Today I tried to explain my first year BA students what theory is, what the place of planning discipline is within social theory, and why theory is important for planning practitioners. Tough job to simplify all these in 90 minutes, considering most of the students hear all these for the first time. It’s a lot to take in ! But of course, they will realise it soon that there are recurring themes and ideas, which will fall into place through time. My approach was to illustrate the link between theory and practice by focusing on a real life case, Het Hem, a brownfield regeneration project located in Hembrugterrein in Zaandam. I used what Fainstein & DeFillipis (2016)* said in the text book in reference to theory as a starting point: “Planning must be predictive, and predicting the future impacts of planning interventions requires theoretical understanding of the processes that shape the making of spaces and places. Thus, planners need theory and, while they may be relying on theory that is internalized, implicit and unexamined, it is present nonetheless” (Fainstein & DeFillipis, 2016: p.3). I concentrated on transferring the idea of how understanding of the processes that shape the making of urban spaces may help the practice of planning.
Het Hem is a regeneration project initiated by a private sector investor (Amerbough) targeting to accommodate creative industries (ateliers, workshops, etc), a hotel, a large restaurant and cafes, roof terrace, film theater and rental offices, as well as short stay apartments. It was covered by Het Parool, Amsterdam’s really cool newspaper this week and I thought using it as an illustrative case may help them to built a bridge between theory and practice.
My idea to explain the role of theory in predicting the future was to show them step by step how we can establish some ‘facts’ to predict the future. Earlier in the lecture I shared a small video where the role of ‘facts’ in making of theories was explained in the case of exact sciences. I did explain them, however, that our facts in social sciences may not be the same kind of ‘facts’ as in exact sciences due to the context-dependent nature of our interpretations in social sciences. Here, by using Het Hem as an illustrative case my aim was to show students what a practitioner, who may sit in a position to decide on the future of Hembrugterrein, has to keep in mind in his/her decision process. A planner, I simplified, should analyse or understand the past and the present conditions that brought the context in which a project as Het Hem is created while deciding on the future of this area. I’ve talked about ‘public interest’ as one of the focus points that theories in planning cover in my previous class and here, in the case of Het Hem, it is an important focal point to keep in mind as a general, principle target. I started with a question: How do we understand the processes that shape urban space ? I explained that understanding the processes that shape the urban space requires theoretical understandings as an important step in predicting it’s future.
I displayed my analysis with 3 elements: historical context, current capital accumulation processes in the city that supports brownfield regeneration, and new economic functions in the city. In other words, by understanding the characteristics of the historical context in which this particular urban space emerged as a 19th century ammunition factory; then linking these characteristics to the today’s tendency of property-driven regeneration projects where municipalities hope to realize socio-spatial transformations through private sector involvement; and then, finally, linking these to the new (popular) urban functions like ‘creative industries’, ‘food and beverages’, ‘temporary/shared office spaces’, or short-stay apartments, would help a planner in his/her decision on what to do with this urban space. The input for the planner’s decision should come from knowing how the past conditions (industrial history of the factory) resulted in the situation of today, how the present (derelict brownfield zone waiting for a new investment) conditions shape the capital accummulation processes, and how the future (new urban functions) is shaped by the private sector’s involvement, when deciding on how to deal with this project. Although I will explore in later classes in detail, I also introduced the importance of property market dynamics in contemporary planning practice today due to the market dependency of municipalities. By doing that I was hoping to make them see that a practitioner has to juggle with decisions like this to balance greater public interest and market dependency as private sector investments play a great role in urban development today.
“Planning must be predictive, and predicting the future impacts of planning interventions requires theoretical understanding of the processes that shape the making of spaces and places” (Fainstein and DeFillipis, 2016)… In the case of Het Hem project I illustrated how the industrial history has put this place on the map by manufacturing capital accumulated in this very space, and then how it became derelict because the industrial functions were not needed anymore, and hence the capital could accumulate elsewhere. However, then, how this urban space became one of the many opportunity zones in the city to accommodate new investments and picked up by an investor. The decision that (the imaginary) the planner has to take at this point is about how to deal with this decision. Is the planner going to leave the decisions on the new functions entirely to the investor’s wishes, or is s/he going to enforce his/her agenda for safeguarding wider public interest in this process? An urban planner should know that urban functions, such as creative industries, like previously popular functions such as manufacturing, may not be the target investment for new generation capital accumulation processes in the future. There will always be more popular investment channels in this growth oriented, market dependent world. It means that, some principle decisions have to be taken, considering long term functions for such brownfield areas, especially considering the needs of urban residents. I asked students what they thought the most important problem of Amsterdam is. “Housing…affordable housing” they said. They are first year BA students. They are the future of planning. They will use their knowledge, skills and principles to bring substance back to planning again, I believe…