Contextualising urban experimentation: Analysing the utopiastadt campus case with the theory of strategic action fields

Matthias Wanner*, Boris Bachmann, T (Timo) von Wirth

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)235-248
Number of pages14
JournalUrban Planning
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 26 Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The empirical work was partly funded by the framework programme ‘Research for Sustainable Development (FONA)’ of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). M.W. worked in the ‘Well-Being Transformation Wuppertal’ project (Grant No. 01UT1412A) from 2015 to 2018 and has held a doctoral scholarship from the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 2018. B.B. works in the Junior Research Group in Social-Ecological Research ‘UrbanUp—Upscaling Strategies for an Urban Sharing Society’ (Grant No. 01UU1701A).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 by the authors; licensee Cogitatio (Lisbon, Portugal).

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