Prof. dr. Jacques van Dinteren

Programming new urban developments demands a solid basis. Statistical sources and market information play a crucial role in this. It might be expected that statistical data should be available from one central point, but the reality is often very different in developing economies. If I look at the experiences of our advisory group in countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Mauritius, Jordan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India and Oman, the necessary data is not always available, the data material is scattered across a variety of ministries, the statistics are only available at a high level (often too high), etc. And often numerous letters from the principal need to be submitted before visiting all the different bodies with all their different data files. Data about the real estate market is actually in a class of its own.

If I limit myself to market research for the sake of brevity, then in light of the above it can be asked whether a good foundation can indeed be laid under a master plan in such situations. Despite the tenor of the previous paragraph, the answer is ‘yes’. In such instances however the research will need a different approach to that when statistical and market information is indeed available in abundance, as happens in most Western European countries for instance. An initial impression of the market potential is obtained using the available statistics, issued reports and formulated ambitions. This is then tested in a far larger number of interviews with local experts and stakeholders than you would normally do in a situation where plenty of statistical sources and market information is on hand. Then the very varied statements are analysed in depth in multiple work sessions with those interviewed and other parties involved.

Scenarios and desired situations

But when all is said and done the unavoidable question remains: is the information which has been collated sufficient? To date we can state that the working method just described does lead to acceptable insights into the market perspectives. It’s important to bear in mind here however, that we are talking about plans which will generally take many years, sometimes two or more decades, before being completed. It would be an impossibility to predict market trends over such a considerable period! That’s why a distinction needs to be drawn between market surveys and development strategies. The market survey can perhaps estimate for the first five, or perhaps seven, years, just what development there will be, what people should focus on and how the ‘product’ to be offered can fulfil the demands of different target groups. For the longer term, at best the development strategy to be followed can be worked out, and often it will take shape in scenarios sketching out the various market developments. As we know you cannot pick and choose from scenarios: you have alternatives on hand which can be implemented depending on how the market performs (a scenario becomes reality).

Another method is to use desired situations. Based on the market analysis, several (often three) alternative development possibilities are sketched out, weighed up against each other using various criteria. A choice can then be made, but it must be clear that for long-duration projects what emerges is not a finished picture, but a (provisional) desired situation.

Whatever the preference (scenarios with appropriate alternatives or a desired situation), this means that in long-duration urban developments, the master plan cannot actually be that polished picture sometimes needed to persuade managers. For me the illustrations are fine (or to put it even more emphatically: you need them to clarify the intentions), but too rarely is there any warning about all the things which might change on the way to that final picture. So it’s crucial to build maximum flexibility into master plans for long-duration projects.

Substantiation

It should be clear that it’s inconceivable that market substantiation is lacking in an urban master plan. However, if there is such a thorough foundation, it’s not always guaranteed that it’s a good substantiation. Sometimes market surveys see the light of day despite resembling nothing so much as a toppled bookcase in terms of their analysis, but which then reveal a gaping chasm between the analysis and the conclusions on target groups, the programme of requirements and functional concept. For lack of data, everything which can be found is stuffed in to at least make it look reasonable. Then at least 80% of the budget goes into the analysis and that’s an overinvestment, certainly if the data is so difficult to find after all, and certainly because the figures have such a transitory life. This is absolutely not to say here that a market survey can be dispensed with. In the period prior to 2008 (in Western countries) that happened far too often, resulting in real estate overproduction in some sectors. I believe that, particularly because certainty on market developments can never be guaranteed in long-duration projects, you actually have to be selective with the data, but you do have to do market research. The extra time which can be gained through succinct research can then be invested in working out a good development strategy. A strategy which ensures that space is left in the master plan for future, virtually unavoidable dynamism. This is not to say that the survey for the medium term and the development strategy for the long term are the end of the story for long-duration projects. It’s necessary to dip the thermometer into the market every five years or so again, to see what’s happening. And to check whether any unusual issues have appeared in the interim.

In short:

  • Put the strategy at the core.
  • Invest relatively less time in data collection and analysis.
  • Use the time gained in this way for a detailed elaboration of the development strategy.
  • A strategy which is also broadly supported with the input from a whole range of stakeholders and other involved parties.
  • Work with scenarios or a (provisional) desired situation.
  • Introduce flexibility into the master plan, so that you can respond to market changes promptly.
Market research for urban master plans: put the strategy at the core!
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