How you approach your urban transformation challenge strongly depends on how the ownership in your area is distributed and on the extent to which you depend on others (and they depend on each other) to realise the local goals. In this blog we discuss a few possible scenarios and strategic models and you learn how to incorporate your local dependencies and activities into one integral strategy to really make them work for you. As a practical illustration of how this worked in our Amsterdam field lab you get a short video compilation from our e-learning.
In general, we can say that the urgency of your local goals and challenges in combination with the external dependencies you have in tackling them defines how centralised and controlled your process can be. If you own the land and real estate as a local government or maybe a developer or housing corporation, you can often design a new future vision and project it on the existing situation and set up a relatively linear process for the redevelopment. This is complex enough, make no mistake, with all different parallel challenges and transitions that need to be addressed. Perhaps you need to renovate heritage, add new functions and programs but also create new open and green spaces, change routings and mobility systems and of course solve energy and climate resilience issues. And how do you phase this large development in a smart and responsible way, also regarding branding and attracting new target groups but also planning your business model and cash flow in a way that is adaptive enough over time? After all, we’re often talking about long processes in which a lot can happen.
If the ownership in an area consists of let’s say three or four big parties, it already becomes more complex but in general you can invite them around the table and work towards a co-production, perhaps in the form of a public-private partnership. You can make agreements, create a shared vision and development guidelines, and go from there. The actual development can be executed as one consortium or as separate owners (developing apart together). Of course, this depends on the type of the project and the (distribution of the) program and also on the type(s) of owners. If all owners are project developers who consciously took position in the area to redevelop their property at the same time, you may even be able to set up a partnership with a larger number of them. After all, your ambitions are likely pointing in a more or less similar direction, and this makes it easier to make a plan and agreements together.
Collection of individual projects
In some cases, the local government may choose a more centralised and project-like approach where they define the future vision and then translate that in a set of conditions for every individual project. You may choose for this approach to keep control and tempo, but you need to make sure you have enough resources to deliver your part of the redevelopment, like the public space and infrastructure. This may work if the basis of the area is already functioning well and the transformation can be realised through a few targeted projects. This limits the dependency on all the different developers’ commitment and capacity to realise their projects conform the vision ánd the timeline. If the quality of the area depends on all of them executing their plans (and therefore the value of their plans also depends on each other) this approach may be too fragile. Unless you own a substantial part of the plots which development you can control through for example tenders or perhaps ground lease contracts ending soon.
Highly dispersed property
The larger the number and diversity of owners, the more substantial the transformation challenge, and the more you depend on others to reach local goals, the less effective and also more fragile such a centralised and linear project approach will be. Today we see a lot of large areas in need of transformation that are full of mutual dependencies, among others due to their dispersed ownership and complex stakeholder situation. Just think about the many large-scale office districts scattered around our cities worldwide. In areas like these, we’re easily talking about fifty or a hundred different owners, in all sizes and shapes. And you will probably find even more existing owners in residential or mixed-use suburbs and outskirts that need to densify in order to keep accommodating the city’s growing population. People are already living there, renting or owning their houses and plots. The only way to be able to pursue a controlled top-down process there would be by buying people and companies out on a very large scale. Apart from what a horrendous and uncertain task that would be, it also proved very risky. In the financial crisis various municipalities got in serious trouble due to large-scale acquisition in favour of large top-down future developments – and then the world suddenly changed, and demand developed very differently from what had been planned and calculated. The world is changing too fast and too unpredictably, as we’ve seen again now in the global pandemic, to carry all that risk for such large and long processes only on your own shoulders.
But then, distributed risk and distributed ownership also means distributed power and mandate. There are so many different actors, perspectives and interests we have to not only deal with passively but engage actively in order to achieve any tangible results. After all, you cannot force private owners to redevelop their property. Besides, in many cases areas are still partly in use so you may have a much more complex mix of developers, homeowners, (commercial) landlords and tenants and everyday users. In these areas there is a lot less control over the exact outcomes and timelines of the urban transformation. This cannot be managed as one linear project composed of clearly distinct and sequential phases.
Collaborative urban development
This type of urban transformation deals with a lot of different big and small projects by different types of owners and other stakeholders in different points in time. You need to stimulate, negotiate, connect and coordinate all of these into one coherent movement building up towards a shared future vision. This vision cannot be a fixed final image, because you cannot control who will make a new plan for their property, what type of plan and when they will execute it. You need a strategic transformation path or roadmap towards your future vision, solid enough to tackle the key local goals and challenges on the short, middle and long term, and flexible enough in the exact outcomes. This may seem more complex and slow at first, but the potential energy and execution and investment power you can unlock with this kind of movement is enormous. Besides, it is much less dependent on one central source and more adaptive and resilient to unexpected changes along the way.
New strategic model
In this lateral and incremental transformation process the different phases run parallel and are combined and connected in new and sometimes unexpected ways, cutting through the traditional silos you may have in your organisation. We need to focus on both our long-term goals and quality ambitions and also on ongoing concrete action and progress. Rather than designing the final image and then superimposing it on the existing situation, we need to design the entire transformation over time. We design not only the spatial changes, but also the local narrative, perception and engagement, plus of course the collaboration and financing. Some projects are organised collectively and some individually (public, private or civic) or in small coalitions. But together they all build up towards a shared and coherent future vision. Every activity and local initiative is now a potential gear in the big urban transformation machine, realising immediate quality and inspire other, perhaps bigger projects as well by providing better conditions and mitigating risks. Like this you kickstart your local movement and keep moving forward throughout very long processes.
As a strategic template for this kind of process or movement we created our 7-layered model. The model is a structural combination and intertwining of the more “heavy and tough” behind the scenes layers working on big visions, agreements and investments (roughly the bottom half) and the “lighter, quicker” and very visible layers to create positive energy, engagement and tangible progress (the top half). Some layers are more visible and solid with a direct gain or return on investment while others seem more soft and ephemeral, but all layers play their own crucial role as gears in the overall strategic process. The powerful thing about the model is that you can use it both to sketch out your entire strategy but also to then define your action plans per year. Then you put another timeline underneath the model and your actions become more specific and refined. In this way, you can constantly forecast to check and update your goals and then backcast all the way down to your actual first moves. Like this, every step you take is both a logical and also a tangible step in the entire transformation. The template provides direction and support, but in the content you always keep the flexibility to adjust if necessary or opportune.
This may sound a bit theoretical and abstract, so we made a short video compilation from our e-learning to illustrate how this can work in practice, using our Amsterdam field lab as an example. Of course, this is only a very quick run-through. For more details about how this model works in different contexts ánd a step-by-step guide to building your own locally specific strategy, we recommend our full e-learning module “Setting up your strategy”.