Guest blog by architect Martine Zoeteman:Disruptive communities as co-directors of the city’s future

Community Placemaking Social innovation

Architect Martine Zoeteman has been studying (temporary) creative hubs in relation to urban development in The Hague, and beyond. In this guest blog, she looks at creative entrepreneurs’ potential to adapt and reinvent themselves. We need to empower them more systematically, she argues, so they can continue to breath new life into our cities. Read her contribution below.

Creative entrepreneurs and artists have great potential to adapt and reinvent themselves. This talent to innovate is highly valued in our society, yet the position of creative communities in cities remains marginal. Even if they make it all the way from loosely organized ‘creative caravan’ (see blog #02) to firmly rooted ‘anchor’ in the city’s cultural landscape (see blog #03). It is still a question how to empower these groups on a larger scale and on the long-term.

Collective strength of disruptive communities

A close look at the practice of Urban Resort – the largest creative hub developer and manager in Amsterdam – is essential to develop an answer to this question. This non-profit organization provides inexpensive spaces to work and life for the creative, cultural and social sector. The Volkskrant Building is one of its most well known achievements.

The Volkskrant Building in Amsterdam, a (initial temporary) creative hub with over 300 tenants founded by Urban Resort in 2007. The building changed owner in 2012 and has been transformed into a hotel. One third of the creative hub is preserved and still managed by Urban Resort.

The founders of Urban Resort have firm roots in the Amsterdam squatting movement and their anarchistic attitude is still tangible in their hubs. Urban Resort offers basic facilities and services, and plays an important role in the selection procedure of tenants. But at the same time it expects tenants to display serious self-management and responsibility in the development and maintenance of the place.

This makes these hubs different from the ones of regular developers and managers. Avoiding a one-size-fits-all-strategy, Urban Resort tries to unlock the specific potential of each location and each group of people. While balancing between a top-down and a bottom-up approach it pushes the boundaries of common social and economical structures.

Urban Resort’s community-driven approach established a particular identity that attracts certain types of people. It facilitates a slowly growing movement – or in its own words: a subculture – of like-minded artists and creatives that spreads through the city. Not like ‘Mediamatic’ that hops from one place to the other, according to the creative caravan principle (see blog #02), but by colonizing multiple locations at the same time.

The network expands as a sort of snowball: with every new hub, more critical thinkers find a place in the city, each generating their own spin offs. If we envision this process on an even larger scale, organizations like Urban Resort could act as co-directors of the city’s future, organizing a critical mass of disruptive minds that could have substantial impact on the way we plan and manage our cities.

Understanding creative hubs with co-directors

In my opinion, the first crucial step is to change the way we understand creative hubs. First, we have to shift our focus from the buildings to the creative communities. It is not our biggest challenge to give use to vacant square metres, but to preserve the opinionated and progressive communities in our cities. Second, we have to stop looking for a standardized formula to create such communities. It is the uniqueness of these groups that is most valuable for our society, but this simply cannot flourish in the context of a one-size-fits-all approach.

To activate the talents of pioneers – i.e. recognizing potential where others do not (yet), questioning the status quo, and adapting and reinventing themselves – we have to fully accept the nature of experimental processes: starting something without clear sight on where it might lead to, balancing on a thin line between real innovation and failure.

To maximize innovative forces in cities, we have to support the intrinsic dynamics of creative communities. The three dynamic urban patterns that I have identified – based on my observations of communities and their movements through the city – could function as a guideline for a more advanced approach. The creative caravan functions as incubator for new communities. To keep it going, easy access to buildings without complicated procedures is crucial.

The anchors in the informal cultural landscape offer a particular identity and reputation beneficial for (starting) entrepreneurs and artists, and besides might act as unsolicited urban planners as well. They need support on financial and organizational level in professionalizing their specific business models. Co-directors of the city’s future activate the collective strength of creative communities. How to establish such co-directors is something we still have to find out.

I strongly believe it is the shared responsibility of creative communities, the municipality, cultural organizations and educational institutions to include these tree dynamic urban patterns in the city of The Hague and by doing so, to allow disruptive communities to grow and breathe new life into our cities time and again.

Martine Zoeteman (architect and writer) is founder of STADvogels, an architecture studio for research and design. For several years she studied (temporary) creative hubs in relation to urban development. Besides being part of De Besturing, a collective of artists, designers and cultural entrepreneurs that runs its own studio complex in the Binckhorst.