Much of the built infrastructure around us, particularly real estate and property, are generally described by urban planners and other practitioners in terms of quantifiable numbers such as square meters and cost. Through these quantities, a city becomes a sum of its individual numbers; its present condition, a summation of these various towers of mathematics. In this quantified world, we quite easily forget the qualitative – the people and the relationships that built the built environment. Through my graduate thesis, I explored these relationships to find out whether or not they really do matter at all in the arithmetic that is contemporary urban planning.

In 2011, the Municipality of Amsterdam launched a new Structural Vision for the city which promises to address much of the City’s housing shortages and defunct areas. It aims to transform industrial areas in Haven-Stad (Port-City) to residential and commercial spaces by building over 40,000[1] dwellings in the process. However, much of the land is owned privately and requires owners to be ‘persuaded’ to transform their properties – a policy new to urban planners at the city who usually redevelop municipally owned land without contention. The Municipality is struggling to meet these lofty housing targets and is seemingly at odds with developers representing property owners in Haven-Stad. The financial valuation is usually a prime point of contention.

Through a series of interviews with both city planners and private developers, it appears that behavioral elements such as trust and common goals considerably impact relationships. Flexibility in planning, measured in the thesis through negotiations or alterations to land-use plans, is impacted by those relationships; city planners went out of their way to accommodate developers and vice versa once trust was built. Negotiations proceeded smoother when both parties shared underlying development goals. Transformation takes effort and collaboration. As one municipal planner explained, converting one parcel of land can take up to two years of continued negotiations. The old top-down regime of drawing new plans on a blank slate simply does not work in Haven-Stad; owners have much of the bargaining power whether the Municipality acknowledges it or not. How the Municipality approaches those owners will dictate much of whether or not the transformation will occur.

The findings showcased that relationships can and do affect ‘behavioral flexibility’ among actors. In the case of Haven-Stad, this meant that stalemate simply cannot be attributed to financial disagreement. It stems from a lack of communication, trust, and shared goals as well. Traditionally, Dutch city planners develop indicative plans and then proceed to negotiate with stakeholders. Often the actors’ goals are so far apart that resolution is impossible. This thesis suggests instead that starting with negotiations rather than those indicative plans can lead to an understanding between these divergent actor groups, leading to more representative indicative plans.

In this urban planning sphere, the quantitative is not enough to explain some of the flaws in the Haven-Stad. It lies deep in the qualitative nuances of relationship dynamics. The flaw seems to stem from a discord between the Municipality’s somewhat lingering authoritative behavior and the ideal collaborative behavior required for a transformation endeavor. The land-use plan itself is promising, intriguing, and captivating – even logical. However, the persistent mistrust between parties, lack of financial transparency, and lack of communication all indicate that an alternate starting point in transformation is necessary for future spatial policy.

— By Adhish Gurung


[1] Municipality of Amsterdam. Port-City: redevelopment area.