Bottom-up: The Debate

After the presentation of six projects initiated from the bottom up one week earlier, Arcam hosted a debate on 14 April on the significance of similar projects for the city and its development in the broadest sense of the word: a top-down view on bottom-up. Participants in the debate were Cor Wagenaar (TU Delft), Mariska van den Berg (researcher), Ton Schaap (DRO Amsterdam) and Bart Stuart (Buro Spelen). Two introductory presentations by Cor Wagenaar en Mariska van den Berg explored the playing field. According to Wagenaar there is nothing exceptional about a bottom-up project, historically speaking. The ‘opposite’, a top-down approach, is more the exception. From 1850 until the beginning of the twentieth century, a period in which Dutch cities experienced formidable growth, urban development was effected purely from the bottom up. It was not until after this period that, step by step, top-down regulations were imposed in an attempt to curb the negative consequences of urban growth, working as a sort of disaster prevention. This laid down the foundation for urban development as we know it today. From hygiene measures and social interventions that were initiated to forge the city into a single (aesthetic) entity to large-scale infrastructure visions, the agenda (directed from the top down) became more comprehensive, until it gained an all-decisive status in the post-war reconstruction period. In the meantime, bottom-up developments did not disappear, but moulded themselves to the frameworks that were imposed on them from the top and were relegated to the background as a formative power. As audience member Tracy Metz aptly put forth, the financial crisis has chiselled a big hole in the top-down system of urban development and bottom-up initiatives are finally becoming visible again through the cracks. Mariska van den Berg spoke about her recent research that covered 27 cultural projects. Often without being conscious of the effects in advance, these bottom-up initiatives lead to new venues in the public space where people can meet. This results in a new type of public domain, referred to in urban sociology as the ‘parochial domain’. The initiatives claim a portion of the public space, which therefore loses its neutral position (which is often experienced as a negative development). This raises questions about the status and role of institutions. To whom does the city belong? Van den Berg illustrates this by presenting the community garden at Afrikanerplein in the Transvaal District in Amsterdam-East as an example. This successful initiative is now in discussion with the district authorities with a view to not only using this plot of public space, but taking over its management as well. Two other examples, Singeldingen in Rotterdam and a project in Hustadt, Bochum (Germany), illustrate the similar ‘conquering’ of a plot of public space by a group of interested citizens. In the ensuing debate, in which Ton Schaap and Bart Stuart also joined, a discussion soon followed about how the institutions should handle these bottom-up projects. Does the fact that initiatives are launched without their participation imply that they are failing? Perhaps, but that is only true of you continue to base your thinking on government agencies and affiliated parties that take the citizen by the hand and provide for all his needs, from the cradle to the grave. Active citizens who launch initiatives independently no longer expect this. In this case, their attitude is not anti-institutional, as it may have been in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, but above all, pragmatic. Wagenaar called attention to the prime example of the bottom-up approach: the German Baugruppen. These illustrate the flexibility of the initiators in their endeavour to shape their living environment within the applicable (institutional) frameworks, albeit true that the German frameworks differ from the Dutch on many points. The institutions are not yet prepared for this, and the lack of explicit cooperation fuels resistance in citizens with a plan of their own. Ton Schaap, who has been an out-and-out top-down urban developer for decades, sensed this dissatisfaction immediately when, at the start of the debate, he introduced himself quasi-ironically with the provocative words: “Bring on your rotten eggs and tomatoes!” It was not without reason that the projects presented earlier illustrated the need for guerrilla action at some point in the process in order to force a breakthrough and confront the institutions with a fait accompli. Of course, this is not free of risk: although bottom-up initiatives provide innovative opportunities for some, this approach is not suitable for everyone. The projects presented during the first Arcam meeting were launched by empowered, active and emancipated citizens, who were often professionally (or semi-professionally) involved in urban development. But what if, as Ton Schaap put forth, you are not empowered, or an utter layman, or not able to put the required energy into these projects? Or, what if – despite the sympathetic appeal of a bottom-up project – you don’t want one on your proverbial doorstep? Can you dismantle a project like this from the bottom up as well? The main question addressed by this debate – whether bottom-up initiatives fulfil a new, structural role in the development of a city – was not answered so quickly. You could ask if this question was not formulated in a typically ‘top-down’ manner, and was therefore, not entirely suitable. Perhaps the essence of bottom-up projects can primarily be found in the process, and particular in the collective nature of that process. This is best illustrated by relatively small groups collaborating on a project in the public space. These people are committed to improving their living environment and act as a collective intermediary between the individualistic ‘urban consumer’ and the anonymous super-scale level at which the institutions operate. As far as this is concerned bottom-up initiatives are more than a product of the economic recession, in which the institutions (temporarily or not) are no longer capable of producing a satisfactory result. Perhaps bottom-up projects are a reflection (in terms of urban development) of new social and societal organisational structures, which have also become more prominent with the advent of social media. This development requires the government to take on a new role. An all-embracing concept, expressed in master plans (both in terms of urban development and financially) is no longer sufficient. As Stuart pointed out during the debate: the overall approach has shifted from working from tried-and-true blueprints, to managing exceptions. It is clear that everyone – and particularly the institutions- still needs to get used to the new situation. For Maarten Klos this was reason enough to conclude that this will not be the last debate on this subject. To be continued.