Paul de Graaf
Examining urban agriculture projects in Rotterdam between 2008 and 2018, my research looks at the practice of urban food planning, its strategies, the actors involved and their roles and relations. Central to the research is the observation that in Western European society today, the increased participation of civic initiatives confronts planning with challenges related to governance, decision-making and representation. Sustainable urban food planning can be seen as a laboratory for planning concepts that deal with these challenges.
The purpose of my research is to investigate which conceptualisations of planning are relevant when 1) planning in and for a pluralistic, participative society and 2) planning for sustainable goals related to an unknown future. As there is no consensus in the planning field on what planning is or what it should do, conceptualisations of planning can range widely, from systems planning to advocacy planning and from collaborative to complexity planning. I work with a primary hypothesis that these concepts of planning are complementary rather than mutually exclusive and that in a complex, pluralistic society, different concepts of planning can be relevant in different circumstances.
The main research questions are as follows: What concepts of planning are effective in spatial planning for a common sustainable future when including multiple actors and stakeholders with a variety of frames and perspectives on sustainable food systems? How are different actors, their respective roles and action perspectives included in the decision-making process? What is the role of the planning practitioner in this, and what is the role of governmental planning at different levels?
The research is informed by my own position as a practitioner. Undertaking a professional PhD as an external researcher at RSO allows me to reflect upon and put in perspective my personal experiences in the field of spatial planning and design. Fifteen years of experience with promoting, researching, designing, planning and practicing urban food production in Rotterdam left me (and colleagues from the field) with many ideas and hypotheses on what municipal planners and urban food initiatives should and should not do when planning urban food production. Can municipal planning include the initiatives of societal actors (like myself and fellow urban farmers and activists) in their planning agenda? Would it be possible to do this in a way that respects the diverse world views of these actors? And can societal actors themselves operate in a way that aligns them with governmental planning agendas without losing sight of their own goals?
Civic urban food initiatives represent a diversity of approaches to what a sustainable food system should be and how planning can contribute, but planners at different government levels struggle to facilitate and include these initiatives and their diverse approaches in their planning efforts. This has become apparent in Rotterdam but is also exemplary of a more general gap between bottom-up societal initiatives and top-down governmental planning in the Netherlands. Through a study of the Rotterdam urban agriculture movement – and taking the role of participant-observer – I examine this gap and address the questions above.
The case study of Rotterdam considers projects in which urban food production has been realised and focuses on the people involved in the planning process and their agendas and strategies, with a special emphasis on spatial planning. To avoid any bias due to my personal involvement in the object of study, I use a range of sources, including grey literature and interviews with different planners and societal actors. In terms of method, I combine this sociological approach with plan analyses (of the projects) derived from the discipline of urban planning. In combining different sources and methods from different disciplines, I try to incorporate the views of different actors and gain a more complete picture of what has happened during these past years and what lessons can be learnt for planners and urban food initiatives..
While the PhD is designed as a retrospective, transdisciplinary case study, it inevitably involves and interacts with my own practice as a designer/planner and, more recently, urban food forester. Interviewing planners about their ideas and influences and writing down their accounts of events has already provided insights that are informing my current work in urban agriculture and food forestry (including advocacy, design and realisation). Although this can sometimes be problematic, the meeting of practical experience with academic and applied research is developing a relevant knowledge base. A professional PhD makes knowledge from practice available to academic research and offers a place of reflection to practitioners.