Engaging stakeholders and citizens in the future of their city

City-makers like Fleur Lincoln (Strategic Planner) and Georgina King (Urban Designer) at Napier City Council are challenged to engage politicians, stakeholders, and citizens in a conversation about the direction of their city, a neighbourhood, or a precinct.

Creating a shared focus for diverse groups is a messy process and city-makers must provide leadership. This means that city-makers need to provide scope, direction, and support to people.

They must then be able to listen to groups for insights and to get buy-in and synthesise these diverse inputs into a coherent strategy. A major factor in getting people’s buy-in is reducing the risk of a ‘talk-fest’ with no action. People are afraid that nothing will happen and that they’re wasting their limited attention.

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The Project

Fleur and her team-mates embarked on a strategy development process for Napier’s city centre, Ahuriri (a harbour district), and the waterfront. In order to work across these areas, a set over-arching principles were required. The team was also set-up to experiment prototypes of ideas in public spaces.

A design strategy helps city-makers engage with varied groups to gather insights and get buy-in. There are three parts to a good strategy: The Diagnosis, the Story, and the Portfolio. Engagement is a critical part of each element.

  1. The Diagnosis allows city-makers to engage about ‘why’ a new direction is required.

  2. The Design Story contains a central concept to create focus and a number of supporting ideas to clarify ‘how’ the central idea will be achieved.

  3. Co-creation of a portfolio of coordinated actions is the final step, and contains ‘what’ will be done to achieve the central concept.

In Agile City-making, about 20% of city-makers effort is spent on strategy, while the remaining time is spent on creating and testing ideas to feedback from citizens and customers in the real world. Then updating the strategy and adapting the portfolio.

During the Diagnosis stage in Napier, Urban Kin and the Project Team explored five strategic issues and city-making fundamentals (city life, space and networks, buildings, culture and creativity). With the Diagnosis (data and insights) in hand, the next stage of engagement began.

The central idea of the Design Story was generated by the Napier city executives who supplied the concept of ‘Small City, Big Ideas’. This ‘central concept’ allowed the development of supporting city-making principles and portfolio to be generated through a bottom-up process of engagement with stakeholders and employees. The end result was a strategy called City Vision.

Within 6 weeks of the initial strategy workshops, the first real-world experiments began. This allowed the team to learn through observing how citizens used the public space prototypes and other feedback. The next few years have seen ongoing experiments aligned with the Small City, Big Ideas concept across the three project areas. The scale and complexity of experiments have ranged from small scale urban play spaces up to night markets, and full street parties, and reallocation of space on the city’s waterfront boulevard.

The city-making principles outlined in the City Vision have been tested and validated in the real world for over three years. Now, the Council has strengthened the strategy by incorporating the design story into the Long Term Plan 2018. This Plan is the funding document for NZ Councils and shows that the design story is now influencing the allocation of resources at the highest level.



The Design Story (principles) within the strategy provides the focus that Council needs to keep on track with its city-making. In particular, the principles led to a large scale masterplan project to restore the Ahuriri Estuary and harbour and create a city-wide asset. This type of project is once in a generation and the impacts will be magnified as each element is delivered.


With a clear Design Story the council is able to try many tactics to make progress. Fleur and the project team do not get stuck if something works. With learning in hand they refocus and adapt their tactics and try again.

Network power

Napier is now firmly on the map in city-making as it was awarded a Local Government New Zealand award for excellence for the City Vision project. The network of city-makers has been strengthened by Napier looking outward and sharing its experiences and learning together with other cities.

Geoff Wilkinson