New players, different game

This article has originally been published in the Magazine New Amsterdam #8 – EU2016 Edition and is written by Charlot Schans  and Hans Karssenberg.

The natural role of local governments in urban development is undergoing drastic change. Responsible for the civic space and quality of its entire city, but no longer naturally in the lead to generate or keep pace with change. The traditional role of making the city is now being picked up by a new group with new ideas. This process has been taking place for some time now and was accelerated by the 2008 real estate crisis, but has deeper lying and more structural factors.

© re:Kreators

There is a shift in philosophy from ‘making city’ to ‘being city’. European cities have increased in size tenfold since the World War II, through a focus mostly on greenfield development. But now, with the demographic make-up and economy slowing down, the need for newly built areas is slowing down too. While at the same time a vast reserve of existing areas in need of constant reinventing is becoming the defining feature of the emergent modern city. The changing roles – in other words – are not a crisis phenomenon, but are caused by more structural changes in our cities, at least in the European context.

Re-creating the existing city is a new profession. It requires new professionals with different skills. They must be interdisciplinary (social, cultural, economic and physical development intertwined), networked (working with thousands of residents, many owners and networks of initiators) and organic (as opposed to the linear planning of plan-build-maintain, this group works with direct actions and strategic long-term thinking happening all at once). Even more fundamentally however, the shift from making to being city creates new roles. With so many actors, the local government is no longer naturally in the lead. But then, who is taking responsibility?

Throughout European cities, we see a new type of role, the re:Kreator. Re:Kreators are civic enterprises, or public developers, driven by passion. They believe in a way of living in the city that is interesting, affordable and just. They create thoughtful places with care. They create value for citizens through their spaces and ways of re-imagining the city. These outcomes can be seen in the spheres of health and welfare, social connectedness, artistic and economic growth of a particular area. Re:Kreators generate diverse ownership – mentally, emotionally and legally – and therefore diverse groups feel at home and responsible over the area. They create places that lift everyone’s spirits and drive people beyond what they would normally come across. Their places are open and inclusive. They look for true change and are not interested in just ‘pop-up’, but permanent investment in people and places. They further expand upon existing energy, resources and structures and ensure a smooth transition through re-creation. They take a step beyond bottom-up or top-down: they build partnerships between these worlds.

One such example is the cluster of former military barracks on the Garonne riverfront in Bordeaux, that today houses Darwin, l’écosystème de la Caserne Niel. In 2009, a group of creative entrepreneurs by the name Evolution Group was able to buy the first 10,000 square meters building that was in a derelict state at the time. With a community of stakeholders, they transformed it into a vibrant place that created 140 new companies, social enterprises, a restaurant, an alternative skate park, event spaces and reused modules that are available as guest rooms, situated in an urban garden. The Darwin Ecosystem today attracts large crowds to the other side of the river that was completely neglected before. The name ‘Darwin’ is a reference to the ambition of the initiators: to create a true ecosystem based on principles of ecological transition, economic cooperation and urban creativity. Through more commercial events and entrepreneurial activities, they are able to develop the area for public interest, creating a place for all residents of Bordeaux to experience and engage in. The barracks were redeveloped with sustainable principles that ensure low-energy use and contain equipment for the collection of rainwater for a more circular use of resources. In the meantime, Darwin Ecosystem has grown into a major attraction for Bordeaux.

If we’d been reasonable, we probably wouldn’t have done it

Ownership is a recurrent issue among most initiators that engage in forms of cooperative area development. In Copenhagen, the consortium of PB43 had transformed a forgotten AkzoNobel factory into a lively hub for events and working places used daily by 150 small companies, artists and musicians, in a series of buildings connected to an urban garden. However in early 2014 the property was sold to a project developer that bought the lot to demolish the buildings, and planned to build a box storage instead. PB43 had to move out. Luckily, their community was strong enough. In the meantime they gladly found a new property to occupy and revive. >>

 Otwarty Jazdów

© Jazdow

A stone’s throw away from the opulent embassy district, stands
a cluster of prefabricated wooden houses in a lavish green park in central Warsaw. Remnants of what once was the neighbourhood of Jazdów, a post-war community meant to house the construction workers that were rebuilding the city after it was almost entirely bombed during the war. In 1945, many similar districts emerged, forcibly financed by the defeated Finnish government. Ever since the post-war reconstruction has been finished, Jazdów’s houses were used for social housing. Until recently, the government started to demolish the neighbourhood. A group of urban activists created the initiative Otwarty Jazdów, to prevent the total demolition of the community. They were able to save 27 houses, which they consider an important monument of post-war history. Their ideal is to re-create Jazdów into an area for the common interest, with a mix of retaining existing tenants and redeveloping derelict houses for the use of community organisations and grassroots initiatives.

>> For many pioneers this is an often experienced reality. They put a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the rejuvenation of challenged areas. Most of it is done on an agreement for temporary use with the property owner. In exchange the property is often offered for a price below the estimated market value, or even for free, which may be just the fair deal for those who are eager to find an affordable space in the first place. Even though a temporary contract prevents making large financial investments in the space itself, they nevertheless create a lot of value along the way. Immaterial value that lies in the attractiveness, creativity and a perspective on new opportunities for a spot that was hardly recognised before. Value that is therefore difficult to measure, but eventually reflects in the market value of the property and the whole locale. Important considerations to the question who eventually reaps the benefits of the success of the re:Kreators projects, arise from this pattern of public amenity being retracted once private profit can be made. Recognition of non-financial investments made, all the loving care and hours put into creating such a great place, are not currently enshrined in law and make it hard for the groups to contribute to their cities in the long term.

Therefore the initiators of the ZOHO project in Rotterdam’s Zomerhofkwartier are now considering the purchase of one of the buildings they managed to revive over the past years. In 2013, they took on the challenge as a partner to housing corporation Havensteder to redevelop 12,500 square meters of some of the least attractive 1960s office buildings into a desirable makers quarter. Every inch of the area is now in use: office spaces or studios for creatives and social entrepreneurs, one of the best-known music venues of the city, a hostel and even an old train that is transformed into Gare du Nord, a gastronomic vegan restaurant. A cooperative of current tenants is now exploring the possibilities to buy one of the buildings, but due to the success of the rejuvenation process it has also fallen to the attention of commercial developers. Had they bought the place years ago, or even measured the market value then, their negotiation position towards the owner had perhaps been simpler now. >>

 Largo residências

Largo Residênc© Largo Residênciasias is a former tile factory on Largo do Intendente in central Lisbon that has been transformed into a platform for creative performance and activity for the residents of the neighbourhood. Situated in a community with residents from 52 nationalities, all of their activities evolve around cross-cultural exchange and participation. Only a few years ago the square was considered one of the most precarious areas of the city, with drug trafficking and prostitution all around. Opening a coffee bar and restaurant on the ground floor notably improved the image of the square, and the guest rooms brought tourists and artists-in-residence into the community. The funds and profits from the café and hotel are invested into the neighbourhood. Largo Residências produces art exhibitions and theatre and music performances for and with the community, and finances the restoration of rundown property throughout the neighbourhood.

>> Still, ownership isn’t the only way to secure the social, sustainable, participative and creative investments made and consecutive value created. The initiators of the Holzmarkt project in Berlin are creating an impressive urban village of 18,000 square meters with an investment of over three million euros, generated in a cooperative of private investors that bought into the project with shares of 25,000 euros each. Considerable investments which are secured, because they have the guarantee of a 75-year lease of the brownfield, that was obtained by the Swiss pension fund Stiftung Abendrot. This allows them the window of time necessary to make investments of such a scale and invest the return in a solid business model. A full-blown business organised in a way their core value of creating a Utopian community for the city of Berlin remains untouched. What drives re:Kreators is the ambition to change neglected brownfields, empty offices, shops or derelict factories into places that contribute to a more loveable city. Places that go beyond serving their own interest as the ones that redevelop the area, but are tailored to a diverse public interest, reflected in mixed use areas and vibrant public space. The element of collaborative development is key, through engaging a wide range of stakeholders, and often a combination of commercial, non-profit activities and housing. In short – it matters who is involved in making the place and how it is done. This mix of different functions and users on a relatively small scale moreover assures that these places are fit to current needs, but also flexible enough to adapt elements to the ever changing dynamics of urban life. These new players, emerging all over Europe, experiment with changing the game of blueprint planning from previous eras and are experimenting with models for more organic and sustainable development. This requires an appropriate government response. Cities will need all the creativity they can get from their local re:Kreators and it is in their cities’ interest to become a partner and try to recognise, help scale up and multiply upcoming initiatives. What does it take for a city to have a thriving scene of re:Kreators in their own cities? First of all, local governments have to acknowledge the direct and indirect values that re:Kreators create. Second, re:Kreators need local governments as partners by their sides. This can involve being quick with approving activities that require permits; co-investing into the quality of public space; helping generate exchange and learning between re:Kreators; creating investment models based on social return and indirect values and so on.

Meet the re:Kreators

© re:Kreators

re:Kreators is a membership association focusing on the exchange
of practices and know-how of people behind the collaborative development of previously malfunctioning areas in European cities. The current first members of re:Kreators are Shuffle Festival (London), KÉK Contemporary Architecture Centre and Lakatlan (Budapest), the Darwin Ecosystem (Bordeaux), ZOHO and Stipo (Rotterdam), PB43 (Copenhagen), Open Jazdów (Warsaw), Stealth (Belgrade), Mörchenpark and Genossenschaft für Urbane Kreativität for Holzmarkt (Berlin), Ateliermob and Largo Residências (Lisbon), Make a Point (Bucharest) and Pakhuis de Zwijger (Amsterdam). What brought the re:Kreators together is the idea that the dynamics in European cities aren’t all that different. But the way these pioneers develop strategies adapted to the local context illuminates important assets and competences. By peer-to-peer learning on an international scale, the members strengthen their local projects and articulate a common perspective on the European Urban Agenda. The network will be expanded in the re:Kreators Association of which all re:Kreators in Europe can become a member.

Join us!

We call on all re:Kreators to become a member. We aim to expand and strengthen the network from the current ten partners to a European- wide membership of many members to actively learn from each other, set up joint investment and funding calls and strengthen the interests of re:Kreators locally, nationally and on the European agenda. For candidate membership, send a mail with your project to

Involved city makers
Charlot Schans
Project leader New Europe at Pakhuis de Zwijger
Hans Karssenberg
Partner Stipo
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