Chapter 5: The Mother Center

 

 

I)      Introduction

 

This chapter starts the section describing the social projects of the Nest! study, the approaches suggested for advancing social cohesion and community building. The Mother Center, the International Garden (Chapter 10) and the Community Academy (Chapter 12) each are organised around interests that connect people from many cultural and social backgrounds. Children are often the first to “break the ice” in a new neighborhood. They are interested in each other regardless of the backgrounds of their families. The “chat over the garden fence” is also proverbial for generating neighborhood contacts. The Community Academy finally offers opportunities to interact and connect around vision, story telling, learning, skills and knowledge building.

 

 Chapter 5: The Nest! Development Plan

 

 

 

I) Introduction

 

 

Making new partnerships in local governance has become more necessary than ever. The external conditions such as a shift of scale in the organization of building, and a change of roles and balance of forces have led to a crisis in urban development, to which the field has not yet developed answers. We see an answer and a solution in widening the existing partnerships, specifically by including local community partners. Only by adding a process oriented social component to the development process, can the resulting product contain the distinguishing qualities that are currently required of a competitive neighborhood.

 

 

 

II) Respectful collaboration

 

 

Shifting of Scale sets new organizational Conditions

 

For ages building was a strictly local affair. Local developers commissioned a number of houses to be built by a local contractor. Over time the scale of organization changed. Throughout the twentieth century, national government took over more and more responsibility, setting the standards and providing the means.

 

Over the past decade another shift in scale of organization has been taking place. Globalization, privatization and reduced governmental budgets require another organizational response to new developments.

 

In other fields than urban development, the shift in external conditions has led to changed organizational patterns. Infrastructure works that used to be done by state agencies are developed by globally operating private firms. An example is the mobile telephone network, where a state controlled agency guarantees quality levels and a fair competition between private firms. Such a regrouping into a new balance of forces, where government is a referee rather then the principle player, has not occurred yet in the sector of urban development. Several scholars have documented and warned against the resulting fragmentation, like Marvin and Graham in their book Splintering Urbanism[56].

 

 

Social Problems resulting from a Partnership Gap

 

As we have analyzed in detail with our case example in the chapter on changing urban environments (Chapter 2), the possibilities of the public private partnerships at work in present city developments are limited. There are conflicting objectives and the division of roles and responsibilities is not always clear. The municipality does not have the strength to be the principle player it was before, nor does it have the influence to be a referee, steering from the side.

 

‘Making ends meet’ has become an important driving force. The pressure on the land exploitation budget results either in high prices or in saving on private and public space. Or both.

A recent study of the Ministry of Housing Planning and Environment[57] concludes that town extension programs like the Vinex neighborhoods as a result risk being the social problem areas in a few decades to come. Different from the post-war reconstruction neighborhoods, they barely have any social development perspective at their base. There are social requirements in the program, but this is just one of the ‘items on the list’ (and not the most prominent one) instead of the guiding principle. Thus the need for a future social intervention program seems ‘in built’.

 

The problem here is not a lack of governmental possibilities to steer the process. The possibilities to set the rules are so large, that on the contrary, there is a call to reduce the governmental influence on in this respect (See chapter 12 on Finding space for innovation, where we discuss the rules and regulations regarding the building sector). The problem is not only financial either, considering that it was there too during the economic boom of the late nineties. The point is, that local social issues simply cannot be dealt with by global technical organizations.

 

A town extension differs from the mentioned example of the extension of the telephone network in that it is specific for that town. It is local and it is social, otherwise it cannot result in a competitive living environment, which depends on non-physical elements like ‘atmosphere’ and ‘identity’. The technically optimal solution will by definition be standardized, which is mortal for a social organism like a neighborhood.

 

 

Widening the Partnership

 

In order to overcome the problems related to the shifting organizational context, the partnership needs to be widened. The past decade has seen urban development become the realm of ever larger, more professional developing, engineering and construction companies, operating on a national or even global level. This has resulted in improved efficiency and optimal technical solutions, but on a social level the quality of resulting living environments have not improved.

 

As large as the operating organizations might be, in terms of partnerships the field has become more narrow. The involved stakeholders have become over time more and more professional, but fewer in number and less diverse.

 

It is typical that the billboards and advertisements of developers and real estate agents depict exactly those elements that a technically perfect solution can’t provide: people, atmosphere, community, identity. To bring those elements in, new partners have to be involved. They need to be the experts on what makes that neighborhood tick, so by definition they need to be local.

 

Such an enlarged partnership can only work, if the local community is recognized and accepted as a partner contributing a substantive missing element. In this respect the municipality has an important facilitating role to play, to provide the space and the respect for the local community to play its role in a constructive way.

 

This requires courage from the present developing partners. They need to take a step back in power. They need to recognize the community as a valid, qualified and equal power. They need to accept that a vital part of the product they are working on cannot be provided by their own efforts. They need to realize that involving the local community is not an act of gracefully handing out a gift, but gratefully accepting a contribution.

The attitude and collaboration needs to change accordingly.

 

“Governments are characterized by uniformity, standardization and formality, seeking to establish general guidelines and regulations that will ‘fit all’. It is this generalizing imperative of central governments, that is structurally at odds with creative local initiatives. And yet, it is creative local initiatives that are the essential power for regenerating community. Therefore, great flexibility is necessary if large governments are to support community building. And if this flexibility is not possible, it may be best for large governments to learn how to get out of the way of local efforts.” (Community Women’s Education Initiative, CWEI, Ireland)[58]

 

 

Networking Governance

 

New alliances are needed to react to the new reality that has been existing on the ground, but that has not found its translation in organizational structures. Notions like the ‘network society’ and ‘the creative city’ have been accepted, but have not been matched yet by a networking governance or a creative management. Areas that manage to make effective use of their networking capacities will be better equipped to be competitive in a world where the ‘space of place’ is giving way to the ‘space of flow’. In a recent essay on the re-clustering of spatial planning in the Netherlands, Luc Boelens argues that additional strategies are needed to improve the steering capacities of networks[59].

 

Because planning has become a multi-actor game, a reframing of the planning approach is needed. The managerial top-down approach does not work anymore. Even the entrepreneurial approach in which promising sectors are ‘seduced’ to invest in the town, is too limited. Boelens sees the way out in horizontal alliances of a multitude of stakeholders from economical, social, cultural and ecological fields. Such a re-clustering into alliances, will allow for networking governance. How such a connection between global and local and between government and network stakeholders will be developed, remains to be seen. Boelens sees the first seeds of a new networking governance in experimental urban practices, that take the stakeholder as a starting point.

 

In his conclusions, Boelens suggests to free half of the urban planning capacity, from the traditional government centered practice, to addressing the re-clustering challenges of tomorrow. The development process in the Nest! could be a perfect test of his theory. It would not need to involve as massive a claim as half of the planning capacity in Arnhem, in order to be a challenging and enriching learning experience, setting the pace for the urban development practice of the network society.

 

 

 

III) The Nest! as a Development Incubator

 

 

The Nest! is about introducing a new player into urban development: the local community. It is about not leaving urban planning and urban development up to professionals, to developers and local government, but to add and include the vision and expertise of the (future) inhabitants. The Nest! applies the concept of “more responsibility and participation of citizens” to the field of urban planning. For Schuytgraaf, the Nest! suggests to coordinate, plan and develop the last part of Schuytgraaf. More in general, Nest! settlements during their existence always help develop a part of the newly to be developed area. Obviously the owners and developers of the sites need to be central cooperation partners in the process.

 

 

Added Value of Localizing Urban Development

 

Localizing urban development can assure that local perspectives get a space. Rather than building for an abstract ‘market’ the community develops for its own requirements. This obviously has the advantage that the resulting neighborhood fits the needs of its population, and that as a result the filing of protests and objections are avoided and that a good market value of the product is assured. But the advantages are even greater, they include giving the settlement a greater competitive edge on the market.

 

A neighborhood developed by the people of Arnhem will be a very local product. It will have an Arnhem identity. And whatever the Arnhem identity is, it is different from standard and different from other towns. It will differ from something that good designers alone will come up with. It will in brief be different from neighborhoods developed simultaneously in other towns. Making the difference is what is needed to attract new inhabitants and keep the existing ones. It is what is needed to sell houses, which is an argument well understood by developers.

 

Formulated differently, introducing the local community as a development partner implies an investment of a different nature in the project. These investments can be capitalized in real estate value. Solid social investments in the area will assure that the houses will be quickly sold, which is under present circumstances already quite something. Moreover, this investment will assure the stability of the value over time. It can assure that the problems foreseen in town extension programs like Vinex, can be avoided. The fruit of the social development, will be anchored in the physical development.

 

The development plan to be produced by the Nest! will be different from the plans normally produced when developing a new neighborhood. It will be wider in scope. It will contain elements that, in the view of a mainstream project developer, are superfluous and beside the point. It will also be different from plans normally made in the social sector. At grassroots level, the distinction between the social and physical realm is not so clear. A physical object like a park is understood in terms of recreation. Similarly, a social problem like security, is immediately translated to measures like speed-bumps or well-lit pathways. The grassroots level is the best level to integrate social and physical policy.

 

 

The Process of Involvement

 

The starting point of the Nest! development plan is not a prescribed program. The starting point is the commitment of the stakeholders to come to a development in a collaborative process and to accept the outcome of that process. Obviously, some rules and limits have to be set in advance. There has to be a fair balance between the investment and the influence of different partners. Taking ownership also implies taking responsibility. In the present situation, involvement of the community in building plans is often resented, because officials anticipate that fear of change will block any development possibility. In a collaborative effort, the power to say “no” comes with the responsibility to mediate alternatives. Rather than working with a plan that ‘the others’ say “yes” or “no” to, the whole exercise unfolds more gradually as a consensus building process.

 

The process begins with a vision building process with all stakeholders. What is the vision we have for this area, what objectives do we want to realize? Such a process brings to light conflicting interests and ideas. In order to avoid that negotiation and conflict come up before any program or project is even started, the vision building can be preceded by a scenario planning exercise. This has been done in Arnhem in the past to come to a city vision, which makes the town a perfect testing ground for the Nest! methodology.[60]

In scenarios, possible futures are explored in cooperation. This gives a completely different basis for negotiations than when an authority sets normative goals from the beginning. The exploration of possibilities leads to a good understanding of the position of other stakeholders. The end of the vision building phase (that does not need to take very long) is a common statement about the nature of the development that is to take place. The resulting vision does not need to be concrete at all, more important is to get the shared values and principles out in the open by discussing questions like what objectives do we have in common, what type of development is excluded, what are the priorities of the involved parties, what is the nature of the collaboration.

 

After a common vision has been defined, a programming cycle links the resources of the partners to the general vision and the characteristics of the location. This is the bit that conventionally tends to already have been done, by the time the community comes to the table in interactive planning. It is also the subject that really is the most important to come to an agreement about. It is very difficult to say “yes” or “no” to a housing plan, when you are not convinced that housing is the best use of the area to begin with. So what happens, is that people are inclined to say “NO” just to be on the safe side.

 

Dream and reality have to be separated in this phase. Not all objectives of everybody can be realized in every project. A program has to be drawn up, that makes best use of the possibilities of the partners in the developing coalition, as well as the possibilities of the location at hand. Clear agreements have to be set about the limits and possibilities of the involved partners.

 

In many cases hard conditions from outside will determine a bottom line. A participating housing corporation might not be able to invest if fewer then X houses are built, of which a certain percentage needs to be of a specific type. The municipality will be bound by agreements with the higher governance levels or stipulations of the municipal council, that certain objectives have to be realized in the area. In many cases the program seems to be set completely beforehand, by non controllable external factors. In fact the program may be pre-determined beforehand beyond the possibilities of the location. This is definitely the case to a wide extent in Schuytgraaf, where an ambitious housing program needs to be supplemented by social services, green space, parking and so forth. Even then a dialog process involving the local community can help to communicate given realities.

 

At first sight, it seems that getting in an additional player with additional claims only complicates the puzzle. This is the fact when reasoned from a digital logic, but the program claims that come from the Nest! are of an analogue nature. The claims and conditions are more process and relationship oriented in nature, than product oriented.

 

Not the “what” but the “how” is the most important focus. This may lead to a considerable saving in program requirements, rather than an enlargement.

 

Take for example child care. General norms prescribe so many square meters per inhabitant that have to meet certain conditions of hygiene and be staffed by personnel of a certain level of qualification.

Such standards come out of solutions that have proven to work, rather than out of the objectives behind them. Parents want good care for their children, they do not have strong opinions about square meters or child-adapted toilets, that they do not have at home either. They tend to have a very clear view, however, on what is affordable and what is not. They will settle for a facility that is smaller and has fewer options.

So they will compromise on something that meets their objective, rather than having their budget inhibit access to the perfect solution.

This is just an example on micro-level. In general the principle is that by involving the local actors compromise making is built in early in the process. and compromise making involves the most affected: the end users. This assures that a good balance is found between “all and nothing” concerning all the important issues. Such a process avoids that more is invested than is strictly needed, or that things become unaffordable, which is well worth the extra time involved.

 

The expertise of professionals is enlisted to realize the plans and visions once they are defined. Social visions tend to get stuck in abstract generalities, whereas physical projects tend to lose sight of the primary objectives they were supposed to address. In the proposed process this major trap in urban development is avoided. Too often, first very general social goals get defined (if at all) and then -too soon- the practical physical development takes over. In the jump to practical measures, once the project evolves and time and money constraints require alterations. the connection to the original objectives gets lost.

 

When the community is involved from the start and throughout the process, this trap is less likely to occur, also because it starts well ahead of anything else to allow for a slow enfoldment.

 

 

Community Building as a Prerequisite for Community Involvement

 

Community building is an integral part of developing civic participation in urban planning. In the previous chapter the Neighborhood Academy is described as taking an important role in this part of the process, by organizing a community building process that generates the required knowledge, motivation, vision and consensus building of the residents.

 

This is not an extra, but a basic element of the necessary process. Professionals go through a learning and qualification process before they start their practice. Government goes through a dialogue and consensus building process before plans and programs are implemented. In the case of introducing the local community as a new partner in urban planning, it should not be individuals or single interest groups entering local governance or speaking for civil society. Communities need to be involved in a participative process of collective vision building and decision making and a transparent process of local accountability to be a legitimate partner.

 

 

Changing the Culture of Development

 

Experience when creating cross-sector partnerships show that an important condition of successfully partnering with community groups is to adjust the professional culture to a more inclusive climate.[61] This is not an easy thing to do. In the case of community involvement in development processes generated by temporary settlements, this could be done for instance by physically placing the offices of the project management in the premises of the Neighborhood Academy.

In this way the atmosphere of the temporary settlement takes the lead in the working culture of the development project. Just like the Mother Centers have been called ‘public living rooms’, the Nest! Academy will be a ‘public kitchen table’. Very real and concrete products come out of the process, just like from a kitchen, and at the same time it has a home-like pleasant atmosphere.

Project development becomes demystified and above all, it becomes fun and exciting.

The culture of professionalism that is watched and criticized from the outside, is changed into a development from the inside, for which the involved population takes responsibility.

 

Click here for the next chapter (full text)

Next chapter summery