"Stipo connects bottom up initiatives with top down investors, owners and institutional partners. We don’t see ourselves as bottom up but we see ourselves as what we call middle up-down, connecting the two worlds. They need each other and together they can achieve fast change on the transitions our cities face."
Hans Karssenberg is a partner at Stipo, based in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Thessaloniki. His passion for the city is reflected in each project he carries out. As an urban developer, project manager, and occasional leader of masterclasses, Hans fills many roles that demonstrate how his work centres on his love of the city. Stipo works with the community but also connects two points that seemly opposing positions: bottom up/top down. He explains how just working together we can create change, learn from each other and contribute to future developments.
Hans also introduces The city at the eye level, initiated and edited by Stipo. This second edition is all about public spaces: great streets, places where you intuitively want to stay longer, human scale interaction between buildings and streets, ownership by users, good (inter)active ground floors and user’s experience. Hans adds: “Placemaking is fundamental to understanding how to improve cities and create great streets/places for people.” Learn about Stipo and meet Hans Karssenberg!
Stipo wants to offer an open window to a better city. It is an interdisciplinary team for urban development and Placemaking. We have been around for more than 20 years. Stipo started out from the University of Amsterdam at the end of the 80s. It mostly started from concerns about how cities were built. We wanted to look for systems to reach real urban sustainability, not only in an environmental sense, but also making socially, economically and spatially sustainable cities. From this, we derived our core values: long-lasting quality, adaptability, soul of the place, public space as the backbone, mixed use and ownership of the users.
In 1995, we became independent, but the main aims remained the same. We wanted to combine and develop knowledge and put it into practice, creating better practices and innovation, learning by doing. We do this from the basis of co-creation, with everyone who is part of the solution. We operate in the public domain and share our knowledge open source. We believe everything we developed should be shared with others so that everyone can benefit from it. We work together in networks with a range of partners, citymakers, placemakers, knowledge institutions to international partners such as PPS.org, UN Habitat and Future of Places.
Due to or involvement regarding social innovation, the subjects we work on are continuously changing. Right now, we work on four main areas: area development and transformation, vision and strategy, social and economic innovation, and the city at the eye level. In all this, we focus on the shift from ‘making’ to ‘being’ the city: from greenfield development to redeveloping existing urban structures. More so than the crisis, this is a deeper lying transformation that effects the way we have to work on our cities. We need a more interdisciplinary and networked approach, mix short term action with long term strategy, organize investments in a completely different way, and work on many levels of scale as well.
Our projects are addressed to the development of public quality – we take the role of the public developer. The difference between private and public development, relies in how the private one, in a sense, is all about financial profit for creating public quality areas. We see this happening in the movement of the City Makers and re:Kreators as well. An example of one of our public developments is in ZOHO, Rotterdam. Stipo partnered up with Havensteder, a housing corporation and the largest property owner in Rotterdam. Although a lot of more other partners were involved. Together we created a community of a 100 of co-investors. ZOHO, in the way we like to see it and turn it into, is an unexpected extension of the city center of Rotterdam.
Three years ago, it was a business area with a lot of vacancy and a ‘dead’ feeling, nobody was living in the area itself and half of the buildings were empty. We worked with the community, those who were already there. We started to invite new partners, makers, social enterprises, young creative startups, a new hostel, bars and a restaurant. With all these new partners, we started to look for links to the neighbourhood of the Agniesebuurt, one of the poorest areas in the north of Rotterdam. Inhabitants now have ways to get out of their houses, find jobs, relax. When we started the project, there was no community over there. That’s why shaping a community of new users was the first step.
The whole revitalization of the area involved several instruments. The main was related to the relationship between this community and the owners. We connected the bottom up initiatives with the top down investors, owners and institutional partners. We don’t see ourselves as bottom up but we see ourselves as what we call middle up-down connecting that two worlds. They need each other. Together they can archive a fast change on the major transformations that our cities are facing: collaborative area development, energy, informal care networks, social innovation and job creation, affordable housing, to name a few.
Stipo is part of the ZOHO community as well, we are there in our daily basis and moved our office there.
Another example of a project we are working on is in the larger Amsterdam area, working in the transformation of a half vacant office area from the 80s which in Hoofddorp. The conditions of the buildings are quite terrible, and 40% of the floor space is empty. The goal is to turn it into a more mixed urban area with living and working together with the city of Haarlemmermeer, architects and urban designers. Once again, these networks will allow us to make difference in the area as a whole transforming it into a residential area with a good city at the eye level. But we also have a range of other projects, such as building bridges between the informal care networks and the formal care systems in Amsterdam West, researching the effects of the sharing economy and digital networks in “Nieuwe Rijkdommen van de Wijk” and working on the strategy with the team of the inner city in Groningen, to name a few.
Stipo is an indisiplinary group. My background is in urban planning. But we also have people with a background in psychology because is also the way in which people experience the environment, people with an economic background, social and technological innovation, management. A great mix is also challenging but we also have extensive networks around us like Pakhuis de Zwijger.
Depending on the project we then work with different entities from our network. For instance, we do not have designers in our team, but we have a lot of them around us with whom we work together. Or working to fill up vacant buildings we need partners for contracts and maintenance. Etc etc. We celebrated our 20 year anniversary 3 years ago and had 30-40 people on the platform. They all felt part of the same family.
There are international collaborations, Rosa Danenberg in Stockholm, Vivian Doumpa in Thessaloniki and more. We build our international networks like this as well. But always with somebody who is acting locally, who understands the situation locally and who can work further on sustainable change.
How is organized administratively and financially?
Stipo is an independent team. We have a hybrid model. We generate approximately half our income from assignments, working as project managers, trainers, matchmakers, strategists. Cities, private developers, NGOs and building owners involve us in their projects. The other half comes from projects we create ourselves, as a public developer. This is when we see that a challenge and the energy to start a development – in these cases we create the business model ourselves. What we see right now is that there is a lot of hybrid models between those two extremes. For instance we are running a project for Nieuwegein (south of Utrecht) in an area called Rijnhuizen, 80 hectares, again with largely vacant office buildings. This place is 15 times bigger than ZoHo. The challenge is to make the area more mixed for working and living. We built a business case for the area and place management, setting up an area co-op opening up for membership of the 100 owners and 300 businesses, and with a percentage of the area costs that project developers pay when they redevelop one of the plots or buildings.
Each project is unique and in each project we have to find a way to finance. The extra money we earn, we reinvest into developing and sharing knowledge. “The city at the eye level” is an example of this. The project was completely set up in our own passion for the subject.
So we are a hybrid organization. Stipo is a consultancy and a public developer, and this helps us to work in cities worldwide and help to improve the city with the communities locally.
Relationship with local municipality and other public/private institutions.
The relation with cities can be on a project or program basis. They have a project and if they ask us to do it. But it can also be that we take the initiative ourselves and seek a network of partners, which most of the time the city also belongs to. Some governments nowadays say: ‘we need to sit on our hands and do nothing’. It is really good that they distance themselves from making plans from behind a desk and implement them top-down with only the lightest form of participation afterwards. But doing nothing is not the right alternative. We need equal partnerships, where the city co-invests into places with energy.
We see the hybrid model in cities throughout Europe. Based on our experience in ZOHO, we started a collaboration with the Holzmarkt in Berlin, and with the Pakhuis’ and ministry’s help, we could make that grow into the network re:Kreators. The re:Kreators, public developers taking their own initiative to redevelop areas, creating public quality, new public places, innovation areas with startups, local economy, affordable housing and a lot of artistic and social values. The Holzmarkt with the Genossenschaft fur Urbane Kreativitat and the Moerchenpark in Berlin, ZOHO with Stipo in Rotterdam, KÉK and Lakatlan in Budapest, Largo Residencias and ateliermob in Lisbon, the Pakhuis in Amsterdam, Open Jazdow in Warsaw, Make a Point in Bucharest, Shuffle Festival in London, STEALTH in Belgrade, Darwin Ecosysteme in Bordeaux – it is happening everywhere. We are now taking the next step: growing from 20 to 200 members. This will enable us to lobby better, in our own cities, but also on the European level; and one of our next aims is to create a European Investment Trust for re:Kreator projects throughout Europe.
The word “Plinth” can be found so may times at the city at the eye level, what does it mean?
“Plint” is a Dutch word from architecture. We are trying to sneak it into the English language as “plinth”. The closest description is: active ground floor, the part of the building that you see when you walk in the streets. Those public places that are used experienced by the community. These places are the most important part in a building. The plinth is maybe only 10% of the building but it determines the 90% of the experience of the street for people. Plinth is not just the front of the building, it is also what you can find behind it. It is an often forgotten element in planning and design, have a look at recent architecture around you, but it is crucial for creating a sustainable public space, and flexible spaces that can ‘breathe’ and adopt different functions according to each decade’s desires and demands.
Maybe you know about Nolli maps, from an Italian urban designer from the 18th century. He drew maps of public spaces in the city and he included it the semi public spaces of buildings. The Italian urban designer also drew different maps for the day, when the shops were open, in the night time when the cafes were open. Then, you would have a different idea of what a public space in cities are.
If we talk about public space then I think we should talk about everything you see. When the government talks about public space they talk about the pavement and actual street. They hardy never include the buildings and they are the ones who determinate how the public space functions. However, when you walk on the street, you have a 3D experience. We are trying to get this 3-dimensional approach where community should really work together with builders to get a good public space and public ground. That is one of the ideas behind the Plinth.
What would it be a good plinth?
No blank walls! for instance, sometimes it is cheaper to build a parking garage on the ground floor and then to build just a blank wall on it. The interaction between the inside/private and the outside/public is essential, we call it the hybrid zone a transition between these to areas. It could be a residential area but could also be cafes and shops. The hybrid zone is an important part to make the streets more human. People can put plants in front of the door, benches or a table and some chairs. So in a social sense this is a very important zone, from the research 80% of the zone shows that spontaneous neighborhood contact happen to be in these areas. Also a good plinth is a place where you can feel and see the sense of ownership by the users. If People who lives there do not feel connected with the street, you can immediately feel it! Ownership is very important as well.
Highlights at the city at the eye level.
We want to improve the quality of public space and have worked on parks, squares, streets, inner cities and districts. Regarding the scale we work on, there are two main extremes. On the one hand, in practice our intention is to improve plinths in the city at the eye level, also using Placemaking. For instance in the Zomerhofkwartier (ZOHO), a lot of the vacant building we opened up, we said to the new tenant “it is great if you are using the space but you have to activate the ground floor”.
The other extreme of scale is that we are lobbying to get the quality of public space, the human scale and participative development in the HABITAT III World Urban Agenda in Quito. The conference will take place now in October. The Quito Declaration will determinate urban development for the next 20 years, for instance because institutions like the World Bank direct their investments according to this agenda. For the past three years we have been working with our partners such as UN Habitat, PPS.org and Future of Places to influence the agenda.
Placemaking seems to be very important in there process, for those who are not familiar with the term. Could you explain what it is? and Why is so important for public spaces?
Placemaking is transforming a space into a place together with the community. We have a lot of spaces in the public streets but we do not have that many places where you feel at home and where you want to stay longer, where people interact, where is really about the use of the place, and the human scale. In order to transform spaces into places is necessary to gather the local community, users, owners, the experts from the city, everybody who is part of the solution. Placemaking is also the way in which you look at the space more emotionally as well.
Placemaking has a lot of theory and research based on observation of how people actually behave in public space. We use the work of William H. Whyte : The social life of small urban spaces, but also the works of Jane Jacobs, Allan Jacobs and Christopher Alexander. You can use these sources and combine them with the knowledge of the local community: amazing results can just be gathered!
We worked together with Project for Public Spaces in the Museumplein. The place game was looking for ways to improve the Museumplein in ways that it would to be also enjoy by local and not just by tourist. The Museumplein needs improvements, maybe not in the sense of generating more visitors, but more in the sense of generating a better balance of visitors and activities.
Museumplein needs improvements, there are also a lot of more places where the place game could help to make better places in Amsterdam. But in your opinion, which place do you think could be a good example of a place to be for the community in Amsterdam? and why?
You can always improve more! One of the places I like to be the most is the Westerpark. You can find there a mix of people. You do not need a lot of money to use it, its accessible to everyone. Besides, a lot has been rebuilt and renovated regarding monuments and buildings using the soul of the place in a very good way.
As a City Maker, Which obstacles do you think are still constraining the movement?
The city maker movement is a relatively new phenomenon. Not only in the Netherlands but also internationally. Twenty years ago, governments were responsible for a lot of the tasks that now City Makers are now doing. There is a lot of friction between this two words and we both need to develop. We as City Makers need to learn not to work just from passion and voluntarism but also to set up our own business models behind it and keep doing what we are doing. Learning to do so, collaboration with other City Makers in networks like re:Kreators is very important. Networking is an important tool.
What will you advice to somebody who would like to become a City Maker?
Learn to speak in the language of the two worlds, both the bottom-up initiatives and the top-down institutional interests. Do not be against the institutional partners but work with them. The city is not against us, is about working together, create networks, collaborations, learn from each other, be inspired by others.