The concept of developing the region is quite elusive to international science. How does this extreme Dutch term relate to similar activities abroad? According to SKG Director Tom Daamen, a recently published study on the theoretical development of large urban projects shows: the development of the area is about a relentless search for balance.
If a scholar took the trouble to chart the theories surrounding large-scale urban development projects, the district development chief would have to pay attention. Often no attempt is made to perform a meta-analysis of how we think urban development projectsor UDPs. “I see UDPs as large-scale transformations of urban areas through real estate development, often implemented through a collaborative public-private format,” wrote Chinese-American scholar Minji Kim. In the introduction to her study†
I outlined all articles published between 2000 and 2020 about how UDPs work and about the forces that determine their spatial – and above all – social consequences. Her analysis, limited to American, British and Western European (including Dutch) studies, turned out to be very informative.
Studies in large urban development projects are not always related to the development of the area in any way. This is because there are roughly three ways to interpret these projects. The first school sees urban projects not so much as a management task as a logical consequence of the structural forces that dominate our society. Scholars of this monetary school point to the nature of our capitalist system, in which commodities such as houses acquire exchange value as well as use value.
Political decision-making does not simply bow to the “dominance” of the neoliberal agenda
The “commodification” of the resulting urban space is inevitable, leading to forms of “neoliberal urbanization” and (among other things) the privatization of public space. This process is profitable, and thus quickly becomes the dominant logic among the urban elite, including administrators, investors and business owners. Large urban projects have become a masterpiece.
Main (developmental) risks
Analysis of this critical camp is ✱ thoughtful and in-depth† It reminds us that real estate and infrastructure are welcome reservoirs of excess capital in our system. These funds are constantly looking for places where they can earn returns (more). City authorities become “entrepreneurial” when they are persuaded to convert land, public utilities, or space use into private goods.
According to this school, this creates areas where the urban elite gains the exclusive right to extract the value of places. Projects that serve this purpose often feature far-reaching partnerships between the public and private sectors. One often finds a government willing to take significant (developmental) risk – anything just to win the interest of investors.
While urban projects are seen within the critical school as a logical consequence of capitalist impulses, a second group of scholars find this perspective too simplistic. In addition to constructed outcomes, this second school examines the power politics surrounding urban projects and indicates the existence of such a thing as political will. Political decision-making does not simply bow to the “dominance” of the neoliberal agenda. There is always some negotiation going on.
What are the practical implications of building political and monetary science theory on large-scale urban projects?
✱ urban systems, or networks around decision makers in cities, are large and plural, say researchers from the political school. In their opinion, the image of a small elite behaving harmoniously and randomly in line with capitalist ideas does not provide an explanation for every situation. It refers in particular to situations in which regimes enter into progressive alliances and projects that do not strengthen the power of the big corporations, but above all strengthen their social, financial and political position.
Then there is a third school of scholars. They ask: What are the practical implications of theory formation in the critical and political sciences surrounding large-scale urban projects? in Kim review article They are classified under the “pragmatic” school. Where critical school analysis inevitably leads to a call for revolution and the political school essentially advocates progressive politics, the approach of the pragmatists – in the philosophical sense of the word – is more strategic in nature. They understand the quirks and sometimes the overwhelming power of capital. At the same time, they note that the urbanization of countries and regions within this system is very diverse and still yields very good results here and there. Ultimately, they assert that human actors are under the control of large urban projects. The system is powerful, but not tyrannical.
Universal values such as justice and equality set the standard by which the realist school governs large urban projects. This approach is oriented towards practice, because it awakens a ✱ sense of context† After all, the interpretation of universal values is a time and place specific issue. Therefore comparisons between cities, regions and countries or between different time periods must be made carefully.
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) to achieve equitable outcomes and promote human equality. Identifying “critical moments” or “new compromises” among the actors involved in urban projects is an essential task in this regard.
The scholarly articles on urban projects from the past twenty years cannot be divided into the three schools discussed. Researchers’ interests vary widely, leading to all kinds of side pathways and/or overlaps in the approach, method, and focus of studies. In addition, of course, many books have been written on the development of projects and patterns of urbanization. Kim had to ignore this in her article.
However, how high the bar can be adjusted is a matter of balance
Remarkably, although critical and political perspectives are still prevalent in science, the pragmatic approach seems to be gaining importance recently. This is fueled by the need to bring science and practice closer together and to improve project processes and outcomes through sound research. Research in the area of development of the area, which can be better understood as an empirical object as a form of management that links interdependent actors with a common mission, can thus be placed in the pragmatic school. This also immediately explains why the science surrounding this can – often, but certainly not exclusively – urban project-oriented activism draws on criticism from within its ranks.
What does all this teach us about the science of zonal development as it is also practiced in the Netherlands? It does not aim to criticize and overthrow the regime from outside, as in the critical school. While analyzing from within and helping “incrementally” to improve practice, according to critics, leads at best to strengthening the status quo, according to pragmatists, this attitude does not actually make you more.
With equity and equality as core values - from which sustainable, inclusive or affordable goals are derived – the science of developing the region really wants to raise the bar for actors and institutions. However, how high the bar can be adjusted is a matter of balance: too high, no one believes in it anymore. So low, no one sees the challenge. Discovering this balance is a turbulent search between science and practice. A task that can only be completed by consultation and dialogue.
Cover: ‘Stationsplein, Utrecht’ by Ralph Liebhold (Source: shutterstock.com†
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