We Own The City

Last week the book ‘We Own The City’ was launched in Amsterdam. The book is about the rise of community planning. It focus on the way traditional top-down players are employing to enable and support bottom-up initiatives in cities. The result is a book with descriptions of inspiring urban development processes around the world. 

The book is about the duality between centralized corporate action and decentralized individual action. A hot topic these days. It dichotomize the two positions in urban planning to bring clarity to urban actors and processes. Top-down versus bottom-up. Planned versus spontaneous order. Designers’ intent versus users’ needs. The planned versus the lived city. The authors are aware that in reality it is difficult to pinpoint a genuine bottom-up or top-down process, but more important: a paradigm shift is happening. The retreat and retrenchment of the state and other top-down players has encouraged the entrepreneurial energy of citizens and communities. As a result they take on or claim an increasingly important role in city-making processes. With or without the help of formal institutions.

Best of both worlds
The publication focus on how the top-downers are changing their approach to enable this bottom-up movement, and how both actors can better collaborate in the future. To answer this question the authors researched twenty case studies in five cities: Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Moscow, New York City and Taipei. These cities were chosen because their histories display the typical patterns of top-down development. But now you can find here traditional top-down organizations that are transitioning towards more bottom-up approaches. Each in different ways.

Levels of involvement
The case studies are not only about initiatives that are 100% bottom-up. Do not expect a journey along projects that all fit to the criteria of tactical urbanism or pop-up urbanism. The book treats different steps on the ladder of citizen participation: from informing and consulting to partnership and citizen control. The first steps may sound like we are going back in time, but some countries (China, Russia, Taiwan) and disciplines (governments, architects) come a long way. Take for example the situation in Hong Kong: “We have to be honest with ourselves on the subject, and admit at the outset that, as yet, we don’t have a fully developed culture of community planning. […] Government owns all the land and it is a valuable commodity. […] Governmental agencies are only just learning that they must reflect public opinions.

Like a kid in front of a candy store
Four projects are described from each city. In the introduction the case studies are properly introduced, so you can pick out your favorites. I particularly liked:
Transforming Public Space in Mitino (Moscow).
Photo by Alex Melnikoff
  • Cascoland Kolenkitbuurt (Amsterdam): an international network of artists that was commissioned by the government to improve the livability of a troubled neighborhood. In an open-ended process they assisted groups of residents by forming and implement their ideas.
  • Energizing Kowloon East Office (Hong Kong): a government entity that is encouraging city ownership through active engagement by applying the ‘place-making’ approach.
  • Cyclification (Moscow): grass-roots activism address cycling issues through websites, maps, events and improvements.
  • New Lots Triangle Plaza (New York): a community-led public space project to enhance streets and support local businesses. Implemented through the government in collaboration with a nonprofit organization and the merchants. 
  • Treasure Hill (Taipei): the long process of protest and coordination of a village saved the land from demolition by the city government, transformed it into hybrid use and is now the most popular place in the city for young people to hang out.

Past, present, future
The diversity of the case studies is by far the strongest point of the book. How often do you read about initiatives in Hong Kong, Moscow and Taipei? And when you read something on the internet it is most of the time superficial and/or hard to put it into the right context. In this book however each city is well introduced by a short history of its urban planning. The chapter about Moscow for example (highly recommended)  gives an outline about the state-led urbanization from the 1940s through the 1980s and its current urban issues: “Today, the transformation of post-Communist cities like Moscow is characterized by the expansion of commercial spaces, the transformation of industrial zones, and a demand for new forms of housing. […] Alongside Socialist traditions, Russia also maintains a tradition of guerilla urban resistance. […] For instance, the social movement ‘Partizaning’ was particularly inspired by Russia’s revolutionary and DIY traditions, as they promote participatory urban replanning using street art as a tool for civic action in cities worldwide”.

Lessons learned
The case studies are beautifully described. They “bring to light specific moments, planning challenges that may often be ignored in a static analysis of urban design and planning.” The only thing that I missed were some critical notifications. For example: did they all achieve their goals? What kind of tensions were there between communities and top-downers? And between initiators and communities? And how did the actors deal with that? Interesting questions that would have made the cases even more instructive.

The diversity of the case studies on a global scale, but also the diversity in the levels of involvement (think along, participate, do-it-yourself) are a strong point, but also creates a dilemma: it is hard to compare the cities and the development processes. As a consequence the concluding remarks in the last chapter are rather general statements: “It seems that it is time to employ a new method to think about urban development, where the focus is not on the final result but on the process of developing that urban product.” Something you have already read in the introduction. And that’s a pity, because throughout the book there a numerous interesting insights and conclusions that transcend the presented cases:
  • Approach: ‘Owning the City’ is a bold and rather optimistic term. A hopeful idea. But the ownership of the city can not only be realized through possession or financial gain, but also through active engagement. And when memories and histories are taken into consideration, the sense of ownership can extend outward. Or as somebody said by the book launch: “Ownership is not relevant, it is about being part of the process by bringing in intelligence.”
  • Diversity: community involvement in planning projects can take any of five specific roles. Community members can be the beneficiaries and users of services; they can be long-term partners in the regeneration process; they can be a source of community activity; representatives of local opinion; or they can help in delivering parts of a program.
  • Phases: tactical, temporary interventions can unite communities and harness their agency to attract and incorporate institutional support in the realization of citizen-initiated developments. From that, we learn that unsanctioned actions draws attention to certain needs, create social mandate and can stimulate real change, and may often lead to legitimate, sanctioned actions.
  • Embedment: the level of success rises when the initiators of a bottom-up process are residents in the neighborhood themselves. They understand the real needs of their communities and suggest local and realistic approaches. It also helps when they know the major stakeholders and have experience in working with people of different backgrounds.
  • Openness: although it is hard to accept for institutions, because of their budget constraints and bureaucratic procedures, they should provide support (in kind, time, or resources) for open-ended, uncoordinated, nonspecific and long-term processes.
  • Experiment: urban evolution requires a certain willingness to experiment. Freedom of action based on trust. Allow the possibility of unforeseen or even unrealized outcomes, as they will still generate ideas and possibilities. It is no coincidence that most case studies are in the outskirts of cities where more things are allowed.
  • Combined forces: one of the main goals is to facilitate the recognition of and mutually beneficial relationship between bottom-up and top-down actors. In different cases this dialogue, visibility and awareness was achieved by activism and grass-roots initiatives combined with innovative forms of communication and the support from other communities, small businesses and media coverage. In this way you go from a DIY intervention to a jointly developed change by complementing actors.
  • Mediator/bridge-builder: most of the time the process of linking the right people to each other is essential for the success rate of an initiative. Work towards an integral/inclusive approach which bridges different actors, perspectives and interests. If necessary, hire external experts to bridge the gap.
  • Diversity: institutional support does not always have to be in economic resources. Facilitating bottom-up development is also possible by administrative support, loosening regulations, simplification of a license application and organizing good (online) information about grants and rules. Each institution can support the initiative in a different way.
DIY Neighborhood Games
Photo by Maria Semenenko
The book ends with interviews of four Dutch architects. Although nice to read, they are a little bit the odd man out. In almost all of the presented case studies there is practically no design task. It is more, especially in the western countries, about adding activities to existing public spaces. Making a place into a destination (see also the article about placemaking). In this perspective, and in line with the rest of the book, it would be more interesting to interviewing representatives from governments or housing corporations. They (can) play a far more important role in the bottom-up initiatives.
The interviewees are not old-school architects that only make iconic buildings or blueprints without taking into account the users’ need. They are all one or two steps further, but also struggle with the new context and their part in it. The stories provides some interesting suggestions, but are mostly a pie in the sky.

We Own The City is a choice and a statement, which the authors hope to provoke through this book: “We position this publication as the inception of a movement of city makers that values the significance of working with the local community, deeply understanding its developing assets, while taking into consideration economic, political and social issues surrounding and affecting the neighborhood realm.” That message is getting across when you’re reading the 300 pages. And although it’s not a guidebook with a lot of do’s and don’ts, it is very informative about this interdisciplinary and global movement in urban planning. No one can tell how far this movement will go, but in this book you can find already different kinds of field-tested opportunities.  

The publication has been made possible thanks to a wide network of foundations, such as CITIES, The Community Empowerment Network, The Community Project Workshop and The Design Trust for Public Spaces. It is published by trancity*valiz.

A preview of the book is found on ISSUU.

There is also a Dutch version of this article on Stadslente.

Photo's are from КООП: Cooperative Urbanism Workshops in Moscow. A partnership between Partizaning and Strelka Institute to address local communities and engage citizens in a dialogue about their requirements.


  1. yes, that book was indeed a great publication...
    Sometimes this is also a great online mag to check out urban culture/lifestyles, architecture and nice interviews with city-lovers: www.smart-magazine.com
    I hope you like it !

  2. Many years later the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) more or less flipped the ladder on its side and adopted Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation as its very own Spectrum of Public Participation.
    Citizen Participation Ladder


Post a Comment