No Rules No Refs in New Urban Development Game

The world of urban development is changing faster than you can say “innovate”.

The playing field of urban development – in the Netherlands especially – is experiencing fundamental shifts in power. Not only the playing field is changing also it’s players. This new game knows no rules or referees. All players are starting up or starting over.

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Harbour Development - Amsterdam

With our very first blogpost from Amsterdam we are kicking off our “Crossing Borders” – global sharing experience on the new urban development game.

Shifting challenge – Adaptive reuse

In the Netherlands the total lack of understanding for whom we built, has created tremendous overcapacity in commercial space which added to the economic downfall of the sector. As a result leaving offices empty and (rental) prices are still dropping. Obviously constructing new buildings and adding to the already existing capacity is not the answer anymore. The current challenge in the Netherlands is revitalizing what’s been built. Increasingly new uses are sought for old buildings.

Adaptive re-use is the new challenge. This refers to the process of reusing an old site or building for a purpose other than which it was built or designed for.

Players adapting to the new playing field and new players entering the pitch.
We are all searching for new answers. Developers seem to be resetting: looking inward, re-organizing, trying to adapt their businessmodels. Not only to this changed challenge, but also to implement a basic piece of the puzzle which was lost for years: listening to your customer.

Most of the building sector is now embracing co-creation (at least in words it seems) and claim to have found renewed focus on the end-user. In the building of homes, in listening to stakeholders, in testing concepts.

Dutch Vacant Property - Flickr - (c) Creative Commons

Housing corporations forgot that social return – in creating new housing for all people in society – was what they were originally set out to achieve. Somehow corporations thought themselves bigger than their mission set out for them. National government now has them under tigtened grip. Financial excesses lead to all corporations balancing out the debts. This financial setback and new regulations are now limiting them to their original core business. The result: Housing Corporations are nearly not investing as much in local developments as they previously would have done.

Local government as property owners benefited for years from the rising prices paid by the building combinations. And now most local governments have reflected on their building ambitions and have deleted projects from their portfolio. As to the overcapacity in office space, most municipalities are now regulating the new build and have so-called “office pilots”. Employees guiding and connecting new and old players and trying to find new use(r)s for empty office space. Local government is now facilitating urban development processes, not so much executing themselves. They are also searching (and called upon by state and research institutions) to form new businesspartnerships with social enterprises to solve social relevant issues together.

But there is something else going on as well, new players are entering the field. New players not burdened with any history in urban development. Creative entrepreneurs as temporary incubators or as developers even, new companies and grassroots initiatives looking for ways to realize their ambitions. They are taking up an ever increasing part in the urban-development-game.

Creative Entrepreneurs entering the field

The New Urban Development Game: Major power shifts –adding quality or maybe losing some?

So what is the result of these powershifts, these changes of perspective by local government, this developer’s renewed found focus on the client? Can we tell allready? We know all players posess certain qualities through what has been delivered past decades. Truth be said, lots has been delivered as well.

The new challenge of revitalization (adaptive re-use) however demands a new focus: Adding value to existing property. Which means that businessmodels have to be found in maintenance and operations after project delivery.

But how does that match the role and qualities of projectdevelopers whose focus has always been on projectdelivery as built? And whose return was always based on investors’ expected rent revenues adding riskpercentage?
Now this new challenge demands players to think past this short term delivery to how maintenance and operations should look like, and how to organize and guarentee continuity.

Local government and housing corporations have had this long term view or social responsibility much longer. But they are now retreating from the playing field. And possibly one might think the ability to innovate over the years was lacking in these large organisations where procedures protected status quo.
In this respect all existing players can benefit from the innovative entrepreneurial impulse new players are bringing in. But on the other hand, one could also argue that new players, not having any experience in urban development, lack the ability in developing a property. Projectdevelopers, as they have shown, sure are capable of managing a building process.

And are creative entrepreneurs or grassroot initiatives all equally equiped to set-up an organisation and guarantee continuity?

Introducing the playing field

So with this new game and it’s new players are quality levels actually increasing, are we overall maybe trading in or even losing some qualities?

Our strong convictions through which we add value to the Dutch playing field

We at City Works (De Stedenfabriek) have two strong convictions and these are based on inclusive stakeholder management (1) and having a shared long term vision (2).

  1. Involving the end-users and stakeholders through co-creation as early in the project as possible
  2. Focus on financial continuity, operations and growth should be an integral part of earliest stage (planning and design stage)

We aim to bring new life to empty vacant spaces through co-creation. We are not developing the concept ourselves, we are making connections and managing the process of co-creating it together with stakeholders and end-users. A very important first step, but in our opinion in urban development there is more to co-creation than involving stakeholders and end-users. We are also making continuity and long term operational objectives part of this design as early in the collaborative process as possible. This is what we call “value chain co-creation” . These are – we believe – necessary qualities which we can bring to the playing field.

Crossing Canadian Borders

In our recent meetups in Toronto we visited some revitalized sites and briefly compared the Dutch situation to the Canadian/Torontonian one.
And off course searching for elements in Canadian city making that support our convictions.

Evergreen Brickworks, Toronto


MaRS Discovery District, Toronto


Revitalizing the old, doesn’t seem to be a necessity in the greater Toronto area but rather a good business opportunity to combine the goals of the enterprise with a prominent building with a genuine story. There is no shortage in demand for office or residential space.

As to the players I was struck by the great professionalism of the social enterprises who in recent years have stepped up to the project development plate and have developed former derelict sites or buildings once nominated to be torn down. Not only their business sense, the way they communicate and are deeply rooted and connected locally, but also in the way they have been able to rise substantial funding for their ventures. And their long term focus is impressive and inspirational, as they combine the goals and values of their enterprise in an urban revitalization project, but also are able to attract a steady stream of visitors, scholars and students by their (partnered) programming. Strengthening social structure also through education.

I guess Canada with a more market oriented (social) economy has had a headstart on the Netherlands where traditionally government intervention and support and social government funding has been high.

I cannot help to wonder how these companies view their own positions. Maybe we can learn from what they had to overcome and had to learn on the way. How do Canadian companies, institutions and social enterprises, see their future developing? What challenges and opportunities do they see in the New Urban Development Game.

Pay it forward

We would be honored if the companies, we visited would be willing enter into our “Crossing Borders” sharing experience and would bring this discussion further, add their own questions and wonderings and paying it forward to other players already in or entering the urban playing field. Not only to give us a broader understanding of what is happening in Canada & the United States, but to be challenged, to share, to enter into dialogue, to learn, to innovate.

Caroline Vrauwdeunt
Founder De Stedenfabriek | City Works

Paying it Forward - How it works: As we aim to bring new life to empty vacant spaces through co-creation, we are part of the movement that supports collaborative ways of city making. Urban development is changing fast and collaborative city making is changing the game. With this blog we believe we all could benefit from new global viewpoints and refreshing idea’s, be challenged by them, and be triggered to do things differently. We are kicking-off with this first blogpost and pass on the challenge to new authors to share idea’s and enthusiasm, to start a dialogue. New authors will enter into this dialogue and then again pay the challenge forward to a contributor they think adds to the sharing experience. Broadening the dialogue across cities, countries, different fields of industry, and broadening and refreshing our minds. Improving the way we make cities. Changing the Game.