Open Urban Design - 14.03.2012

From ideal to optimal


Dutch spatial planning has a strong tradition in planning and achievability. Since the second half of the last century undeveloped out-of-town areas have been developed to accommodate housing and business activities. For a long time area development was a form of colonisation and, with the VINEX operation, we close this era. This dogmatic approach is under review. What has it left us with? Suspicion among all the parties involved and indifferent public opinion vis-à-vis spatial projects. The future assignment is no longer to create something new on a vacant site, but to transform an existing one into something new. Spatial planning transforms into spatial organisation and this should be accompanied by a different form of urban design.


Transformation is impossible

In recent years with urban, but also with rural, transformation processes, the pattern was a radical make-over with a substantial increase in scale. Post-war urban extensions, station areas, office and business locations, but also with the restructuring of centrally-located areas, large-scale demolition was the rule rather than the exception. Each generation of designers evidently imagined themselves to be superior to their predecessors and wanted to start from scratch.


We had evidently forgotten that this approach led to solutions that are now the reason for transformation. The urban structures from the past prove so inflexible that continuous regeneration is out of the question. By now we know that scaling-up in time eventually leads to a deterioration of functional diversity. Spatially, but also financially, large-scale interventions are not sufficiently flexible to respond to continually-changing demand and no party is presently willing or dares to enter into a long-term, financial commitment. One not-insignificant addition is the fact that the interval between development, use, and redevelopment is becoming shorter and shorter. It has been suggested that VINEX locations are already due for a redevelopment assignment, while the final estate has not even reached completion and only now are the first books and films appearing in which these estates form the decor.


Final outcome as idée-fixe

We can no longer be satisfied with a sub-optimal spatial, financial or social final outcome, based on a single, principle image. The final outcome, the crystallisation of design, realisation and use is an awkward residue of thinking in ideals. Right from the initial sketch, work focuses on the final outcome and process and financial agreements are a reflection of this. This approach is no longer suitable as an urban set of instruments. Reaching the intended end result marks the transition of a project – from the developmental stage to the user stage. Organisations in the development strategy are generally exempt from responsibility for (sustainable) quality in the long term at the moment of delivery. A maximised design in all respects suddenly turns out to be irreversible and not future-proof.


The final outcome creates a false sense of security. As a rule this outcome serves to gain certainty and control of a development process in the shortest time possible. The planning should generate maximum predictability and justify high investment costs in specific areas. Notional book value is created in the planning, but with a change in, or a lack of, demand this soon proves to be illusory. The investor can be confronted with a lock-in effect: after the (costly) realisation of the project he or she is “locked” into the terms and conditions whereby, for example, the user mix does not correspond, the property fails to attract tenants or the planned surface area of the site does not conform to the absorption capacity of the local property markets. Also, all the legislation and regulations are related to a final outcome. The hierarchical and linear structure of the spatial planning with a structural concept, a master plan and zoning make the re-adjustment of objectives difficult. All these policy documents attempt to predict a development and prevent the unforeseen.  


The ideological premise of the modernistic belief in which an achievable ideal can organise the urban environment efficiently, and can separate functions and avoid conflict, is apparently no longer appropriate. This old method of working is too mono-disciplinary, the process too sequential, the short-term interest too dominant and a spatial solution is sought all too quickly.


Open urban design

Clinging to a position in which authorship and final outcome predominate, translating the public-private negotiation outcome without question and only taking the short-term interest into account is, therefore, no longer prudent. Achievability needs to make way for feasibility. With open urban planning the qualities of spatial improvisation can be combined with challenging, timeless plans. The temporary activities on a site should be used as a prelude to a structure in which a permanent programme can be established. Acting on a small scale should be combined with thinking on a large scale. And through the body of thought whereby spontaneous spatial planning with a temporary character is combined with Daniel Burnham’s adage “make no little plans”, an answer can be formulated for contemporary spatial issues. With this approach the design is not an objective in itself. It is a means of analysing, of studying all the opportunities and testing all the variants.


Nowadays, temporary creative functions are frequently deployed as a booster for the “new”, once again commercial programming of projects that have reached the end of their life cycle. This temporary management never serves as the beginning of a permanent structure, but has functioned – up to now – simply and solely as a catalyst for an accelerated added-value in the land development. But activities on a site need not follow serially. On the contrary, if non-commercial and commercial functions co-exist in an area, they can utilise each other’s strengths. The transformation of an area no longer needs to be based on one large development, it can, for example, be financed and organised thematically.


Open urban design produces knowledge from the bottom and the top simultaneously thus stimulating participation instead of hampering it. Making this knowledge available requires a new method of working and a platform where this knowledge can be shared.


Dynamic option diagram

It is important always to be able to tailor the programmed and spatial interpretations to the demand aspect. A development process needs to be flexible and accurate in this context. The skill lies in recognising milestones in the development and responding effectively to them. This could entail changing the form of the organisation, for example, or searching for new investors. It is impossible to plan just how and at what moment these milestones will present themselves in advance. We have to learn to live with this uncertainly. But we can facilitate an open and flexible development in which relentlessly working towards a final outcome is replaced by thinking in small, bite-sized sub-plans that can be wound up separately. An area is then no longer in a state of continuous transition, but the plan is once again wound up in each phase of the process. Moreover, after each phase, the next, contemplated step in the development can be reassessed. A plan is not bound by a growth rate, it can react to changeable economic and social circumstances and housing requirements. Consequently, a suitable financing construction can be found for each new phase.


The open urban design option diagram creates flexibility, accuracy and care at the right moment. Spatial developments can take place in diverse ways, at a varying pace and on differing scales. This in contrast to the traditional model, the centralised model of development. It is time to break with unattainable final outcomes that are coupled to achievability and introduce a step-by-step, feasible transformation process.


Option matrix

The basic condition for a continuous development process is to find a way in which all the stakeholders concerned can reach agreement. These agreements are not solely about physical mass (m² or m³) but, in the first instance, about the added value for the parties involved. In addition to social facilities, public space and economic development opportunities these could include acceptance of a conflict (for example, noise,  shade, air pollution) and resource usage (space). The principle of open urban design also differs financially when compared to the past: all the parties involved participate, as a result of which each step is supported by the end users and becomes more financially robust. The classic public-private collaborations are a thing of the past. We are no longer looking for the largest common denominator, but for the smallest common multiple.


For this new working approach a platform for all the parties involved is a good way of contributing and sharing knowledge. Ensuring a balanced composition of the participants who use this platform and establishing a joint objective are essential for the success of open urban design. The option matrix is a suitable model for this. In this matrix the spatial characteristics and qualities are offset against all the possible preconditions for development. In a conveniently-arranged way, the details of all the possible themes and sub-themes, submitted by all the potential stakeholders, can be examined and analysed.


The great advantage of an option matrix is that it focuses on the users of an area, the hard and soft data can be processed and minor and major players can be given a role. The more transparent structure also makes it easier for actors to participate in the process. Participation can vary from general consultation to a close-knit form of participation. The matrix makes it possible to test and study the problems at various scale levels, make choices and discover the consequences. The appropriate scale level of the solution is determined for every design. The matrix can be used to trace collective values, define shared ambitions, conclude new programmed and spatial alliances, but also to expose conflicts. The open urban design matrix allows for divergent interests, demands and requirements thus creating a well-balanced collaboration.


From ideal to optimal

Breaking with the ideal of achievability is not that difficult. The central structures from the twentieth century have by now made way for a fragmented DIY society in which each individual is free to choose his or her own way. Collective certainties have been replaced by short-term associations with one of the networks in which we mix. People are less attached to one place, both in terms of living, working and in leisure activities. This dynamic society is barely seeping through to spatial plans. Breaking with a social reality that stemmed from thinking in terms of achievability is not a simple matter. Nevertheless, these trusted procedures and working methods, coupled with a supply-orientated and serial-based way of thinking, will have to be abandoned in order to be able to take the step towards an open and flexible form of urban development enterprise.


Urban design is now realpolitiek. Instead of achievability, which has an element of compulsion, we must think in terms of feasibility, of what is practically possible. Feasibility is often dismissed as non-ideological and uninteresting but, on the contrary, it requires a strong morality and a holistic outlook. The ideal, Utopian plan must be replaced by the optimal design and development strategy which do justice to the context and all the participants.  

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