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Nijmegen researchers help Doetinchem create a lively city centre

Nijmegen researchers help Doetinchem create a lively city centre

How can we keep our city centres alive? This is a question many places struggle with. The Dutch city of Doetinchem invited professor by special appointment Gert-Jan Hospers from the Nijmegen School of Management to carry out independent research.


Bart Teunissen, Sanne Ruiter and Gert-Jan Hospers (left to right)

A declining population and the advent of online shopping are putting traditional shopping areas under pressure, including the Dutch city of Doetinchem. "That's why last year the council requested help to develop a vision for the future," says Bart Teunissen, project leader of the Plan of attack for the city centre. "The most important question is how we can keep our city centre lively and attractive."

For an analysis of the original situation, Doetinchem contacted Gert-Jan Hospers, professor by special appointment of Transition in Cities and Regions at the Nijmegen School of Management. According to Teunissen, "We were immediately charmed by his interactive approach. Many companies carry out research from behind their desks, but Gert-Jan went on a walk through the city with dozens of key figures. We thought that was wonderful!" "I didn't organise workshops, but 'walkshops'," explains Hospers. "That gave me both a good picture of Doetinchem's strengths and weaknesses as well as the way people view their city."

Pedestrian's-eye view Hosper's approach, based on the point of view of pedestrians, reflects the ideas of Danish architect Jan Gehl. "City councils are often keen on unusual buildings," says Hospers. "They think that they give their town prestige and character. In contrast, Gehl urges councils and urban developers to pay more attention to the human scale. He believes that nowadays the car driver's perspective is too dominant so that you usually see large squares, tall buildings, long streets and a lack of variety in the urban landscape. Gehl's ideas are nothing new. Earlier the American activist Jane Jacobs had already campaigned for urban development that placed people at the centre."

Gehl's research showed that people stay for less time in a dull street than in one where all sorts of things are going on. To make a city more attractive, urban planners should therefore base their ideas on the pedestrian's-eye view: public space as we experience it if we walk through it at 5 kilometres per hour.

New approach is an eye-opener Hospers is enthusiastic about that vision. There’s a reason that his research report is called 'Doetinchem at eye level'. "It's not about bricks and mortar, but about people; not about the architecture of a city, but about the ‘acupuncture points’. Clear signage, inviting benches, planters or water features are all crucial for people's appreciation of a place. If you know this, you can achieve great results by applying just a few small stimuli. And if it's a pleasant place to be, people will spend more time in one area."

"This approach was an eye-opener for us," says Teunissen. "We have to look at how people use the city instead of the city council thinking up an idea in the town hall that isn't embraced later by the local population. Partly as a result of this approach, we are seeing people engaging in large numbers with our plans to strengthen the inner city.” According to Hospers, this approach is suitable for every city. “Gehl's ideas are appreciated from Melbourne to New York and from Copenhagen to China. Our experiences in Doetinchem are proving once again that this method is extremely successful."

Crowd-puller According to Hospers' research, the original situation in Doetinchem was a good one: many shops, good cafés and restaurants and a strong regional function. "But there's no real crowd-puller. We have to make choices so we can promote ourselves better," says Teunissen. Hospers names three characteristics that can be strengthened: Doetinchem as green city, as hospitable city or as smart, industrious city. In the meantime, residents, entrepreneurs and social institutions have had their say. Teunissen: "The majority want to strengthen its hospitable character and, to a lesser extent, its green character."

"There are several ways of doing this", says Sanne Ruiter, who is carrying out a traineeship at the Plan of attack for the City Centre. "One way is to bring the good things from the region into the city, for example by offering regional products in restaurants and on the market stalls. Other possibilities are to link the Oude IJssel riverfront more to the city or to encourage local enterprises."

Workgroups: ideas to plans Workgroups of residents, entrepreneurs and visitors are now translating the possibilities into concrete plans. This spring the city council will decide which plans the city is going to invest in. Doetinchem has reserved one million euros per year until 2019 for this.

Teunissen has faith in the process and looks back on a successful collaboration with Hospers. "His research has laid the foundations for strengthening our city centre. He used innovative interview techniques and delivered a report that had social support from the outset. That has been crucial." /MvZ

The municipality of Doetinchem
Future of Doetinchem city centre (in Dutch)
Radboud profile page for Gert-Jan Hospers
Bart Teunissen on LinkedIn (in Dutch)
Bart Teunissen on Twitter (tweets in Dutch)
Sanne Ruiter on LinkedIn (in Dutch)