Is there a recipe for successful urban transformations?

New publication from Lasse Gerrits and Sofia Pagliarin
Photo of Lasse Gerrits and Sofia Pagliarin

In Western Europe, the shift from industrial to post-industrial societies is marked by redeveloping abandoned industrial areas and city cores. The newly published study by Dr. Lasse Gerrits and Dr. Sofia Pagliarin titled "Tracing complex urban transformations in Germany, Switzerland and Austria using trajectory-based qualitative comparative analysis (TJ-QCA)"  analyses eleven urban transformations in the countries mentioned above.

Key differences in urban transformations between Germany, Austria, and Switzerland

There are differences and commonalities when looking at these cities, and that is the interesting bit about comparative research: cities are neither completely unique nor completely alike.

"For instance, the brownfield redevelopment in Zurich or Hamburg is certainly unique, but they also show similarities regarding the actors involved in the planning, factors of importance, and stages of change."

Photo of Hamburg
Niklas Ohlrogge

To map these similarities and differences in their research, Dr Gerrits and Dr Pagliarin analysed how different factors, when acting in combination, led to ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in these urban transformations. The factors they found can be seen as different ingredients that combine in different ‘recipes’ in each of the selected urban transformations. They found that urban transformations can be successful with multiple ‘recipes’.

Through their comparison, they found that a ‘good recipe’ combines the leading role of public authorities and the strong strategic character of the project to be implemented. Another ‘recipe for success’ they found is the combination of the strong strategic character of the project and its location in the city centre.

“We need both factors to create ‘success’, which means that none of these factors alone is sufficient to achieve a successful urban transformation.”

Photo of Zurich
Henrique Ferreira

Pathways to successful urban transformation

For example, the researchers mention the conversion of the docks on the north banks of the Elbe in Hamburg (Germany) that became more successful once the authorities understood that they should actively lead the attempts to change the banks. The project obtained the status of a key strategic project for the future development of Hamburg.

“But we also saw recipes that didn’t work. In Dessau (Germany), the public authorities poured in many resources to make it work. However, the high involvement of public authorities with financial resources was not enough – not sufficient alone – to create a change, and so the transformation faltered and never became successful. Dessau is a clear example that usually, multiple factors concur with a successful urban transition.”

Advantages of Trajectory-based Qualitative Comparative Analysis

QCA is a comparative method that has been growing in popularity in several scientific disciplines, such as political science and business administration.

+ Its advantage is that it can highlight different roads towards an outcome, making qualitative data much better comparable to traditional qualitative methods.

- One of its downsides was that it couldn’t handle changes over time like urban transformations do: it takes decades before an area is transformed, for instance, from an old port to a thriving business centre with offices and restaurants.

Several scholars have tried to incorporate time in the comparison. TJ-QCA allows the separation of the development of cases into stages. Therefore, each case becomes a part of the trajectory of that particular case. The greatest advantage of this method is that it can be fully integrated into the technical workings of QCA.

What’s next?

The two researchers share a sociology and urban studies background and have been working together for almost ten years. They are both interested in comparing how cities and neighbourhoods change over time and what factors push cities and neighbourhoods in one direction or the other, that is, towards ‘success’ or ‘decay’.

Dr. Gerrits and Dr. Pagliarin are currently working on a new research project tracing multiple recipes to ‘success’ by comparing urban transformations in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. They are very excited about what will come from this new research and how the results will relate to the ones they got from their comparison of urban projects in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

More about the researchers

Photo of Dr Dr Lasse Gerrits
Maarten Zeehandelaar

Dr. Lasse Gerrits

Lasse Gerrits is currently the Academic Director of IHS, focusing on the PhD program, student supervision, and developing IHS's scientific portfolio. His research interests involve complexity sciences, systems theories, urban governance, and qualitative comparative analysis.

Full bio & publications

Dr. Sofia Pagliarin

At IHS, Sofia Pagliarin is part of the coordination team for the Urban Digital Transformation & Innovation Master track. Her research interests include digitisation processes of public administration, technological transitions and digital technologies, and complexity-informed approaches in the social sciences.

Full bio & publications

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