A seed, some soil and the sun

interview with Co-PLAN
published in Balkan in the Polder, june 2012


Besnik Aliaj and Dritan Shutina both studied in the Netherlands in order to gain Dutch knowledge on urban planning. For almost twenty years they have applied and expanded this knowledge in the Balkans. Because of the current call for organic area development in the Netherlands they now seem ahead of the Dutch situation. So this is a good time to invite them to reflect on the current issues of Dutch area development and seek for useful parallels between the Dutch and the Albanian planning culture.

What do you consider to be major achievements of the Dutch planning culture?
Besnik Aliaj – In Albania the Dutch planning culture is seen as a great point of reference. The main achievement to me is the efficiency in using space. Secondly it is highly aware of protecting the environment - something that is lacking in our country.

Over the past few days your view of the Netherlands must have been refreshed. What has struck you the most about the current situation here?
BA – Maybe this is a prejudice, but I have the feeling that something has been frozen here. From the talks with people I sense that there is not the same enthusiasm as before. It’s a moment of reflection. People are cautious. Dritan Shutina – Dutch planning is basically caught in a big question mark: what to do with all the existing plans? I understand there is a great urge to find alternative ways of planning.

Where do you see relevant parallels between the situations in the Netherlands and in the Balkans?
BA – In countries like Albania due to the former communist regimes there is a tradition of a strong centralized planning-system. After the change two decades ago there was a strong contra-reaction against this system, because this planning-system was producing outcomes that were not satisfying the real needs of society. Also, there were almost no public resources which resulted in the inability of authorities to finish their plans. So the people started taking the initiative. Individuals, communities and small businesses became the main actors in shaping the country. Now they are developing real plans. In countries like the Netherlands, you have strong authorities and professional planning circles. It seems to me that the most individual people can do is to participate in debates. When it comes to implementation, individuals, communities and small businesses still do not have too much say.

So in a way Albania is currently years ahead of the Netherlands?
BA – Maybe. In Albania it took twenty years for authorities to understand that in a country that was suffering from a lack of money, the money was there: in the hands of the people. There were billions - more than foreign aid and foreign investments. But this money can only be made available if you create the possibility for people to play a real role. Not just be part of debate. People or communities can be developers. That is the energy that seems to be missing in the Netherlands. In short: the Dutch planning system should have a serious look at how individuals, communities and businesses can contribute to economic recovery and the improvement of the planning system.

At this moment there is a lot of debate on new ways of planning, shifting towards less top-down approaches.
BA – I find it interesting, the courage and willingness that is typical of the Netherlands, to debate on different views of your situation and to confront your problems. In Albania we have the tendency to see the problem, but not to talk about it in public. We talk about it at home or in a bar. The fact that you are now talking about less top-down approaches is a good sign. DS – It is definitely a time of professional self-reflection for people related to planning, which is very positive. But it still needs to become clear to which extend it is rooted to a critical mass.

Do you think the discussions about reforming the planning-culture are taking place too exclusively in a professional environment?
DS – It’s certainly a challenge to remove the discussion from professional circles. I see it as a threat that whatever you are discussing might be marginalized, that it won’t go beyond professional circles and therefore won’t get exposed to different stakeholders.

So are you saying that, if you want real change, the discussion must broaden?
DS – Broaden the discussion, but also pilot it. Try something. So that it can create some tangible outcomes that people can relate to.

The new professional term is ‘organic area development’ and there is currently a lot of willingness to implement it in Dutch city planning. Everybody sort of knows what it means, but nobody really knows. What would be your definition of organic area development?
BA – It’s a planning concept that allows individuals, communities and business initiatives to contribute, not only in terms of ideas but in terms of concrete actions. DS – This does not mean that it is totally spontaneous. It always needs some preconditions. Organic means: you need a seed, you need soil, some water and the sun. There should be a platform that allows this individual potential to blossom, but in a self-reinforcing way.

Do you think organic area development is an answer to the current situation in Dutch cities?
DS – I have not yet totally identified what your core problem is. Is it really the economy? Is this what you want to solve? Or has planning in general, detached from the economic situation, come to a point where people feel bored with it? Not having an identity, a sense of belonging to a place. Is it more a genuine need when it comes to planning, or did the economic crisis open up a different line of thinking? To me that is really something that needs to be understood in order to address the question. The differentiation has to be delineated, understood and from there actions can be taken. Organic area development is something that allows diversity, diversity that is complementary and not spontaneous. Diversity by definition allows different actors in society to contribute to their society. And that also brings some economic complications. Again, it all depends on what the starting point is. BA – For me, it is about making people and communities active instead of passively waiting: making people responsible for what is going on in their surrounding environment.

Let’s shift towards leadership. We talked about the Dutch top-down culture. In Albania your way-in to the informal settlements was through the local leaders. Regarding this organic area development, should other parties be leading the processes instead of the municipality or central government?
DS – The municipality should go into the neighborhoods. This doesn’t need to exclude the municipality. When we started out, informal communities in Albania were considered to be nonexistent, therefore local government was simply not present. If you really want to improve these areas and work there, it cannot be done without people, but also not without local authorities. These areas need to be serviced. Processes need to be orchestrated, people need to work together. I don’t see that organic area development means: people on their own, and local government on its own. On the contrary: I see it as an opportunity to allow people to play a meaningful role, within a strategic picture

Still, we are looking for less rules to accommodate private initiatives, where you are seeking for more legislation. Is there a fruitful equilibrium between your situation and ours?
DS – Starting from the Albanian case: twenty years ago we started with ‘laissez faire’. The government practically admitted that it could not supply adequate housing. So therefore the people sought their own solution and developed great entrepreneurship. This resulted in a situation where individualism was prevalent. So, state-withdrawal allowed for individuals to contribute to the economy by solving their own problems. Eventually, it came to the moment that housing was no longer a necessity but became an investment. And when something is seen as an investment it results in overproduction. In our case this meant bottom-up overproduction without any collective actions. The work of Co-Plan is precisely about the challenge of introducing a collective perspective. We convinced people that investments are only sustainable if things reinforce each other. Therefore, we have introduced planning as an instrument that tries to balance the private and public interest. Not to substitute and become the instrument for the ‘Big Brother’ who determines what is going to happen, but rather as a platform where you provide space for both individuals and public interest and provide some rules and regulations for people to pursue their own interests, but in such a way that everybody starts addressing some common problems. If you compare this with the Dutch situation: you traditionally have ‘Big Brother’ trying to think about everything, to the smallest detail. With sufficient resources it has sustained a culture where everybody expects the government to provide everything. Either people get a mortgage and buy a house with tax benefits, or rent cheap social housing. The difficulty you are facing today is that you basically converted the role of local government from a regulator to an actor who is developing, selling and buying. I’m sure the profits go to public interests, but the role that individuals could play in this arena is minimal. This should be the entry-point to reflect and see what else can be done. Not necessarily by changing the rules that guard quality standards, but to change the rules to allow for more private initiative to tap into this development. Again, government has to be present to provide a vision and give directions, for the people to know where the city is heading. But you don’t need to go into the detail of what is happening on individual plots. That’s where I see the conversions between our bottom-up development and your top-down type of development.

What you say about the municipality playing roles as a regulator and a developer - are you saying that they should choose one or the other?
BA – Yes, choose between making money and serving people.

You’re actually saying two things: it’s not just that local government is regulator and developer at the same time, but by doing so it’s also taking up space for private initiatives, which is kind of intimidating.
DS – Or stimulating a culture of waiting. BA – It’s a crisis of global economy. So, what’s the reaction? The impetus from society is to go to local solutions. That is the direction in which planning systems should seek. It’s what happened with us. The lesson we learned was this: in the early nineties we went to the National Planning Institute (NPI). There was a total crisis of the centralized economy and government was looking for solutions. The attitude of the people was: for fifty years government didn’t allow me to do anything, so now we will do it, by ourselves. So we said to the NPI: can we work together to develop solutions and training programs? NPI said: no, we don’t have problems. We opened the window and showed them the huge and massive sea of informal construction. This illustrates the possible blindness of authorities to actual issues. And I think for the Netherlands this is crucial. Society is developing something underground. Authorities should sense the movements. The movement is towards private initiatives and at a small scale. In the Balkans there are very good examples of how to deal with this. But the creative solutions should be in line with the Dutch context, with the fact that there is a limit. In our country this limit often does not exist. The most important point for me is to help institutions to see where the tendencies are and to reform measures towards these tendencies. For example: in Albania the poorest people have been the strongest factor in developing. Those that have nothing to lose. They took the initiative because they had the drive to build their future. You might also have segments of society that have a high need for change and actions. Immigrants for example, I’m sure they are suffering now. It could be smart to invite them to play a role now, as local agents in the local contexts. I’ve already seen some signs of this in the neighborhoods we visited. DS – These immigrants Besnik mentions, they usually save much more money than the average Dutch citizen. From an economic point of view this definitely must be considered.

This opens up a huge political discussion. You’re saying that immigrants could be economically a solution: so that when they have economical relevance, they can get political relevance too.
DS – Several times I’ve heard discussions about the challenge of integration of immigrant groups. Usually the economical aspect is the one that opens up all barriers. So, potentially that is the way to address other problems that relate to immigrants, and to cancel out negative attitudes towards immigrants. If they become investors in Dutch society, they will be sharing opportunities and risks.

We pointed out the Binckhorst as a case study for organic area development. How would you describe the quality of the Binckhorst area?
DS – Usually in these industrial zones, because of economic decay there is a legitimate need to intervene and revive that area. When we entered the Binckhorst, I didn’t see an area in decay. I could not see what the real problem was in that area to justify the need for a large intervention. Other than: we have a plan, we need housing and we want to develop it in that area. But there seems no justification in terms of: this is an area in economic decay and we must intervene. Secondly, there was no consideration for the businesses that are already there. Apparently the benefits outweighed the costs and the municipality could afford to get rid of certain businesses. Given the new situation many of the answers are already there. Take all the existing small entrepreneurs for example - they want to invest there, but the city is not giving them any confidence. And take the example of the Caballero Factory. In other countries I have visited municipalities that invest money to allow the creative industries to blossom. You have the creative sector in de Caballero Factory, they are productive, pay the rent and there is even more demand for spaces. So, instead of ruining it, extend it. I understand the municipality owns a lot of buildings in the area. They therefore must think they can make more money out of another development. BA – I think the Binckhorst is a perfect example of where this logic of area development should start. Because you can’t start everywhere. There are lessons to be learned through success and failure. These areas are the best. There is a potential, there is a heritage, there are people with interest and there is room for creativity.

How should the organic area development start in the Binckhorst?
DS – Instead of investing in this tunnel-connection to the highway, they should use money to relocate the concrete factory. Because that looks like the only complex that is not compatible with the current plans. BA – Then the municipality can identify some areas and label them as ‘free areas’ – free zones for whatever programs, with some guidelines, of course. DS – In your design-driven society, nobody is going to ruin the esthetics. BA – Create areas where you encourage people to be creative. And give them security by telling them what the direction is. From one side you create an alternative for people and those that want to perform. From the other side you need to have an argument to discourage chaotic development. For me it is essential: before you impose certain rules, in this situation of instability it is better to provide alternatives and guide people and leave space for action.

Do you think the municipality, which owns so much property, should retreat from the area?
DS – Basically they are constantly doing a cost-benefit-analysis. With the current mindset it is better to redevelop, make money and reattribute that money. I’ve been asking what the unemployment rate is, and apparently it is not yet an issue. So the trade-off is still on the side of redevelopment. Only if unemployment rises, you need to ask the question: which assets do I have to stimulate economic growth. At the moment you aren’t looking to increase the economy in that area, but you are still looking at real estate development. Economic growth is not yet the driving force behind redeveloping the Binckhorst.

Within a couple of years we might have a situation where unemployment hits ten percent.
DS – Only then will this wish for organic area development become a real necessity. BA – This calls for a shift in mindset from planning professionals, government and local authorities. They have to make a choice: to try and make profits, being a part of the outdated system of a booming real estate market under the condition that the profit returns to the community. This is already a failed story. And local authorities fail to admit that they are part of this mechanism. They are main players of this real estate game. We noticed that they see the crisis as something outside the institutions. They consider themselves as a victim, whilst in reality they co-created the crisis, as one of the main actors. They should acknowledge this.

Only once they acknowledge that can they start realizing that they can be part of the solution?
BA – Exactly.


Balkan in de Polder – naar organische gebiedsontwikkeling in Nederland?; Ellen Holleman, Robert-Jan de Kort, Sabrina Lindeman, e.a.met beeldessay van Su Tomesen, Mondriaan Fonds, 2012, isbn 9789076936345