Power to the People!
by Jan Knikker
Public participation can be a critical part of the design process – if the architects and planners step back and let the people decide.
More and more often, we see the architect make way for the public to design or participate in the design process. This approach – including the public in the design processes that ultimately define their physical surroundings – is based on a democratic ideal. Non-democratic design process can be so far-reaching in the lives of the local people the surrounding people’s lives that a strong opposition can be expected. By inviting the public to become an integral and authentic part of this process, they are offered the ability to control and influence the coming changes, leading to involvement and happiness as opposed to resistance and negativity. There is a wide spectrum of ways to include the public, from mere information events to ambitious strategies giving full control over a DIY neighbourhood, in which architects and officials offer tools for the public to become creators of their own destiny. Over the last 27 years, MVRDV has experimented with public participation on all scales and found that the more radical public participation becomes, the more remarkable the result is.
In Europe, people have a fair amount of power over their direct surroundings. The power to oppose and stop or at least delay large construction projects is a right. While this can enable nimbyism that aims to prevent necessary changes and can – in the worst cases – bankrupt corporations, it can also be seen as a democratic right for people to have their say and demand changes to projects that are insensitive to the area. Nathalie de Vries tested the waters in implementing a strong design liberty for the users with the masterplan for New Leyden in 1993. In a decade, 670 dwellings were built by private people with individual architects within volumes whose maximum size was given to them by the city. The collective components of the project are shared parking garages and pedestrianised streets. The project mixes top-down and bottom-up, which led to a highly appreciated inner-city neighbourhood in which each and every house is self-build. This leads to an actively engaged citizenship, people who have invested in the neighbourhood – people who actively invest into their surroundings because they don’t ever want to leave their self-built dream houses. The effect house owners have on neighbourhoods is not to be underestimated. Countless scientific studies have tested this and the result is clear: owners invest not only in their real estate but also in their neighbourhood. Being able to create a dream house makes this effect even stronger because, barring a life-changing event, people stay. The next step on the property ladder is no longer an objective, as the dream house is regarded as a final destination, and they impact their surroundings accordingly.
While some projects are planned with a mixture of top-down and bottom-up from the start, others begin a participatory process more unintentionally. When MVRDV presented the open art depot for Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, the neighbourhood was deeply frustrated because the project was located in a park adjacent to the museum. Despite all kinds of features designed to diminish the impact of the building on the park, the first public information events were dominated by anger over this unwanted intrusion into the public realm. But the city slowly gained back ground with a very sensitive information campaign in which the design was further evolved by listening to the wishes of the people. What started as an information process eventually became a participation process in which the design was better embedded in the city. The streets surrounding the new building will be incorporated into the park, which will therefore gain rather than lose space. Trees that had to be removed to make space for the building will be added to the roof of the building, adding 1.5 million Euros to the budget in order to have enough soil on the roof. The reflective building – designed like a sculpture in the park – will have a matt spot on its facade on the side facing a youth psychiatry ward. All these changes made the project much better and, at the same time, a general support for the building emerged. Today, many proud voices praise the new object in the city.
In Rotterdam, the neighbourhood around the depot was well organised and motivated to come to the events organised by the city. But in other places, designers need to work a little harder to get the necessary input from the public. When MVRDV was engaged in a large urban masterplan in Bordeaux, repeated events did not get any response from the inhabitants of a small working-class neighbourhood next to the site. So instead of simply trying to invite them to yet another event, instead Winy Maas took a bicycle and went into the neighbourhood to meet people in the streets. He ended up drinking tea with locals who showed him old photographs of the site, Bastide Niel. After discussing the new project in this way, it emerged that the general wish of the inhabitants was not to be dominated by this large new development of 3,500 apartments and more than 100,000 square metres in services and public facilities. In response to this wish, the parametric urban plan was adjusted to alter the view lines from the neighbourhood and to cut the building volumes in such a way that the new neighbourhood would be polite to the neighbours and almost invisible from the area. Here too, the design changes created wide-reaching support.
This traditional model of architects that listen and change their already-developed plans was supplanted by an approach in which two MVRDV collaborators saw potential in neighbourhoods and, with the local community, started bottom-up projects that were seen and supported by politicians. Architect Sanne van Manen identified a problem in Rotterdam’s Hoogkwartier, the post-war neighbourhood surrounding the MVRDV office. In a project with local neighbours, she analysed the area as being a wonderfully coherent example of post-war architecture that came with big challenges: small apartments with a homogenous population, old buildings with an ineffective emission balance, car-dominated streets and very little public green space. In long evening sessions with engaged citizens from the area she made an urban vision that proposed a new business model in which the city would grant the owner societies of the apartment blocks a loan to stock up their buildings, sell apartments in the extended buildings and to use the profit to transform the buildings to become more energy efficient. This project is ambitious and has not yet been realised, but the process has started and it is potentially a model for many post-war neighbourhoods in the Netherlands and beyond.
In these ambitious, experimental approaches to improve a neighbourhood, it can help to introduce smaller participatory milestones to galvanise the community spirit. In the Hoogkwartier, a more immediate and tactile project was based on the poor public green space in the neighbourhood. A Citylab was started and as part of it a Mobility Challenge. This initiative was supported by local inhabitants and entrepreneurs, and the municipality also got involved to take part. 60 inhabitants committed to test a multitude of mobility options, from shared bikes to electric cars. In addition, 30 inhabitants gave up their cars entirely for two months also in favour of trying out this multimodal transport offering as an alternative. With 30 cars removed from the neighbourhood, locked away in a municipal car park, 30 street-level parking spots could be transformed into mini-parks. The experiment also included changes to the neighbourhood’s traffic management, better passageways to public green space and safer pedestrian crossings. For two months, a mobility hub in the quarter was the heart of the experiment, which came with events in which the participants could exchange their experiences. The team also organised neighbourhood fairs and garden parties, creating more community spirit in the area. The follow-up was monitored by Rotterdam’s Erasmus University and the city is now looking into extending the experiment to different neighbourhoods in Rotterdam.
Almost at the same time, MVRDV’s Jan Knikker spotted a neighbourhood initiative in The Hague to reopen the city centre’s closed historic canals. One of the oldest areas of the government city of the Netherlands, the old centre of The Hague with its picturesque canals was almost demolished in the 60s and 70s to make way for motorways and parking garages. Now the inhabitants, businesses, and other stakeholders saw, in opening the canals, a chance to improve the city in terms of sustainability, nature, water management, resilience, sports participation, and social cohesion. This would likely be happily embraced by most left-wing parties in the city council, but it was not a balanced proposal, and so the initiative was also investigating economic arguments – sketching a vision of tourism, traffic, craftsmanship, gastronomy, and hence the economic impact of the reopening of the canals. It took 18 months and countless meetings to mould a holistic vision based on the many competing wishes of inhabitants and neighbourhood organisations. In the second stage, all parties in the city council are asked for their approval, which was successful. A vote to research the project further received 43 votes in favour, with 0 votes opposed, and MVRDV is now working on a more detailed test of opening the canals, always in collaboration with the locals.
In this way, participation can be an excellent way to lubricate the complex bureaucratic machinery of legal and political approval processes, but it is arguably more interesting as a way to completely upend these existing procedures. Such is the case with an even more radical project with the working title ‘Freeland’ in the new town of Almere, just outside of Amsterdam. Here the wish to diversify the homogenous demographic profile of the town resulted in a top-down urban plan that entails four new and very different neighbourhoods: a coastal town, islands in the lake, a naturally overgrown city centre and Freeland, a suburb that offers its inhabitants maximum freedom yet asks in return that they take a maximum of responsibility. The work of MVRDV as designers consisted not in putting lines on the page to give shape to the new neighbourhood, but in the more abstract task of setting land use percentages. There is a percentage that can be built up, used for streets, public green and energy production, then there is the wish that the relatively low density of the suburb behaves responsibly by reserving 59% of the land for food production. This results in a calculation that for every square metre of house, 8 square metres of productive garden has to be maintained. Inhabitants receive land for a relatively low price with very few regulations but the percentages to respect. All construction rules except for safety and politeness for the neighbour haven been abandoned.
But this freedom comes with responsibility, as home builders have to work together to build their own neighbourhood as the council won’t provide them with roads, water, gas, electricity, bus services or schools. The opportunity to be in control of your own initiative is the attraction that has so far led to 400 homes realised and inhabited of a potential 15,000. People have developed an astonishing number of communities; some are devoted to the technical details straw-, wood-, or container-construction, while others address more philosophical motives such as non-violent communication or stress-free surroundings. The first school was temporarily located in a yurt and collective delivery orders have led to mammoth orders of 26,000 trees which engaged the entire community. The initial ideal to attract a different demography to this part of the town has been realised and the ideal of building your own neighbourhood and taking control over all details of your urban area has been added to the kaleidoscopic Dutch offer in terms of urban planning.
The projects described so far exhibit varying levels of radicalism, but they are all based on a fundamentally analogue approach: they involve a lot of communication, often face-to-face, to come to a group consensus. However, in a digital era, it’s important to understand how technology can enable this process in a way that is faster and, hopefully, more fair. A mix of software application, community feeling and total egoism was the public participation research project (W)ego City by The Why Factory at Delft University of Technology. Winy Maas’ students had to design dream apartments for varying characters such as “The Dude” from the movie The Big Lebowski, Marilyn Manson, and Desperate Housewife Bree Van De Kamp. These were then combined into a collective apartment block using a mediating software. In this way the ‘ego’ became a ‘we go’, the single dream became a collective effort. The next step is an EU subsidy request in collaboration with three universities to see whether this software could be developed based on the building codes of major European countries. The idea would be to have a public tool comparable to the IKEA Kitchen Planner but, in this case, allowing amateurs to design their dream home themselves, according to a valid building code, in a smart software application.
Most of these projects are in the Netherlands as a close connection between the architects and the locals is necessary, but there are more and more tests to export the model abroad. In Kiel, Germany, Jacob van Rijs was successful in designing a system in which individuals can design their own apartment inside a neutral scale in a collective building, whilst recently a radical public participation project for Hamburg Grasbrook was not accepted by the city. This kind of project needs time in order to overcome a scepticism to the idea that it is a valuable addition for municipal urban planners who are – like architects and planners – traditionally used to having more control.
Architecture and urbanism have an immense potential to create happiness and projects that include the public and the future users in the design process – projects that give control to the public – create even more happiness. The architect and urban planner steps back from deciding what’s good for the public, becoming a more conversation-based partner with the end user, a virtue that is lost in most collective housing projects on the planet and which is extremely rare in urban planning. This move away from playing god and a move towards letting the people decide for themselves instead creates, in spite of all the challenges and slow democratic processes, a happy and idealistic city. And that is exactly what we want to achieve: happy citizens in great cities.
Title image: Cathelijne Beckand Verweé