The First European City Makers Meet-up

Looking back on the first meet-up, moving forward toward the City Maker Agenda

The first City Makers meet-up took place on June 25 at Pakhuis de Zwijger, where the European network of City Ambassadors from 12 European capital cities looked into the state of city-making in the European capitals and the principles underlying transitional processes found in most cities. A great opportunity to meet City Makers and learn about their initiatives, visions and capabilities. The event this year focused on shaping the City Makers Agenda, which will be completed and presented as part of the EU Urban Agenda during the EU Presidency of the Netherlands in the first half of 2016.

City Makers Meet-up

European City Makers

From the first round of discussions it became clear that City Makers observe shared problems and obstacles in their city, and share a common disillusionment in party politics and institutions. They feel a strong sense of ownership over their city and environment, and a sense of urgency that is not determined by short-term or long-term possibilities and solutions. Driven by this sense of ownership and urgency they take matters into their own hands. They are therefore pro-active, conscious and creative people. Applying an integrated and holistic approach to the problems they experience in their cities, they raise the level of knowledge (and agency) of all who are involved.

As resource-effective connectors who respond to specific local needs with tailor-made solutions, they have the ability to work with local government and other parties. Cutting corners and bypassing bureaucracy, their initiatives are innovative and sustainable, as they operate outside of pre-determined, institutionalized frameworks, networks and systems. The collaborative nature of their initiatives builds trust among communities, which is often lacking when regulations and democratic processes are concerned. City Making practices raise local democracy, as they enhance participation in decision-making which can and should inform civil servants about their priorities regarding the needs of citizens. City makers create value, and add value to the community and help those  who might not know how to put their ideas into practice.

Jan Ryden at the City Makers Meet-up

“City makers gather information, data, about wishes and needs of citizens that would otherwise go unnoticed and would never be used. Citymakers make these wishes and needs visible.” Jāzeps Bikše, Free Riga

“Citymakers reinvent a lot of things that were already in place 100 years ago. Community gardening, housing cooperatives,  health care cooperatives etc. They disappeared with the emergence of the welfare state, and now they are re-emerging. And why not let people do it themselves? These kind of initiatives send a message to government and shows citizens that there are a lot of things you can just do yourself.” Jan Ryden, Fargfabriken, Stockholm

“In Bucharest, even if the authorities want to act, they don’t have the capacity. City makers are the ones who organize, it starts from the grassroots. Public space, activities, festivals. They introduce boats on the river, the local authorities do not use public spaces. Grassroots initiatives do not even need local money or help to make a European project out of it.” Cosmina Goagea, Zeppelin

City Makers Meet-up

Similarities and Differences

Community ambition and a DIY mentality lie at the core of City Maker’s initiatives. The initiatives often start as temporary experiments, and relate to similar themes: vacancy, re-use, recycling, urban agriculture, food production and waste, mobility, the sharing economy, and community building, to name just a few. City Makers find they work from common principles: local and small scale dimensions (at least at the start) with tangible processes and results, while offering and promoting acknowledgement for unofficial, informal or marginal communities. Initiatives are non-replicable and can act as a statement or source of inspiration, but do not necessarily function as a blueprint. They are generally cross-sectoral, and serve as mediation and brokering between different stakeholders. Although not always an immediate goal, they change the relation between  state and citizens, promoting democratic innovation.

Leonor Duarte at the City Makers Meet-up

Depending on cultural and national background, there is a difference between connotations with different discourses, such as approaches to employment. ‘Volunteerism’, for example, can be viewed as purely unpaid, voluntary work or as pioneering social entrepreneurship. There are different types of innovative movement in which City Makers aim to operate: global technological innovation leading to  a national energy transition supported by citizen initiatives, or modernization within government processes driven by and leading to increased participation of citizens on a local level.

Many of the differences are contextual and involve to the way citizens relate to the state and local government. City Makers and their initiatives differ in terms of level of vertical engagement, top-down + bottom-up, and how they cooperate with different stakeholders, participants and parties. Comfort levels are different across different urban contexts, inspiring and evoking different forms of citizen action and interaction, taking on a collaborative nature in older, more established nations and democracies and a suspicious, activist nature in younger states/democracies.

In Vienna the level and volume of civil society is limited because the city works so well, and citizens become comfortable, while in Eastern societies levels of trust in democratic processes, the state and local government are weak, characteristic of the legacy of communism. KeK contemporary architecture centre is rather unique in this context. There is, furthermore,considerable variation when it comes to availability of philanthropic, community and government funding. In the UK, for example, there are lotteries, but also community shares and crowdfunding provide access to funding.

Discussion at the City Makers meet-up

“There is a difference between a country where you have a cooperative state and a state that does not care.”  Meta van Drunen, Eurodite, Bucharest

“In Riga it is possible to easily organize small events: picknicks, discussions, poetry slams, flee markets. It’s informal, it is not part of the strategic plan of the council. It’s just about what people want to organize themselves.” Jāzeps Bikše, Free Riga

“You need to get different partners involved: initiators, municipality, university, citizens, private sector. In Portugal it is very difficult to involve the private sector, activists and the social sector do not want to work with the private sector because there is a lack of trust. People in Portugal feel it is unfair to be financially sustainable in the social sector, nobody wants to talk about money. In Academia Cidada we have two levels of intervention: community and political.”  Leonor Duarte, Academica Cidada, Lisbon

“Citizens organize services, because they don’t have the resources to buy them but also to distribute them more fairly in society. I don’t like to take privatization for granted. Citymakers do not accept things the way that they are. I don’t want to think in terms of being the substitute of the welfare state. The welfare state is a good thing.” Massimo Alluli, Cittalia, Rome

A tour of De Ceuvel

What do City Makers’ initiatives need to flourish?

City Makers need acknowledgement and trust. With growing trust comes a decrease in regulation, and a government who facilitates rather than just regulates. Reduced regulation gives City Makers the freedom to experiment and find innovative solutions to existing urban and societal problems. Initiatives and initiators furthermore need legitimacy. A good example of this is De Ceuvel, which has received widespread recognition for its innovativeness and effectiveness. What is needed in all contexts is access to funding. There is funding in place for existing mechanisms and institutions which should be open up to civil society organizations. Political reform is needed to allow for a handing over the mandate from the national level to the local level, cities, would increase participation and democratic processes as they are more easily accessible for citizens.

A group discussion at the City Makers meet-up

“In Italy an alliance could make it happen. Only when in collaboration with local government. Up-scaling should be done, not just down-scaling. What is also important is the freedom to move: let the government give freedom to City Makers to move instead of work against them.” Massimo Alluli, Cittalia, Rome

“Citymakers role is to show government what should be done differently. I do not associate it with the voluntary movement. But you need acknowledgement from the government. They need to see it is important what you do.” Meta van Drunen, Eurodite, Bucharest

“You need to get different partners involved: initiators, municipality, university, citizens, private sector. In Portugal it is very difficult to involve the private sector, activists/the social sector do not want to work with the private sector because there is a lack of trust. People in Portugal feel it is unfair to be financially sustainable in the social sector, nobody wants to talk about money. In AC we have two levels of intervention: community and political.” Leonor Duarte, Academia Cidada, Lisbon

At De Ceuvel, bread is turned in to yeast, creating bio-gas.

Added value of a European network

The added of a European network of City Makers is gaining (negotiating) power, it gives more weight to the argument. It offers a new perspective and a place to share knowledge and experiences. It is also about confirmation; it inspires and gives hope and empowerment. A network is a great source for knowledge about how to bypass bureaucracy, franchise technological tools, and best practices. The network offers a sense of belonging and community of interest. It is a great setting in which to reflect on a new European identity and citizenship.

A group discussion outside.

“I don’t know much about it yet. I’m thinking in practical terms: finding knowledge and experiences in other places. It is also valuable on the two levels: initiative and citizen, and on a council and political level, show them how it can be done.” Leonor Duarte, Academia Cidada, Lisbon

“The added value from meeting other people in this network is: a lot of new ideas. Our organization is a mediator, I saw many good examples of communication/education with the people about public sphere, re-use. I hope to continue this relationship and maybe have some other projects. It is about learning, because we have this one experience. In my city, i’m very connected but it’s hard to learn from outside experiences. It gives new insights.” Jāzeps Bikše, Free Riga

“It is a confirmation that I’m not the only one struggling, and encourages me to continue. It makes me see that I can make a difference. I am surprised to see that there are so many similarities.” Meta van Drunen, Eurodite, Bucharest

“It gives weight to our argument, negotiating power. Look, they do it this way in other cities as well.” Jan Ryden, Fargfabriken, Stockholm

Discussion at the City Makers meet-up

Expectations of the City Makers Agenda

The City Makers agenda needs to encourage a balance between public and private actions, as well as to get people, their energies and their social needs together. What is needed first of all is a definition of what a City Maker is. What do we do, what do we stand for? Many agree there is no necessity for a large-scale plan, but that the agenda should be used to establish the definition of City Maker in order to increase the inclusion of civic engagement in EU policy, legislation, and decision making. The City Makers Agenda could furthermore lead to true acknowledgement, funding streams, and policy reform. City Maker initiatives require a different, facilitating role of government which hopefully the agenda will contribute to. This also means more resource effective collaboration and acknowledgement for different actors and stakeholders.

“We can conclude that we need to talk with our own governments, as much as we can. I guess that we need to even talk with corporations. It is difficult to think like that, but we need to talk to corporate parties. This is a new level we didn’t see before.” Leonor Duarte, Academia Cidada, Lisbon

3D printing at DAS Architects


Involved city makers
Amalia Zepou
Vice Mayor for Civil Society, Athens
Levente Polyak
KÉK, Budapest
Jan Rydén
Färgfabriken, Stockholm
Anu Kägu
Anu Kägu
Jāzeps Bikše
Free Riga
Jaakko Blomberg
Yhteismaa, Helsinki
Massimo Allulli
Cittalia, Rome
Antonina Ilieva
Don't DIY Studio, Sofia
Egbert Fransen
Director Pakhuis de Zwijger
Floortje Opbroek
Editor at New Europe
Charlot Schans
Project leader New Europe at Pakhuis de Zwijger
Hans Karssenberg
Partner Stipo
Kristel Jeuring
Locality, London
Leonor Duarte
Academia Cidadã, Lisbon
Lucas de Man
In Search of Europe
Meta van Drunen
Zeppelin, Bucharest
Niesco Dubbelboer
Agora Europa, Amsterdam
Quentin Feral
Cap ou pas Cap, Paris
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