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Create win-win situations

3' read - published May 31st 2023

Usually, in urban construction, developers would like to have the biggest return-on-investment, public authorities look to satisfy regulations and the needs of the population in the best possible way and citizens seek a comfortable and safe environment to live, work and study in. How to reconcile these, sometimes contrary, needs? Below we will explore how to achieve win-win situations, often requiring varying levels of effort from each actor but leading to projects that satisfy everyone.

Negotiating building permits in the interest of all

When issuing a building permit, public authorities are obliged to verify its compliance with various planning regulations. However, some regulations may have been established years ago and may no longer be suitable for a specific plot of land, thereby hindering the development of the best project for that site. In such cases, developers can take the initiative to propose an excellent projet that deviates from the regulations. By doing this, the developer can initiate a discussion about relaxing the rules. The public authority then has the responsibility to create the circumstances to adapt the regulations.

The municipality of Oudenaarde in Belgium exemplified this approach by accepting a project to develop a plot of land in an industrial zone close to the city centre by building housing above a wood storage hall, which is coherent with the urban fabric.

Another example comes from Bordeaux, where, in the framework of a national law on innovation, the municipality identified an area in which it is ready to issue building permits for flexible use. Such conditions can produce projects with changing uses over the years, in line with the need to rebuild the city.

Lastly, in New York, an architectural firm proposed a new regulation to enhance the quality of public space, called Beyond the Street. The regulation proposes a posture to adopt in regulatory negotiations. In New York, the municipality could grant more height in exchange for the recovery of floor space for public use. In European cities, reducing distances to boundaries in exchange for public space is an example of a similar approach.

Managing the waiting period to limit the risks of blockage

Between the purchase of a plot and the start of construction, the various administrative procedures required during this period can last for years, which costs the owner money and sometimes leads to site degradation. In this context, transitional urban planning actions can be implemented to 1. ensure the acceptability of the project and 2. reduce the risk of appeal.

Transitional planning involves installing a time-limited program on a site awaiting a project. Unlike temporary urbanism, which is often ephemeral, transitional urbanism is part of the final project's development by allowing testing of future uses. For example, if commercial premises are planned in the final development, temporary premises can be installed and rented at a lower cost to the traders.

With transitional planning, the land is occupied, while preserving its image, avoiding overgrowth, and helping traders launch their activity on a new site. Users can also understand what the site will become in the long term, thus reducing the likelihood of appeal.

It is possible that other uses may develop on the site during the transitional phase, which may be very popular with users. In this case, two approaches are possible: 1. take advantage of this feedback to integrate new uses into the final project or 2. not integrate them and terminate them when the temporary occupation period ends. The first approach requires agility on the part of the project owner to develop the project, but it has the benefit of listening to feedback from the field. The second approach preserves the initial project but can lead to frustration at the end of the transitional use.

In all cases, the agreements signed with occupants must be very clear on the terms and conditions for the end of the provision of the site, and communication with the public must be easily understandable.

Improving the living environment benefits everyone

Improving the living environment, particularly in public spaces, is beneficial for citizens, public authorities, property owners, and developers alike.


Political initiatives like the Superblocks in Barcelona have increased property values in certain neighborhoods. In a Superblock, only residents' cars are allowed to circulate at reduced speed. This creates a more welcoming public space while significantly reducing noise, visual, and air pollution. As a result, the area becomes more attractive to both residents and visitors.

Another example comes from Berlin, where one of the two airports was closed. Since 2021, the site of the former Tegel airport has begun its transformation to eventually become a mixed-use district. Real estate developers are involved in the construction of this new district. With this project, the city is taking the lead and preventing the site from being abandoned. The city is also making progress in reducing pollution and providing its inhabitants with a new place to live.

In some cases, one has more to gain than the other...

In the game of interests between developers, property owners, and public authorities, not everyone always wins equally. In the case of the city of Almere (Netherlands), for example, the municipality has excluded developers from the development of the Oosterwold district. Private individuals are encouraged to buy a plot of land and develop it according to certain land use rules. A public manager supervises the projects. In return for this great freedom and reduced costs of property ownership, individuals are required to participate in the construction of public spaces.

In the case of emergency housing construction in Constitucion following an earthquake and tsunami, the commissioned architectural firm proposed building half-houses. This allowed families to be rehoused quickly and within their budget, as they could build additional rooms in the future when they had the time and/or money. However, the city is left with a neighborhood entirely composed of half-houses and needs to know how to manage future extensions.

Finally, in Denver, the architectural firm Productora built a complex of several dwellings on a plot of land typically intended for two terraced houses. Eight dwellings could be built on this plot in a single volume by sharing certain living spaces. This project was permitted by the City of Denver in an area with high demand for smaller units. However, such a project could be challenging to build in a community where it is not necessarily desired if the planning regulations do not permit it.

Win-win situations can thus be sought during the stage of building permits, the waiting period as well as the creation of the actual living environment.

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