Thanks to the Berlage expansion plan of 1908 Bezuidenhout-Oost has many public squares both large and small. This is a true treasure in a densely populated neighbourhood, depending of course upon how they have been designed and how they are being utilized.
Regarding this matter a lot has been said and done in the past several years, ultimately resulting in the renovation of the first public square which was officially 'opened' on the 1st of March 2018 by the alderman.
Temporary reconstruction of the Silleplein during Spring 2018
Creating work by means of work
The motivation or reasoning behind the reconstruction was the need and necessity to replace the existing sewer system. In line with "creating work by means of work” both the street reconstruction as well as the creation of 500 extra parking spots were simultaneously completed. A dialogue with residents regarding the reconstruction took place street by street.
Residents had a tendency to lean towards the beautification of their streets by means of trees, with the potential consequence of shifting the 500 extra parking spots towards the public squares at the end of those streets. When this possible scenario was addressed during the neighbourhood participation evening, the question arose: What exactly does our neighbourhood want to do with its public squares?
An active group of residents took the initiative to form the ‘Working group Public Squares Bezuidenhoutʼ. Ultimately resulting in a working group that not necessarily wanted to participate, but challenged the municipality towards a collective collaboration between residents, municipality and the designers of the Engineering Office The Hague. The public squares project received full support from both the Urban Development Department and the District. This broad support proved to be very valuable during the sometimes tough processes behind the scenes, between the various municipal departments, whom all had their own framework, protocols and interests.
Working group and Commitment
The working groups role was to arrange and organize the support and commitment from the neighbourhood. One of the first steps was a survey in which residents were asked what their needs and wishes were. At the top of their wish list was more green and a place to meet and greet. In respect to parking the outcome was surprising: this matter had considerably less priority than expected.
The response itself was also striking: 9%. That may not seem like much, but 750 residents willing to make their wishes know far out exceeds the attendance to regular public participation meetings and is far beyond the response to municipal surveys (2% to 3%). Prompting the conclusion that the results of the survey were an accurate representation and were therefore translated by the Engineering Office into a masterplan and partial design development per square. The first sketches were presented and discussed during specially designated residential meetings (square discussions), one square at a time. Based on the input and feedback received the designs were finalized.
In general, there was a lot of support and commitment from within the community regarding the plans targeted towards more greenery and a place to gather. The plans were well received by the greater majority because they knew upfront what the outcome would be and they understood better why certain choices were made. Even so, there remained several objections from those residents who couldn’t relate to the results of the survey or simply weren’t in line with the definite redevelopment and design of the public squares.
At one time there was, for example, a situation with generally older residents living next to or across from the public square and many families with children in the neighbouring streets. For the residents living next to or across from the square, the placement of a playground was not necessary. Furthermore, they were of the opinion that they were privy to the use of ‘their square’.
Loudly complaining these residents addressed the municipality and in a reflex the municipality inclined to give in. Whereby the extensive process of open discussion with the neighbourhood threatened to become null and void. In agreement with all parties involved the decision was made to hold and extra ‘square discussion’, whereby everyone was given the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions regarding the already revised plans.
As a result, those who appealed against the plans on behalf of the neighbourhood were also confronted with ‘the other side of the story’ resulting in a compromise. In one specific situation both parties, for and against the plans were unable to reach a compromise without help. Based on the advice given by the working group, the municipality decided to apply a temporary redesign for that specific square so that the residents could physically experience the suggested situation, to later vote amongst direct and surrounding residents and reach a definite decision.
In order to accomplish the experiment on the Silleplein a street was closed off for traffic in the summer of 2017 and redeveloped and designed with a place to gather including greenery and seating for a period of 3 months. The experiment was conducted by Urbanos Sustainable Urbanism an independent party specialized in tactical urbanism and bottom-up projects.
Afterwards, a new survey was held among the residents living directly on and in the streets adjacent to the square. In the end, those in favour of the suggested redevelopment had a small majority and new plans for the redevelopment were drawn and presented to the neighbourhood. This time the result was a more positive outcome than expected. In the end, most of the people involved felt they were heard and taken serious while making these final plans. First, they considered the people with different views as ‘the others’ but during the process they became neighbours.
In the coming years, almost all of the squares in Bezuidenhout-Oost will be redeveloped one at a time. Looking back at the process and current results, Melvin Kaersenhout, one of the initiators is fairly satisfied. Public participation requires a lot of work and commitment but in the end, it’s worth the effort of co-creating the city.
This article was originally published in Dutch by Association Friends of the City of The Hague and Melvin Kaersenhout (studioMAEK). Thanks to the cooperation of the working group of citizens of Bezuidenhout, landscape architect Klaas Hilverda from the municipality of The Hague, project manager Eveline Kokx and her colleagues.
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