By Rik Bos.
Throughout my life as a planning student I often dwelled upon the same question: who actually shapes the world around us? And who should? As I gained more and more planning knowledge, my answers to these questions became increasingly extensive, up to the point where I am now: acknowledging that there is, as with a lot of things in life, no single correct answer. A lot of factors, like time and location, influence which approach is asked for.
Although a ‘one size fits all’ formula thus does not exist, every time period has its own trends in planning practice. In the Netherlands, roughly speaking, right after the Second World War urban planning was in the hands of the (national) government. Since about the 1980s the market has increasingly come into play, and with the beginning of the 21st century civil actors have become increasingly involved. This latest trend, and some of the questions I just raised, are addressed by the PARCOUR research.
For my master’s thesis I zoomed in on the role of citizens in transforming the city. I decided to study the practice of self-building. I was interested in self-building because the municipality of Amsterdam actively supports this type of development. This support raised two questions. First, (why) is self-building desirable in a dense city like Amsterdam? And second, are self-builders capable of looking after shared or public spaces, next to their own plot of land? The latter question became the focal point of my thesis.
On the basis of a literature review I anticipated two possible outcomes. Maybe self-builders would become so much involved with their neighborhood that they would be willing to invest in its public space. In this scenario, allowing citizens to take care of the public space would result in a higher quality of the public space. Contrary to this scenario, I could find that shared spaces should be controlled by an actor who formally stands above citizens: the (local) government. Maybe people would only care for their own plot and nothing else. The first expectation was mainly derived from ideas of Boonstra and Boelens (2011) and Ostrom (2010). They essentially describe that under the right circumstances people are able to see a universal interest, which makes governmental interference unnecessary, and sometimes even unwanted. The second expectation was constructed alongside the ideas of Hardin (1968), who argues that people are only able to see their own interests and a governmental body is needed to properly allocate public goods (in this case: create enjoyable public spaces) in society.
I examined four very different self-building cases in Amsterdam: Buiksloterham, Vrijburcht, Blok0, and Route 1066. After assessing the quality of the public space in each of these projects, I tried to find out to what extent I could trace these qualities back to self-building practices, and if I could draw any conclusions about the desirability of this practice. After completing this exercise, I was not able to make any general claims on the desirability of self-building within Amsterdam, though. I found that the quality of the public spaces differed a lot between projects. In addition, the actual influence of citizens on the public space was different across projects as well. Without saying that self-building or citizen participation is the holy planning grail, It seemed that giving citizens a voice in designing the look of their neighborhood could have a very positive outcome. And if governments want to experiment with this form of development, self-building communities seem a good place to start. As I stated though, different situations ask for different solutions and it could be a planner’s task to provide society with them.
Boonstra, B., & Boelens, L. (2011). Self-organization in urban development: towards a new perspective on spatial planning. Urban Research & Practice, 4(2), 99-122.
Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248.
Ostrom, E. (2010). Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. Transnational Corporations Review, 2(2), 1-12.