How urban planning and development are changing

Our world is changing rapidly and unpredictably and this is strongly impacting our cities and how we plan and develop them. Cities around the world are shifting from the top-down development of new areas to densifying and transforming existing ones. This shift brings with it a whole range of other shifts and an unprecedented level of complexity and unpredictability to urban planning and development. We identify three main axes along which this complexity is manifesting and needs to be addressed.

1. Multi-thematic integrality

Urban areas are often facing several major challenges and transitions at the same time. There may be one specific challenge that sparks the initial awareness of the area’s need for transformation. This can be for example increasing vacancy or deterioration of buildings, the pressing shortage of (affordable) housing, climate resilience or social security issues. However, these issues often are related and influence each other. Besides, they may require the active involvement or behavioural change of the different local stakeholders. Therefore, they need to be addressed integrally.

This does not mean that they can easily be captured into one project. Every issue may have its own characteristics and tempo and its urgency may be perceived very differently by different types of stakeholders. Some may look ahead five or ten years or more, while others mostly see their interest and relevance in the area here and now. The urban transformation needs to cleverly combine and address these different goals, concerns, perspectives and horizons in a comprehensive way.


2. Multi-stakeholder collaboration

Another crucial factor is the ownership situation. In existing areas, we are often dealing with dispersed property and many different actors and interests. In many cases, the local government already sold or leased the ground in the past when they first developed it. Now there may be new plans or ambitions, but large-scale acquisition has proven too complex and also too risky financially. Without the concentrated ownership, the top-down process of making a vision and masterplan and perhaps tendering the individual plots to the market is not working anymore.

This is a real game changer which influence is often underestimated. In some areas, we are easily dealing with a hundred different owners or more, in all sizes and shapes. And of course, there are many other stakeholders as well. There are so many different actors, positions and perspectives we have to not only deal with passively but engage actively in order to achieve any tangible results. Besides their own interests, these different stakeholders also have mutual dependencies among each other, influencing their position and willingness to take action or invest.

Fundamentally this means that the whole urban transformation process needs to shift from a centralised to a distributed network structure, requiring new forms of collaboration and governance where the area itself builds sustainable ownership over the area and its transformation goals and challenges.


3. Adaptive incrementality

This dependency on others to join in, take initiative and invest in their property limits the control over the exact outcomes and timelines of the area 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. How can your future vision play out and evolve over the years? How can it incorporate sufficient flexibility in scale, speed and direction? The area needs to be able to adapt to different future scenarios along the way. During a transformation process that can take up to ten, fifteen, maybe twenty years or even longer, the area needs to provide 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 urban transformation you can only achieve tangible results and sustainable goals, if you profoundly acknowledge these different complexities and manage to embed them in the core of your processes and your team. You need to structurally join forces and work with your environment and always be sensitive and responsive to what is happening around you while keeping your focus on the big challenges and long-term goals as well. This is what we call collaborative urban development.

Urban challenges | Transformcity