Contextualising Urban Experimentation: Analysing the Utopiastadt Campus Case with the Theory of Strategic Action Fields

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-7635

Article | Open Access

Contextualising Urban Experimentation: Analysing the Utopiastadt Campus Case with the Theory of Strategic Action Fields


  • Matthias Wanner Division Sustainable Consumption and Production, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, Germany / Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany
  • Boris Bachmann Centre for Transformation Research and Sustainability (transzent), University of Wuppertal, Germany
  • Timo von Wirth Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT), Erasmus School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands


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Abstract:  Practices of urban experimentation are currently seen as a promising approach to making planning processes more collaborative and adaptive. The practices develop not only in the context of ideal-type concepts of urban experiments and urban labs but also organically in specific governance contexts. We present such an organic case in the city of Wuppertal, Germany, centred around a so-called change-maker initiative, ‘Utopiastadt.’ This initiative joined forces with the city administration and collaborated with a private property owner and the local economic development agency in an unusual planning process for the development of a central brownfield site. Ultimately, the consortium jointly published a framework concept that picked up the vision of the ‘Utopiastadt Campus’ as an open-ended catalyst area for pilot projects and experiments on sustainability and city development. The concept was adopted by the city council and Utopiastadt purchased more than 50% of the land. In order to analyse the wider governance context and power struggles, we apply the social-constructivist theory of Strategic Action Fields (SAFs). We focused on the phases of contention and settlement, the shift in interaction forms, the role of an area development board as an internal governance unit and the influences of proximate fields, strategic action, and state facilitation on the development. We aim to demonstrate the potential of the theory of SAFs to understand a long-term urban development process and how an episode of experimentation evolved within this process. We discuss the theory’s shortcomings and reflect critically on whether the process contributed to strengthening collaborative and experimental approaches in the governance of city development.

Keywords:  collaborative planning; governance experiment; participatory city-making; theory of Strategic Action Fields; urban change; urban experimentation

Published:   26 March 2021


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DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/up.v6i1.3629


© Matthias Wanner, Boris Bachmann, Timo von Wirth. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.