This Tiny Amsterdam Neighborhood Is a Prototype for Grassroots Urban Planning

Using a mix of social media, apps, and planning sessions, a coalition of urban designers and residents are planning their neighborhood from the ground-up.
Buiksloterham Amsterdam grassroots planning

To aid in peer-to-peer knowledge sharing among self-builders and organizers in Buiksloterham, Amsterdam, The Hackable City group created a phone app dubbed The International Building Exhibition App. Its participants can geolocate a given building (i.e. an apartment complex like this one) and view the information residents and builders had shared on its design, construction, permitting, and habitation. Courtesy The Hackable City


As social media evolves and urban design evolve, are there possibilities for the two to cross-pollinate and offer new, more democratic paths in city-making?  This question was the starting point for The Hackable City, a research project now six years in the making. Initiated in 2012, The Hackable City is a partnership between the firm I founded, One Architecture and Urbanism (based in Amsterdam and New York), and the Dutch independent research group The Mobile City, as well as a number of embedded researchers at universities across the Netherlands.

Since its founding, our Hackable City initiative has become increasingly focused on a development close to home—the unassuming neighborhood of Buiksloterham, which stretches across a formerly industrial waterfront just north of Amsterdam’s historic core. The site in question had long been in development limbo; the 188-acre reclaimed brownfield, once home to an airplane factory, an oil refinery, and shipbuilding spaces, was slated for redevelopment by the city in the early 2000s. However, in 2008, the Dutch economy crashed. The developers pulled out, project funding folded, and Buiksloterham’s fate was thrown into uncertainty.

Soon after, an informal group of planners, urbanists, and Hackable City members collectively called Beleef Buiksloterham (“Experience Buiksloterham”) pitched a new direction to the city for the site’s development. Our angle was: what if, instead of letting the highest-paying developers take the reigns, Buiksloterham became a living laboratory for the idea of a circular economy—an approach in which resources such as energy, water, building materials, and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing are thought of as circular systems? Another central tenet of the proposal focused on accessibility and self-building. What if—in this one neighborhood—locals, residents, and engaged citizens were given the agency to directly participate in the design-build process using everyday social tools like Facebook and Twitter?

Buiksloterham Amsterdam grassroots planning

Sample screenshots from The International Building Exhibition App that Buiksloterham residents can use. In this entry on the app, for example, certain slides explore how this building’s energy-efficient glass facade functions. Courtesy The Hackable City


Idealistic though it may sound, Circular Buiksloterham, as the district has come to be called, is inching toward reality. With the City of Amsterdam’s endorsement and the hard work of many invested coalitions, the brownfield has become a long-term experiment prototyping the potential of organic, bottom-up planning. This new model involves long-term, public-private partnerships putting design into the hands of residents and small collaboratives.

Throughout Buiksloterham’s development, Hackable City researchers have used the site to create programs, games, and publications around the idea of “hackable city-making;” i.e. the use of “hacker” techniques in urban design. In 2014, our researchers and Hackable members created a phone app allowing self-builders (residents organizing the creation of their own homes) in the neighborhood to share lessons learned about building design and construction, interactions with contractors, and more. Our researchers also created a series of games exploring topics from energy efficiency to water management. Public workshops with residents and designers have become part and parcel of the planning process, rather than a box to check off a grant application—this is both what makes Buiksloterham so unique and has also allowed it to secure municipal backing for the long haul.

“It’s a long process, but it goes gradually, and you grow with it,” said a Buiksloterham resident, in conversation with Bart Aptroot, director of One Architecture and Urbanism’s Amsterdam office. “It’s nice that there’s time to learn, for example, that you can develop ideas and desires for your new home even in the pressure cooker housing market of Amsterdam. Though we originally wanted more space, we ended up in a smaller house with a garden. I always wanted that garden, but forgot it was a possibility.”

At present, the entire district of Buiksloterham is slated for an estimated $2.5 billion in funds for future development, including $55 million in construction costs for a 180-unit apartment complex designed by Beleef Buiksloterham in partnership with future residents. The entire district should eventually facilitate about 4,000 housing units, of which about 10 percent have already been built. Among those completed is ELTA, a 16-unit apartment tower designed by our core team at One Architecture and Urbanism, Bot Bouw Initiatief, and co-developed with the building’s tenants.

Buiksloterham Amsterdam grassroots planning

Community workshop with self-builders, architects, designers, and planners from Beleef Buiksloterham. Courtesy The Hackable City


In current estimates, the neighborhood is projected to grow from 200 to around 10,000 residents, with current zoning regulations allowing for around 3.7 million square feet of additional commercial space and a half-million square feet of communal and recreational space. Besides One Architecture, DELVA Landscape Architects has also assisted in the design of public infrastructure and greenways. Most other projects have been initiated through smaller collaborations among self-builders. The neighborhood is already home to an informal bar named Café de Ceuvel that also serves as a major social and organizational hub. The district also includes a public school for children with mental disabilities, a primary school, and medical practice, all of which are housed in temporary structures until permanent accommodations are constructed.

The creation of all these institutions have been community-led initiatives. Under current market conditions, the neighborhood’s overall revenue for development, generated from taxes and outside investment, will quadruple. We hope that Buiksloterham can set an example of the power of grassroots planning practices for iterative neighborhoods as well as the successes of long-term investment in community partnerships across the world.

The Hackable City recently released a series of informal toolkits on collaborative urbanism and grassroots citymaking, ‘The Hackable City’ Cahiers 1-3, available on the collective’s website. In Fall 2018, stay tuned for the forthcoming Springer edition The Hackable City Edited Volume: Digital Media and Collaborative Citymaking in the Network Society.

Matthijs Bouw is the Founder and Principal of One Architecture & Urbanism, an Amsterdam and New York-based design and planning firm, as well as Rockefeller Urban Resilience Fellow for PennDesign at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Hackable City is a project by One Architecture and Urbanism, The Mobile City, the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht University, the Netherlands Ministry of Internal Affairs, Pakhuis De Zwijger, and Stadslab Circulair Buiksloterham. Their work has been funded, among others, by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). Special thanks to Martijn de Waal and Michiel de Lange for their collaboration.

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Categories: Cities, Ideas, Planning

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