Mega-projects in New York, London and Amsterdam

During the most recent decade we have witnessed the mounting of very large development projects (mega-projects) in European and American cities. After a hiatus during the 1990s, brought on by the real estate bust early in the decade, major cities have responded to the pressures of the global economy by using very big, mixed-use developments as attractors of multinational business and sites for new housing. There is a striking physical similarity among the schemes, irrespective of the city in which they are located. At the same time they differ in social outcomes and planning processes, reflecting the level of commitment that the host city has towards social equity. The three to be discussed in this article are Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, New York City; Stratford City and the larger Thames Gateway of which it forms a part, in London; and Amsterdam South (Zuidas).

By the start of the new century all three cities had converted their economic base from heavy reliance on seaport and manufacturing activities to finance, business services, tourism, and creative industries. This transformation of function had forced a restructuring of spatial relations, resulting in the growth of office, entertainment, and luxury housing districts, as disused industrial and riverside structures were recycled, and glamorous new spaces, often designed by world-famous architects, became the hallmarks of economic success. In London and New York they form part of a more comprehensive planning process than in the recent past. In Amsterdam, where comprehensive planning has always reigned, there has been a rethinking of spatial strategies away from the compact city towards a polycentric model. All three cities must deal with escalating housing prices and have incorporated housing into the new projects, claiming the residential component as an equity measure. They differ, however, in the extent to which they intend to provide affordable units and to which physical and social goals are tied together.

Atlantic Yards, New York

The Atlantic Yards project forms part of a grand vision for New York presented by the Mayor’s Office as PlaNYC2030. This document represents the first effort at a masterplan for the city since the John Lindsay mayoralty of the 1970s. To its credit, the plan emphasises development in all five boroughs of the city, promotes the creation of affordable housing, and calls for environmentally sensitive measures. But, while parts of it reflect sensitivity to neighbourhood concerns, its major projects utilise huge sums of public money and tax forgiveness for endeavours that radically transform their locations, stir up neighbourhood opposition, and threaten to sharpen the contrast between the haves and have-nots. The concerns of the plan are restricted to land use and development; it does not link these initiatives to education, job training and placement, or social services.

The plan for Atlantic Yards did not originate within the city government, but instead was brought to it by a development firm, Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC). FCRC had already built three large projects in downtown Brooklyn and was the principal developer working in that borough. Atlantic Yards, like the other mega-projects discussed in this essay, was the outcome of a public-private partnership. Unlike the others, it was going up in an area that already was densely inhabited, although the bulk of the project was being built over railway goods yards. Also different from the others, the project did not originate in a publicly sponsored plan, but instead was the consequence of a developer’s initiative. The project, as it currently stands, reflects the form of developer-led planning that has characterised New York’s construction projects since the 1970s, and the reluctance of the city and state to start projects unless a developer is already committed.

Thames Gateway, London

Unlike the mayors of New York and Amsterdam, the Mayor of London has little authority over the day-to-day management of the city. Thus, his principal focus is on strategic planning and transportation. In terms of the former, he must rely on the borough authorities and a bewildering array of development partnerships to implement his guidance. Both because of the pressures upon him to produce development and his desire to leave a mark on the city despite his limited powers, Ken Livingstone, the first Mayor of London after the creation of the Greater London Authority, put considerable energy into regeneration schemes. The anti-growth sentiments within the suburban areas that surround London in all directions but the East mean that the major thrust of new programmes is eastward. This is justified on the grounds that East London represents the most deprived part of the city, thereby standing to benefit most, and that it contains numerous underutilised sites.

The eastward development of London has been labelled the Thames Gateway and billed as the largest development project in Europe. It extends 40 miles (64 kilometres) from Canary Wharf in the East End of London into the counties of Essex and Kent, covering 16 local authority districts. Goals set forth by the central government included 160,000 housing units, with 35 per cent classified as affordable; the creation of 180,000 new jobs; improvement in the skills levels of residents; access to high-quality health care, and 53,000 hectares (131,000 acres) of green space protected and enhanced.1 The scheme involved both redevelopment of existing occupied or obsolete areas and growth on greenfield sites. In its London section it covered some extremely poor districts, while further out in the suburban counties it covered quite affluent settlements. The time frame involved was considerable – although the goals were ostensibly to be met by 2016, 40 years was a more realistic estimate for the entire Gateway. Construction, however, would be rapid within the western area where the Olympic Park and associated facilities were going up for the 2012 Games.2 The overall objective was the development of ‘sustainable communities’ and a decentralisation of business activity from the present core in Westminster and the City of London.

Zuidas, Amsterdam South

In Amsterdam, as in London, planning and housing development nest within the context of planning guidelines and financial flows emanating from the national government. Considerable power, however, rests at the city level, where, because no single party dominates, consensus is the rule. There is less reliance on private for-profit developers for housing construction than in London and New York, and, as in London, the construction of social housing relies on the activities of non-profit housing associations. Amsterdam, however, resembles both London and New York in depending on private investment for office development and in requiring office developers to contribute public benefits in return for the right to build.
Amsterdam Zuidas involved the largest amount of office space of the developments discussed in this text. A number of the office blocks were already mostly built, not according to a plan, but opportunistically as a result of firms seeking convenient space outside the crowded city core. They went up with little relation of one to another. Many were bold architectural statements, but the area as a whole was incoherent, cold, and unfriendly to pedestrians. The ambitions of the planners were to retrofit an existing single-use area so as to create an urbane, multifunctional space. The challenge was particularly daunting because this district was divided by a multi-lane motorway and railroad tracks that, like the rail yards in Brooklyn, precluded pedestrian traffic and prevented design coherence. The proposed solution was extremely expensive – a 1.2-kilometre-long tunnel to accommodate both the road and railroad tracks. Amsterdam Zuidas was already the largest office development in the Netherlands with 248,600 m2 (2.7 million square feet) built, or under construction. The national government envisioned it becoming an area that would allow Amsterdam to compete with Paris, Frankfurt, and Milan for global city functions. The municipality responded with a plan for the area due South of the centre that included housing, retail, educational and cultural facilities. However, only the office structures were built. Now the municipal government, with financial participation by the central government, was seeking to realise the vision of a multifunctional scheme. The project incorporated a larger role for the private sector in providing infrastructure than had previously characterised Dutch projects. The plan was to use the vehicle of a public-private partnership, with the very expensive covering of the rail and highway right-of-ways to be financed by the private sector. Sixty per cent of the costs would be borne by the private participants, who in return would receive development rights for one million m2 (10.76 million square feet) in the newly created space. The public portion involved the city, provincial and national governments.


The mega-projects described here reflect the evolution of urban redevelopment programmes since their post-World War II beginnings. They also represent a convergence between American and European approaches to government intervention in the built environment as embodied in private-sector involvement and market orientation. At the same time, the European schemes, while incorporating a neo-liberal concern with competitiveness, manifest greater governmental direction and commitment to egalitarian goals.

The contemporary mega-projects discussed here indicate that public-private partnerships can be a vehicle for the provision of public benefits, including job commitments, cultural facilities and affordable housing. They also show, however, that such projects are risky for both public and private participants, must primarily be oriented towards profitability, and typically produce a landscape dominated by bulky buildings that do not encourage urbanity, despite the claims of the projects’ developers.

In London and Amsterdam, where to some extent a social-democratic ethos still prevails, more is being asked from developers than is the case in New York. Also, the direct governmental contribution to housing is larger, because the national governments play a much larger role in financing affordable housing development. Even in these cities, however, everything depends on profitability of the market-driven parts of the project. There are only three forms of construction that can generate big profits: luxury residences and hotels, large-footprint office towers and shopping malls. Thus, what we can expect to see in both European and American cities are projects with similar design characteristics and product mixes, usually outside the old urban core and lacking the layering of old and new, small and big, that gives central cities their ambiance and opportunities. The requirements in all three projects for affordable housing and jobs represent a minimal commitment to socially just policies, but the primary orientation is to profitability and competitiveness. The extent to which the gains from increased competitiveness are spread throughout society depends on the size of the direct governmental commitment to public benefits. This is greatest in the Netherlands, where the welfare state, albeit shrunken, lives on. It is least in the United States, where the small size of national expenditures on housing and social welfare means that low-income people must depend almost wholly on trickle-down effects to gain from new development.

* This text was published previously in issue 783 of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2009.

1 UK Department of Communities and Local Government, 2006.
2 Editors’ note: this essay was written before the completion of the Olympic Park in 2012.

Susan S. Fainstein is Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.