Play Almere: Oosterwold
City of Almere
Simulating behaviours of investors and residents for an urban growth plan before market release.
Almere, the Netherlands
50 Sessions with over 1000 Participants of real stakeholders, professionals, and students
Almere 2.0, a project team functioning under the city’s planning bureau DSO, is the initiator of the revolutionary DIY Plan Oosterwold, in need of feedback on the functioning of their innovative plan. Before the plan could be released on the market, insight was required on how land owners, speculating investors, other engaged municipalities, designers, and possible future inhabitants of Oosterwold would activate the plan rules on critical subjects such as public infrastructure, private investments and green space. The City Game could also reveal how individual entrepreneurs would invest when expected to provide their own local roads, energy production, water provision and sewage systems.
We designed Play Oosterwold to supply required feedback for the implementation phase of an urban plan. Accurate feedback could be ensured by diversity in the groups of players as well as by the continuity of the play sessions. Would these rules lead entrepreneurs to build a low density suburb with self-managed green public spaces, and large farmlands mixed with businesses and autarchic living as the plan suggested? Would the given rules help achieve a certain spatial quality? What would be the respective roles of individuals and the state in the financial and juristic organization of the city?
The most engaged members of the Oosterwold plan joined the City Game. The local governments of Almere and Zeewolde, where Oosterwold polder is situated, planning and design agencies involved in creating the plan such as the architecture office MVRDV, Almere 2.0 and INTI, other interested local governments such as Ede, Kampen, and G4 officers, as well as state institutions such as the Real Estate and Development company working for the Dutch State and the owner of 50% of the Oosterwold polder -RVOB-, the provincial water company Waterschap, the forest preservation agency Staatsbosbeheer, and the agriculture fair Floriade, -planned to take place in Almere in 2022- remain close to the process as the proposed new development strategy has consequences for how they shape their policies with regard to Almere. Research institutes such as the National Planning Office PBL, the University of Amsterdam, New Towns on the frontier of Geopolitics, the Christian Agricultural Technical School and various higher education institutes also followed the evolution of the plan due to its innovative aspects. So far, all of these players have played the Oosterwold game. Beyond these institutions and state organizations, real estate agents such as the Vastgoedvrouwen, land owners, farmers and interested investors have been invited to play and react to the rules of the Oosterwold plan.
Despite the dense involvement of governmental institutions at this stage, the logic of the plan foresaw a completely different group of participants, namely entrepreneurs of various scales, to activate the plan. We identified three main roles that would be influential in implementing the rule-based plan: Future occupants living, working and playing in the polders as investors -small, medium and large-; an area manger representing the local government, and the bank controlling the cash flow for investments. These three have been translated into role cards for the game.
Over three years of testing Play Oosterwold, we could conclude clear patters in how various stakeholders interpreted and implemented plan rules of Oosterwold. Please read on below for these repetitive behaviours we observed throughout 50 sessions since 2012:
Autarchic Living and Working
The most obvious outcomes of the Oosterwold game process were the search for the autarchic living and working by players in almost all sessions. We believe this stems from the two conditions the plan introduces: the heightened responsibilities for individual entrepreneurs over infrastructure which would traditionally be met by the state, and lower restrictions applied to private developments regarding urban zoning, form and governance. Given these challenges, players tried to make developments sustainable not only for a residential purpose, but also by proposing business models for working and alternative organization for leisure. The self-sustainability of each player’s initiative was tested by the game, while various symbiotic or parasitic relations, financially and socially, emerged between players.
A Variety of Living Forms
The formal and social variety in living forms is another clear outcome of Play Oosterwold. The building program was adventurous, ranging from large farms combined with business, education, leisure and residential program, to small aquaponic farms integrated into solar energy powered homes, distance learning centers within bioengineering farms, single villas, and even beer breweries attached to collective housing initiatives. However, formal exploration, as proposed by the designers of the plan rules, remained at the level of building masses and was not visible in the form of plots. The strong imagery created by MVRDV, designers of the plan, representing the freedom and creativity that the living enclaves could project onto the urban plots, was not picked up by different players for different reasons; land owners and city officers perceived the idea as inefficient and unrealistic, while investors and entrepreneurs focused their creativity on the their own individual or shared program, public services, as well as individual building forms.
[images: Game Outcomes Diverted from the Free Form Plots of the MVRDV Plan Projection]
Confronted by the challenge of self-building local public infrastructure, players started forming groups to deal with issues of water management, the street network or energy generation. In the game simulation environment, organizing collectivity emerged naturally and flawlessly around the game table. This made some players question how to organize such effective interactive processes amongst the future inhabitants during the real implementation of Oosterwold. It was precisely this debate on collectivity that made investors think of efficient ways of using existing infrastructure. A predefined percentage rules doesn’t work in this game, unlikely to function in the higher complexity of the reality -with more players and less direct interactions-. We advise that the Oosterwold plan should develop more simple but clear rules regarding the infrastructure, such as replacing the rule of percentages with rules of accessibility per parcel and division of costs according to the size of investments.
Cluster and Reuse
Players who scattered their initiatives in the first phases of the game, were confronted by the challenge of self-provision and self-maintenance of public infrastructure in the later phases. This triggered a reaction of clustering complementary programs and shared initiatives, as well as effective reuse of existing infrastructures to avoid new construction. We favor this organic reaction; individual responsibility over public services might result in more efficient use of those services. However, it is important that a responsible figure such as the area manager in the game, or the state in a local form in the actual development, ensures that public interest takes precedence over the interests of individuals.
Private-owned Public Green
The Oosterwold game, based on the plan rules, introduced a new notion of the ownership of open green spaces. In Oosterwold, public green spaces are sold to private investors in varying percentages as part of predefined land uses of particular plots. As a consequence, public space that used to be owned and maintained by the state, is now sold to entrepreneurs by contract and has to be maintained by them. According to the plan, these green spaces must offer open access to all citizens, but can be commercially programmed and managed by the owner. This aspect of the plan was rather new for the participants of the city simulation. This caused them to ignore plots with a high percentage of public green space and triggered the invention of new types of open green such as a semipublic golf course open to visitors at certain times of the week whilst being run as a business.