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The role of knowledge institutions in placemaking


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Urban development is increasing in its complexity. Processes that transform urban areas are not steered by the public sector or private enterprises alone. Hybrid forms of urban development are emerging, with a gradually bigger role given to citizens' initiatives and self-organization. This favours also the involvement of knowledge institutions that add to new models of innovation by actively contributing to and partnering with public and private initiatives. With the growth of urban areas we also witness the proliferation of urban spaces. There are every time more areas for common uses, more nodes and also more underutilized spots within the urban fabric due to conflictive ownership, lack of planning or other reasons. Rapidly urbanizing territories provide not only a quantitative challenge but equally qualitative demands to our urban environment. New models that apply integrative strategies in particular to the development of public space use placemaking as a core concept, referring to the processes that reveal new, complex and multi-level perspectives for urban systems. The idea that cities are unpredictable in their development trajectories (Herrle, Jachnow, & Ley, 2006) and not subject to centralized control is widely recognized. However, the appreciation of complexity in the domain of urban development and planning and the involvement of non-governmental actors is relatively recent (Jachnow, 2006; Roo, Hillier, & Wezemael, 2012). We suggest that, with the growing complexity of urban development, the role of universities and knowledge institutions could increase for the qualitative improvement of urban public space by bringing expertise, students and innovative ideas. At the same time, academic institutions could get the opportunity of exposure to contemporary societal challenges, real 2 cases and " testing grounds " for meaningful research, thus establishing a mutually beneficial process. In this paper, we analyse the experience of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands. As an academic institution with a focus on the Global South, IHS took the initiative for an experimental placemaking process in its hometown, Rotterdam, in 2015. Within the Master of Science for Urban Management and Development, participants and academic staff of the specialization for Urban Strategies and Planning (USP) engaged actively in conceptualizing placemaking activities for deprived areas in the city. The result was the development of diverse concepts and methods to facilitate placemaking processes, assess and evaluate demands and potentials, and reflect on the multifaceted implications of each of the possible contributions. Moreover, it provided valid lessons learnt for the opportunities and limits of placemaking as a tool for developing cities and societies that we herewith intend to feed back into the academic discourse. 3 Content
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The role of knowledge institutions in placemaking
Carlo Capra, Alexander Jachnow, Saskia Ruijsink, Alexandra Tsatsou, Barbara Zamora Auza,
Linda Zuijderwijk
Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) /Erasmus University Rotterdam
Urban development is increasing in its complexity. Processes that transform urban areas are
not steered by the public sector or private enterprises alone. Hybrid forms of urban
development are emerging, with a gradually bigger role given to citizens’ initiatives and self-
organization. This favours also the involvement of knowledge institutions that add to new
models of innovation by actively contributing to and partnering with public and private
With the growth of urban areas we also witness the proliferation of urban spaces. There are
every time more areas for common uses, more nodes and also more underutilized spots within
the urban fabric due to conflictive ownership, lack of planning or other reasons. Rapidly
urbanizing territories provide not only a quantitative challenge but equally qualitative demands
to our urban environment.
New models that apply integrative strategies in particular to the development of public space
use placemaking as a core concept, referring to the processes that reveal new, complex and
multi-level perspectives for urban systems. The idea that cities are unpredictable in their
development trajectories (Herrle, Jachnow, & Ley, 2006) and not subject to centralized control
is widely recognized. However, the appreciation of complexity in the domain of urban
development and planning and the involvement of non -governmental actors is relatively recent
(Jachnow, 2006; Roo, Hillier, & Wezemael, 2012).
We suggest that, with the growing complexity of urban development, the role of universities
and knowledge institutions could increase for the qualitative improvement of urban public
space by bringing expertise, students and innovative ideas. At the same time, academic
institutions could get the opportunity of exposure to contemporary societal challenges, real
cases and “testing grounds” for meaningful research, thus establishing a mutually beneficial
In this paper, we analyse the experience of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development
Studies (IHS), Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands. As an academic institution with a
focus on the Global South, IHS took the initiative for an experimental placemaking process in its
hometown, Rotterdam, in 2015. Within the Master of Science for Urban Management and
Development, participants and academic staff of the specialization for Urban Strategies and
Planning (USP) engaged actively in conceptualizing placemaking activities for deprived areas in
the city.
The result was the development of diverse concepts and methods to facilitate placemaking
processes, assess and evaluate demands and potentials, and reflect on the multifaceted
implications of each of the possible contributions. Moreover , it provided valid lessons learnt for
the opportunities and limits of placemaking as a tool for developing cities and societies that we
herewith intend to feed back into the academic discourse .
Abstract........................................................................................................................................... 1
Introduction .................................................................................................................................... 4
Public Space & Urban Development ............................................................................................... 4
Hybrid forms of urban development .......................................................................................... 4
Challenges for public space and place ........................................................................................ 6
The role of academia in the process of placemaking ..................................................................... 7
Case 1: Transdisciplinary agenda-setting: Sustainable Development Goals and public space ...... 8
Placemaking .............................................................................................................................. 10
Actors and networks ................................................................................................................. 11
Collaborative models: the potential role of knowledge-institutions ....................................... 11
Case 2: Developing approaches for placemaking in Rotterdam ................................................... 12
The selection of places for “making”........................................................................................ 13
Urban Strategies and Planning: placemaking ........................................................................... 14
Lessons learnt ............................................................................................................................... 20
Assessment from an applied research viewpoint ..................................................................... 20
Assessment from an academic viewpoint ................................................................................ 21
Conclusions ............................................................................................................................... 23
Bibliography .................................................................................................................................. 24
Acknowledgments......................................................................................................................... 26
Knowledge institutions in the area of urban management, i.e. academic and higher education
institutes, can potentially play roles in the general process of city development and also
specifically in placemaking. This paper examines how such a process can be designed and what
can be learnt from a recent experience of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development
Studies, IHS, engaged in diverse placemaking processes in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
At first, the paper explains the concepts central to the ideas of public space and placemaking in
the light of complex urban environments. It indicates the challenges and opportunities for self -
organization as a new mandate for stakeholders coming from bottom -up, and leads into the
theory of the complexity of urban contexts and the quadruple helix model of multi-stakeholder
In its second part, the paper illustrates the integrative placemaking activities applied by a group
of international academics, constituted by the lecturers and participants of the Master of
Science for Urban Development and Management (UMD). The overarching objective of this
open educational process was to study the city from below, collaborate with actual
stakeholders, gain first-hand experiences and, ultimately, make an impact on the city while
The paper concludes with a reflection on how knowledge institutions can play an active role in
placemaking processes, including an outlook to further assess and develop these approaches.
Public Space & Urban Development
Hybrid forms of urban development
In the Global North, urban development is considered less an exclusively public or private
sector domain than it was some 20 years ago. The responsibility for developing our ci ties is
increasingly shared by a variety of actors that all have their stake in the city, be it in ways of
possessing parts of it, managing its functions or just by using it s spaces. Hybrid forms of city
making hence emerge, with an increasingly bigger rol e given to citizens’ initiatives, active
participation and self-organization. We believe that this shift of responsibilities can bring
different forces together so that we can achieve inclusive and effective ways of making better
cities for today and for the future.
New Public Management in the 1990s brought the transfer of executive powers for urban
development projects from the public sector towards private enterprises, resulting in a range of
different public-private partnership models. These models have been used mainly in the field of
infrastructure and service provision, while public spaces have seen interventions from the
private sector mostly in forms of sponsoring spatial improvements and the deployment of
private safety officers. Although it could be argued that public space is a concern of the local
government that cannot be outsourced easily for its nature of being public and inclusive, the
‘rationality of the market’ is nowadays seen as ‘the organizational principle for state and
society as a whole’ (Shamir 2008:6).
On one hand, investments of the public sector have been downs ized, while on the other
experience shows that the successful development of public space is better ensured by
involving a broad range of current and future users. Therefore, urban planning practice at wide
and interventions on public spaces are moving away from top -down approaches towards forms
that recognize the complexity of urban areas (Portugali, 2012). For the improvement of quality
and quantity of public space, the active participation of citizens and civil society organizations
can take a stronger stance and engage in the development and management of space -usage for
the benefit of local communities.
Certain aspects of public spaces contribute significantly to the local social and economic
development. If these cannot be ensured through the traditional mo dels of public or private
implementation and management, these can be provided by socially innovative communities
(Moulaert & Swyngedouw, 2010). In this respect, emerging self-organized initiatives can also be
understood as a reaction to the unsatisfactory accomplishment of the government. The reasons
for shortcoming are manifold, but it has to be recognized that some can be traced back to the
formalized, though inefficient, organization of participation (Boonstra & Boelens, 2011).
The complexity theory of cities tries to explain the difficulties of planning (Portugali, 2012). It
indicates the apparent fact that the changing composition of actors involved demand a change
of steering urban processes. While we witness a decline of the importance of the public sector
in urban development we simultaneously observe an increased need to facilitate and enable
actions undertaken by private actors and the civil society. The increased complexity in urban
processes derives both from the presence of a diverse set of stakeholders and from the
inclusion of different dimensions, with environmental, social and economic dimensions being
added to the spatial dimension (Roo, 2000). Hajer (2003:175) observes an ‘institutional void’ as
the context in which public policies are made in a changing environment, missing ‘generally
accepted rules and norms’. Thus, the composition of the set of actors involved in urban
development processes is changing. The previous “top-down” modus operandi appears to be
obsolete and dysfunctional to the current socio-economic conditions of cities.
Academic and public discourse illustrates that there is a clear ideological side to this discussion,
to re-focus on reclaiming the city in a broader movement that can be described as ‘the right to
the city’ (Boer & De Vries, 2009; Görgens & van Donk, 2012; Harvey, 2008; Sorensen & Sagaris,
2010; Uitermark, Nicholls, & Loopmans, 2012). The debate is strongly based on the work of the
French philosopher Henry Lefebvre in the sixties. Lefebvre claims that cities are collective
artworks and that communities have the right to appropriate space and time in their city.
Furthermore, he argues that we need a radical new kind of urban politics that includes room for
conflict and in which citizens have the right to decision making (Boer & De Vries, 2009). Harvey
also argues that: “ the freedom to make and remake our cities ourselves is (…) one of the most
precious yet most neglected of our human rights” (Harvey, 2008, p.23). Among his main
messages is that the city creates surplus and that democratic control over the production and
utilization of this surplus constitutes the right to the city (ibid).
Therefore, we should perhaps not ask the question whose concern public places are, in terms of
organization, regulation and ‘placemaking’, but how various rationalities, rights, rules and
norms inform the making of public places. This paper explores how universities and knowledge-
institutions can play a role within this variety of inputs in the process of placemaking.
Challenges for public space and place
Public spaces represent a central pattern of the life in our cities, they constitute vital urban cells
(Mehaffy, 2014). Streets, squares, parks are the spaces where people meet - and all kinds of
social and economic interactions occur. In our view, public places are crucial for social cohesion,
they stimulate local economic growth, but also the re -introduction of environmental qualities in
the urban grid.
Public space is not a static entity. On the contrary, it is extremely dynamic as a reflection of the
ever changing human society. The ingredient that remains diachronic is the value of public
space, the one that demarcates it from its surroundings through criteria such as its image,
history, “genius loci”, or name (Mayerhofer, 2005) combined with their physical characteristics.
Public space is a multifaceted formation. Its cultural, social, political, economic, recreational
and environmental aspects are responding to the needs of the city and highlight the values of
good e.g. vibrant, green, functional, accessible - public spaces. In its non-spatial aspect, public
space is an expression of identity, symbolic beyond its geographic boundaries and sometimes
characterizing a complete neighbourhood – also in terms of stigma and associations.
However, in the light of the threefold global crisis, i.e. socially, economically and
environmentally, the question of societal development is at stake in cities - and along with it,
the question of the role and existence of public space. Global population growth and
urbanization rates indicate a trend towards an increase of space used per capita (Angel, 2011)
but this rather amplifies the problem, bringing attention to the lack of properly used public
spaces, and the abundance of underused ones, in the cities of today.
On a global scale, we witness an ongoing trend of urbanization, which comes along with the
most diverse urban challenges. The Global South is challenged by unprecedented and
unplanned growth of urban areas. Meanwhile in the Global North we still observe processes of
ongoing urbanization in some growth poles, but also urban decline and shrinking cities.
However, the rise of inequalities is reflected within urban areas worldwide. This diversity of
trends also implies a diversity of urban challenges: we observe the proliferation of urban
spaces, i.e. more areas for common uses, more nodes and also more underutilized spots within
the urban fabric due to conflictive ownership, lack of effective planning or other reasons. The
dynamic and complex process of urbanization provides not only a quantitative challenge but
equally qualitative demands to our urban environment (United Nations, 2012).
We believe the need for –more and better– urban places is indisputable and should lead to new
concepts of the city from below in which communal spaces are the point of departure. This
questions the previous paradigm of functionality and zoning at the core of public city planning.
How can we understand the potential role academia plays in the making of public spaces and
urban development, addressing the challenges identified above?
The role of academia in the process of placemaking
As society is changing and rules and norms that inform placemaking are not or no longer
generally accepted (cf Hajer 2003), the role of knowledge and knowledge institutions is not
unambiguous. Scientific knowledge is (no longer) automatically trusted, it ‘often produces only
more uncertainty’ (Hajer 2003: 180). This observation calls for further exploring then how
science and academia can position itself in the making of places.
Based on the notion that a variety of actors shape societies and consequently cities we
embrace a collaborative city-making approach. There is a need to define the role of academia
within this approach and the underlying processes. We understand that academics can play a
bridging role in linking various sectors and that the concept of co-production of knowledge is
essential for actions that shape our physical environment, namely commonly used spaces. We
would like to explore in this paper how academic institutions can play this bridging or boundary
spanning role in urban development.
Turning to the ideas of “mode 1”, “mode 2” and even “mode 3”, science could help us to
understand the potential role of academia in what is called science -society interface. Mode 1 is
a knowledge-first approach in which the scientist is perceived as knowledge provider,
acknowledging a boundary zone between science and society. Following Hajer (2003), mode 1
is no longer the hometown for academia. “Mode 2” science is more process oriented (Rydin
2007; Schmale et al. 2013; Wittmayer & Schäpke 2014), hence other stakeholders than
researchers are perceived as problem owners and even the definition of the problem itself
becomes collaborative, opening up a space of joint knowledge co-production where science
and society overlap (Nowotny et al. 2001; Miller 2013 in Wittmayer & Schäpke 2014).
Researchers are only one of the knowledge providers in these spaces (Miller 2013 in Wittmayer
& Schäpke 2014), which could be created and maintained by researchers in process oriented
research (Wittmayer & Schäpke 2014). Mode 2 could offer spaces of “facilitated participatory
learning”. The mode researchers are only starting to explore is mode 3, in which the fluid roles
and relations of researchers and the “others” are explored (see also Avelino & Wittmayer 2014:
16 – 17). “Mode 3” science comprises a re-orientation towards societal relevancy and
problems, along with and informal science institutions (incl. organizat ions, routines, paradigms,
self-image) (Schneidewind & Singer-Brodowski 2013)(based on Olivotto & Zuijderwijk 2015;
Zuijderwijk et al. 2014).
For collaborative placemaking within the framework of developing public space, contributions
from knowledge institutions can be manifold. For the explained reasons, the public or private
sector alone would not meet the goal of creating qualitative and inclusive public places. At the
same time, a mere community-based approach hardly exists and also would not provide the
desired efficiency in terms of outcomes and effectiveness in terms of management. Hence, the
involvement of professionals as well as academia can potentially contribute to the success of
the process.
In the following, we introduce two cases in which IHS as a knowledge institute has been
involved in placemaking, in terms of agenda setting as well as in the urban reality of Rotterdam.
Case 1: Transdisciplinary agenda-setting: Sustainable Development Goals
and public space
Global debates and policy discourses on urban and social development make reference to the
importance of public space and recognize the significance of urban places for the city. Also the
UN-led drafting of a New Urban Agenda that should be adopted by all member states in the
context of Habitat III, defines public space as crucial for urban development.
In terms of urban design, the draft indicates that “new planning methods and systems can
contribute to the process of changing the city”s structure and (…) promote public spaces and
vibrant streets” to better address current urbanization challenges. Fostering the idea that
urbanization has “the potential to help the world to overcome some of its major challenges”;
the New Urban Agenda intends to provide “guiding principles for promoting sustainable urban
development; such as designing compact cities, protecting public spaces and the commons,
enhancing street connectivity, and encourage\ing well-designed urban layouts, favouring social
diversity and mixed land-uses.” (UN-HCLP, 2014).
The current preparation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that ar e built upon the
Millennium Development Goals, promote an “urban” SDG, including a target for public spaces.
Within the SDG draft, “safe, inclusive and multipurpose public space” is a proposed target of
Goal 11, accompanied by a set of indicators (see following box).
Proposed Urban Sustainable Development Goal (SDG11) :
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
Target 11.7:
By 2030, provide, maintain and encourage access to safe, inclusive and multipurpose public
Proportion of total public space in a city that is assigned to support livelihoods of the poor
Urban green space per capita
Proportion of urban areas located fewer than 300 meters away from an open public space
Number of reported crimes (homicides, injures and theft rates) committed annually in
urban areas, per 100,000 population
Source: UrbanSDG Campain, 2015,, (IIHS, 2015)
During a workshop on the urban SDG hosted by the IHS on May 20th 2015, the proposed urban
SDG was scrutinized by academics and practitioners representing various disciplines and
organizations (IHS, forthcoming 2015). Both the target and its indicators triggered a broader
discussion about the specific attributes of public space and their critical externalities,
highlighting the importance of the social dimension. The relevance for monitoring good public
space was discussed along with the challenges of measuring qualities such as inclusiveness.
Though the target itself was welcomed, the expert discussion also indicated the shortcomings
when trying to measure the efficiency of public space. As the indicators are to measure the
goal’s achievements, it implies that successful public space is related to and can be measured
through the livelihoods of the poor, urban green space, distribution of public space and safety
within the city. However, features such as urban competitiveness, land value of public space
surroundings, the educational role of public spaces, awareness of sustainability, quality of life,
happiness, healthy living, walkability, the right to the city, security, and many others are also
important and could be equally used for monitoring qualities and quantities of public spaces
(IHS, forthcoming 2015).
Figure 1 - Outcome of the discussions on Sustainable Development Goal Target 11.7: public spaces – Workshop on Capacity
Development for Sustainable Urban Development, IHS, May 20th 2015.
Accordingly, in order to be able to accomplish the urban SDG target in its “safe, inclusive and
multipurpose public space” aspect, the focus inevitably moves to experiences, perceptions and
qualities rather than quantitative characteristics of public space - although quantity should not
be disregarded. This qualitative perspective is the point where the requirement of making
“place” becomes apparent and indispensable. A public place can be described as a unique
entity in both space and time, transmitting its atmosphere and qualities to the visitor or user,
providing the reasons why people gather on it.
In this context, the idea of placemaking can be understood as a response to the increasing
complexity of urban development. It considers the potential of cities to be powerful social
reactors that can support holistic processes, involving public and private sector, organizations
and individuals as well as professionals, academia and grassroots.
We understand placemaking as the making of places that are concrete, geographic locations
that are lived, produced and regulated, and constitute meaningful physical domains or realms.
We conceptualize places like this after Tayler, seeing them as the concrete realms of the lived
experiences (Taylor 1999 in Amin 2002: 388), Lofland ( 1998: 64) and as “especially meaningful
spaces, rich in associations and steeped in sentiment(Lofland 1998: 64) (cf. Zuijderwijk
[forthcoming]). Public places in their capacity to fulfil a multitude of functions, acting as ground
for unexpected encounters, providers of fulfilling experiences, arenas for conflict solution,
symbols and references for communities. Making of space, the importance of which can
emanate far beyond its physical aspect.
Placemaking is a multi-stakeholder, multi-level and multi-sectorial approach. It requires a
transdisciplinary perspective which can only be ensured by bringing different professionals and
communities together. Diverse communities should be able to find common grounds around
specific places (Martin, 2003). Knowledge and experience need to be further built among all
stakeholders in a continuous process of learning by doing -and vice versa. It should be
highlighted that meaningful implementation requires the coordination of all different
stakeholders and groups from the very beginning. The local public sector needs to play a
guiding role but the process should be inclusive and ensure all stakeholders’ participation,
together with marginalized communities and the “invisible” stakeholders.
In practice, local governments often tend to favour “flagship placemaking projects” that are
seen as favouring urban transformations by increasing attractiveness of cities for investors
(Madureira, 2013). Drawing from this example, the placemaking process requires strong social
antennas, abilities to sense and understand the functions, problems, and dynamics of both the
city and public space. In addition, it calls for readiness and skills to respond, in order to prepare
conditions for collective action’s expression and development. Local governments often lack
such capacities, making the case for a stronger involvement of organizations from different
sectors (Blanchet-Cohen, 2014).
Actors and networks
As mentioned, any placemaking process necessarily involves a vast array of actors. However,
actors possess different perceptions regarding the place and its problems and therefore may
develop different strategies, aimed at influencing the transformation process (Klijn &
Koppenjan, 2007). Furthermore, actors involved in the process are not to be understood as
independent from each other, but rather in their quality of being a part of a wider network, in
which decisions regarding subsets of issues are taken as an outcome of their interactions
(Rhodes, 1997). A proper understanding of the involved stakeholders is of paramount
importance, due to the high amount of interconnections present in our societies (Bryson,
2004). Within network societies no single stakeholder is in charge of a whole process, but
responsibilities are more and more shared between diverse coalit ions (Koppenjan & Klijn,
2004). The recognition of the multifaceted urban complexity is the first step in the design of an
inclusive placemaking process.
Collaborative models: the potential role of knowledge-institutions
However, the above does not allow us to identify yet the potential role of knowledge
institutions in urban development. In the discourse of innovation dynamics, the “triple helix”
model calls for a collaboration between industry, government and academia (Etzkowitz &
Leydesdorff, 2000). New theories of innovation claim that it is necessary to add a civil society
component, leading to the formation of a “quadruple helix” (Afonso, Monteiro, & Thompson,
According to Trencher et al. (2014), when applied to the urban development context, such
“quadruple helix” collaborative partnerships are emerging for a number of reasons. Increased
complexities and uncertainties require innovative practices in urban development to start on an
experimental level before scaling up. In such experiments, universities can interact with societal
actors, using urban areas as a ground for trial. It has been argued, that a new kind of urban
coalitions can produce first-hand experience and at the same time contribute implicitly to the
improvement of the city’s liveability as a whole. Eventually, the interaction of different actors
stimulates mutual learning, leading to the co-creation of knowledge and practices that then can
also be adapted and applied to other contexts.
Thus, it is the complexity of urban settings, deriving from being at the intersection of different
disciplines, from the interaction of a diverse set of actors and from the presence of different
scales, which calls for innovative approaches. Knowledge institutions can play a key role by
applying technological and social cognition and by breaking the established disciplinary
frameworks (Perovic, 2014). At the same time, academic institutions can train skilled
professionals with the capacity of combining different disciplines and dimensions when
approaching urban issues.
Case 2: Developing approaches for placemaking in Rotterdam
An inclusive approach for placemaking was developed during the ten-week-long module “Urban
Strategies and Planning”, which is part of the Master Course on Urban Management and
Development. Through an action-research approach lecturers and fifteen participants gradually
developed a strategy based on theoretical and practical inputs, and applied it to three selected
areas in the city of Rotterdam, Netherlands. Participants in the course were international
professionals with different academic and professional backgrounds coming from Africa, Asia,
Europe and Latin America.
The purpose of the course was to create placemaking tools for reviving specific public spaces,
converting them into desired places with features identified and accepted by residents and
other stakeholders within the given complex context. The course departed from a critical
review of formal planning processes, as defined by urban visions and master plans. Through
lectures, participants were enabled to familiarize themselves with different viewpoints of the
three main stakeholder groups; i.e. public administration, local government and the citizens, or
self-organizing groups.
Throughout the course, the participants worked on certain localities. The core idea of the
interventions was to adapt and further develop recent concepts of placemaking within the lived
and political reality of Rotterdam.
The selection of places for “making”
For the placemaking process, three neighbourhoods in Rotterdam were selected as case
studies. The selected cases were considered essential in two aspects: they indicate a valuable
insight to the reality of the city in terms of social life and integration, and they are meaningful
examples for assessing planning theory and practice from different scales and perspectives. The
three selected cases could provide ground for beneficial observations when compared to each
other, in terms of their distinct characteristics and their importance for the broader city
development of Rotterdam.
Apart from their differences, the areas have a lot in common: they recently underwent urban
transformations, possess a mostly residential character, present a wide range of local
stakeholders and contain strategically important public spaces within their borders. First
observations showed, however, that these public spaces suffer from negligence or are not
being used to their full potential by the community.
Figure 2 - The three case-study areas within the city of Rotterdam
Two out of the three neighbourhoods (Afrikaanderwijk and Katendrecht) are located in the
South of Rotterdam, which is historically considered deprived but is now in the centre of social
policies. While Afrikaanderwijk continues to be considered as a problematic neighbourhood,
the peninsula of Katendrecht has been in recent years influenced by large real estate
investments. It attracts now a wealthier population, a fact that also creates new economic
opportunities. The third area, Oude Noorden (Old North), is close to the city centre, north of
the river Maas which divides Rotterdam in its two parts. It houses a multi-ethnical population
and a wide range of retail and other small economic activities.
Afrikaanderwijk’s main square, the Afrikaanderplein, was identified as an underused space -
albeit with potential. In Katendrecht, the park area was selected given its location and potential
to host more leisure activities, not only for the locals but also for visitors. In Oude Noorden, the
Noordplein square presented unexploited connectivity potentials. The square is a good transit
point for pedestrian and vehicular traffic, but limited activities and interactions occur on it.
Figure 3 – Main public spaces within the case-study areas
Urban Strategies and Planning: placemaking process
1. From the city vision to the neighbourhood
The course generated overviews of the governance situation and explored ongoing processes of
interaction and decision making related to planning activities in each area, with the aim of
proposing alternative or complementing strategies. As a starting point, through a critical review
of the city vision, participants identified potentials and challenges for the three
neighbourhoods, in the city context.
2. Identification of the area and tool selection
In order to gather information for the current situation analysis (stakeholders´ profiles,
interests and power) related tools were developed by the participants, referring to concepts
from the literature and practice. The aim of these tools was not only to collect the required
data, but also to engage with the stakeholders and understand their perception of physical and
social dimensions of the neighbourhood. Before acquiring primary data, participants assessed
the qualities and challenges based on secondary data and spatial mapping, both helpful for a
first understanding of the existing situation. However, the core element for the final strategies
was the activation and participation of the stakeholders in situ, and the participants
engagement with them in order to reach valid conclusions and make meaningful proposals .
Figure 4 - Major ethnic groups in case-study areas
Figure 5 - Age distribution and income distribution in case -study areas
3. Consultation processes / generating ideas
As a vital part of this process, a consultation process was designed for each of the areas, using a
wide range of the different tools and methods selected by the participants. The tools developed
followed local specifics, as the aim of the consultation meetings was to gather ideas from all the
different groups (in terms of ethnic origin, age and sex) and understand how they can benefit
from better public spaces. More importantly, the meetings looked for input from groups that
often fail to be heard by decision makers. As an example, the “power vs. interest matrix”,
helped to identify the local stakeholders that had to be included i n the following steps.
Figure 3 - Power vs Interest analysis of stakeholders in Afrikaanderplein. *The information in the “power versus interest”
matrix - one of the different methods to assess stakeholders – was obtained from interviews with local actors.
4. Placemaking strategies
The ideas that sprung from the consultation meetings provided input to the strategic planning
process, and were further developed into a specific local vision for each neighbourhood, as well
as concrete project proposals. For each public space, the ideas were prioritized and six of them
were further developed into detailed projects, highlighting related stakeholders and potential
supporters. The identified projects were presented back to local st akeholders in public
meetings, in order to gather feedback and explore the possibility to further develop them.
A tailor-made communication strategy for each area proved to be of key importance to engage
and inform residents and stakeholders towards the end of the process. The initial stakeholder
mapping and analysis of governance structures had already prepared the ground for a better
understanding of related actors and potential beneficiaries (therefore allies) of public space
transformations. In addition, consultative processes and development of the strategies on the
ground as a bottom-up approach, favoured the potential for ownership of the proposed
Figure 7 - Placemaking project proposals for the three case -study public spaces
Figure 8 - The steps of the placemaking process
Lessons learnt
Assessment from an applied research viewpoint
Throughout this process, the students acted as intermedia ries. They engaged with public actors
and invited them to participate in the consultations, they triggered discussions about consistent
problems that had been ignored, and they activated the more silent parts of the local
populations. Their active participation combined with the opportunity to enter the process as
an external observer, led them into developing genuine interest in the future of the ideas and
issues under discussion, as well as in engaging with members of the community. This fact added
significantly to the experience and significance of the educational process.
From the stakeholders’ perspective, there was a broad spectrum of responses towards this
active educational process. Overall, stakeholders from almost all social groups expressed their
interest, shared their ideas and participated in the activities. The local government and self -
organized groups proved very open in sharing, discussing and also listening. However,
contributions from the private sector was not strong and would have provided an additional
valuable input. As it was to be expected, not all neighbours were equally keen to participate,
hence making it problematic to declare the outcomes of consultation workshops as
representative for the entire community. The educational process experienced thus one of the
core challenges in participatory planning approaches . Difficulties were for example
encountered with the so called “NIMBYs”, (Not In My Back Yard) that rejected any change
within their neighbourhood. It has to be recogn ized that this was not a mere passive attitude of
denial, but needs to be understood more in the context of gentrification. Residents of deprived
neighbourhoods are threatened by economically-driven expulsion, if these areas have the
potential to convert into highly attractive places.
This also leads into the critical review of the “joint vision”, i.e. the concept of following one sole
image for the future of the place at stake. Different interests among stakeholders are often
conflictive and the question of power and influence cannot be solved locally. Neighbours tend
to see the public place in front of their residences as their own, while commuting users
primarily perceive the utility of the space for their daily routine. Both can agree upon some
joint visions, but a number of features are only negotiable by specifying the time or the area for
using it e. g. for making noise, walking the dog or protecting green areas.
Additionally, it also became clear that the concept of inclusive public space has its
shortcomings. Inclusiveness can here not be understood as bringing different people and
interests simultaneously together, but that places also have the role of providing exclusive
spaces for specific groups, such as women, children or the elderly. Equity can be ensured by
providing equal access to all groups and individuals, but it also presents the biggest challenge
for integrative approaches for place and city making.
Concluding the lessons learnt we should highlight that going beyond physical interventions, and
dealing with the planning process as the multifaceted issue which it actually is, (for example,
dealing with social issues) poses important challenges to all involved stakeholders, including
ourselves as academic actors. Stimulating discussions, motivating participation and eventually
triggering interactions cannot be done without creating expectations or real -life consequences.
This is the thin line between educational and placemaking processes which leads to impacts
beyond the traditional sphere of academia.
Assessment from an academic viewpoint
Academic institutions have actively contributed to urban transformation processes since many
years. A shift however within the responsibility for urban development and the emergence of
the described new urban coalitions also demand new forms of engagement from academia.
On one side, academic institutions contribute with knowledge, technical expertise and
methods. However, this “mode 1” of the science-society interface has come under pressure in
the last decades. How can we reimagine the role of academic institutions in urban development
in general and placemaking in particular? Knowledge institutions that engage participants in a
“mode 2” or even “mode 3” science-society interface may hold a key for future involvement of
knowledge institutes.
We suggest that knowledge institutions can connect and facilitate processes of urban
transformation as they are prone to taking a more neutral role, balancing the interests of the
different stakeholders. They provide critical points of view and help the creation of synergies
widely free from vested interests, and can thus support local governments, the private sector
and civil society to engage in the most desired solutions. This role can be particularly important
in communities still need to be further empowered, from a certain point of view. Subsequently,
academic institutions can use urban neighbourhoods as testing grounds for the application of
new tools and methods for placemaking. Educational interaction in real urban settings brings
new opportunities and challenges to such complex environments.
As “outsiders”, academics can bring new perspectives and venture into unexplored fields. Their
participation provides new energies and experimental approaches to clarify and process
unsolved issues. They can:
Explore innovation and favour the encounter between different stakeholders.
Pursue interaction, experimentation and trust in the learning process .
Facilitate the co-creation knowledge with local actors and help transferring it to other
Bring in new points of view - in our case international ones and widen the
understanding of public space as a multi-faceted and complex social and spatial
Provide strong theoretical background and make techniques applicable to the different
urban contexts.
Link one specific placemaking process to its wider context and observe the implications
at scale – thus ensuring that the single intervention does not impact negatively on the
urban equilibrium.
Bring future professionals in direct contact with real case scenarios taking them out of
an isolated academic setting.
Initiate collaborations between different disciplines and institutions and engage
individuals as well as groups.
Generate capacities playing an indirect, informal role in the field.
However, the following points need to be mentioned among the challenges:
Due to time and resource limitation, the understanding of challenges can be limited,
especially with regards to interpersonal and inter-organizational relationships and their
evolution over time.
Operating within experimental solutions might result unfeasible for practical reasons.
Innovations are unlikely to be enforced by outsiders and need time to be accepted.
Novel thinking can disrupt existing balances and improper communication can raise
unintended expectations.
A single intervention – maybe even strengthened through the academic support - might
contribute to an unequal development within the neighbourhood and eventually lead to
The specific conditions of the selected case or scenario - in terms of socio-economic
development, local culture, etc. - strongly influence the collaboration process and the
specific role taken by academic institutions. There is no standard concept.
Similarly, ways of using urban space are worldwide different, it needs to be further
explored how comparable the processes are and how different the approaches and
tools need to be.
We conclude that knowledge institutions such as the IHS can undoubtedly play an important
role for placemaking. The establishment of collaboration frameworks with local actors is
important for successful placemaking processes. This can serve both as an entry point and a
mandate for academic institutions. Moreover, within such collaboration frameworks exists the
possibility of actual knowledge co-creation and cross-contamination between the different
actors that can be fed back into the academic course. Eventually, the creation of local alliances
can empower communities as new knowledge is brought in and contributes to societal change
supported by academia.
Notwithstanding, the role of academic institutions in placemaking also has clear limits.
Mandate, legitimacy and the level of engagement need to be agreed and negotiated with local
stakeholders in the process. Academic institutions provide knowledge, but lack financial or
political resources for implementing identified interventions. They can however help to
mobilize funds and resources by organizing coalitions and establishing links with decision
Academic institutions need to be careful in addressing all relevant stakeholders. For example, in
our experience, the engagement with the private sector proved to be d ifficult, also given the
wide range of organizations, ranging from local shops to international real estate investors.
However, academic institutions possess the capacity to properly assess their interests, thus
providing support to the residents and civil society groups dealing with the business sector.
Moreover, academic institutions need to be careful in managing the expectations raised during
educational activities. In many cases, the projects developed can result of difficult
implementation. Therefore it is of paramount importance to communicate properly with local
stakeholders regarding the future of such plans, including the possibility of repeating similar
experiences with new participants.
We suggest that further research explores the role of knowledge institutions more precisely in
terms of power ownership, as addressed by Wittmayer & Schäpke (2014).
It is not new that academics engage in placemaking and urban development activities. In
Rotterdam there are other initiatives such as the Veldacademie (see: Also, globally, there is a growing number of academic work
directly engaging in the field of placemaking, for example at the POLIS University in Tirana
Albania (see: These approaches need however to be
more consistently and systematically evaluated and more actively promoted. The recently
established European Network for Global Urbanisms “Just Urban” also demonstrates keen
interest in the subject of integrative placemaking. This paper is an attempt to contribute to the
general knowledge created around the topic and also to build further expertise within our
We believe that the responsibility for transforming our cities should be shared among different
actors. We think that by bringing different forces together we can achieve inclusive and
effective ways of urban development. As urban researchers, we have identified public spaces as
the core pattern that constitutes our cities. Good public spaces can increase social cohesion,
stimulate businesses, make real estate socially responsible and ensure environmental qualities.
Good public spaces – or places - are of key importance for making our cities work.
The experience presented here proves the potential that academic institutions have, as actors
in placemaking processes as well as the limitations of their engagement. Our self-assessment
generated further questions regarding our role which needs to be further analysed through
research in different directions, which we intend to further explore in the near future.
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