The concept of regional development is quite elusive for international science. How does this ultra-Dutch term relate to comparable activities abroad? According to the director of the SKG, Tom Daamen, a recently published study on the theoretical development of large urban projects shows that the development of a territory is an incessant search for balance.
If a scientist has taken the trouble to develop the theories surrounding large-scale urban development projects, the Chair of Territorial Development will have to pay attention. It’s not often that we try to do a meta-analysis of how we think about urban development projects, or UDP. “I see UDPs as large-scale transformations of urban areas through real estate development projects, often implemented in a collaborative form between the public and private sectors,” writes Chinese-American researcher Minjee Kim. in the introduction to his study†
She mapped all the papers published between 2000 and 2020 on how PDUs work and what forces shape their spatial and – importantly – social outcomes. His analysis, admittedly limited to American, British and Western European (including Dutch) studies, is very interesting.
Studies on major urban development projects do not always relate to land use planning. Indeed, there are roughly three ways of interpreting these projects. The first school considers urban projects not so much as a management task, but above all as a logical consequence of the structural forces that dominate our society. Scientists of this critical school emphasize the nature of our capitalist system, in which goods such as houses acquire an exchange value in addition to a use value.
Political decision-making does not simply submit to the “hegemony” of the neoliberal agenda
The resulting “commodification” of urban space is inevitable, leading to forms of “neoliberal urbanization” and (among others) the privatization of public space. This process is lucrative and therefore quickly becomes a dominant logic among the urban elite, including administrators, investors, business owners. Major urban projects become their centerpieces.
Main (development) risks
The analysis of this critical camp is ✱ thoughtful and thorough† This reminds us that real estate and infrastructure are welcome storage repositories of excess capital in our system. This money is constantly looking for places where (more) yields can be harvested. Municipal authorities become “entrepreneurial” when they are persuaded to convert public lands, facilities or use space into a private commodity.
According to this school, this creates spaces in which the urban elite acquires the exclusive right to extract value from places. Projects serving this purpose are often characterized by large-scale public-private partnerships. And often you find a government that is willing to take big (development) risks – anything just to curry favor with investors.
While urban projects within the critical school are seen as a logical consequence of capitalist motivations, a second group of scholars finds this perspective too simplistic. Beyond the achievements made, this second school studies the politics of power surrounding urban projects and reminds us that there is also a political will. Political decision-making does not simply submit to the “hegemony” of the neoliberal agenda. There are still ongoing negotiations.
What are the practical implications of critical and political science theory based on large-scale urban projects?
✱ urban ‘regimes’, or the networks around decision-makers in cities, are broad and pluralistic, say researchers from the political school. According to them, the image of a small elite acting in unison and indiscriminately according to capitalist ideas does not explain all situations. They point in particular to situations in which regimes enter into progressive alliances and projects that do not strengthen the power of big business, but above all strengthen their own social, financial and political position.
And then there is a third school of scientists. They wonder: what are the practical implications of theoretical training in critical and political science around major urban projects? In Kim’s review article they are classified in the “pragmatic” school. Where the analysis of the critical school inevitably leads to a call for revolution and where the political school mainly advocates progressive politics, the approach of the pragmatists is – in the philosophical sense of the term – more strategic in nature. They recognize the whims and sometimes the overwhelming power of capital. At the same time, they note that the urbanization in the countries and regions of this system is very varied and still obtains here and there very good results. Ultimately, they emphasize that human actors are in charge of major urban projects. The system is loud, but not overwhelming.
Universal values such as justice and equality determine the yardstick by which the pragmatic school judges major urban projects. This approach is practice-oriented, as it awakens a ✱ sense of context† After all, the interpretation of universal values is a matter specific to time and place. Comparisons between cities, regions and countries or between different time periods should therefore be made with care.
This makes research on urban projects – compared to the critical school, for example – more relevant in practice. It analyzes the actions of actors in their institutional environment and focuses on how projects succeed (or fail) in achieving equitable outcomes and promoting human equality. Identifying “critical moments” or “new compromises” between the actors involved in urban projects is an essential task in this regard.
The scientific articles on the urban projects of the last 20 years cannot be distributed over the three schools mentioned. Researchers’ interests simply vary widely, leading to all sorts of side-paths and/or overlaps in approach, method, and focus of studies. In addition, of course, many books have been written on the development of urbanization projects and models. Kim must have overlooked this in her article.
However, bar height is a matter of balance
What is striking is that, although critical and political perspectives are still dominant in science, the pragmatic approach seems to be gaining in importance in recent times. This is fueled by a need to bring science and practice closer together and to improve project processes and outcomes through sound research. Research on spatial planning, which as an empirical object can be apprehended as a form of management linking interdependent actors to a common task, can therefore be placed in the pragmatic school. It also explains from the outset why the science that surrounds this activity of urban projects – often but certainly not exclusively – can count on critics within it.
What does all this tell us about the science of spatial planning as it is also practiced in the Netherlands? It does not aim to criticize and overthrow the system from the outside, as in the critical school. If analyzing from within and contributing “incrementally” to improving practice, according to critics, leads at best to a reinforcement of the status quo, according to pragmatists, this attitude does not advance you further in reality.
With justice and equality as fundamental values — from which sustainable, inclusive or affordable objectives directly flow — the science of territorial development indeed likes to set the bar high for actors and institutions. However, the height of the bar is a question of balance: too high, and no one believes it anymore. Too low, and no one sees the challenge. Discovering this balance is an incessant search between science and practice. A quest that can only be accomplished through consultation and dialogue.
Cover: ‘Stationsplein, Utrecht’ by Ralf Liebhold (source: shutter.com†
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