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  • Writer's pictureAdhish Gurung

In the cold, calculated world of urban development, do relationships matter?

Much of the built infrastructure around us, particularly real estate and property, are generally described by urban planners and other practitioners in terms of quantifiable numbers such as square meters and cost. Through these quantities, a city becomes a sum of its individual numbers; its present condition, a summation of these various towers of mathematics. In this quantified world, we quite easily forget the qualitative – the people and the relationships that built the built environment. Through my Master's thesis, I explored these relationships to find out whether or not they really do matter at all in the arithmetic that is contemporary urban planning.


An ambitious port-city plan


In 2011, the Municipality of Amsterdam launched a new Structural Vision for the city which promises to address much of the City’s housing shortages and defunct areas. It aims to transform industrial areas in Haven-Stad (Port-City) to residential and commercial spaces by building over 40,000 dwellings in the process. However, much of the land is owned privately and requires owners to be ‘persuaded’ to transform their properties – a policy new to urban planners at the City who usually redevelop municipally owned land without contention. The Municipality is struggling to meet these lofty housing targets and is seemingly at odds with developers representing property owners in Haven-Stad. The financial valuation is usually a prime point of contention.


Research process and findings


Transformation takes effort and collaboration. As one municipal planner explained, converting one parcel of land can take up to two years of continued negotiations. The old top-down regime of drawing new plans on a blank slate simply does not work in Haven-Stad; owners have much of the bargaining power whether the Municipality acknowledges it or not. How the Municipality approaches these property owners will dictate much of whether or not the transformation will occur. In order to better understand the influence of the relationships between these city planners and private developers on the resulting land-use plans, I conducted a series of interviews. It appears that behavioral elements such as trust and common goals considerably impact professional relationships and thus the resulting land-sue plans. Flexibility in planning, measured in the thesis through negotiations or alterations to land-use plans, is impacted by those relationships; city planners went out of their way to accommodate developers and vice versa once trust was built. Negotiations proceeded smoother when both parties shared underlying development goals.


The findings showcased that relationships can and do affect, what I term, ‘behavioral flexibility’ among actors; changes in the behavior of the actors as a result of their (professional) relationships. In the case of Haven-Stad, this meant that stalemate simply cannot be attributed to financial disagreement. It stems from lack of communication, trust and shared goals as well. Traditionally, Dutch city planners develop indicative plans and then proceed to negotiate with stakeholders. Often the actors’ goals are so far apart that resolution is impossible. The research suggests instead that starting with negotiations rather than those indicative plans can lead to understanding between these divergent actor groups, leading to more representative indicative plans.


Negotiate first!


In this urban planning sphere, the quantitative is not enough to explain some of the flaws in the Haven-Stad. It lies deep in the qualitative nuances of relationship dynamics. The flaw stems from a discord between the Municipality’s somewhat lingering authoritative behavior and the ideal collaborative behavior required for a transformation endeavor. The indicative land-use plan itself is promising, intriguing, and captivating. However, the persistent mis-trust between parties, lack of financial transparency, and lack of communication all indicate that an alternate starting point in transformation is necessary for future spatial policy. 

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