Adaptive urban development is often posited as the cure-all for top-down design and lack of community engagement in the design process. But two researchers argue that urban development is essentially adaptive – and that incremental urban development happens irrespective of planning. In a paper released in Land Use Policy journal published this month under the title “Playing by the rules?” two Dutch urban researchers use the Navy Yard in Amsterdam to investigate the “rules of the game” and prove that existing urban developments are already adaptive and incremental.

Given this flexibility in urban development, Lilianvan Karnenbeek and Leonie Janssen-Jansen from Wageningen University argue that understanding changes in the so-called ‘rules of the game’ are increasingly relevant today. Their research paper is significant since gaining such insights advances the ability of planners to deal with perceived spatial problems.

Through the research paper, the researchers aim to develop an analytical framework for scrutinizing changes to the rules in incremental urban developments. They also test the analytical framework in a real-life incremental urban development. In order to make this possible, they use the case of the Navy Yard in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, proving the relevance of investigating how rules change in urban development.

The researchers use Navy Yard to make the case for adaptive urban development

View of Amsterdam historic city center De Wallen from Oude Kerk Amsterdam. CC: currystrumpet

Amsterdam’s Navy Yard is located in its historic city center, and is spread over an area of about 150 square kilometers (58 square miles). Situated on the waterfront on the IJ River, which is named after an Old Dutch word that means “water,” the former Admiralty of Amsterdam claimed the area in 1655 to build warships to protect the Dutch East India Company. From 1655 onward, the then-called Navy Yard Amsterdam was not open to the public, which drew many questions from city-dwellers moving around the mysterious yard located in the heart of Amsterdam.

But that all changed after 2013, when economic turmoil and budget cuts shook the whole of Europe. That’s when the Yard’s owners, represented in the Dutch National Government, decided to consider alternative uses for the area. The government decided to incrementally hand over the maintenance of approximately 50 square kilometers (19 square miles) of the area between 2015 and mid-2018. On July 1 2018, the full 150 square kilometers (58 square miles) will be available for redevelopment.

The area’s military uses were relocated in mid-2017, and, as of this year, the National Government plans to sell the Navy Yard and the City of Amsterdam may be the first to offer a bid. The researchers say that at the time of writing of their paper, which was during May 2017, about 50 square kilometers (19 square miles) of the Navy Yard had been developed and made accessible.

This incremental urban development is managed by the Project Agency Navy Yard, an organization set up through the Dutch National Government and the City of Amsterdam and dedicated solely to the yard’s makeover. Moreover, the development of the Navy Yard is complimentary to the waterfront redevelopment, which has been underway for the past three decades in the east and west docklands of the IJ river bank.

“In conclusion, our analytical framework allows to specifically elucidate rules and change thereof,” the study reads. Furthermore, they suggest that urban researchers apply the framework in further research in order to reveal specific impacts of rules of adaptive urban development over time in multiple case studies.

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