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Re-Ground Urban Development

Insights from one place don’t necessarily apply to others. Local governments should therefore focus on site-specific initiatives that work for issues, areas and people.

Behavioral economics have found that context is key to changing behaviour, not information. And the implications of this are that people don’t act based on the best information, they act based on their surroundings, situations, time of day, etc. For this reason projects and solutions cannot be scaled, and they cannot be copied 1:1 to other places.

Many local governments spend more time and effort on copying solutions and sending their staff to conferences than on developing locally based initiatives in their own cities and neighborhoods. These city development projects and liveability conferences often showcase successful projects, and focus too little on the methods and processes used to achieve results: the underlying methods and insights gained by watching and listening, empathising. The only thing we can really learn from a successful urban project is that an initiative worked once, in one place, for a certain group of people. Cases from other places should act as inspiration, not as copy/paste solutions.

Like any positive change, the best results come from understanding stakeholders, which you can only do by interacting with them, learning about their behaviour, studying their lives and uncovering their needs. The key to better cities is empathy, and a soft, flexible, human-scale approach to development.

In developing cities we need to be humble. We have to adopt the mindset that we only know that we know nothing. City developers should engage in each project not as experts, but as empathic designers, who ask a lot of obvious questions, uncover context, create relationships and, most important of all, spend time in a given locality. We need to build the capacity to truly understand a place before we act on it. And we need to build flexibility into city planning, so we let citizens develop initiatives and create change in their neighborhoods without being stifled by bureaucracy and skepticism.

By listening to and observing citizens we gain valuable insights, which can form the basis of small scale initiatives and interventions that use local insights and seek to create strong communities. These projects, or experiments, should seek to validate assumptions, and feed more insights into the overall aim of creating urban change – living walkable neighborhoods. This soft, iterative, experimental process yields more relevant urban development and the bottom up approach secures greater ownership from the civic stakeholders.

Empathy coupled with urban flexibility and an experimental, project-based, approach to testing, validating and iterating, can re-ground urban development. The real needs of every civic stakeholder can be reflected in our cities.