Q&A  | 

Marek Vogt, how to get citizens involved in urban planning

"In Deventer we enabled 300 small and medium-sized stakeholders to redevelop the area instead of giving it to three big commercial developers".

Tags: 'citizens' 'Marek Vogt' 'public participation' 'Smart Cities' 'smarticipate' 'urban planning' 'welovethecity.eu'

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Marek Vogt is a urban planner and citizen participation expert at WeLoveTheCity, a Rotterdam-based firm that focuses on
innovative strategic urban planning and design. His fields of expertise cover urban regeneration in a public-private setting,
including spatial, social, economic and sustainability components. He was part of the European Horizon2020 project Smarticipate, a platform developed for local governments to enhance urban planning and increase the involvement of citizens where he led the operational work of managing the pilots in Hamburg, London and Rome.

Could you give us an overview of your work?

I am urban planner and citizen participation expert at WeLoveTheCity, a Rotterdam-based firm that focuses on
innovative strategic & urban planning and design. My focus is on urban regeneration in a public-private setting,
including spatial, social, economic and sustainability components. I created a master plan for the Harbour Quarter of Deventer in the Netherlands, where I led the process to make all data open and transparent, enabling 300 small and medium-sized stakeholders to redevelop the area. Furthermore I also led the planning process for Plant Your Flag, a self-build neighbourhood in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, using social media as driver of the plan. In the European Horizon2020 project Smarticipate, I was in charge of the operational work of managing the pilots in Hamburg, London and Rome and I was also responsible for coordinating with the ICT partners. In the moment I am working on the masterplan of Amstelstation for the densification and transformation of a station area in the inner city of Amsterdam.

What's Smarticipate?

Smarticipate is a functional digital platform that publishes the open data of a city in an understandable way for further use. Via the platform, users can, for example, view and comment on proposed urban changes on a 2D / 3D map of their city and develop and submit their own suggestions. If proposals violate legal or political barriers, the automatic feedback system informs users and justifies this based on the information provided by the information on the platform.

Smarticipate is about opening digital access to urban space based on maps and other open data for creative and participative planning.

The digital platform smarticipate was developed as part of an EU-funded project in collaboration with citizens, entrepreneurs, organizations and city administrators in three major European cities (Hamburg, Rome, London), following a user-centered approach. That means directly connecting ‘smart’ citizens with their cities.

Smarticipate is about opening digital access to urban space based on maps and other open data for creative and participative planning.

Can you tell us how it has changed the cities where it's been set up?

Each of the three partner cities – Rome, Hamburg, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) in London – had a different starting point in terms of issues to be tackled and experience with open data. Despite their diversity, we quickly realized that there were quite a lot of overlaps between the cities – things that they were all struggling with.

Also, it was clear that the cities were dealing with open data very differently. In Rome, open data was an issue, while in Hamburg they have a law that mandates data to be made public. In London, the primary concern of the citizens was that they really wanted to see the impact that their proposals would have on policy making. They were afraid that there would be a digital iron curtain, where a platform like smarticipate would block the citizens from accessing politicians.

When they submit an idea, it should be very transparent and clear in terms of what is happening with it.
And Open data wasn’t an issue in Hamburg, but the citizens had a particular request (which is perhaps more German!) – they wanted to know what the rules were for the system.

Smarticipate, in the end, is about combining open data with rules, including defining the automatic feedback.

Marek Vogt, welovethecity/smarticipate

Is open data a key feature of smart cities?

A smart city needs citizens who are actively involved. But to be involved, the city also has to provide open data with the right tools to give the opportunity to do so. Only in combination with the right tools open data helps to bring citizens to the level of knowledge necessary to participate equally in the necessary discussions. This also means that citizens can make high-quality suggestions that cities need to be fit for the future. If a city wants to be smart my experience is that the political consensus is that citizens are more involved than before – from the beginning on. To access the potential of Smart Cities, Smart Citizens are needed.

A smart city needs citizens who are actively involved. But to be involved, the city also has to provide open data with the right tools to give the opportunity to do so.

If you don’t have open data and you’re not willing to share your knowledge, then it doesn’t work. At the start it was a challenge to involve the different city departments – we had to convince each city department that smarticipate means less work, as the automatic feedback will take over some of their daily work.

Are cities ready for direct contact with and input from the citizens?

Public participation and co-creation is inevitable for modern living together in our cities and communities. Issues like creating affordable housing, urban densification, climate change, mobility and education can only be tackled together with citizens. From my experience in the cities I work in, they can only do it successfully and sustainably with their citizens. If you really have an interesting, exciting, catchy topic, then you usually get other people that normally wouldn’t join public meetings. These people really make time and invest, as they feel that it’s relevant for them to contribute to the project. In the end, each city saw that it was a successful approach, and that citizens like to be involved from the beginning.

 

You've said that putting citizens first is one of your focuses of work. How do you do that?

My work in urban planning starts with citizens first and to make them a partner in the process. That means the same knowledge for everyone who wants to participate and co-create. In consequence, the project has to provide the right tools for the citizen and information to use their creativity and ideas to develop together concrete proposals.

My work in urban planning starts with citizens first and to make them a partner in the process. That means the same knowledge for everyone who wants to participate and co-create.

Therefore we worked with cities to find participants beyond the ‘usual suspects’ for the maximum of diversity. Important part of that is also to built partnerships between citizens, entrepreneurs, NGO’s and government. These new coalitions are helping to contribute to solutions and to invest in the implementation. In the end implementation needs money, but a participation process also can be used to activate private and public money.

Can you give us an example of an urban planning project of yours that reflects that approach?

In the Harbour Quarter of Deventer I made all the planning data and information open and transparent, enabling 300 small and medium-sized stakeholders to redevelop the area and not only to give it to three big commercial developers. This approach, based on organic growth, great ideas, exciting reuse and space for individuals and small developers with unorthodox ideas, was successful and resulted till now in a total investment of 65 million euros and a more than doubling the number of companies and employees in the area.

In the Harbour Quarter of Deventer I made all the planning data and information open and transparent, enabling 300 small and medium-sized stakeholders to redevelop the area and not only to give it to three big commercial developers.

Another project to be mentioned in this context is Plant Your Flag in Nijwegen. We approached future residents through social media, the interactive website www.plantjevlag.nl and an on-location event, all in a very short time. Together we completed the development plan. Very soon afterwards a new zoning plan was created and approved. This was necessary in order to allow the 250 self-builders to begin quickly. Since they not only wanted control over their home, but also over the outdoor public space, responsibility for public space management was transferred to the residents’ association. This approach resulted in a new neighbourhood with self and collective building.

Will smart cities and their citizens become too technology dependent?

Technology has to help to make people smarter. Because a smart city needs smart people. If technology does not help to have better informed citizens empowered to become active in their neighbourhood and city then technology does not make sense for that target, and the danger is that it works as a ‘digital curtain’ putting a wall between citizens and their city. Therefore the right technology is important and asking people which technology they need to contribute to their city – there is no – one size fits all- technology. And I see digital tools always as an enrichment of analog ways of contribution and participation.

How's your dream city like?

That the experience and knowledge of all citizens can be taken seriously in the planning and design of their neighborhoods and cities.

That the experience and knowledge of all citizens can be taken seriously in the planning and design of their neighborhoods and cities.

That cities are the home of a co-creating and participating society contributing to a sustainable, welcoming, healthy and social inclusive city built up on a democratic base of common values. My experience is that every city-level project is made better by listening to different voices: the greater the diversity, the greater the positive impact.