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Planning the City Together ...or playing Monopoly with your neighborhood.

From  By Marjolein Niestadt

Play the City's interactive game allows residents, businesses, officials and developers to play with with houses, office buildings, windmills and roads on a large board game. Architect and urban planner Ekim Tan wants to allow citizens rather than administrators to determine how their district will look in the future. She conceived Play the City as a participatory alternative to zoning plans.

Ekim Tan opts for a different approach to many of her peers. As Greek architect Elia Zenghelis once said: ‘Architecture in origin hierarchical, and participation is a Trojan horse. It seems like such a good idea yet focuses the damage.’ But Tan is not afraid of damage, athough she realizes that the more people do for themselves, the less work there is for the classical architect. ‘We will take on a different role. Most architects are still commissioned by governments and developers. In the future we will advise citizens.’

Built In One Night

Tan grew up in Istanbul, studied architecture in Ankara, worked for several years and then added a master of urban planning at TU Delft to all this. She remained in the Netherlands, and will earn her PhD at the end of this year with a thesis on democratization in urban planning. Her inspiration comes partly from Turkey, where the concept of residents designing their neighborhood together has existed for much longer. Istanbul, for example, has traditionally had several gecekondus, literally translated as districts that are built in one night. Self-building in Turkey has a long tradition, although the government is increasingly interfering with urban development.

In the Netherlands, most projects are started by the authorities, housing associations or developers. But that is slowly changing, says Tan. 'The Netherlands has a wonderful tradition of design and architecture, but without a participatory element. When I began my PhD research with ideas for introducing more democracy in the creation of urban space, I got little support. That attitude has changed in the last years.' Until the nineties the top-down approach worked fine in the Netherlands, according to Tan. "There was indeed too much built and there was hardly any contact between architects and users, but we could still afford to leave some buildings standing empty. With the current economic crisis that has changed." Governments must cut spending, banks are unwilling or unable to invest, and many developers are in trouble. Tan: "If there is money, is it with the citizens and entrepreneurs themselves. This is not about the profitability of a construction project, they just want a good home or a livable neighborhood. So you see more and more small-scale bottom-up initiatives to renovate old neighborhoods or to self-design new neighborhoods."

The Spontaneous City

However, the call for self-organization in the construction industry is not entirely new. "During the oil crisis in the seventies there was also a movement to democratize urbanism. Indeed, urban planner Gert Urhahn, author of the recent, and very popular, book 'The Spontaneous City', already called for more openness and flexibility at that time. But when the oil crisis was over and the economy took off again, he found no audience for his ideas. Will the current trend of self-organization blow over as the economy recovers? Tan does not think so. "We live in a different time. Democratization of urban development fits into the picture of a retreating government. In England, Prime Minister David Cameron been talking about a Big Society, a synonym for small government. Dutch politicians are reluctant, but the Spatial Planning Department has already presented a number of scenarios in a similar vein."

As part of her doctoral research, Tan of Play the City contemplated ways to further encourage the involvement of citizens in planning. The result is an interactive game that allows all those involved in a project to give their input on an equal fotting with other players. ‘‘The Dutch are not used to thinking for themselves about the development of their city. They have always assumed that it is the government's role. I come across people who feel that it is not their job to reacts to plans for their neighborhood or a vacant lot nearby. But if they overcome that mental barrier, they often have excellent ideas that professional developers do not come up with.’’

Few Parks or Squares

Although the board with houses, roads and even windmills catches the eye, Play the City games include much more than just a three-dimensional model of the area being developed. Tan: "We begin by defining the conditions with which the project must comply. We then invite representatives of all parties involved in the project to play, over several sessions. The sessions are videotaped. Afterwards photographs are available online, so participants can see what choices their 'opponents' have made. We record what happens during the game, analyze the involvement of stakeholders, and on that basis prepare a report with advice for the development of the project."

Play the City combines self-organization with thorough Dutch understanding of urban development. According to Tan, this leads to better results than the 'organically evolved' neighborhoods of Istanbul. ''While gecekondus respond flexibly to the needs of residents, they also have disadvantages. If everyone builds their own house, common areas are often forgotten. There will be few or no parks and squares. The connection to public transport is not always ideal."

Success in Almere

Almere is leading the trend, and is a great success as a city involving its citizens in construction projects, says Tan. "In 2005, two construction projects started, one based on a well-defined plan created by the municipality, the other based on private commissions. The first plan has still not been realized. The municipality wanted to build four hundred houses at De Wierden sports park in Almere Haven. Appeal procedures against it are still going in 2013. The other project was much more ambitious, proposing four thousand new houses in the Homeruskwartier. Interested parties could buy a lot and then design and build a home, shop or workspace to their liking. The rules for developing the lots were available online, and the project was a great success." Almere's example is now being followed in Eindhoven, Enschede and Tilburg.

Meanwhile Almere is not standing still. The city's development strategy in the Oosterwold district takes the concept one step further than the / kavels_in_almere / homer quarter / homeruskwartier_centrum Homeruskwartier. For Play Oosterwold there exists only a set of rules, without a detailed development plan. Future residents design their own home and also regulate water, energy and even sometimes the connection to public roads.

Stricter Monitoring

Not everyone has the interest, time or money to build his own house. But that is not Tan's aim. "The important thing is that citizens have direct contact with the builders. If you let people make their own decisions, you can be sure that new building meet real needs, rather than market requirements. Moreover, there is a much tighter control on contractors and developers. Building built solely to make money become superfluous."

Another obstacle is that the Dutch generally have of little knowledge of building practices. "In Turkey, it is different. Since people are used to designing their own home and involving the appropriate professionals in order to carry out their plans. The Netherlands does not have this tradition. Yet this need not be a problem; the expertise comes gradually but naturally. People need to get used to a new approach. This applies to citizens, but also civil servants. Previously, negotiations only involved an alderman and a developer; now they are sometimes twenty different parties at the table."

Read about design in politics and its impact on Play the City at


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