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Urban planning 2.0: How eParticipation adds value

11. July 2008 – 09:53 by Rolf Luehrs

As experiences from the City of Hamburg (Germany) show, urban planning is one of the favoured topics for citizen participation on the Internet. It is a field where the strengths of eParticipation can be displayed to best advantage: relevant information, including geographical data, can be provided and displayed visually; results-oriented debates with hundreds of active participants can be held;  lay people and experts as well as decision-makers and those affected by the decisions can be brought together. Thus original ideas can be developed and implemented, citizens involved actively in the structuring of their urban environment and, in the medium term, tangible value created.

“It is lovely to live by the water, but living on the water is better still, and it is affordable on a floating home. Major cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, London and Amsterdam have made many people’s dreams come true. The floating homes in these cities are both an enrichment of the cityscape and a tourist attraction.”

Anne struck a chord with her contribution to the Internet debate on “Hamburg, a growing city” (2002): many people would love to be able to live right on the water. But it was not only potential future tenants whose imagination was caught by the idea; urban planners, architects, local politicians and the city’s mayor, Ole von Beust, were fascinated, too.  In early 2003, the idea was chosen by a jury and recommended for implementation.

Life on the water

Since then, various prototypes for living on the water have been developed, suitable moorings sought and work done on the many problems associated with developing waterways for residential use. Even though, five years after the Internet debate, the project still has not been put into practice, the developments are encouraging. Current plans envisage a floating string of contiguous residential locations in the tidal basin and along the river Bille in the east of Hamburg which it is hoped will engender a community of water dwellers and a floating lifeline. A survey by the Förster Trabitsch architectural practice anticipates economic benefits from the project in addition to impulses for urban development and planning: “Here new kinds of local amenities can emerge which, as part of an overall concept, would foster new jobs and attractions. Floating cafes, studios, gardens, shops and markets are all possible extensions of the idea.”

For the City of Hamburg, the discussion of the “growing city” principle also marked the start of a whole series of Internet discussions in which Hamburg’s Senate or its parliament enabled citizens to have their say. Topics varied from family-friendly living and participatory budgeting to development plans for the Domplatz or a bridge with buildings on it (Living Bridge).

Common to all of the discussions was the discovery that, despite the complexity of the topics, it was possible to canvass a wide range of varied opinions in a short time. The informal atmosphere of a moderated discussion forum encourages participants to venture off well-trodden paths and work together creatively on solving difficult problems – so adding value.

In the case of the discussion on family-friendly living, for example, citizens’ guidelines emerged that covered almost all aspects of the topic. In addition to a host of ideas for improving Hamburg’s family friendliness, the guidelines contain useful tips on the family-friendly design of individual accommodation or planned housing schemes. In particular the housing industry has shown great interest in the guidelines and has repeatedly ordered further copies. And the lead ministry, too, has come to the conclusion that the family debate was worth it.

The costs of non-participation

eParticipation can also help to avoid costly planning processes that fail to take the needs and preferences of citizens into account and thus cannot be pushed through. One example is the plans for the development of Hamburg’s “Domplatz”, a historic site believed to have been the nucleus of the original city. A cathedral (Dom) stood there from the middle ages until it was demolished in the 19th century. The school buildings that took its place were so badly damaged during World War II that they had to be torn down. Since then the Domplatz has either stood empty or been used as a car park.

There have been several attempts to redevelop this central and important Hamburg site. The most recent was a competition in 2005 to design a mixed-use building with space for a library, apartments and private and public offices, among other things. The winning design by Auer und Weber attracted criticism in the media from politicians, architects and even the former Federal Chancellor and Hamburg resident, Helmut Schmidt. Once it became clear that there was no majority support for the project in Hamburg’s parliament, the plans were dropped.

It was at this inauspicious point that the Senate decided to involve the public in the planning process via the Internet. The suggestions, ideas and plans showed a clear tendency, with most proposing a structured open space or construction on part of the site only. Almost all of the concepts that participants rated positively envisaged an open, communicative and integrative use.

If the public had been consulted early enough, these preferences could have been incorporated into the brief for the competition, considerably increasing the chances of the winning design finding broad acceptance. Although it was too late for that, the public discussion of the redevelopment has taken a positive turn as a result of the Internet consultation. A planned interim solution comes close to meeting the public’s wishes, large sections of the press have reported positively on the outcome of the discussion and the long-term use of the Domplatz is open to debate once more.

Building bridges

A wholly different approach was taken to the equally controversial “Living Bridge” project. The concept, by Hamburg architect Hadi Teherani and the investor Dieter Becken, envisages a two-storey bridge over the northern arm of the Elbe, with apartments and offices above and a four-lane road below. It is uncertain whether it will be built, but this time members of the public have had the chance in advance to inform themselves about the project and give their views on it.

Nearly 500 participants registered for the online discussion, which ran until February 2008 and was supplemented by four live debates. It was hotly debated whether Hamburg needs more spectacular architecture in order to hold its own against international metropolises, or whether it should be avoided at all costs in order to preserve the city’s charm and character. The discussion also encompassed visual relationships, jobs, transport, the environment, the English name and, of course, the quality of the Teherani design.

Camps for and against seem to be evenly spread through all professional and political groupings. Participants included port employees, architects, town planners, students, artists and pensioners, with men being in the majority (70%).

Democratisation of architecture and urban planning

“Until now it seemed inconceivable that citizens could debate and vote on prominent development projects in publicly provided Internet fora. Concern was not only about NIMBYs and their capacity for inciting campaigns; public taste, which professionals fundamentally accuse of regressive anti-modernism, was also a worry,” wrote Till Briegleb in the  Süddeutsche Zeitung before going on to give the all-clear, at least in the case of Hamburg: “The level of debate is at times better than in some discussions of architectural bodies – and NIMBYs hardly stand a chance. As with Wikipedia and other discursive Internet media, seriousness wins through on  www.belebte-bruecke.de

About 60% of participants voted for a Living Bridge, and its proponents were also very active in the online discussion, marshalling arguments in the bridge’s favour. This hardly smacks of “regressive anti-modernism”, but there was no sign of uncritical enthusiasm for modernism either. Participants seemed to want to leave these wholesale categories behind them and overcome their respective prejudices. A prospective building is not good or bad purely because it makes a modern impression. Architectural quality must prove itself and convince not only the experts. “I believe a new form of cooperation has to be found and developed,” says Hamburg architect Alexandra Czerner in an interview. “If we can create new structures for realising urban planning and architecture that actively involve citizens and recognise their basic entitlement to feel at ease, then that will be a big opportunity.”

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