Design and Politics: the next phase
7 - Re-city, the ‘Total Makeover’



The evening was introduced and the guests welcomed by Áine Ryan and Loek ten Hagen.


Henk Ovink
Henk Ovink began his presentation with the observation that in the face of the need for strategic thinking to address urban issues, politics always favours the short- over the long-term perspective. He then showed a slide depicting Cornelius van Eesteren and referred to the relationship between design and politics in the context of the Amsterdamse Bos project, which integrated analysis and knowledge and provided work for more than 20,000 people in the context of social and economic crisis. He then related an anecdote that illustrated how design was conceived as a science in the 1930s – van Eesteren’s colleague Jacopa Mulder, depicted in the photo in civilian clothes, later apologised for being photographed in a professional context without her white lab coat. He then referred to the current global urban situation and its exponential development. He explained that soon cities will encompass 75% of the global population and produce 90% of global GDP but occupy merely 3% of the global habitable land area. In the EU this situation is characterised by demographic shrinkage due to an aging population and thickening international boundaries. He noted that in the EU there is a disconnect between design and the critical issues facing cities. He also noted that in the EU all urban development is effectively re-development due to early urbanisation and that in the EU city regions are beginning to dominate more than nation states. He concluded with a recent statement by Ban Ki-moon – that the EU must dare to lead and take the next step with a clear vision for the future.

Klaus Overmeyer
Klaus Overmeyer from Studio Urban Catalyst in Berlin organised his presentation under three headings: re-read, re-scale and re-plan. With reference to re-read he stressed the need to develop better understanding of the city as found. He emphasised the connection between design and use and the need to understand the driving forces behind the transformation of urban space. He then described a transformation barometer tool developed by SUC to identify strategic zones for transformation. With reference to re-scale he called for the combination of micro and macro perspectives and described how SUC use the weather map as a metaphor to identify patterns. He cited the example of a Hamburg ‘creative milieu’ weather map that SUC used to zoom in on use which led to a change in the Hafen City plan. Regarding re-plan he called for the culture of planning to be extended and illustrated this with a pollination metaphor. He stressed the need to introduce the element of time into dynamic planning, to take the unplanned into consideration and to meaningfully engage with space producers. He concluded with the assertion that the complexity of contemporary planning requires new and different tools.

Petra Rutten
Petra Rutten of Proper Stok Developers based in Rosmalen began her presentation with a declaration of her belief that people “are how and where they live”. She stressed that it is people who give meaning to places and the city and expressed a desire to harness these urban forces into a movement in order to break trends through which cities are losing their economic base as families flee to the suburbs. She observed that improving inner urban areas is difficult and that the challenge is to remove the appeal of the periphery and heighten the appeal of the centre. She cited examples of the perceptions of the principal cities in the Netherlands – that Amsterdam is expensive and full and that Rotterdam is empty and cheap – and stressed that this devaluation of the image of Rotterdam can indicate opportunities for the city to create a new identity in the Netherlands/EU. In general, she asserted that the city is too valuable to leave to the market and stressed the need for the city to dare to experiment. She proposed a guided long-term process for the incremental development of the city, with public space as the primary driver and posed a challenge for design to create inspiring examples and experimental projects that demonstrate possibilities. She also noted that this will require public and private collaboration and that to transform urban areas the developer must work with those who are already there and committed to the place. She cited the example of the Amsterdam New West development where the city was forced to intervene in an urban crisis. The planners needed an investor and PSD proposed a feasible, low-risk approach that combined a commitment to public and experimental project phases, each with an archetypal client: the pioneer, the settler and the follower. She concluded her presentation with the assertion that we need re-city instead of new cities through she warned that this process could be thought of as analogous to a visit to the dentist: possibly painful but worthwhile in the long-term. Following her presentation, Henk Ovink noted that the involvement of her company in quite small-scale aspects of modest projects in an innovation for the role the developer in the re-city process.

Lars-Christian Uhlig

Lars-Christian Uhlig of the Unit Baukultur at the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development in Bonn began his presentation with a reference to a 2001 exhibition of models for development projects in German cities and observed that this represented a snapshot of a time when a real wish for urban change was emerging. He asserted that while cities are built from wishes and wishes are what allow cities to grow and change, they are only part of the story – competing wishes must negotiate and this requires an open, inclusive process. He stressed that plans need to be flexible and open to change in the context of multiple time frames – the city is never a finished product but the result of ongoing processes. He referred to the IBA as a test bed for architectural and urban development ideas, one that is closely associated with the German context. He noted that IBAs can be multi-focus and set a variety of new standards and that the IBA has evolved from a simple exhibition to a complex, reflective process-based model for development. He described the important German concept of baukultur, an inclusive term for the collaborative processes and approaches related to the built environment that includes planning, architecture and public discourse. He asserted that this concept is useful because it is all about quality and can potentially assist in efforts to reconfigure planning and development. Following his presentation, Henk Ovink noted that while the IBA model began as the exception it is now more common and is considered a development model with potential for much wider application.

Floris Alkemade
Floris Alkemade, founder of Floris Alkemade Architecture began his presentation with the observation that the subject of re-city and its ambitions addresses primarily the EU condition. He then posed a number of questions. What do we produce as cities? What level of control do we have? Do we overestimate our control and is the essence of the city perhaps what is uncontrolled? He then considered re-city as a process of transformation and posed further, more specific questions. What does re-city suggest – something lost or something regained? Does re-city represent a progression or is it backward-looking? Is it even possible? He then questioned the concept of the city itself. What do we mean by city? What about the dominant periphery, when it is the core inner-city receives all the attention? He then outlined some potential responses to these questions. He first cautioned that we shouldn’t ignore or disown the periphery and define it as something less than city but rather should work to emancipate it. Second, he asserted that this effort requires the development of new typologies that can co-exist with the historic city and he cited the example of the OMA underground project for Les Halles – this inner city project addressed the issue of the historic EU city core which is paralysed and static and not representative of the present time. And third, he advocated for urban acupuncture and proposed that strategic projects can be more effective than efforts to remake whole areas. He concluded his presentation with the observation that often the primary challenge is to develop strategies for changing cities even if change is not welcome.


There were eight primary threads to the discussions that followed the podium presentations:

  1. it was agreed that all city making in the EU context involves re-city and that this demands an extensive and specific process of information gathering and analysis
  2. regarding tools and instruments it was agreed that these could play an extremely useful role in the critical early stages in which the designer must learn about the context: the physical context but more importantly how people live and how these ways of life are manifested in or accommodated by the built environment
  3. regarding communication and participation it was agreed that these are critical to city making, that new technologies have the potential to facilitate them more efficiently and that they must be incorporated both as early as possible and throughout the evolution and implementation of responsive, flexible city making strategies
  4. it was agreed that the courage to experiment was required if new solutions to the issues facing city making are to evolve and it was further agreed that this laboratory atmosphere requires both political support and a clear regulatory framework
  5. regarding the education of the client it was agreed that experimentation can be facilitated by an initial stage in which the initiating client question and brief are intensively discussed and challenged and potentially modified to address both specific and wider issues
  6. there was much discussion of the IBA model in the context of the need for responsive, experimental city making strategies and while it was agreed that this model can, with courageous political support and clear regulatory parameters, be successful, there was disagreement as to whether the IBA model is too exceptional to transform prevailing city making norms
  7. there was much discussion of ‘free zone’ planning and it was agreed that while not a solution to all issues facing city making this model can help create diversity and a strong sense of identity if facilitated by clear rules and regulations and a forum for communication among all stakeholders
  8. regarding the urban periphery it was agreed that this context reflects a disconnect between what the public wants and what is valued by built environment professionals and that it poses a significant and urgent challenge with which city making must engage through consultation, research and analysis and real-world experimentation


Henk Ovink began the discussion with a question for Floris Alkemade: how is urban design in the EU context different from redevelopment in other locations? In response, Floris Alkmede asserted that a different approach is definitely required in the EU and explained that change in the historical cores of EU cities is mostly conventional and that even when change is desired it is also simultaneously resisted. When Henk Ovink asked what the implications of this are, he responded that sometimes resistance to change is understandable and that the most powerful tool the architect or planner has is good communication with stakeholders.

Henk Ovink then noted that there is always fear in the context of change, even if the city is changing all the time through both small and long-term projects, and asked Petra Rutten for suggestions about how to deal with this fear. She suggested that one needs to think both small- and large-scale and both short- and long-term and that the plan for an area needs to be interactive and flexible. She also cited the importance of phasing, with the caveat that a plan must be successful at each stage of its implementation. She was adamant that the plan needs to be open to evolution according to changing conditions over time. Henk Ovink asked if this model sounds close to an IBA. Lars-Christian Uhlig agreed and advocated for a combination of strategic thinking and design. He contrasted Stuttgart21 with a more incremental and open development process undertaken in Ulm and suggested that Stuttgart21 skipped the strategy phase and jumped too quickly into design. He characterised the contemporary IBA model as more process-driven than focused on exhibition or realisations as it was in the past.

Henk Ovink then asked Klaus Overmeyer to elaborate on how instruments can assist the re-city process. Klaus Overmeyer stated that the problem with design today is an absence of context and expressed the opinion that this is where analytical and conceptual tools such as those developed by SUC can help. He suggested that if the city is to be adapted to suit changing ways of life, information and analysis are required. But Henk Ovink requested further argument to convince him of the value of such tools. Floris Alkemade asserted that knowledge of physical and social context are critical and expressed an affinity with the van Eesteren notion of design as an empirical science. He expressed scepticism regarding the politically-correct prioritisation of fuzzy process over rigorous analysis. He cited the example of Steve Jobs who rejected responsive market research in favour of trying to anticipate what people did not yet know they wanted. He proposed that the IBA model might provide an avenue towards escaping conventional solutions through bypassing the client-centric model. However Klaus Overmeyer cautioned against a return to the archaic assumption that the architect knows everything and referred to the fact that acupuncture requires not just facility with specific interventions but also comprehensive knowledge of the whole body. Floris Alkemade expressed an affinity for the weather map concept for determining sites for intervention and Klaus Overmeyer expressed an affinity for the fact that Floris Alkemade began with programme rather than form. He agreed strongly with this idea that programme should be the most significant generator of city making.

Henk Ovink picked up on the idea that the designer shouldn’t merely produce solutions to popular needs and desires. Floris Alkemade asserted that this requires the courage to experiment, that design professionals and politicians need to get beyond the fear that mistakes can ruin the cities we value, and expressed his hope that the current economic crisis can generate calls for new ideas. Henk Ovink asked how this bravery can be encouraged. Floris Alkemade suggested that the idea that failure can be instructive must be promoted and that courage was especially required among developers. Petra Rutten suggested that the courageous developer can be assisted through the removal of regulations that often serve to take city-making away from what people actually want. She further asserted that professions need to work together more closely and that smaller, more flexible and interactive projects that incorporate consultation from their inception can facilitate courage and experimentation. Klaus Overmeyer was critical of the tendency of the property market to focus only on maximising profit and, as a result, to attempt to control every aspect of the process. He characterised these tendencies as significant barriers to courage.

Henk Ovink then asked why these problems – if they are as minor and circumscribed as described – are not being overcome. Petra Rutten expressed hope that the current development freeze in Amsterdam might facilitate a change of track and called for all involved in city making to get out of their respective comfort zones. Floris Alkemade suggested that perhaps the most significant shift might be to undergo an intensive process of client education at the beginning of the process in order to analyse and challenge the instigating question or brief of any project. He characterised the current general situation in city making as market-led with an absence of vision, but cited two instances of resistance to this trend: an initiative by Ken Livingstone in London that would require developers to provide ten examples of how any proposed project will improve the city, and the forward-thinking and interventionist French government’s leadership of the Paris Nord Est project.

Henk Ovink then asked if, given these examples, a new type of political leadership is required if city making is to be improved and he speculated that this might involve both leadership and the relinquishing of control. Floris Alkemade suggested that perhaps the best thing that politics could do to encourage freedom would be to impose clear rules and conditions on development. Henk Ovink then asked if the IBA model could help in this regard. Lars-Christian Uhlig noted that an IBA must come from government and requires government commitment and that this invariably involves a move out of the political comfort zone. Henk Ovink then asked if the IBA model can really change the normal conditions if it just provides a discrete and temporary opportunity to step outside them. He then went further and wondered if the IBA model could actually serve as an excuse not to change the normal conditions. In response, Lars-Christian Uhlig insisted that the IBA model can bring about permanent change and cited the example of how the model spread from Berlin in the 1980s to the rest of Germany. In addition, he stated that the IBA initiatives in the former East Germany changed both the landscape and the way people feel about the city. He asserted that the intention of the IBA model is precisely this change in normal conditions. Floris Alkemade then acknowledged the power of the examples set by the German IBA model and lamented that it has not been adopted in the Netherlands.


Angel Luis Fernández of the Universidad Europea de Madrid began the wider discussion with a comment regarding the critical lack of leadership in politics. He cited this as a barrier to change and also lamented the lack of identification between people and the places they live, which we blamed on the dislocation of urbanisation. He called for the public to demand change in city making and cited a new instrument for re-making city in Madrid – one that employs strategic projects rather than a masterplan – as a positive example of the type of change required. But as a factor preventing the development of a comprehensive vision, he blamed the complexity of the contemporary city for fragmenting city-making processes.

Afaina de Jong of AFARAI Urban Design Agency based in Amsterdam asserted that people do demand change, but the lack of a meaningful connection to politics makes implementation difficult. She found it interesting that Steve Jobs came up in the discussion: while those who make city are dependent on their clients, Steve Jobs wasn’t subject to the same constraints as an independent entrepreneur. She asserted that architect should think more carefully about users, should consider context more and should more thoroughly investigate connections between ways of life and the built environment.

Henk Ovink then noted that while Steve Jobs may have escaped the client question, Afaina de Jong suggested that knowledge of context can educate the designer to change the client question. She agreed that deep knowledge of context can help the designer to gain some power in the city making process. Floris Alkemade asserted that an intelligent client is an absolute necessity. Henk Ovink then asked if the architect is totally dependent on the client and Floris Alkemade responded that this is usually the case, but that the architect needs to sound out the ambition level of the client and develop the client question and the project brief through discussion.

Henk Ovink then asked if this can be applied more widely: what about when there’s not just one client but a wider city-making process? Floris Alkemade asserted that this is difficult and that when the architect doesn’t know the end users he or she is often forced to take a cautious, middle-of-the-road approach. Petra Rutten suggested that as a developer her role is different, more like a facilitator between the architect and an unknown end user. Klaus Overmeyer stated that the crux of Henk Ovink’s question concerns authorship. He explained that the architect once thought that he or she was the only author of a project but now almost everyone recognises the need to open architecture up to a wider audience and that this involves users as co-authors or co-producers in the city making process.

Henk Ovink then asked if the old way is exemplified by Stuttgart21 and the challenge is to initiate new, more responsive and inclusive processes, what is stopping this transformation? Floris Alkemade speculated that one reason is that experimentation opens up the potential for failure. He suggested that it is difficult to convey to the public and to politicians that experimentation is not always a wild gamble but can also be an educated guess worthy of support. He suggested that sometimes civic authorities need to create artificial conditions for more freedom but that maybe the IBA model is too special, too much of an exception to the norm. He also noted that unfortunately there is most often some way or excuse for politics to say no to experiments. Henk Ovink then suggested that it’s a fundamental problem of the system that the ‘no’ can come at the end of the process and that this indicates a need to turn the system around, to redefine the rules and regulations. Floris Alkemade proposed that there should be zones set aside in which stopping experimental projects late in the day for political reasons is not an option. Klaus Overmeyer asserted that it is critical for situations and places in which constructive failure can happen.

Henk Ovink then stated that in the end this type of exceptional situation doesn’t fundamentally change the institutions and that perhaps this is the risk of such an approach. He suggested that the existing paradigm poses problems but that there is hope. The critical thing, he asserted, is to make a start.


Henk Ovink began the round table discussion with the assertion that it is critical to translate urgency into concrete plans. He asked what the next step should be and how we should to education and made reference to the Design and Politics Chair at the TU Delft. Roland Püttmann-Holgado of the Tempelhofer Freiheit Project asserted that it is a matter of redefining roles in the process of making city. He suggested that it is also a question of democracy and how to more effectively incorporate public opinion. He also suggested that in order to deal with an increasing pace of change politicians must provide a flexible infrastructure of rules and regulations to facilitate the work of built environment professionals. To do so, planners must inform politics and politics must act as moderator between competing interests who must, in the end work, together in a culture of collaboration. And with regard to design professions, he suggested that the speed of their work must accelerate as in other industries and ideally should take place in a safe atmosphere of experimentation shielded from the economic demands of the market and the opinions of the public. Jan Nikolas Schulz of bb22 Urban Projects based in Frankfurt am Main then suggested that a cup of coffee can sometimes help more than an elaborate plan. He cited an example in which a collaborative discussion process was facilitated by the simple provision of a cafe-style meeting place. He also made reference to a statement made at a recent planning conference to the effect that ‘new modes of participation are required if all remnants of public in planning are not going to be lost’.

Henk Ovink agreed that communication is critical, that carefully-chosen language is important and asked if architects are generally able to communicate sufficiently well. Petra Rutten suggested that it is only those architects who can communicate that are going to make a difference. Hans-Juergen Commerell then stated that this is a complex question: that good architects can be bad at communication and bad architects can be good. Floris Alkemade agreed that communication is critical but warned that the context, framework and process for public participation are equally important. Henk Ovink then asked who should set the rules for participation and Floris Alkemade suggested that ideally politics should as the interface between the public and the designer. Hans-Jürgen Commerell expressed his view that this is unlikely to happen in any meaningful way given the short-term horizon for political thinking and insisted that architects and planners need to develop the participation process. But Henk Ovink insisted that politicians must have some role here. Hans-Jürgen Commerell then suggested that perhaps more architects and planners should be encouraged to run for political office. After Henk Ovink asked if there is a need for such a close relationship between design professionals and politics, Afaina de Jong suggested that perhaps the tools for participation are more important. She cited the example of the role that Facebook and other communication facilitating technologies played in the recent revolution in Egypt but clarified that in her view a collaborative space separate from Facebook or other mass media is required for participation in discussions around city making. Floris Alkemade challenged this view with the suggestion that the current impasse in Egypt can be read as a failure to create intelligence out of mass opinion. Afaina de Jong then countered with a specific example in the United States where mass input was curated by politicians and bureaucracy and yielded real results.

This led Henk Ovink to question if current issues facing city making can be solved simply with communication tools or if more fundamental changes to the system are required. Afaina de Jong advocated in favour of self-initiating processes and Klaus Overmeyer agreed. He stated that in the age of post-heroic design more bottom-up processes are required – he cited the example of the SUC Hafen City project – but tempered this with the suggestion that some situations call for strong design solutions. He proposed that processes that generate ideas need to be established and acknowledged that perhaps the most important aspect of the Hafen City project was the recognition by the authorities that their heroic, top-down project also required an alternative type of investigation.

Floris Alkemade then made reference to a masterplan that intended to create physical diversity by encouraging people to build their own houses on small plots according to a minimum of rules but which was derailed when a prefabricated building company stepped in and offered affordable, largely-identical homes. In response, Henk Ovink suggested that perhaps an extended process is required with more guidance to prevent such outcomes. Floris Alkemade pointed out that perhaps there is sometimes more freedom within the restrictions of a terraced situation than in the detached ‘free zone’ model he described. He also suggested that there can be a problem when all neighbours have the same freedoms and noted that end users can be more conservative than design professionals. It was suggested that that the project referred to also represents an experiment for the clients involved and that perhaps frameworks that encourage client bravery are required. Henk Ovink explained that ‘free zone’ planning was attempted in the Netherlands but only in the open landscape and suggested that its application in the city poses more problems. Has asked how planning should deal with the question of ‘free zone’ planning vs. the application of rules. It was suggested that the Japanese urban landscape – a kind of ‘free zone’ – works due to an open mentality and a spirit of generosity towards one’s neighbours. Henk Ovink then asked Petra Rutten what the implications of ‘free zones’ are for developers. She explained that her company has experimented with ‘free zones’ in one form or another in every project over the past ten years and called them a necessary ingredient of successful area development. She expressed the opinion that they bring diversity and a sense of identity development projects but that they need to be located carefully to work properly. She summarised her company’s ethos with the statement that you can’t plan the un-plannable, that sometimes you just need to let go. Henk Ovink pressed her to be clear about when to let go and she responded that this type of freedom should be used only as one ingredient among many.

Henk Ovink then asked if the IBA model could be thought of as a kind of ‘free zone’. Lars-Christian Uhlig responded with the observation that ‘free zones’ are everywhere in Germany and need to be limited. He explained that an IBA bends the rules but that the model requires boundaries and that there must be limits to freedom in some areas in order to maintain local character and identity. He noted that it takes a lot of work to manage freedom against rules and regulations and that this equation depends on the context and must be specific to the place. In response to a question from Henk Ovink regarding the source of this freedom, Lars-Christian Uhlig stated that it can only come from politicians. Stefan Rettich of Karo Architects based in Leipzig then suggested that there are specific regulations but also building codes and masterplan parameters – the question is who sets the rules. He asked if the development of the rules be outsourced, if someone could be appointed to manage the rules and proposed that perhaps setting the rules doesn’t need to be a political, and therefore politicised, project. In response, Lars-Christian Uhlig cited a project in which the formulation of the rules was outsourced to a selected team of professionals and academics.

The discussion then turned to address the subject of rules and regulations in the context of informal urban settlement. Henk Ovink noted that there are unwritten agreements and procedures that guide informal development and related how he once heard that to someone from Mumbai, Sao Paulo looks like a Vinex [market-led development areas in the Netherlands market areas set up with a set of governing rules and regulations]. Stephan Schwarz of ISSSresearch [Independent Structure for Sustainable Space Research] then cited the example of how South American favelas are governed by complex rules and suggested that perhaps ‘free zone’ planning requires a ‘communication zone’:  a forum for end-user communication and education with a coffee machine and designers open to their new role as facilitator and mediator. He noted that in the favela this forum is accommodated by the space of the street.

Floris Alkemade then expressed the opinions that in the end city making is about what people want, that the contemporary urban condition is not what people want and that this is why the periphery is expanding. He asserted that everyone wants to live in the picturesque historic centre of Amsterdam but no one can afford it and wondered why we can’t create new, affordable urban areas as popular as these old inner city areas. Petra Rutten asserted that the reason is that this can’t be created overnight, that areas need to grow, that communities need time to develop. Afaina de Jong then cited the example of how the former red light district in Amsterdam was redeveloped first through a top-down approach and then through a more successful subsidised bottom-up approach that attracted young professionals and entrepreneurs. However this raised a question in the minds of many around the table as to whether these were pioneers or gentrifiers. Stephan Schwarz suggested that the authorities can impose rules to moderate the effects of gentrification and the potential loss of the urban condition.

At this point Henk Ovink expressed the opinion that the discussion was addressing issues – gentrification, ‘free zone’ planning, etc. – arising out of a condition of luxury rather than revealing real, urgent problems. He insisted that there are real, urgently problematic disconnects in how cities are made. Stephan Schwarz suggested that the big urban challenge is the periphery and how to engage with it. Floris Alkemade suggested that the root of this problem might be that the design profession doesn’t really know what people want and that this excludes them from meaningful engagement with the periphery which is after all an expression of popular desires. Petra Rutten asserted that the periphery is made by those who can afford freedom but also need to think in more general terms about the city as a whole. Henk Ovink summarised this as a failure of communication on all sides. He suggested that rules and regulations constitute one, possibly not very successful, form of communication and ‘free zones’ possibly another form of communication rather than a comprehensive answer to all the issues associated with contemporary city making. He called for the educational world to engage with the real world through practice and research and made reference to the necessity for experimentation with the assertion that it is through bending the rules that we learn about the rules.

He then thanked the participants for their input and brought the discussion to a close.

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