On February 4, 2016, all cities from the European Union were represented during the New Europe City Makers Agenda event. This event was part of the New Europe City Makers Pre-Summit on 4 and 5 February at Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam.
Charlot Schans (Project leader of New Europe – Cities in Transition at Pakhuis de Zwijger) stressed the need to bring City Makers from all over Europe together to discuss their input for the EU Urban Agenda. This is the goal of the City Makers Pre-Summit (4 and 5 February 2016) as well as for the City Makers Summit in May (27 until 30 May). During these summits, the City Makers Agenda will be co-created. City Makers will meet each other, learn from each other and together they will act. On the 30th of May, Pakhuis de Zwijger will have the opportunity to present the City Makers Agenda during the informal ministerial meeting. As Charlot explains, the biggest challenge will be to translate all local ideas upwards, from the local level, to the municipal level, to the national level and finally to the European level.
In Amsterdam, right now – during the Dutch European presidency – European ministers are working on the EU Urban Agenda. This agenda should make the European Union ‘urban proof.’ The need to address the challenges of cities is bigger than ever. 80% of Europeans are living in cities. As a result, cities are facing a lot of problems. Poverty, segregation, unemployment, refugees and also environmental issues to name a few. However, cities are also highly innovative and creative. A lot of City Makers live in cities, and they are the ones that push the transition of cities forward. They are the pioneers that are already working on the big urban challenges that the European Union is looking into. There are a lot of similarities between what City Makers do and what the European Union wants to do. However, City Makers usually work on a local level, while the European Union is looking at the problem from a bird’s eye view, the European level. How can we connect these very different perspectives and make sure that the City Makers – and through them the citizens of the cities – can have influence on the EU Urban Agenda?
“I hope that those cities that are on board will connect with their City Makers. We don’t do it ourselves, we should ‘use’ our City Makers” – Nicolaas Beets
So what about the EU Urban Agenda? Why does the European Union feels like they need one? Nicolaas Beets (the Dutch Urban Envoy) explained this. These days most of the regulations come together in cities, but cities have very little to say about them. Beets also stresses that the City Makers are really important for cities. They are working on the problems the EU would like to work on as well. Cities should recognise and ‘use’ their City Makes. The result of the EU Urban Agenda should be better regulation, better (access to) funding and better knowledge exchange. Beets thinks that City Makers should form networks in order to influence the ‘umbrella organisation’ that is the European Union. However, these networks are already present, for instance at Pakhuis de Zwijger, but also in the rest of Europe. The problem seems to be that the European Union does not, as of now, recognize these local networks. For these local networks, it is difficult to have an actual influence on a higher level, especially the European one. Sometimes influencing even the municipal level can be a struggle.
“Investing in social life and public life or public spaces wasn’t normal, social value was not a value at all” – Marta Zakowska
Someone who has struggled with gaining influence on a municipal level is Marta Zakowska (editor in chief at Magazyn Miasta, Warsaw) with the Polish Urban Movement. In order to change the visual landscape, to save modernistic heritage or to save houses, they had to put up quite a struggle. Zakowska mentioned that there is a lack of regulation in Warsaw. Therefore, they have to fight to co-create the city, the law and the landscape. The effect of developmental plans on social or public life is barely taken into account by the municipality. Since 2000, the Urban Movement started to fight for this and now they are also trying to move from the city level to the national level, and they recognise they could gain from organising at the European level as well.
“You can’t develop big projects without citizens anymore. We should talk about citizens and about neighbourhoods as experts for development plans” – Christian Grauvogel
The importance of public space is a big issue for Christian Grauvogel (President of Mörchenpark, Berlin). He claims that you have to create the space and the opportunities for people, the citizens, to be able to participate, to share their ideas and actually let them work on these ideas. We should take citizens and neighbourhoods seriously when discussing development plans. We should think of them as experts, because big projects cannot be developed without citizens anymore, Grauvogel stated. In the case of Mörchenpark, value was created for the city, by opening up an area that wasn’t intended to be a public space. Grauvogel noticed that, by inviting people, and actually asking them to participate, people who were sceptical at first are now seeing the benefits of the place, enjoying it, and thus, creating value for the city. Another way of using public space is to share stories. Laura Pana (founder and director of Migrationlab, The Hague) transformed urban public spaces into public living rooms, co-creating with the neighbourhood community. This project, Welcome to the Living Room, allowed people to share their stories, about who they are and where they’re from, while at the same time involving them in an artistic process of co-creation. Pana would recommend that the European Union create a living room in order to get in touch with the realities of those living in European cities. Amal Abbass-Saal (Inspiratie-Inc, Almere) underscored the importance of recognising the different stories of different people. If you have no connection with the reality of the people you are making the solutions for, they will not be the solutions that are actually needed. Abbass-Saal feels strongly about following your passion and believing in yourself and she thinks it is really important to help people reach their potential instead of having really low expectations. She would also like to see this mind-set at the European level.
“Take advantage of what is already there in abundance, so grow things on stuff that is already there in great amounts, like coffee waste” – Sandra de Haan-Morlog
Besides dealing with involving citizens and giving them a voice, it is also important to keep the environment in mind. Cities are crowded and many times have to deal with air pollution. Artist Jan Eric Visser created a new type of concrete and recycled plastic which can help clean the air and improve the appearance of cities at the same time. The concrete is filled with bacteria that can filter the air, and the recycled plastic can be used as an artificial matrix for plants, no soil needed. Visser claims that “waste is our collective capital, it belongs to our public domain. Now it is incinerated and wasted forever”. Sandra de Haan-Morlog (Marketing & PR Rotterzwam) agrees with this point, but uses the waste in a completely different way. Rotterzwam (part of the network of entrepreneurs of Blue City0101) uses coffee waste to grow mushrooms. It is an example of circular or blue economy, which involves using what you have, instead of throwing it away. Aside from reducing waste, Rotterzwam also wants to promote eating more mushrooms and less meat because meat is very resource intensive to cultivate and it produces a lot of emissions and waste. Wouter Veer (investor of BlueCity010) stresses that entrepreneurs like the people who work at Rotterzwam will be the people who will solve the big challenges of the future, such as climate change and the food, energy and water crisis.
“There is something about the spontaneous popping up of people initiating activities of this kind without using the old structures. Citizens feel like these projects bring a high quality of life, faster. It’s a very important voice” – Amalia Zepou
So what would City Makers like to prioritize for the City Makers Agenda? First of all, it would be really convenient to track bottom-up initiatives in cities. Amalia Zepou (Vice Mayor for Civil Society, Athens) is working on this in Athens and sees that there are so many activities being taken up by citizens. Through this knowledge, the infrastructure of the municipality is upgraded. Most of the times the initiatives pose solutions that are cheaper than the previous ones and because citizens feel like they own the solutions, they sustain them. Involving the citizen is really important. Levente Polyak (KÉK Lataklan Project, Budapest) mentioned that the welfare state as we know it is transforming. Public services are outsourced to civic society, but citizens don’t always have the right to take over such services. Polyak recaps Grauvogel’s point: citizens should be taken seriously and if they form a community, this will probably work. If financial actors see a community behind an initiative, they are more likely to take it seriously. Initiatives are more sustainable and stable when there is a community behind them. City Makers can help citizens in this process. Elena de Nictolis (Labkov, Bologna) thinks that the pooling economy is crucial for this part. It is different from the sharing economy, which is about sharing resources. The pooling economy is about collaborating to make something more, which is exactly what City Makers do.