real commitments are made and the contracts signed. The big threat is that the people who may have been the active front runners in the beginning get demotivated as they don’t see any tangible results and the whole thing may plummet before it starts. If on the other hand you start very light and informal, perhaps with a few very inexpensive interventions paid by one-off sponsoring, you build tangible results and positive energy immediately. Besides you strengthen relations and trust by testing the collaboration. In a way you prototype the more formal coalition by a few small projects. From there you can fine-tune the goals and outlines for the BIZ and build from there. Even if you still need a lot of meetings to finalise the formal details, you can keep realising smaller projects in the underlying, less formal layer in the meantime. Like this, you keep moving forward towards your shared local goals while keeping everybody energised and engaged. Your ongoing visible activities and results may even convince more stakeholders to become active and join in as well.
Saskia Beer, 8 maart 2021