New urban planning: long-lasting innovation or just a temporary illusion? [PART 1]

Foto by Zoetnet on Flickr

Ivan Tosics

By Ivan Tosics, on January 17th, 2019

> Read Ivan Tosics's articles

Iván Tosics, URBACT Programme Expert from the Metropolitan Research Institut in Budapest asks whether new urban planning methods will stand the test of time.

The Great Financial Crisis (economists talk about the crisis in capital letters) created a new situation: the severe changes in economic and financial conditions extorted the revision of existing public policies. Under the worsening financial conditions the traditional functioning of cities collapsed: urban regeneration projects stopped, social welfare systems have been curtailed and private market investments were postponed.

The crisis started from the financial sector but soon spread into the political sphere. Throughout this process the problems of traditional policies became evident: market failures in countries with weak public policies, and – in some countries with strong public policies – even public failures, i.e. inefficiencies and debatable orientations of the earlier public policies.

By the end of the 2000s, a growing need evolved for a new public policy and planning approach, both on the supply side – as the traditional methods proved to be wrong, and on the demand side – as citizens wanted to see changes and became increasingly ready to act.

Examples and practices of new urban policies and planning

Accounts about the aftermath of the crisis tell us that the first visible changes in public policies appeared in the delivery of concrete public services, in those countries, where the withdrawal of public money was substantial and this affected immediately the local municipalities, as well.

The dramatic cut in local government budget led to fundamental changes in the delivery of public services. The philosophy of co-production has been introduced in the management of parks, and running libraries, based on voluntary work of citizens. Even statutory services, which cannot be delivered in new ways, as long as there are legal obligations, have been modified through co-production processes.
Owain Jones, Lambeth Borough of London Council (UK)

The municipality is not able any more to provide the same services, thus steps back into a position to govern and organize the process. For example in social and educational services the municipality was getting down from the throne, becoming one of the stakeholders and instead of delivering directly the service, changed into indirect provider in the role of organizer and quality controller.”
Serena Foracchia, Deputy Mayor of Reggio Emilia (IT)

The new approaches soon became mainstream in many EU countries and spread out to planning in more general terms. It became evident that the traditional top-down planning interventions of the public sector, which were in many cases very costly, are not possible any more: cheaper and more efficient solutions have to be looked for. Innovative approaches were developed regarding the use of public spaces, and the links to ordinary citizens.

There is less money available for the regeneration of deprived areas. In an area with high share of migrants, even the decentralized office had to be shut down. In this situation new social trust is created with organizations, which already have links to the area, with the aim of mapping the needs and building responses through the existing strength of the neighbourhood. A new law allows now for such associations to occupy unused areas and to create temporary use of empty buildings.
Serena Foracchia, Deputy Mayor of Reggio Emilia

A hospital was demolished and the political decision was to leave the resulting free space to be used by the public according to their own plans. Nearby residents were invited to make plans. There was high interest and finally a core team of 7 people made a plan consulting with local stakeholders, including 200+ citizens. They have also formed a company responsible for the implementation of this community plan and the maintenance of the park afterwards. The process was faster, cheaper and more representative than if the city council would have done it.”
Anne de Feijter, Amersfoort (NL)

Under the new conditions urban planning had to become more flexible, and more open to unusual ideas and notions coming from the local communities.

In a big building block with mixed use (industry, housing, office towers) and predominantly private ownership in the transitory belt of the city the industrial buildings are abandoned. Instead of making a master plan, the city is currently negotiating a process with the private owners. The aim is to have an agreement in 6 months about the principles how a master plan should be done. Then the owners should do their own master plan – thus the city facilitates owners (who otherwise would not talk to each other) to get together. In this project the city experiments to turn around the planning process, stepping back into the role of facilitator of the process, regulator of the common interest and project leader of the (short-term) potentialities, such as temporary use.
Valérie van der Velde, Isabel Verhaen, Antwerp (BE)

British planning law was reformed, and the neighborhood planning process was made possible giving designated community groups the right to set up their own plans. In one case a vision of an ecological park with visitor center to see biodiversity has been brought up by a front-runner neighbourhood-planning group. A social enterprise supported this community group to get funding for a pre-feasibility study. Now a community energy feasibility plan is developed on using renewables there, to provide an income stream, to fund the gradual development of the area.
Conor Moloney, London (UK)

In order to better respond to the changing conditions, the internal structure of some of the municipalities has been changed radically, similarly to the rules regulating the planning procedures.

A transition process within the city council has started in 2012, introducing a cultural change in how public servants work. The concept of “free-range civil servants” was introduced (with hint to the free-range chicken!): council employees responsible for districts are expected to go out in the field and work together with stakeholders. The city council works directly with steakeholders and involves them in decision-making as equal partners. The organization of the city hall has also changed, the number of departments were reduced from 35 to 20, to push for a more horizontal approach.
Anne de Feijter, Amersfoort, NL

In Italy dedicated training programmes for public sector managers have been introduced, helping them to find out how to work with networks, how to shape processes, how to handle different stakeholders, how to explore new mixtures of resources. Public officials need competences, above the experiences gained through learning-by-doing, to become more open minded.
Germana di Falco, Italy

The general message of the day is to deregulate and decentralize.

Rules are supposed to make things easier” – if not, one should consider changing, suspending or getting rid of them!
Anne de Feijter, Amersfoort

Paralel to the weakening of the old-style political machinery and the innovative changes in municipal policies, in many countries citizens became much more active and strived for more influence over urban development.

One of the (few) favorable political effects of the deep crisis in Greece is that citizens became more proactive: they are now forming groups and demand a word in issues concerning them. In Athens, for example, students occupied a park to prevent the building of a parking lot. Now it is managed by a neighbourhood community group using it as a community space for cultural events. People also started also to be more responsible voters, as a result of which the largest Greek cities, after 25 years of conservative leadership, have got new, left wing mayors with more progressive agendas.
Nicholas Karachalis, Vollos (GR)

People became more active in Poland too. The reason is not the economic crisis, as there is no lack of funds for urban regeneration in Poland – much money has been used from EU Cohesion policy that is the main financing source of regeneration programmes. However, the use of this money was not good: mostly renovation of public spaces and facades has been done instead of real regeneration. Citizens started to become more active in the last 5 years, usually starting from opposition against a city decision, taken without real consultations. Oppositional groups came gradually together to form a citizen movement, which is most active in the largest cities and there is already a convention of city movements in Poland. All this might lead to change (at least) in the use of European Funds towards real integrated regeneration.
Aldo Vargas-Tetmajer, Poznan (PO)

The process of development of new public policies and planning

It is important to recognize that despite the general trend, the development of new urban policies and planning is very uneven across EU countries, depending on the structure and deepness of the economic crisis, but also on the cultural traditions and the political power structure of the countries.

There are different pathways visible in the development of innovative public policies and planning, which can be grouped (with serious simplifications) into three main forms:

  • central government initiated new local policies: in most European countries many tasks, especially in the case of social welfare services, got decentralized and delegated from the national level to municipalities, with parallel reduction of budgets. In order to achieve innovative outcomes on the local level, in some of the countries the central government has introduced other changes, such as e.g. offering communities the chance to take control of local assets in the form of neighborhood planning process (UK), encouraging simplification on a local level (NL), giving regulatory help to cooperate across functional urban areas in the form of settlement associations (FR), giving larger room of manoeuvre to the largest cities through introducing metropolitan level governance (IT).
  •  Innovative policies and planning introduced by local politicians: in a number of cities, among others Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Athens, Thessaloniki, Naples, newly elected mayors became the initiators of changes. Their political will towards more sustainable, equitable, inclusive local societies can only be approached by new public policies based on opennes towards the bottom, the citizens and NGO-s, as the upper political levels are usually against these ideas. Barcelona, as informal spiritual leader of this new thinking, launched a new municipalist movement to bring together progressive local forces against the traditional, regressive and neo-liberal government policies.
  • changes towards new public policies initiated from below, by residents and NGOs: in some countries, where neither the central, nor the local politicians show interest towards new public policies, changes can only come from the people themselves, backed by innovative third sector organizations. Italy, for example, has long tradition for private society, NGOs, volunteers starting to activate network solutions, optimizing levels of resources which are not so high than they were in the past, allowing capability to work together, create synergies, including crowdsourcing, social networks (Germana di Falco). This movement is nowadays increasingly strong in Poland too, where at least the politicians of some of the larger cities show opennes for the new thoughts. In some other countries however, where the regressive political power is strong and controls all positions on national and local level, such civic movements are only in their initial phase, and it is not easy to see how they could achieve break-through in public policy making.

Conditions influencing the development of new policies

The changes towards the new thinking in public policy making and planning came suddenly, as a reaction on the financial crisis that brought an abrupt end to the earlier development policies. After a few years of euphoria of experimenting with new approaches, it is now clear that it is not easy to ensure that the new policies and planning methods are sustainable in the long run.

One of the key conditions to make new urban planning long-lasting, is to reform the thinking of public officials and planners, achieving real mindset-changes. In some countries and cities there are organized efforts taken in this direction, in the form of competence trainings (e.g. Amersfoort), or dedicated training programmes for public sector managers (e.g. Italian cities). In many places efforts concentrate on bridging over the silos within the local government.

Colleagues from different departments, when coming together to tackle a given problem in an integrated approach, sense their responsibilities in delivering change”.
Ann Hyde, Glasgow (UK)

In Reggio Emilia the whole executive of the municipality was involved, and all departments – educational, urban, participation, migrants – were interested when the new law on temporary use of empty buildings was discussed (Serena Foracchia).

Another key condition is to train and educate people in order to enable them to react innovatively on the new opportunities.

The fundamental question is whether society has the structural capability to participate in decision-making, as people get increasingly commercialized and consumerism seems to go hand-in-hand with ignorance of local public issues. Therefore an important objective in this transition is to enable people to participate in a valuable way, and actually get them involved once they are enabled.
Jim Sims, Buckinghamshire (UK)

In large German cities, such as Berlin or Leipzig the residents are well-educated to participate, which is one of the factors why a consultative process might work. In smaller places this is not the case and it might be more problematic to let people decide what they want.”
Stephan Westermann, Berlin, Magdeburg (GE)

In smaller places with less educated people and deprived population groups, where the whole community suffers from cuts in public services, capacity building needs to be brought to the people. This is why the third sector is very useful.
Conor Moloney, London

The new type public policies and planning tools need continuous monitoring and control to ensure that they serve public interests.

It should be absolutely clear and proven that the economic aspects don’t dominate, but rather the aim to best serve the common interests of the people. The results of the innovated public policies (e.g. urban commons regulations) should be carefully monitored, checking the fulfilment of the condition to ensure public interests – e.g. the free access for everyone. Frequent checks are needed to ensure that the less educated people get enough extra help enabling them to participate in the new processes. It is also important to recognize that even within the most innovative local municipalities some core services and public tasks (such as legal issues, general administrative tasks, safety issues) should be kept under direct public control and should not be transferred to population or any type of interest groups.
Anne de Feijter, Amersfoort

The importance and the endangered future of the new public policies and planning

The new types of public policies and planning, which developed since the financial crisis, are of prime importance to strengthen local democracy in Europe. It is hard to over-estimate the importance of local democracy in the present-day EU, which is threatened by many types of crises: environment, migration, terrorism, Brexit, public debt, raising inequalities, just to name a few. The new planning methods, if applied correctly, might achieve with relatively little public money better involvement of people into public policies than many of the gigantic infrastructure investments.

Having said all this, the future of the new public policies and planning is not at all bright and easy. With the recent return of economic development the initial conditions (which led to more opennes of public sector stakeholders towards new policies) change. As a result of that, there is a danger that public policies change backwards to the traditional methods that were used in the period before the economic crisis and market actors become dominant again. This would lead to the fading away of the innovations in public policy and planning – except if special efforts are made to preserve the innovative elements of the last decade.

In this crucial moment, when the potential loss of important achievements made over the last decade is at stake, the EU could play a role. The EU should re-think and refine those policies (e.g. competition policy, too strictly applied state aid rules), which have negative effects towards the new public policies and planning methods. Moreover, braver EU policies would be needed to strengthen the new policies, by controlling the use of EU Cohesion Policy money in an effective way, creating stronger initiatives for more environmentally and socially oriented interventions, based on real public participation.

With thanks for the cooperation of Peter Ramsden and Francois Jegou, Nils Schaeffler and Maarten van Tuilj.

The new public policies and planning: the role of URBACT” second part of this article – will be published next week!



Ramsden, P – Tosics, I, 2017: Urban regeneration before and after the crisis. A capitalisation report for the URBACT programme. (Unpublished.)

Tosics, I, 2018a: Creating temporary space for experimentation about future activities. 27 March 2018

Tosics, I. 2018b: Lessons To Be Learnt From The Economic Crisis. In: Second Chance Thematic Paper No 3: Involving Urban Actors in the Reactivation of Vacant Buildings. 29 July 2018

Tosics, I. 2017: Densification beyond the city centre: urban transformation against sprawl. 19 January 2017.

URBACT Re-making the city webtool, developed by Francois Jegou, Nils Schaeffler, Maarten van Tuilj and Iván Tosics, 2018

van Tuilj, M, 2016: Transforming planning in the urban fringe – expert-opinion. URBACT

List of interviews taken at the URBACT City Festival in Riga, in May 2015:

  • Serena Foracchia – deputy mayor of Reggio Emilia
  • Germana di Falco – Italy
  • Attlia Ughy – mayor of district 18, Budapest
  • Aldo Vargas-Tetmajer – Poznan
  • Poznan Anne de Feijter – Amersfoort
  • Ann Hyde – Glasgow
  • Jim Sims – Buckinghamshire, UK
  • Nicholas Karachalis – Vollos, Greece
  • Owain Jones – Lambeth Borough of London Council
  • Stephan Westermann – Berlin, Magdeburg
  • Valérie van der Velde and Isabel Verhaen – Antwerp
  • Conor Moloney – London

Leave a Reply