Town Planning Review 91.3 Featured Article: Sebastian Dembski

The editors of Town Planning Review (TPR) have selected the following paper as a Featured Article in TPR 91.3.

This paper will be free to access for a limited time:

‘Organic approaches to planning as densification strategy? The challenge of legal contextualisation in Buiksloterham, Amsterdam’ by Sebastian Dembski.

We asked Dembski to introduce his paper and highlight its importance:

The growth of cities has triggered new experiments of urban densification. In the Netherlands, which has been dominated by a master-planning approach in combination with an active land policy, ‘organic’ development emerged as a new planning approach initially for the transformation of industrial estates into mix-used urban neighbourhoods. The term ‘organic’ refers to the flexible and incremental nature of the approach which also places greater emphasis on end-user involvement. This trend is not unique to the Netherlands, as is evidenced in the increasing international literature on tactical, everyday and do-it-yourself urbanism, as well as other micro-spatial practices.

Many planners have placed high hopes in this new form of development, but it is also acknowledged that there is an inherent tension between the desire for a more flexible, incremental approach to urban development and the current planning system. Like other countries, the Netherlands has seen a significant increase of environmental and planning legislation in response to societal demands for legal certainty, which has resulted in the juridification of planning practice, leading to increasing conflict between planning and law. It is assumed that existing land-policy instruments face difficulties in combining the quest for legal certainty and the inherent desire to keep planning strategies open and flexible.

This paper analyses land-policy strategies combining densification with organic development through the lens of contextualisation This framework helps us to understand how the aspirations of policy makers match the duty to comply with legal norms. It is at this interface that strategies and the instruments used will be tested in practice. Land-policy instruments are determined by legal norms: what planners can and cannot do with them. It is in local practices that these are filled with meaning in combination with other legal norms relevant to planning. There is an implicit assumption that the current instruments are not fit for purpose. Have land-use policy instruments been so applied as to achieve the policy aspirations of densification and organic development? How does central rule enable densification and local self-organisation?

The Buiksloterham in Amsterdam provides an excellent case study of densification through urban transformation and is a pioneering case study of this more flexible approach to planning in the Netherlands. The experience of the Buiksloterham clearly shows that it is not a panacea for densification, but an alternative development approach. The notion of organic development suggests some form of laissez-faire planning with little regulation and work for local government, but experience shows that there is still significant involvement of the local planning authority required to facilitate the highly complex legal process of land-use planning and as a ‘market maker’.

Equally, such an approach created significant legal challenges compared with the traditional master-planning style. Sectoral law heavily defines what constitutes ‘good spatial planning’, a problem which increases in open-ended planning strategies. The tension between a flexible planning regime and legal certainty with respect to environmental norms cannot be easily resolved. There is a tendency to lay the blame on environmental norms, but there have been good reasons in the past why the legislator has introduced minimum protection levels. It is important to restate that it was possible to contextualise planning and environmental regulations while still realising the planning goals.

The editors of Town Planning Review have also selected ‘Planning control and the politics of soft densification’by Richard Dunning, Hannah Hickman and Aidan While as a Featured Article in 91.3. Read Dunning’s introduction to the article here.