by Jan van Teeffelen

Key words: the dna of a former industrial, textile-producing city; transition of the city center driven by a non-growth scenario; the danger of spreading vs concentrating energy and investment; importance of quality and image of the public domain; the role of ’local heroes’; conditions for realization; the challenge for the next ten years.

The city of Helmond, the Netherlands, is one of many communities in the Netherlands that must transform from a blue-collar economy into a modern knowledge-based economy, like that of Rotterdam, Tilburg, and Eindhoven. In the case of Helmond, the people involved focused on the importance of the city center. Of course a (network) city is more than its center, but the center represents a major trump card in the game of city competition. The thesis was that the city and its ambitions would only be taken seriously if its image, performance of the public domain, and the experience at eye level were of high quality. The way this is achieved in Helmond is special and has never been realized on this scale in the Netherlands. This so-called ‘Helmond approach’ is difficult to copy because of its specific approach and strategy, but the principles are open for a process of learning and application elsewhere.

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The ‘Helmond method’

City planning and urban development often starts with a top-down approach, a long-term vision, and an elaborative set of policy documents (which are subject to plans of realization in several sectors like traffic, housing economy, etc.). This approach is bureaucratically conducted in a sequential, time absorbing process.

The case of Helmond was different. The city government saw it as a very special chance to take a different approach, more bottom-up. The policy gap was filled by private initiative and it was a process of learning by doing; it was business-driven and integrated.  But only under a few specific preconditions was this approach possible.

Preconditions and approach

People. People involved had vision, organizing power, a position in the city and the city center, and had convincing business skills. They were committed to starting a coalition of stakeholders to ‘get the job done’. Jan Verspaget and Thieu de Wit[i] were the key players from the beginning when they formalized a tight-knit city management organization with a clear mandate to act. The first step they made was to start the conversation with the responsible politicians. By doing so they created trust in their ambitions and plans to upgrade the city center in an integrated way, but also in a short amount of time, at low costs, and with more support of all the people who are going to be affected by the interventions. They also promised to realize a made-to-measure image for Helmond.

Trust. The city government quickly became partners and invested their trust in the management organization. This represented a huge step for the government, who were willing to ‘let things go’, quite against the Dutch planning tradition and eagerness of wanting to be in control. The next step was to ensure trust and cooperation from those concerned.

Process. Imagine the traditional way of reconstructing a shopping street from obsolete and desolate to a street that ‘works’ and is enjoyed by many. The process is often delayed by numerous construction and infrastructure projects, budgets are exceeded, street furniture and landscape assessed and installed, and finally the street manager who asks the shopkeepers to work on their exposure to the street and the public, the plinths and the facades. It is usually a time-consuming, expensive, and bureaucratic process.

The ‘Helmond method’ consisted of a ‘chain gang’: a parallel process that eliminated several limitations and responsibilities and resulted in a coordinated, time-efficient and cost-reducing approach. The first finished street showed that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and soon after the rest of the streets followed the example.

City management

The question remained: what to manage? During interviews we discovered the answer.[ii] “First we managed the recently regained trust from the city government, the entrepreneurs, and the involved citizens. Managing these partners started in 2002, and from the beginning we knew it had to be done in a different, unconventional way. We also had to involve various responsible city departments, which are usually managed in a top-down method. In order to save time and reduce costs, we also closely managed the budget.  With the many stakeholders involved, our management style was an intelligent way of building coalitions and trust in order to realize collective ambitions for public and private shareholders.”

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How it looks

The first strategic decision was the selection of the core investment area. This area should not be too large. Visitors, especially pedestrians have a limited reach (in time and budget) when visiting a city center. The area outside the core is not less important but different, with unique conditions for development and investment.

The next strategic decision was to present a visualization of the character and materials to be used. The visualization, a proposal made by a professional office[iii], was very convincing; it underlined the ambition of the project and the effects on the public realm and adjacent real estate.

Starting in 2003 and over a period of 10 years, the entire city center was designed and realized street by street. Not in a sequential order (sector after sector) but as one unit. All the necessary interventions occurred in one move. Support by local entrepreneurs has since grown, and there has been very little interruption in their businesses. The visual results are very convincing.

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Spin offs

  • A regained local pride by the citizens. The city center is a place to be once again.
  • Living in the city center became interesting again, while supported by high-quality streets and squares.
  • Real estate values rose as a proof of these qualities, allowing for opportunities of future investment.
  • A greater catchment area and support for enhanced shopping. Competition with other shopping centers in the region continues.
  • While vacancies in real estate for shopping have not diminished, it has been easier to find alternative uses such as new formula services, workplaces, cultural and social activities.

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What’s next?

Even though the stakeholders are celebrating the results of the past 10 years, they know they must consider the future. “How do we proceed for the next lap? A broad discussion is needed to explore the possibilities for a strategy based on a continued form of private-public coalition, which preserves the present results as well as explores new ambitions for the next ten years.” This is the next challenge for Helmond’s policymakers.

Conclusions and recommendations

A few of the most relevant and significant conclusions and recommendations are as follows:

  • The Helmond method is unorthodox, not to be copied as such but easy to learn of.
  • You need ‘local heroes’: people with vision, organizing power and persisting drive.
  • People/entrepreneurs with a well-understood private interest, but at the same time an eye for the greater public interest.
  • City government must be willing to give credit where credit is due, trust and room to move, but all under the condition that they stay responsible for the application of public means.
  • The scope should be based on how people experience the center on eye level: because this determines their behavior and appreciation.

[i]    Local entrepreneur and retail manager

[ii]   Interviews with: Jan Verspaget, Thieu de Wit, Gerard Lutters

[iii]  Proposal: Bureau de Twee Snoeken

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