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How to be a next-generation city-maker

Plea about city-making as a collaborative approach to create inclusive local communities of co-owners.

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by cities. How buildings, public spaces and infrastructures have been carefully designed, and how people live, work and commute there, it all seems like one holistic body. But now that more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and this number is only growing, new challenges arise: how do we house so many people? How do we arrange mobility? How do we make our cities resilient to economical and environmental changes? And what role can technology play in all of this?

Category Uncategorized
Author Menno Huisman
Date Jul 2018

With our digital design agency Booreiland we are currently investigating these questions, as we are involved in creating Transformcity, a tool and completely new workflow for collaborative urban development. Transformcity is currently being implemented in two of Amsterdam’s largest transformation areas. Along the way of creating this platform, I’ve come to understand the complexity of urban development. Despite still being a rookie in this field, I will try to draft some key points that I think the next generation of city-makers should bare in mind if they want to successfully continue to shape the cities we live in.

1. Have a 360° approach

City-making can be done from many angles, of which I will list just a few here. Perhaps the most commonly known is the spatial angle. This angle deals with the design of spaces and the buildings and objects occupying them. Think of the design of a public square: what dimensions should it have to keep it on a human scale? What buildings should mark the borders of the square? How should lines of trees and benches be placed so people can take a break in the shadow? Designing spaces has direct impact on how people live and behave in cities.

Another way to approach city-making is from a commercial angle. Think of real-estate as property and assets, and architect the best financial strategy: what’s smart to invest in? Which parts of the city are government-owned, which are privately held? How do we make cities economically competitive on the international market?

A third way to take on city-making is from a socio-cultural angle: How to provide housing for all levels of income? What kind of public services do we provide for our residents? How can we create a sense of community in neighborhoods?

I’ve learned that having a 360° approach—meaning taking into account all angles—is the best way if you really want to move forward and create positive impact on cities and the people who live in them.

2. Make decision-making a collaborative thing

Urban development involves people from many different backgrounds. You’re dealing with project developers, investors, local governments, businesses and residents. They all have different interests, but they have to work together to make urban development happen.

Historically, in democracies, local governments have always initiated and facilitated debates and open discussions with all stakeholders involved, in order to collaboratively develop their cities. In the Netherlands, one the best known examples of this type of collaboration is the impoldering of parts of the sea and lakes over the last centuries, where government, local residents and other stakeholders had to work together to make it all happen. We now even know this by the term ‘poldermodel’, where we refer to the process of collaborative decision-making.

“City-makers have to facilitate collaborative decision-making, in order to grow co-ownership amongst all stakeholders.”

Currently in The Netherlands they’re moving it up a notch, with the introduction of a new law called Digitaal Stelsel Omgevingswet (DSO). One of the aspects of this law is that any entity involved in urban development has to show prove of participation of other stakeholders in its projects. With DSO on its way, city-makers have to facilitate collaborative decision-making, in order to grow co-ownership amongst all stakeholders.

3. Facilitate ideation

Once you have your community of co-owners in place, it’s time to create new ideas for urban interventions. Once again, as city-maker, your role often lies in the facilitation of this process. You have to create a platform—a public microphone if you will—for those who want to pitch their ideas. Well-facilitated ideation processes are crucial to successful urban development, because in the end it’s the ideas that drive cities forward.

Ideation processes for urban delevelopment typically start with identifying issues in specific city areas. A good way to collect issues from different stakeholders is by organizing focus groups or sending out surveys. Online community platforms can also be a good place to identify issues.

“It’s ideas that drive cities forward, making well-executed ideation processes crucial for successful urban development.”

Once issues are identfied, it’s time to assess the necessity of an urban intervention. This again can be done through focus groups and surveys, but here legislation and long term city plans are also factors of input. If an intervention is justified and there’s support amongst the community, different options can be explored through creative workshops involving stakeholders and trained ideators. When all options are in the melting pot, they can be evaluated: which are most fruitful? Which fit the city’s long term plans? Which abide to applicable laws? Finally, the best one can be prepared for execution.

4. Use big data to support your cause

Besides the input of stakeholders, there’s another force that can either greatly inspire ideation or support already drafted ideas: big data. Over the past few years, Internet of Things (IoT) applications have generated lots of city data, such as air pollution, solar potential, electric charging data and so on. Cities have become Smart Cities. Professions like data analysis have become indispensable to make sense of these enormous amounts of data, and transform them into useful information for city-makers.

“Data models and algorithms are, and will continue to be, powerful tools for the city-maker of the future.”

Going one step further, we have recently seen smarter data models and algorithms not only analyzing current city data, but predicting future scenarios based upon decisions that are made in the field of urban development. Think about predictive data models around traffic congestion when planning new infrastructures, or the decrease of CO2-emissions when connecting whole neighborhoods to renewable energy sources. Data models and algorithms are, and will continue to be, powerful tools for the city-maker of the future.

5. Go all-in green

From CO2-neutral buildings and shared electric car services to central heating provided by waste of nearby factories, it’s clear we’re paving the way for an all-in green century. And, as cities consume 75% of the world’s energy and contribute 75% of CO2-emissions, going all-in green is the only way to sustain our cities, and our planet.

As much as cities are part of the problem when it comes to global warming, they are part of the solution as well. Cities are where innovation happens, where the brightest minds come together and set up innovative experiments. Experiments around decreased energy consumption, new mobility solutions, and alternative food production and supply are happening in cities all over the world. However, the scale and pace in which our current way of living has to change is the biggest challenge of them all.

An interesting trend in this is the rise of sustainability benchmarks. Individual buildings, neighborhoods, areas, and cities as a whole are increasingly subject to examinations and get scored across multiple sustainability variables by benchmark organizations. Some of these benchmarks are globally renowned, and cities fight to get in their top 10 of greenest cities. Being green has become an economical asset and city-makers should leverage this when shaping their cities.

Final thoughts

By working on Transformcity over the past months, I’ve grown aware that urban development is a complex practice where knowledge and experience is required. Not for nothing, this has been the domain of urban planners, project developers and local governments for so many years. However, there seems to be a growing awareness that city-making—the practice of shaping the cities we live in—concerns us all, residents and local businesses included. And with challenges such as global warming and new laws (like DSO in The Netherlands) every single one of these groups should take responsibility and participate in city-making, in order to create inclusive local communities of co-owners. We are all city-makers!