Emergent Planning or bottom-up urbanism?

by Andreas HengstermannGiulia Maci and Olivier Woeffray

Is the act of planning the same today as a few decades ago? Probably not. What is the evolution that planning and, more generally, the act of governing has experienced? How is it possible to reconcile spontaneous initiatives and established planning rules?

Site fence at the north wing of Stuttgart Central Station during demolition works










Since the 70’s we have moved from a context in which the state was the governing actor to one in which it becomes the primary actor within a broader network of governmental and private bodies, as well as civil society groups. This multiplication of players implies both a vertical and horizontal diffusion of decision-power. Indeed, supranational entities such as the United Nations or the European Union have an increasing importance in planning decisions, even at the local level. Moreover, other important players such as community based organizations, inhabitants or private enterprises also stepped into planning decisions that were previously exclusively in the hands of public authorities.

Moreover there are stories about how leadership and local initiatives have together created a balance between order and chaos, and stabilized complex urban situations. An emblematic case  is the city of Almere in The Netherlands. Almere is a new town created  30 years ago by a group of professional designers without involving the residents. Today the roles are inverted and  the new expansion of the city is planned by its inhabitants . Within specific design guidelines determined by MVRDV, the architecture office which initiated this experiment, citizens can compose their own neighborhoods. This project represents a revolution in Dutch urban planning (which is currently highly top-down and centralized) and it facilitates an organic growth of the city, within which individual initiatives have great impact and the citizens can create their own neighborhoods by providing the presence of public parks, urban gardens and roads.

Almere, MVRDV










Another much discussed case of planning and its modern manifestation is Stuttgart 21. Since the late 1980s, planners and politicians have been dreaming about placing the main station in Stuttgart underground, thus creating new space for development within the city centre. Plans were made and technical details developed over two decades. But when the project was finally about to start, it became obvious that the plans were made without consideration for a significant number of the people effected. Official proceedings that had taken place did not inspire broad consensus. A referendum was proposed and showed the problem of “space in boxes” (Faludi). Who should be entitled to vote on the project? Who is effected? The citizens of Stuttgart? The inhabitants of Baden-Wuerttemberg? All Germans? Europeans?

The project Stuttgart 21 and its aftermath within the European high-speed railway network has more impact on the citizen of Paris and Bratislava then on villagers in the rural South of Baden-Wuerttemberg. Nevertheless the latter were entitled to vote. In terms of financing a Northern German should be as involved as a Stuttgarter is. The underlying problem lies in the boxed system of our democracy, which isn’t congruent with the networked form of governance, society and this project.


Articles from the World Cities Summit brought to you in partnership with The International Federation for Housing and Planning, and Sustainable CitiesTM, a part of the Danish Architectural Centre