Student blog 2: Private actors for public space: Doomed to fail? by Kristina Habdank and Loreto Rocco Silva (November 2017, UvA, Amsterdam)
When promenading around Gustav Malerplein in Zuidas, Amsterdam’s most prominent business district, passers-by are introduced to the view this image (Left). What are they going to make out of it? Well, most likely, the impression of a mainstream restaurant and shop, maybe also that of a working place. Peering through the glass facades, one immediately recognizes a large dining area on the right section of the ground floor, while more to the left, people can be spotted in front of their laptops, lounging in individual chairs or populating one of the few tables. One billboard sign just before the entrance points to the existence of a retail shop, while another one just around the corner suggests enjoying cocktails on an adjacent rooftop terrace.
It may hence come to a surprise that “Circl”, built entirely according to sustainable and circular economy (CE) principles in 2015, does not only serve corporate or commercial purposes. In fact, it is actually also labelled a “public space” by the municipality and its creators and owners, the ABN Amro bank. However, there come some pitfalls with the blurring of lines between public and private and one may ask whether the tag “public” is already earned just by (technically) allowing free access, spending time inside without having any specific purpose, and hosting some admission-free events that engage with matters of citizenship at least in the wider sense?
Following Jane Jacobs (1961), public spaces stimulate vibrancy and social interaction, contributing to the construction of a cohesive neighbourhood. These can be sidewalks and squares, but also schools or other places that enable ‘repeated encounters’. A certain balance between private and public spaces is necessary in Jacobs’ opinion, but they need to be clearly demarcated as either to prevent misuse. In this light, she also advocates the market and government to be separate sectors as they are based on fundamentally different value orientations. Blending them will lead to tensions and moral confusion, creating ‘a monstrous moral hybrid’ (1992). Now, given the fact that the Circl building is private property, but at the same time also meant to serve public functions, we may ask: does it deserve Jacobs’ label of questionable reputation?
For any fair criticism, attention must firstly be paid to wider societal developments – specifically the broader economic changes that have made clear distinctions between public and private more and more difficult. One may perceive Circl as exemplary for the evolutionary process of a neoliberalising state in which there is a tendency towards more market-oriented urban development and a split away from the hierarchical government steering for the provision of public services. To increase the international competitiveness and ensure long-term investment, municipalities call for new planning policies that facilitate entrepreneurial activity through public-private partnerships (Van Rooy, 2011).
Secondly, one also has to place the case within the specific local context. While there were indeed somewhat pure “corporate” interests of ABN Amro to tackle the lack of meeting rooms and simultaneously showcase their expertise in the trending CE sector, the municipality was also just in bare need for more public spaces in the Zuidas district. Due to the financial crisis in 2008, the former development plan of a prestigious business area was modified towards a more mixed-use approach, incorporating additional residential buildings as the demand for housing continued to be high in the popular city of Amsterdam. Hence, public spaces had to be subsequently integrated in an area that was and still is highly dominated by commercial interests – a situation which would have been classified as quite unfavourable in Jacobian eyes.
Does the private provision of public space inevitably create a “monstrous moral hybrid?”
Looping back to the overarching cornerstones of neoliberalism, we are perceiving a situation in which general guidelines for spatial development through land-use regulations are still set by the government to ensure long-term projections and the protection of public values, but the private sector has adopted a quite powerful position in the establishment of public policy rules and regulations. Current spatial developments as such constitute a combination of private and public interests and although the public-private role distribution is contractually agreed, its implementation in practice often moves along blurred lines of rights and responsibilities (Bergevoet, 2013). Speaking with Foucault (1982), who stated that institutional power structures are projected into the built environment, it is worth addressing how power relations between the private and public sector interest manifest within the creation of public spaces. If the municipality’s activity is reduced to stimulating and facilitating the provision of a public function in a privately-owned building, does this mean that its power, after setting the framework conditions, has ultimately been played out?
Well – on the upside, one may argue that the provision of public functions by private companies can make up for lacking resources on part of public authorities.
On the downside, firstly, Circl may not be used as public space simply because it is barely recognizable as such. Commercial activities the dominant impression for passers-by and even Google Search tags it as “restaurant”. Similarly, public access to the rooftop garden is somewhat obstructed by the billboard sign indicating only a “rooftop bar”.
Secondly, the high-class design of the building and the dominance of the CE topic may be intimidating to lower socio-economic or less educated fractions of the public. Although the Circl website (The Making of Circl, 2017) also states education al purposes, it remains questionably why citizens should feel encouraged to enter the building in the first place. Moreover, even if they do so, the perceived dominance of economic interests will hardly be contested by the fact that the tables and chairs one can make free use of also serve as showroom models to be immediately purchased – and that for no less that 900 €. In this light, one cannot help but doubt whether Circl is apt for valuably contributing to the proclaimed municipal aim of making the benefits of the Zuidas area available to a broad and diverse target group.
It is therefore highly problematic when, having facilitated the provision of public spaces by private actors, public authorities may lean back and claim to already have fulfilled their duties in creating liveable places – while in fact they have not. Apart from issues of lacking inclusivity due to social-economic and educational barriers, regulations for its use remain in the hands of the respective owner. That entails the power to restrict certain behaviour, thereby creating an atmosphere of uncertainty, or simply to close it down to the public at some point.
Hence, Circl can at best be labelled a (potentially temporary) semi- public space – leaving the municipality with still owing the creation of more “true” public spaces for the citizens of Zuidas.
Bergevoet, T. (2013). De flexibele stad. Oplossingen voor leegstand en krimp. NAI.
Foucault, M. (1982). The subject and power. Critical inquiry, 8 (4), 777-795.
Jacobs, J. (1992). Systems of survival. New York: Vintage books. Jacobs, J. (1961). Introduction. In The Death and Life of Great
American Cities, 1-25. New York: Random House.
Van Rooy, P. (2011). Uitnodigingsplanologie als sociaal-cultureel
perspectief. Building business, 13 (10), 1-5.
The Making of Circl. Het verhaal van een circulair paviljoen aan de Zuidas. (2017, September). Retrieved from https://circl.nl/themakingof/.
Student blog 1: Spaces in-between: A private street for the public in the Zuidas district by Miriam Bonke and Mariam Hussain (November 2017, UvA, Amsterdam)
Urban design in Zuidas
While exploring the rapidly growing neighbourhood of Zuidas in Amsterdam, there are many unique urban design features that can be found. Taking a walk down Gustav Maherlaan towards Vrije Universiteit, will lead you to a quiet street right before Buitenvelderselaan. Why is this street so unique? Because it is a mix of both private and public ownership, as observed by personal anecdotes from some of the new businesses that can be found. Using the map below, the red color is be used to denote the exact location of this private-public area, in the greater Zuidas district. Although this street does not have a legal name, it still has the look and feel of any other street in the area.
The street represents a “blurred boundary” between the government authority and private actors as demonstrated by the principals of mixed ownership and operational responsibilities (Tasan-Kok, 2012: 11). The Hello Zuidas partnership that is leading the development of the area is formal Public Private Partnership (PPP), but this street itself is not. Instead, what the street offers is place that is composed of shared responsibilities between the government and the private sector. The street raises questions about the quality of the neighborhood for living, and working. It could be assumed ambiguous character of thethat the disadvantage of this type of live-work combination is, that the boundary between the private lifeand the public life fades.To study how this ambiguous street impacts businesses and residents in the area, a short ethnographic study was conducted on November 2, 2017 by graduate students at the Universiteit van Amsterdam.These students surveyed available employees on the area, resulting in the following hypothesis:‘the public character of this private property lowers the responsibility and involvement of residents with the street in terms of maintenance and involvement‘
The resulting public character of this private street has been formed by neoliberal climate of the largerPPP in place (Tasan-Kok, 2012 p. 13). The following factors determine the current public character of the street. First, several landlords are involved in De Zuidas, due to top-down approach in which many private partners are involved. This street bridges two tower blocks, one which is residential, and one which is office. Both tower blocks are owned by different landlords, which rearrange residential meetings once every season (Interview Session). The ground floor businesses have only been operating in the area between one to two years, with construction still ongoing on the surrounding streets.
Increasing influence of neoliberalism
According Campbell & Tait (2013), the neoliberal climate which appears after the second world war,disparages the effectiveness of public intervention and celebrates the efficiency and even morality of
markets. In terms of De Zuidas, there are many signs of PPP on the residential level. In the climate of neoliberalism, growth is desired (Campbell., & Tait., 2013 p. 6) which is directly linked to economic successes for private actors. The rapid growth of this street currently has a negative impact because parts of the street are still under development. Hairdresser Rob Peetoom states that they are disadvantaged for being bothered by the construction traffic and the view of the construction side (Interview Session).This could change over time as more residents settle in the area
The most important point of the argument is the lack of connectedness between the residents. For example, a private organization, ‘James’, was asked to create more connectivity between the residents of the housing tower block (Interview Session, “Ons verhaal: 900 Mahler + James”, 2017). This assumes that neighbors do not know each other, which correlates with the stories of the hairdressers and the owner of the Japanese restaurant; there is minimal interaction between residents on the street between neighbors. Furthermore, the street must be maintained by the operating businesses and residents, except from the garbage and the weeds. It was interesting to note that two out of the three people that were interviewed were not aware about the restriction of self-maintenance (Interview Session).
What’s next for Zuidas
Derived from the conversations with these business owners, the street has a variety of characteristics that can be used to form the narrative of the larger development process in Zuidas. According to the master plan vision of Zuidas, public space is marked as a key pillar along with mobility, community and sustainability (Hello Zuidas, 2016). The interviews of business owners reveal that at first appearance, it may seem to be a regular street, but instead it is a bit more awkwardly assembled as a result of larger development-driven forces. As the development authority further completes master vision projects in this area, other similar spaces may emerge, occurring at a greater scale. The importance of evaluating PPPs at the scale of this street may seem trivial, however; this neoliberal climate can ultimately have much larger consequences such as a lack of option of an “alternative urban future”(Roy, 2015: 62). With an ongoing top-down planning approach, “blurred boundari[es]” such as this street could become more common, if more extensive consideration of public space users is not integrated. The challenge for change will be to counter the inertia of existing and future planned private-led development to ensure space for residents and other users.
Campbell, H., Tait, M., Watkins, C. (2014) Is There Space for Better Planning in a Neoliberal World? Implications for Planning Practice and Theory, Journal of Planning Education and Research, 34(1) 45-59.
Ons verhaal: 900 Mahler + James. (2017). Verway Vastgoed. Retrieved 4 November 2017, from https://900mahler.plusjames.nl/254/ons-verhaal.html
Public Space | Hello Zuidas. (2016). Hellozuidas.com. Retrieved 4 November 2017, from http://www.hellozuidas.com/public-space
Roy, P. (2015) Collaborative planning – A neoliberal strategy? A study of the Atlanta BeltLine, Cities, 43: 59– 68.
Tasan-Kok, T. (2012) Introduction: Contradictions of neoliberal planning. In: Tasan-Kok and Baeten (eds.), Contradictions of Neoliberal Planning: Cities, Policies, Politics. Springer: Dordrecht, pp. 1-19.
(2017). Google Maps. Retrieved 4 November 2017, from
During my last class I received written questions from my students as I wanted to know whether there are certain things that they did not grasp or they were simply curious about. I answered some of these questions on the spot and some I took home with me to provide written responses. They turned out to be fun to deal with. One of the students asked me to what extend is planning still important in The Netherlands. He/she was specifically was curious about the importance of planning in areas outside Amsterdam (the rest of the country).
As I indicated in the class on Thursday also, planning has always been, still is and will be important for the Netherlands. The Netherlands known to be the planners’ paradise. You can see several publications to understand why Netherlands is known to be ‘planners’ paradise’ but the creator of the term, or at least who gave fame to the term, is Emeritus Professor Andreas Faludi, who is a prominent academic figure in the planning world, who also worked at UvA (1977-1998) and retired from TUDelft a few years ago. He made Dutch urban planning internationally known, with statements like ‘The Dutch love rule and order’. I think what he said about Dutch planning 20 something years ago, explains why the Netherlands is planners’ paradise. He said “The Dutch have indeed a knack for carrying out their plans, giving shape to their environment, so much so that the country seems a planners’ paradise. The strength of Dutch planning is that planners and the public at large have been socialised into believing in certain ideas, like Randstad and Green Heart”. You can read more about it in his article in Urban Studies titled “Coalition Building and Planning for Dutch Growth Management: The Role of the Randstad Concept”. Willem Korthals Altes and myself questioned whether the notion of paradise still exists by questioning young practitioners and published our reflections recently. What young practitioners told us during this research project that, although they feel some battles are lost in planning due to economic crises, they still think that they were, in their own modest way, contributing to a better world (Korthals Altes & Tasan-Kok, 2017). They said, and I quote “…we can still think of young practitioners in the Netherlands as being among the lucky few who are able to make a difference to society by using their special skills set and creativity to contribute to the process of societal consensus-building” (p. 241).
In relation to the question above, my view is that Dutch planning has more missions than just spatial organisation, which makes it important for the country. One of these missions is about protecting the land against water. As you know the geographical positioning of the Netherlands makes it very vulnerable and sensitive to disasters like floods and especially to the climate change, and there are special organisations like the Delta Commission to protect the country. If you look into the website of the Delta Commission you can see the issues this commission is dealing with, one of which is ‘spatial planning’. The link between environment and urban space is very important for planning, and in The Netherlands it is the most important as flood disasters may destroy not only the most productive land of the country for agriculture, but also parts of the country including the Randstad area, which is the economic heart of the country, may be under water in the coming centuries. Therefore, Dutch planners have to estimate the future very well. Dutch planners not only work hard on finding ways to estimate the future of the country and prepare different scenarios to make sure that they prevent disasters in cities, but also think of scenarios where it is unavoidable that the floods may influence the daily life through new utopias like living in water (like the concept of floating cities, planning for floating city, etc). Planners in this field work together with experts from the fields of water management and engineering of course, but their views and visions are very important as planners are in the position to have an overall view, to link the efforts and to coordinate them. A few years back Dominic Stead and I conducted a research project in the area of Rotterdam and published in this field to discuss how these efforts are coordinated and governed in relation to climate change within the framework of urban resilience.Talking about the link between theory and practice, a topic I continuously underline in my teaching, the theory of resilience which has its roots in natural sciences and engineering, has become an interesting field for planners in relation to climate change although some criticisim emerged in recent years rightly questioning the idea of resilience as a new urban paradigm. In our study Dominic Stead and I summarised the risks and show how the efforts in relation to climate change were coordinated in the area of Rotterdam. As we also underlined in this study “spatial planning has the potential to combine adaptation and mitigation measures and to ensure that these measures are complementary, and this is where attention needs to be focused in spatial planning in the future“.
Planning is important in Amsterdam because it is a city with very high land prices and most attractive for property investment. Therefore, as we will discuss in the class this week, planners face more pressure from the market mechanisms. However, this is only one aspect of planning. Environmental challenges and land management is a very important characteristics of Dutch land-use planning due to the vulnerability to flood disasters and climate change, and therefore for the rest of the country planning has a very important role as well. Planning institutions and planners are those who can have an overview on different efforts and link them through comprehensive scenarios. I think this is a large part of the reason why Faludi said ‘Dutch love rule and order’. Planners in this country need to be part of creating ‘certainty’ for the future. And to create certainty requires rules and order, which are very important aspects of planning regulation.
One of the first ‘fun’ books I’ve read during my BA education was a book published in 1516, Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’, which was suggested by my urban economics professor as an extra reading to understand the idea of property rights and principles of ideal social order in cities. As a first response, I thought that it had nothing to do with urban planning. Later on, same semester, I see the link when analysing ‘communal apartments’ in an assignment to understand how spatial utopias were linked to political ideologies, which were spatialised in cities of socialist Russia through urban planning tools. Utopias of the early 20th century urbanism did not survive long, but they inspired diverse projects and ideas all over the world, and their unknown little histories influenced theories of planning today.
Modernity brought the innovative ideas of architects and designers to the surface, which became to be known as urban utopia’s during the early 20th century. Although they all appear to be quite unique, I have always been sceptical on their designers for disregarding the perspective of people who would live in the areas, houses, cities or neighbourhoods created by them. As I argued elsewhere modernist planning and urban development created a lot of residential space without consulting the people who would live in it. However, one cannot deny that utopias are quite important for cities because they worked as ‘living urban labs’ at the time, which are quite fancy experimental spaces in contemporary urban planning research today. One can even argue that the areas created by the utopians during the early 20th century helped urban planners to understand what does not work. The utopians were usually architects with broader interest in developing neighbourhoods or cities, with strong social principles about how urban space can be organise to provide a better living environment. The first ‘urban planner’ identity emerged out of these urban design-oriented architects. They strongly believed that spatial interventions, designed by an expert, can provide better conditions for urban neighbourhoods. They had ideas for traffic circulation, commuting and public transportation, kind of buildings people should live in, or kind of public spaces people should use. They thought they could create the ‘ideal city’, as Zef Hemel very colorfully illustrated in his lecture of last week at Introduction to Urban Planning. In order to understand the conditions under which the utopias for ideal city are created, one needs to understand the late 19th century urban dynamics a little.
Last week I discussed the importance of theory in planning practice in my Introduction to Urban Planning class, where I illustrated the role of theory in understanding the processes that shape the urban space. I underlined that analysing the history, conditions of capital accumulation, and needs for new economic functions in the city can help planning practitioner to understand the future consequences of spatial interventions. In other words, I displayed that practitioners can predict the future if they have the ability to analyse the processes defined by theoretical arguments (such as how industrial revolution speeded up the capital accumulation processes in cities). As Fainstein and DeFillipis put it in the introductory chapter in their “Readings in Planning Theory” book in reference to Peter Hall (2002) planning emerges as the twentieth-century response to the nineteenth-century industrial city. However, Fainstein and DeFillipis criticise the reading of the history through famous urban utopians’ actions, as they argue that there is a great deal of ‘exclusion’ in this way of historical analysis, just based on the influence of the special designer or the state, which disregard the influence of marginalised and oppressed actors at that period. In other words, they tell us to read the alternative histories, parallel realities and marginalised processes and actors when we try to understand a historical process. Jane Jacobs, as David Evers’s lecture at Introduction to Urban Planning on ‘(Anti)modernity and planning’ illustrated last week, was one of those figures who was inviting planners to hear the voices of the marginalised groups and include the substandardised spaces into plan making processes. In that respect, looking at 20th century utopians such as Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier as analysed by Robert Fishman we can actually follow how theories that are accommodated by planning scholars today found their roots in early utopian thinkers that are connected to the modern times. From Fainstein and DeFillipis’s point of view, history of planning should not only contain the utopians and their work as the reality of urban development is accommodated (perhaps even dominated in some of the cases) by unknown ‘plural and indigenous’ histories. I think of Jane Jacobs as one of those brave thinkers of the era, who was trying to put the attention on these histories. It is fun to imagine how ideal cities would have looked like if her ideas were accommodated at the time.
When we look at ‘modern planning’ today as David Evers presented in his lecture of last week at Introduction to Urban Planning, we can see that the idea that ‘everything should fit perfectly well together (alles moet netjes passen)’, which requires perfect hierarchy of the state, the province and the municipalities, has roots in modernity. The reality is never that perfect and pieces do not always very easily match each other. Contemporary research in urban governance shows that there is a great variety of actors and diversity within them in decision making from private sector to civil society to public sector. This diversity draws a rather hectic, chaotic and substandardised picture, which yet contains a certain structure, regulation and order in it. Planning today takes place within this multi-actor decision making structure that we simplify as ‘governance’, which is quite different than expert-centric approach of the utopians. Yet, I think the 20th century utopias serve us as learning tools in planning schools, though we need to look through the cracks and ‘read’ them in special ways to understand ‘other’ processes in the era to have a comprehensive point of view.
I invited planning practitioner Jimme Zoete to my class of yesterday within the framework of a course that I coordinate (Introduction to Urban Planning) to talk simply about what he does as an urban planner who works in the private sector. Jimme works for a consultancy firm (Witteween+Bos) as a Team Leader of Spatial Planning, and he is specialized in environmental topics mainly, which is also his field of expertise. I interviewed him a few years back within the framework of a book project on young planning practitioners. Jimme was also one of the authors of the Interface collection (Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee) I’ve coordinated for the Journal of Planning Theory & Practice. He is a very enthusiastic planner who loves what he does. I want to share that kind of enthusiasm with first year BA students and also give them enough platform to have encounters with practitioners so that they can ask questions they have in mind directly to them. Couple of days ago students interviewed practitioners from all over Amsterdam as an assignment to have their very first encounter with planners. Jimme’s lecture gave them another opportunity to have a conversation with a practitioner in the classroom environment while he shared his daily agenda as an urban planner.
Jimme’s role in the class was to show students role of a planner in real life. I asked the students to keep the previous reading material in mind while listening him. They’ve read Marcuse’s “The three historic currents of city planning” and also Fainstein and DeFillipis’s introduction to the textbook, where they emphasize the importance of planning theory in practice of planning. Having these in mind, the students could pinpoint several links between what they’ve read and heard in previous classes, and what they heard from him. I asked Jimme before he started his lecture whether theory is important for him in his daily practice. He said that it is very important and also he gave an example from a situation he was in last week where he had a disagreement with a more experienced professional who argued that in order to make companies follow the rules there must be more norms enforced by the planning regulations. Jimme said, knowing the context of planning during the modernist era, he could see that top-down measures are not the solution. He was then referring to the companies who played with norms to get away with polluting activities.
Another link the students could have made with the previous lectures is how Jimme emphasized the importance of ‘context’. In my previous lecture, for instance, I mentioned why ‘context dependent interpretations’ are important for planning theory. Within the framework of explaining why social sciences are different from exact sciences, I told them that because of different contexts, same kind of causes may have different results, and that’s why our ‘facts’ may differ in social sciences. Jimme summarized what he does in his practice under 3 kinds of analysis: (1) Environmental impact studies; (2) Location (area) analysis; (3) Stakeholder analysis. While he illustrated with interactive exercises what analytical tools he used (risk analysis, mapping, zoning plan analysis, stakeholder analysis) he also underlined for each type of analysis the context made a difference. Students could also observe the link between the skills of planners I mentioned in my class and skills Jimme presented in relation to how he makes analysis.
At the end of the class I was discussing with some students who wanted to understand how to locate this lecture in their learning process and in relation to the reading material. I told them that this is just an exercise to make small observations about concepts they have learned and reality. They didn’t have to do too much to locate this lecture in their learning experience other than making these small observations such as how ‘technical skills’ mattered for a young practitioner, how some of these skills (like stakeholder analysis) can be used for social transformation or social justice purposes; how he searched for his field of interest during his education and also find a job in the same field he is enthusiastic about; or why theories in planning mattered for him. They could also observed that enthusiasm in professional choices start at the university level. Jimme is one of the founding members of Ekistics, which is a Groningen based association established by planning graduates of the University of Groningen. G.D.P. (Groninger Society of Planners) Ekistics is a Dutch association of Urban Planners that studied or are studying Planning at the University of Groningen. The association was founded in 2008 by three master students. It was named after the concept coined by Doxiadis in 1940 defining a universal language for the size of human settlements. In 8 years Ekistics has grown to 30 members all working or studying in Planning. Its members, called Ekistici, are on average 25 years old and work in diverse fields such as infrastructure, environmental, energy, urban and tourism planning. They work at governments, universities, consultancy firms, contractors etc. Enthusiastic academics, students and practitioners with a range of expertises, make Ekistics a learning and sharing platform. This alone shows how theory matters for planning practitioners as these young professionals still get together to read, discuss and make connections between their daily practice and what they learned in the planning school.
All in all, it was a fantastic opportunity for first year planning students to meet a motivated planner, who loves what he does, and to be able to ask him questions they had in mind. And that was the whole idea of this class, making connections based on this encounter…