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Transforming planning the urban fringe - expert opinion

05 October 2016

Urban transformation requires a different approach and a different set of instruments than urban expansion. During the first transnational meeting of the sub>urban network around the theme of ‘Transforming Planning’ several city partners showed us how they are currently finding new ways to deal with their specific challenges of transforming the urban fringe.


Many cities in our network already have extensive experience with transformation of the historic city centre. However, the area they are trying to improve now, is not the historic city, but the often non glorious post war urban fringe. The fringe is a  mix of large modernist housing estates, low-density private housing, malls, logistical companies, recreational areas, businesses and industrial zones.

What all cities share is that (at the moment) private market parties are not really interested in taking actions in these areas to improve them and make them more sustainable. On top of that in most cases  the land and the buildings in this area are privately owned, both by big corporations and private households. This makes the influence that municipalities can have through planning limited. At the moment most partner cities are dealing with a deadlock situation at their Integrated Action Plan sites, which they would like to improve as part of this Urbact 3 Program. Therefore cities are challenged to find new ways to engage and involve private parties: owners, investors, developers, residents, workers and potential newcomers.


The Urbact 3 Program offers an excellent opportunity to try out new ways and experiment. Some cities in our network try to influence private parties by strict regulations and zoning plans. Others do exactly the opposite and give them more flexibility in regulations. And again others are embracing a new role as facilitators of a participatory step by step process. Based on presentations during our first transnational meeting in Antwerp this article gives an overview of innovative approaches to the challenge of engaging private parties to improve the urban fringe in the partner cities of Antwerp, Santa Coloma de Gramenet (Area Metropolitana Barcelona) and Oslo. 

1. Dealing with fragmented ownership in a mixed use area: Lageweg Antwerp

Transforming planning Lageweg Antwerp

Antwerp focused on three urban regeneration areas at the transnational meeting (TNM). The military hospital  in the centre, the former harbor area of het Eilandje near the centre and the Lageweg area in the fringe of Antwerp. What sets the Lageweg area apart from the first two is an inertia from the private market to take initiative, combined with a high number of owners with small plot sizes. This makes planning much more complex and time consuming. Although Antwerp has almost no land positions here, the city decided to break the status quo, speeding up the development process of this area, that is confronted with dropping economic activity and resulting vacancy of space. By proactively stimulating a cross-allotment approach and building coalitions between the different owners, the city is trying to start up the transformation process. Together with their consultants they have developed a specific set of consecutive instruments to do this. Starting with mind opening dialogues and an exploratory kick-off discussion, they want to define collective ambitions for the area. Secondly, they organized co-creative design tables involving an interactive scale model of different scenarios in order to build collective trusts. Thirdly, they did a safari tour on the site, a guided walk with all the stakeholders with a brochure showing possible future scenarios in one, five or twenty years’ time. They got spontaneous suggestions and ideas during the tour. Finally an adaptable spatial and financial calculation model, which was paid for and therefore owned by the owners, was developed to test the feasibility of several options. The common calculation model showed what the benefits are at the moment and what the benefits could be in the longer run. The model made clear that selling the property at the moment is not profitable and therefore that working together and developing a plan together is financially more rewarding than developing separately.

Recently 9 out of 10 landowners signed a declaration of engagement to work and invest together in the project.  The next step will be to work on an agreement to create a “bank of land properties”. This joint venture will allow to work across property borders and make an effective plan for the whole area that will allow for phased development.

Compared to a classic linear planning process, where each moment has a specific purpose, where tension between stakeholders is a nuisance and the dialogue with the stakeholders takes place after the making of a vision,  the vision in Lageweg was shaped during the dialogue, the tension was turned into a productive way of working and each moment had several purposes. 

Curious to read more on the subject?  sub_urban_transformingplanning_lageweg

2. Incentives for refurbishment of private houses: Santa Coloma de Gramenet (Area Metropolitana Barcelona)


Map of Barcelona Metropolitan Area

The municipality of Santa Coloma de Gramenet, part of the Barcelona Metropolitan Region, makes use of top down innovative legal instruments to break their deadlock situation in trying to improve an existing urban area together with the residents and in this way give respond to a bottom-up ambition by the majority of owners to refurbish their housing block. The area who’s density increased dramatically between 1955 and 1975 (from 20.000 to 140.000 inhabitants) is now facing several problems. Next to a lack of public space and public infrastructure, many buildings are  in a bad state and need to be made more sustainable. The ownership is fragmented, as in the case of Antwerp, since all the houses are privately owned. Previous attempts by the municipality for collective renovations were blocked by individual owners who were not willing to pay their share.

The municipality then launched a new plan linking a spatial strategic plan with a juridical and participative strategy. They launched a competition for a strategic plan to improve the insulation and appearance of the facades, increase the accessibility introducing elevators for the older owners  and in this way making the neighborhood a better place. Since the few owners who were not willing to pay were blocking the refurbishment of the whole block, the municipality uses a housing act to enforce the costs upon all owners. Burdens and profits are shared equally among owners based on the percentage of ownership. In the worst case if owners do not participate in the improvements the law dictates that owners can even lose their property. Though this is not the intention of the municipality this law helps to pressure certain owners, who have funds but are not willing to participate.  

There are three ways to pay the contribution to the improvements. Owners who do not live there themselves have to pay everything at the beginning and banks who own property of people who could no longer pay their mortgage also have to pay everything at the beginning. Private owners who still live there can choose to pay everything up front, pay a monthly contribution or when this is financially not possible they do not have to pay, but then a debt to the municipality is annotated in the housing property register.  This debt will be settled at the moment the house is sold. In this way the complete refurbishment can be financed.

The Pirineus street was chosen as a pilot. The process is ongoing. If it succeeds, the approach will be extended to the rest of the neighbourhood.

Compared to a more traditional Barcelona approach where existing buildings are demolished and replaced with more square meters to finance everything, the process in Pirineus street takes longer, is far more complex and uncertain and financially less profitable for the municipality. On the other hand the traditional approach no longer works here due to financial crisis and the fact that housing prices went down, so the municipality is forced to investigate new ways. This new approach is less traumatic in the sense that existing buildings are preserved and improved, the community is better engaged and other problems such as speculative subletting, the needs of the elderly, lack of financial means of owners are better detected and addressed.

Curious to read more on the subject? sub_urban_transformingplanning_AMB.pdf

3. Efficient and flexible planning by not fixing everything: The Oslo Model


sub>urban project area in Oslo

Oslo is a demographically fast growing city. It is situated between the sea and hilly forests which are key qualities for the city. In order to preserve the natural qualities and ensure a more sustainable growth the  city has therefore decided  a strategy of  transformation and densification of existing urban areas.

First of all Oslo acknowledges that for some cases the traditional master plan is the right tool. For instance when there is only one land owner or when there is a high dependency on new public infrastructure. But in other cases the traditional planning processes are too complicated, too rigid and too slow, making it unattractive for private parties to start developments. Therefore Oslo is trying new ways to speed up and simplify this process of transformation and make it more flexible and resilient. The city is essentially doing this by focusing on the essentials and leaving room for private parties to fill in the rest. For this ‘next to traditional’ master plan Oslo has developed the so-called Planning Program and VPOR (Principle Plan for the Public Space) to guide the main interests, leaving the rest open.

The Planning Program defines general guidelines, chooses an urban development principle and sets rough parameters for land use, height and utilization. It is the basis for several plans which can also be developed and made by the private parties themselves.

The VPOR defines the boundary, size and desired qualities of public spaces, identifies and describes public projects and builds in a certain flexiblity, so that market parties can fill in the rest.

There are several cases when the above mentioned fast track planning options can be used. For instance when the plan is not too complicated, when time is an issue or when landowners/ developers and the planners have common interests (or can be made to understand that they have a common interest). After agreeing with the municipality on the VPOR and/ or the Program Plan, private developers make their own plans based on that. The developers can choose to build the public infrastructure themselves or pay the municipality to do so.

In the plans where these new tools have been applied there were several advantages:

•         Better synergy between the public and private interests.

•         Good basis for a fair distribution of cost.

•         Faster and less time-consuming process.

•         More flexible plans with room for change.

Curious to read more on the subject? sub_urban_transformingplanning_Oslo.pdf

Conclusion: The process turned around with cities as facilitators instead of dictators

 As these three examples in Antwerp, Barcelona Metropolitan Area and Oslo show, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to engage private parties into transforming the urban fringe to make it a better place for current and future users.  The right approach very much depends on the specific cultural, financial, legal and social context. The way to intervene or not to intervene, which might be totally appropriate in one city, may be completely inappropriate in another city.

What is interesting however is to see how three cities are experimenting and finding new ways within their respective contexts to successfully engage private parties in areas where cities have almost no land positions and that are currently not being improved by market parties. The one thing that all three cities share while doing this is that they have all turned around the process. Instead of initiating and fixing everything beforehand in a master plan, they are now building coalitions with residents, owners and developers and co-creating the plan along the way.

 In the Antwerp Lageweg area the master plan is literally postponed. The city chose to first built a coalition with the owners and act as facilitator developing instruments to arrive at a truly shared ambition for this area. In Santa Coloma de Gramenet a very intensive participatory process was chosen to come up with customized solutions for all owners to make their buildings more sustainable and find innovative ways for payment. The Oslo model creates a negotiation arena between the city and developers and owners, as one of the planners of the municipality said during their presentation.

None of the cities fixed the plan beforehand by itself, but they have co-created it with the participants in the process. While doing so they are all transforming and re-inventing planning along the way.

By Maarten Van Tuijl, Lead Expert sub>urban. Reinventing the fringe.
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