When engaging citizens is a child’s game: the Alkmaar experiment

18 Jun 2024 — Residents monitoring pollution with their own sensors and videogames involving children in city planning: Alkmaar pushes citizen engagement into new territory. Additionally, thanks to a “digital twin”, the city fosters a new sustainable mindset and increases residents’ control over local policies.

Alkmaar is investing in both technology and the “human factor” to push the concept of citizen engagement beyond its traditional boundaries. For instance, the city is using innovative video games to inspire the younger generations and actively involve them in city planning. Additionally, cutting-edge sensors are monitoring noise, traffic, and pollution, transforming these tools into dynamic means for participation and democratic control. Another exciting initiative includes organizing communal meals where people can come together, share their ideas, and develop a vibrant sense of community. The strategies applied in this Dutch city aren’t merely idealistic; they are really educating residents about sustainability, speeding up local policies, and providing the town council with precious contributions.

The whole city is virtually reproduced through a so-called “digital twin”: a multi-layer digital infrastructure aimed at collecting and making accessible to everybody a full set of information. Whilst the third layer is mainly reserved for policymakers and city planners, the other two are easy to use for anyone with a basic digital knowledge. “In the first one, you can find data such as the amount of energy produced or garbage collected, the number of residents in a given area, and so on, whilst the second one is what we call our ‘story layer’: it basically allows us to cross the data from different sources, make connections and understand how they are related”, explains Niek Hendriks, Manager of the innovation programme Smart City Alkmaar. By matching the heat map with the one representing the green areas, for instance, local authorities can see what the average temperature in each district is, how it is affected by the number of trees, and where more of them are needed to lower its average.

Data collection is crucial for “telling these stories”, and in this task the Municipality is far from being alone. A big help comes from local business owners and residents, who share the information collected by their own sensors. “Some 50 of them, built or set up by the citizens, already monitor air quality, traffic flows and other key indicators. They feed real-time data every 5 minutes, but dozens more sensors will come in the next few months. This growing participation is precious for us because it provides a valuable basis to work upon, build new policies together, and improve our living environment”, points out Hendriks.

Figure 1. An example of digital-twin application in Alkmaar. Credits: Gemeente Alkmaar

Yet, Alkmaar is trying to plant the seeds of citizen engagement also by involving children in planning the city of their future. “The question is not ‘why’, but ‘why not’”, states its Deputy Mayor, Christian Schouten. “It’s through primary and secondary education that we shape the new generations. That’s where we can start fighting social injustice and many other problems. So, why should we let adults plan the future alone? In this case, the paradox is even more striking, because today’s children will soon be the adult residents of these same cities”.

To engage young people, the Municipality joined the “Schools Reinventing Alkmaar Challenge”: a contest based on Minecraft, inviting pupils up to 14 years old to design a neighbourhood that will be built on an abandoned plot of land along the Alkmaar canal. The host area was recreated in the popular videogame Minecraft, and participants were asked to create their residential area with a set of construction elements and materials, made available in the game. “The children could include housing units, schools, shops and whatever they might consider useful for the community. Yet, the area had to be as self-sufficient and sustainable as possible: producing its own energy, its own vegetables, and possibly its own construction materials too”, explains Meis de Jongh, Alkmaar’s programme manager in POCITYF, a European project supporting the city’s efforts towards sustainability and energy transition.

As part of this, a social housing complex is being rebuilt from scratch to meet higher living and sustainability standards. As it implies tearing down some 180 housing units, the project first encountered strong opposition from some tenants. Addressing this challenge required the “human factor”, leading to Demi Kist, a consultant for the housing association Van Alckmaer, being known as the “Mayor of Bloemwijk”, the working-class neighbourhood where the complex is located. “During the Covid pandemic, we organised meals with the tenants to make sure that everybody had something to eat. Then we got together to help those who were moving, clearing their apartments. And little by little, people started coming to my office even just for a coffee”, she recalls. Such an approach proved to be pivotal in fostering both people’s understanding and acceptance. Not only tenants’ representatives were elected and information days were organised, but people were also involved in designing their future living spaces down to the smallest details. “They were asked what kind of housing units they preferred, where they wished them to be on the plot, but also how they should be structured and where they would need doors, plugs and so on”, recounts Kist.

Figure 2. Bloemwijk neighbourhood. Credits: Gemeente Alkmaar

Yet, far beyond merely practical aspects, involving today’s and tomorrow’s citizens also plays the crucial role of “crafting a new mindset”, says Schouten. A clear example is one of his kids. He participated in the Minecraft contest and came to the idea of equipping all houses with an additional external wall and filling the gap with sheep wool and other materials: “It’s incredible to see how an 8-year child can integrate the concept of thermal insulation in his train of thoughts. It’s something priceless”, he says. Another priceless source of insight for urban planners and policymakers is the growing network of sensors set up by Alkmaar’s citizens. As proven by the recent construction of an energy-positive noise barrier on a highway surrounding the city, it can also be a precious tool for citizens to influence local policies. “At the beginning, there was not much dialogue with the local institutions”, recalls Hendriks. “Then the citizens made their measurements, and it helped us evaluate both the impact of the noise barrier itself and the extent of people’s complaints, based on empirical data, and not on subjective perceptions”.

In addition to this, Kist’s experience suggests that engaging citizens also strengthens their solidarity, sense of belonging and willingness to take care of the city’s infrastructure. “Even if it’s not part of their duties, in Bloemwijk, tenants contribute to the maintenance of common spaces and green areas. It’s as if they were working for the whole neighbourhood”, she says. Last but not least, as Schouten stresses, bringing everybody on board facilitates the implementation of local policies: “Staying in one’s ivory tower and sketching plans without listening to the needs of users only leads to never-ending struggles with residents, whilst engaging citizens and investing in cooperation foster greater acceptance, thus speeding up the whole execution process”, he concludes.

Article by Diego Giuliani

Cover image by EvgeniT, Pixabay