Area Developer VanWonen: ‘Broader public participation through Environmental and Planning Act’

Publication, Area and Property Development

INTERVIEW | The Environmental and Planning Act does not only require government bodies to change the way they work. Area developers as well have to adapt their way of working. Especially when it comes to public participation, says Jasja Scholtens, Sales Manager at VanWonen. It’s about more than local residents. ‘I now involve many more stakeholders in the process.'

VanWonen is a medium-sized area developer and has public participation woven into its DNA, says Scholtens. The area developer starts with crowdsourcing, which includes involving local residents. It then proceeds from presale to sale and that process goes hand in hand with participation.

Take for example the location on Nieuwe Veerallee in Zwolle. It currently houses a thrift store, tire shop, and gas station. This will be a completely new development. ‘We had a model made with various parameters, including wind and shade, and asked the neighbourhood: what do you think of this?’

‘All the issues that local residents find important, we factor in early in the process’, says Scholtens. ‘In Zwolle, we asked the people in the neighbourhood how we could minimize the agony caused by dropping off and picking up children before and after school.’ Scholtens: ‘This already lays the foundation for the environmental plan.’

Or take the Nieuwe Hezelpoort project in Nijmegen: ‘In the middle of the city at a former small car park. It doesn’t get more prominent than this. There will be 573 parking spaces and about 380 apartments. We are creating a vertical neighbourhood there, with downstairs a public living room for residents and the neighbourhood.’

It was a tender, so VanWonen took over the participation process. ‘We have set up focus groups with local residents and entrepreneurs. We are also increasingly involving future residents, including student organisations as representatives of those groups. This is basically an environmental roundtable avant la lettre.’

Because of the Environmental and Planning Act, the number of stakeholders has increased, says Scholtens. ‘The Nieuwe Hezelpoort site is situated right next to the railway tracks. So we not only have to consider the interests of local residents, but also those of stakeholders such as ProRail. The Environmental and Planning Act also requires us to produce a participation report. This keeps us on our toes.’
Ultimately, the process of weighing different interests has become more robust and effective. ‘For instance, how does the city benefit, and what is in the interest of a local entrepreneur?’

Facilitating participation
The Environmental and Planning Act meant that VanWonen had to make some small changes to its procedures. Still, despite existing practices, the Act compelled the area developer to get creative in facilitating public participation.

The initiator decides how they flesh out public participation. Within the Environmental and Planning Act, public authorities must often indicate who was involved in the plans, what the results were, how these were incorporated into the plan, and how this was fleshed out in the participation policy.
Participation is solely a formal requirement for project initiators. The initiator must indicate what has been done in terms of participation and motivate this. But it’s up to the initiator how they make public participation happen. VanWonen, however, wants everyone on board with its plans. Which is why the area developer always seeks wide participation.

‘We are convinced that every development gets better if you involve everyone well in advance.’ This concept - of developing together, participation, and lasting involvement - has been the foundation of VanWonen since its establishment in 2017. Developing in consultation creates mutual trust, says the area developer.

But then you have to know how to reach everyone
‘How do you manage to speak to someone from each target group? How do you reach the ‘benefit mum’ or the student?’ It can’t be done through a standard information evening. But how then? Scholtens: ‘You have to visit the neighbourhood.’

And doing just that is easier for an area developer like VanWonen than for a local government official. ‘We come up with the ideas and carry them out.’ As an example, she mentions that the developer went into the neighbourhood with a barista cart. And VanWonen organised an ‘urban trail’ for younger neighbourhood residents.
Seeking to maintain impartiality in public engagement, VanWonen occasionally brings in an external firm to handle the participation process.

In Groningen, VanWonen had to look for another solution. The area developer is one of the developers involved in the Stadshavens project. The draft environmental plan has been released for public inspection, triggering a period for public input through a public consultation process. The preliminary draft environmental plan was previously in the public consultation phase.

Early public consultation requires imagination
The legal language in the Environmental and Planning Act makes the development process very complex and difficult to understand for many people in the early public consultation phase. ‘Take the building heights, as an example. Local residents want to know exactly what will be built opposite their houses. However, this information is not yet available, as the plot development is still to come. Or take greenery. Some of it will be removed, but what will it be replaced by?’

These questions often arise during the walk-in afternoons on Wednesdays. Interested parties can then ask questions to employees of the Stadshavens project office, in which VanWonen is involved. They explain the legal language and the procedures. Because at this stage, there are no drawings yet. ‘We do have artist’s impressions,’ says Scholtens, ‘but we always have to be very clear: this is just to give you an idea, but in the end it won’t look like this.’ That doesn’t make it any easier for the local residents. 

However, there are also times when the developer can make promises. ‘As long as you’re in control of your own drawings, you can always make changes.’


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