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January 25, 2016

Valuing Cities

Valuing Cities

By Jörg Niewöhner

The German network: Looking for a new narrative
The time has long passed when urban development could be administered from the top. Cities are too dynamic now, and their inhabitants are well informed and have their own ideas and aspirations. Development has to address functional and aesthetic needs and desires that can change in an instant. Planning departments and policy makers have lost the authority they once had to model urban spaces according to their own visions. They now seek new means, images and narratives to engage with spaces and citizens in ways that generate liveable cities for all.

However, while top-down urban development has lost credibility, bottom-up approaches have also seen better days. The technical, social and ecological complexity of urban spaces and configurations is such that individuals and local interest groups often struggle to bring their own ideas and wishes into dialogue with the bigger picture. This can result in patchwork development that’s incapable of addressing society’s great challenges, such as climate change adaptation or increasing social housing capacities.

The German SEiSMiC network, comprising 70 people from all walks of life and largely rooted in Berlin and the Western “Ruhrgebiet”, is a good example of the dynamic that is visible in all fields of urban development: Participatory urban planning and development confronts self-organised civil society initiatives. Administrative logic, created to balance conflicting interests and ensure fairness and long-term stability, squares off against community-based initiatives inspired by the possibility to shape local spaces according to local needs.

The passionate debate that has taken place within the network over the last year and a half has thrown up a number of new perspectives, concepts and ideas. We share three of them here to help create a new vision to guide the processes of urban planning and development:

  • Seeing like a city
  • Ecologies of expertise
  • Languages of valuation


Languages of valuation
The notion of “languages of valuation” stems from economics. It rests on the idea that it is necessary to broaden the notion of “value” in economic, social and political processes. Currently, dominant neoclassical economic theory and calculation frame “value”  in narrow monetary terms of demand, supply, price, and optimal social allocation. For urban development, this means real estate prices and revenue per unit area.

The “languages of valuation” idea is rooted within ecological economics and aims to bring out different concepts of value.

Discussions within the German network have shown two types of value within urban spaces. First, there are the many hours of voluntary work that go into many civic initiatives. Take the example of Utopiastadt – a group of enthusiasts developing an old railway station in Wuppertal into a hotspot of social activity and innovation. Convert the hours spent by everyone involved in the project over the last few years into monetary value and a figure of several hundred thousand euros emerges. That is value! When investors now approach the city with plans to develop spaces around the station, that is a value that can be brought to the discussion. Secondly, the network is working on forms to express value in non-monetary terms. Many have voiced their concern about urban “atmospheres” – that is, hard-to-grasp subjective experiences shared by many in a local area that distinguish “their” quarter from the next. Storytelling and mapping are just two ways of bringing this form of value to the discussion table when decisions about urban development are made.

Ecologies of expertise
Knowledge is crucial for all forms of urban development. In politics and planning, we often come across a certain implicit understanding of a hierarchy of knowledges: from the specialised and expert knowledge of universities, architects and economists, to the opinions of local people. Network discussions show that people no longer accept the sanctity of expert knowledge. Today, people want to engage more directly in urban development. This means that a lot of clever people are devoting significant time to using the new abundance of information about urban spaces to develop great ideas.

Expertise is more distributed than ever before. Urban spaces need to be understood as ecologies of expertise. They are not places run by people on the narrow basis of the knowledge of a few experts. Expertise, and the authority and legitimacy that go with it, are highly distributed among a diverse set of people. They are inscribed into increasingly decentralised structures. And they are produced in highly diverse contexts and don’t naturally feed into formal development processes.

Planners and developers must be aware of that. Their roles change from masterminds to mediators. The crucial question arises: How do you know the ecologies of expertise of your city when you are in charge of developing it?

Seeing like a city
“Seeing like a city” is a phrase from social and political history. It asks how the administrators in charge of developing a city “see” that city. “Seeing” is not meant only literally, although actually going into the city and looking at it, smelling it and touching it might be very useful to urban developers. But “seeing” means more. It refers to how the city is represented on the desks of those making the decisions about its future: through maps, surveys, interview data, engineering reports, architectural drawings, etc.

The discussion in the German network clearly shows that the time has come for urban administrations to learn how to see differently. Expertise and values are distributed throughout the city in a variety of civic engagements and organisations. Developing new ways for the administration to engage with this new configuration is paramount. Today, neither money nor knowledge is centred (solely) within the administration. Yet the administration continues to be the key actor when it comes to reconciling conflicting interests and recognising the rights and interests of those marginalised in open engagement. This is how the administration is legitimised. To fulfil their role in 21st-century cities, administrations need to start to “see” differently and to appreciate the variety of expertise and values presented to it by civil society.

Jörg Niewöhner is a team member of SEiSMiC Germany