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This Startup Wants To Turn Everyone Into An Urban Planner

Developers and designers often start building, but forget who they are really building for. This Dutch company is bringing the art of listening back into the city planning process.

This Startup Wants To Turn Everyone Into An Urban Planner

Inside a sprawling vacant building in an Amsterdam shipyard, a startup called City Works (De Stedenfabriek) is working to turn the space into something new. City Works was hired by the owners for the task, but the group isn’t made up of designers or planners, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, the company is out to prove that urban redevelopment requires more skills than just the ability to create designs that work aesthetically.

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The group’s specialty, in a way, is talking to people. They bring relevant people together to figure out exactly what they really want. It’s a process that may be nominally part of any design process, but doesn’t always happen.


“There are a lot of examples in the Netherlands where developers started building but forgot for whom they were building,” says Caroline Vrauwdeunt, who launched the new company. “In any project, the goal should always be about translating the wishes of the stakeholders–if you don’t do that, you might deliver a result that nobody is interested in.”

With a vacancy rate of 18%, Amsterdam has more empty office space than any other city in Europe other than Athens. That’s spawned a plethora of pop-up projects and other plans for reuse, but they often don’t last, leaving spaces vacant again.

City Works hopes that taking a slightly different approach will help create businesses that can last longer. “The process of getting to a solution is actually much more important than the solution itself,” she says. “Sometimes architects can get too focused on a design.”

The company developed a step-by-step toolkit for collaborative urban regeneration, and is currently testing it at the shipyard building. Within two months, after a quick series of workshops with local nonprofits and entrepreneurs who want to use the space, along with local government, they’ll deliver a business plan to the building’s owners.

“We’re not developing the concept ourselves, we’re making connections and managing the process of co-creating it together,” Vrauwdeunt says. Over the next few years, City Works plans to repeat the same process over and over again, gradually helping bring new life to empty vacant spaces throughout the Netherlands.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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