Three Principles for successful Urban Transformation

Our cities are undergoing fundamental change, requiring us to organize ourselves differently so that different interests can be heard and incorporated. Supported with examples from Amstel III, a transformation area in Amsterdam, this article introduces a new approach to overcome urban transformation challenges we are facing now: collaborative urban development.

The principles (1) build a local collective, (2) design the process, not the end-result and (3) make it tangible and concrete are the building blocks of collaborative urban development. This local approach allows us to connect and collaborate with all involved parties, enabling the urban transformation towards the city of the future.

Changing cities

If we look at the most dominant factors influencing the future development of our cities, we can identify three fundamental shifts:

  • Cities continue to grow - by 2050, over 2/3 of the world-population will live in cities. A lot of cities are reaching the limits of possible urban developments on the outskirts of the city, so that we must transform existing urban areas. This brings about a complex multi-stakeholder context with fragmented ownership and dispersed interests.
  • Climate change - we are facing serious climate challenges that affect areas such as mobility, energy, waste and water. There are various technologies available today that can tackle these challenges. The real challenge is to get everybody aligned and well informed about these solutions and required investments.
  • Digital technology - more and more the smart city is taking shape around us, providing new opportunities for interaction with ourselves, others and our cities. At the same time, the gap between the digital savvy and digital illiterate people in our aging society is increasing, illustrated for example by the increase in loneliness. The question is how we can improve social cohesion to counter these negative side effects.

Faced with the three fundamental shifts outlined above, it becomes clear that the key to successful urban development is the ability to connect and collaborate with local parties. Success will be defined to which extent we are able to understand and sympathize with each other.

The problem - us versus them

When is the transformation of an urban area considered a success? Put differently: what are the defining factors of a successful collaboration in urban development?

The answer to this question, at first sight, seems heavily dependent on which “stereotypical-hat” you are wearing. For example, the municipality is serving the public interest, an investor is primarily interested in the return on investment (ROI), a project developer in profit margin, a local company in increasing its revenue, etc.

Whilst these interests may seem dispersed, they all boil down to an overall goal: “how do we make and keep the area attractive for its direct users?” Unfortunately, our natural tendency seems to be to focus on the differences between parties resulting in mistrust and suspicion. As a consequence, the municipality lacks overview and control over the area, investors and project developers struggle with making progress and local parties feel overwhelmed, not taken seriously and are not equipped to participate in a meaningful way.

The solution - Collaborative Urban Development

Simply repeating the common goal of making the urban area attractive for its direct users in the hope that stakeholders magically align is not going to put things in motion. We have to acknowledge that primary interests can differ and sometimes do oppose each other. Traditional top-down oriented planning approaches were sufficient in the past to overcome these oppositions. Active land policy by local governments, a manageable stakeholder field and mainly greenfield urban development kept things relatively simple. However, with the fundamental shifts we are currently facing in our cities we need to organize ourselves differently. We call this new way of working collaborative urban development. It is based on three principles: (1) build a local collective, (2) design the process, not the end-result and (3) make it tangible and concrete.

1. Build a local collective
At the moment you start exploring development opportunities in an area, start building a local collective at the same time. Tap into existing local communities, associations and connect with informal leaders.

Built a local collective; from information towards self-organization

In Amstel III, a transformation area in Amsterdam, this approach has resulted in a collective of over 150 parties. The collective provides all parties with transparency and insight in what is happening in the area, as well as revealing unexpected opportunities via new connections and unleashing creativity and co-creative energy in the area.

Ching’s Tea Home

For example, a local food and beverage entrepreneur with a mobile stand was connected with real estate owners. The real estate owners offered free parking spots in the area for her stand which also increased the liveliness and service quality of the area. Whilst these parties would normally not have found each other, the collective enabled the creation of goodwill, revenue and real estate value at the same time.

By consciously building this inclusive collaboration network, humans become the face of the transformation instead of anonymous facades of real estate owners, project developers and institutions. This enables both trust and comprehension. Strategically managing this multi-layered collective forms the foundation of success.

2. Design the process, not the end-result
Urban transformations take years to be completed. You can even argue whether they are ever finished. Therefore, instead of working towards a final end state, take an iterative open-plan approach and start with designing the process.

Design the process, not the end-result; diverge & converge while including different horizons

By taking into consideration that the context changes, the process includes different horizons (for example 1 year, 4 years, 15 years) to ensure that at any given moment a pleasant and livable environment is in place.


Combining adaptive process design with storytelling and branding brings the area to life. It invites people to participate and co-create the future of the area together. In Amstel III the process was branded as Glamourmanifest in contrast with the old grey office image of the area. The manifest, empowered by events, physical interventions and creative communication, activated employees and local companies through statements like “hard working people deserve champagne on a rainy Monday morning”. Local parties were triggered and supported to rethink what might be possible with the area and which role they could play in realizing its potential.

Uncovering this potential of the area to local parties formed a catalyst for active involvement of the municipality and project developers to start co-creating visions and undertake different initiatives in the area. It successfully enabled the transformation of an area with over 26.000 employees, approximately 400 different companies and 80 real estate owners.

3. Make it tangible and concrete
The third principle is to make the urban transformation process tangible and concrete. This principle is necessary as an end piece to the collaborative urban development model, because following the first two principles involves the risk of getting stuck in endless conversations and discussions. Another pitfall is that people do simply not understand each other due to differences in background.

To prevent this, it is important to continuously maintain the connection with the physical environment to bring conversations between different parties to life. This can be as small as using iterative modeling techniques during sessions (e.g. sketching, storyboarding, prototyping, etc.) or more elaborate by interventions in the area (e.g. temporary use of vacant space, local events, street-art, etc.). The stronger the connection and visibility within the transformation area, the more impact it will have.

Glasses of possibilities

In Amstel III a multitude of tooling and interventions was used to maintain a connection with the physical environment. For example, the potential of a location in the area was explored through serious gaming and outdoor “guerilla-drinks”. This led to the creation and placement of temporary artworks to show the potential to passers-by. The support for a more structural program grew, which resulted in a crowdfunding campaign for a park and pavilion. Almost € 150.000,- was acquired, with contributions being made by both individuals and large companies in the area.

Where the use of tangible tooling and interventions is fitted within the overarching urban transformation process, it will create a mutual understanding across all involved parties and enables a shared identity and purpose for the local collective and the area. In addition, it results in interim successes to gain momentum and maintain positive energy over a longer period of time. As such, the third principle is the glue that holds the first two principles together.

Make it tangible and concrete; an iterative approach fitted in the transformation cycle

Tim is Urban Entrepreneur and Service Designer. With Transformcity he helps to define urban strategies, co-create visions and build local sustainable collectives with all involved parties to successfully transform urban areas.