Experiments and innovations in ‘soft’ urban planning: urban living labs

In the current era, in which cities are considered to be key arenas for coping with a number of societal challenges, there is also renewed interest in the mobilisation of experimental practices within urban planning. Corresponding initiatives that are targeted at promoting co-creation, exploration, experimentation, and evaluation, such as urban living labs, must be understood in relation to the uncertainty regarding the post-modern growth paradigm and its institutional arrangements.

This policy brief discusses the opportunities and challenges of the urban living labs concept and related experimental practices from an urban planning and governance perspective. It will be argued that the core principles of urban living labs (i.e. co-creation, exploration, experimentation, and evaluation) offer a useful analytical and theoretical frame to understand and position different informal self-organizing initiatives in contemporary urban development. Furthermore, considered as a planning practice (or methodology), urban living labs (or similar approaches that are expected to support innovations and experimentation within urban planning) can be construed as a temporary, informal mode of ‘soft’ governance which include a number of merits in terms of defining innovative pathways for urban planning beyond ‘business as usual’ thinking. However, caution must be taken due to a number of inherent shortcomings of such soft governance approaches in terms of democratic legitimacy, tendencies towards exclusiveness, and extreme temporality.

This Policy Brief is one of four policy briefs that was published within the JPI Urban Europe CASUAL project.