Play Binckhorst

City Games think on The Hague

Play Binckhorst is a design and negotiation game for a central city area of The Hague at the brink of a crisis.

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purpose: a comparative research between Albanian and Dutch planning systems
client: Stroom
partner: Balkan in de Polder
engagement: over 30 local Binckhorst stakeholders and Albanian experts from Polis University
project duration: August-October 2011
area size: 40 hectares

Please find process and results of Play Binckhorst as described by the author Floor Tinga published in 'Balkan in de Polder'

‘We have ambitious plans for this location’, says the Mayor of the Hague solemnly, as he gestures towards a giant model of the Binckhorst business park. ‘What the precise details are, I don’t know. I’ll leave that to you.

The Mayor is addressing a score of professionals who are in a position to determine the precise details of the future of de Binckhorst. What is more, the Mayor has been inspired by the organic area development of the Albanian capital, Tirana. There is only one drawback note to the fairytale that the politician is outlining: the money has run out. For a town council that is in dire financial straits, the creative abilities of those present are crucial. The Mayor is hopeful. He closes his speech with a smile:

‘My advice to you is to build the Binckhorst using crowd funding and crowd building. You’ve got five minutes to develop the Binckhorst up to and including 2012.’

Process

The situation described above is a short extract from Play the City's gaming method applied in the Binckhorst district of the Hague in the Netherlands, played on 25 October 2011. The game, developed by town planner and game designer Ekim Tan, offers residents, leaders and other stakeholders in town planning a way of coming together in dialogue with each other. Inspired by the classic role playing game, all participants are appointed key functions from area planning. These vary from project developer, politician, small businessman, town planner, resident or activist. The model of the area functions as a game board on which the participants can test their plans in situ. Each game round lasts five minutes, which is equivalent to one year of development. In short: it’s environmental development in a pressure cooker.

Play the City has tailored their method into two game episodes specially for the session in the Binckhorst. The first episode is devoted to organic area development following the ‘Albanian model’. This model has pretty loose reins when it comes to rules and regulations and organic development is central. The players have no restrictions except that they must be able to negotiate with each other. In the second round the roles are reversed and the ‘Dutch situation’ leads. Green belt and sound pollution buffer zones are therefore prominent in the scale model in which the players wish to build their own living and work spaces.

Formal, Informal
This game is an experiment aimed at finding out which qualities the different models have, but also what the drawbacks are. The Hague city council has expressed a wish to develop Binckhorst organically over the coming years, whilst at the same time they have plans for a big infrastructure project – the Rotterdamsebaan link road.
The conflict of interests between wanting to facilitate spontaneous initiatives on the one hand, and the completion of a large-scale infrastructure project on the other seems worth exploring with the help of Play the City. This serious game can provide insight into how to proceed with this situation.

DIY
As soon as the signal to begin is given, the players crowd round the table which has been placed next to the model. The table contains piles of coloured blocks representing houses, offices, restaurants, creative companies, social services and green spaces. The idea is to introduce these elements between the existing development in the Binckhorst, which is currently characterised by (empty) offices, motor repairs and graphic industries. While the rules of the game are still being repeated out loud like a mantra by some players, most quickly make their way over to the model to try out their ideas for developing the area.

‘You should come and join me. Then you’ll be able to build bigger’, says a woman to a couple of residents and small businessmen who are standing looking rather lost next to the model. As spokesperson for the Private Customer Collective -CPO she is actively seeking others to collaborate with. It works. In next to no time a large group has formed around an empty industrial building. With their ‘do-it-yourself’ mentality, the players soon revision the site as residential units and creative companies. In other parts of the area ‘parasite homes’ suddenly appear on the roofs of office buildings. The resident who is responsible for this illegal development defends his approach thus: ‘If the council tolerates me in the first round, I’ll expand the number of houses slowly and become legal of my own accord.’ It’s a method that seems to bear fruit, because after a number of go’s this resident has increased the number of apartments and attracted some fellow players to move in to his development. The lack of money doesn’t hinder the lust to build for a moment, while the lack of rules and regulations seems to egg the players on even more.

After every five minutes, which is equivalent to one year’s development, the game is stopped to analyse what the key changes are. At these junctures the Mayor can use his power of veto to sweep existing projects from the board. The activist also has the same power, but with the provision that s/he must find the majority of players to support her/his veto. There are even a number of voting rounds built in in which the participants can embrace new developments or alternatively vote them out. In this way, a kebab house might be swept off the board, while a collective housing project is allowed to stay. This not only throws relationships into sharp relief during the game, but is also a way of seeing which plans have a chance of succeeding in reality.

As the round progresses in years, the development of the area also grows with the addition of housing and businesses, many of which re-use existing buildings. In this way the available space is used extremely efficiently. Even after 15 minutes of play, one can see that the area is bursting with housing alongside the water, creative clusters and green parks. Living in the Binckhorst isn’t so bad at all.

Project Results

Big, bigger, biggest
How different the behaviour of the players is when the game is played according to the ‘Dutch model’. The Mayor’s speech in which he outlined the difficult financial situation is unchanged, but this time there are also notable obstacles that influence the state of play. For instance, there are zones demarcated on the model where no housing is allowed in accordance with environmental laws. What is striking is that these are the very zones that were built full of houses in the previous round. The ‘ideal living places’ turn out to be unliveable in reality. In this situation an important arterial road, the Rotterdamsebaan, is now running straight through the Binckhorst: a project that the Hague city council actually has in its locality plan.

More deliberation less action
Because of these limitations in the playing field, the attitude of the players immediately changes. Whereas the participants in the Albanian model hardly gave a thought in advance to the steps they were going to take, the game is mainly at a standstill the first minutes of this round. There’s a lot of deliberation and discussion, but nobody appears to be entrepreneurial straight off. Eventually it turns out to be the big players – the project developers and the big contractors – who after much deliberation dare to take the first steps. And those steps are quite bold. A large apartment complex, a hotel and a sizeable multi-purpose function hall spring up alongside the motorway. The building volume and the market value seem to be the most important things about these landmarks. That is remarkable, considering that the council’s coffers are still empty during this round. Apparently the players feel confident enough that these large projects will succeed in finding their way to the market.

The strict rules and regulations spark quite a power struggle between various parties. It quickly becomes apparent that the building of apartments alongside the Rotterdamsebaan won’t be allowed by the council. The amount of noise and pollution means that a housing project in this location is not practical. Also, the energy and enthusiasm that was brimming over in the first round is noticeably lacking in the second.

Instead of making use of the empty spaces where environmental zoning and infrastructure aren’t an obstacle, the players go looking for problems. One project developer places detached villas alongside the Rotterdamsebaan, drawing fierce objections from one resident. ‘What kind of madness is this!’, she shouts angrily. She tries to convince fellow players to build a buffer zone along the motorway to reduce the noise impact. Despite all the action, things are getting nowhere fast. At a certain moment, the mood has soured to the point that a powerful developer declares that he’s not going to invest in the area any more. Like many other players, he feels there’s a lack of ‘clear vision’ from the council. Even the activist can’t see the point of being active any more and keeps quiet. The players seem to be derailed by the environmental zones and the road that cuts through the area.

Lessons
What new insights into the development of the Binckhorst does Play the City offer? In both situations the council had no money, let alone a clear vision for the future. In contrast to the Dutch round, this wasn’t seen as a problem in the Albanian round. Here the players revealed themselves to be cooperative and full of energy when it came to planning the area. In the Dutch model the players are focused on the drawbacks of regulation, even though the model offered plenty of room to develop the environmental zones. The way in which the game developed therefore most closely resembles a self fulfilling prophecy. In both rounds the players acted as expected: small scale and cooperative in the Albanian round, as opposed to large scale and conservative in the Dutch round.

It could be that the players romanticised the Albanian model too much. The Dutch tendency to tighten the reins is not comparable to the reasons why organic urban development in Albania reached such a high tempo. For the Albanians the fall of the communist regime in 1991 signalled the start of an explosive growth of illegal building settlements. The fact that the country was experiencing unstable democracy and financial crisis meant that the population had to fend for itself. Social provision such as sewers and infrastructure was therefore neglected. Although public provision is now being provided step by step, the situation in Albania still contrasts sharply with the well-organised Netherlands.

The main lesson to emerge from this game is that neither model is sustainable in the longterm. A Binckhorst that is completely illegal and devoid of social provision is just as undesirable as a monolithic Binckhorst with large scale infrastructure. A middle path between these two ways is needed. Anyone who wants to encourage spontaneous initiatives can just lean back and see how it turns out. That is exactly when leadership and vision are indispensable. If the Hague’s city council wants to make a success of the organic development of the Binckhorst, they will need to be just as proactive as the DIY pioneers they’d like to do the job.

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