New Europe – watch what City Makers are doing

There's your agenda!

This article was written by our New Europe project leader Charlot Schans and was published in the 8th edition of New Amsterdam Magazine, available here

All over Europe City Makers contribute to the urban challenges of our time. Now that the 28 member states of the European Union are developing an EU Urban Agenda to address these challenges, it is time to further improve the collaboration between governments and non-institutional actors. We are working on a City Makers Agenda, with City Embassies from cities across Europe, to show we are willing to help and keen on expanding the (im)Pact of Amsterdam.

Klauzál square lies right in the heart of Budapest’s nightlife district, which over the past years gained a reputation of the emergence of so-called ‘ruin bars’ taking over the many crumbled buildings and vacant lots throughout the area. Every Sunday afternoon it fills up with two to three hundred underprivileged residents and homeless people, waiting in line for a hot meal. The healthy and hearty food is prepared by an enthusiastic group of volunteers, often with the help of professional chefs from the restaurants in the district. The food is being paid for by the people that flock the nightlife scene, through an ingeniously simple system of glass jars placed in bars throughout the area for donations. One minor setback: officially it is not allowed to distribute food or shelter to the poor and homeless in central Budapest. Fortunately, the district council gave informal approval and agreed not to confront the initiators (Heti Betevő) with fines for trespassing the governmental restrictions, thus allowing them to operate within a grey zone.

This situation is exemplary for the current state of City Makers’ initiatives within European cities. While providing often vital services within their communities, they are subjected to the whims of local policy and legislations. In Athens, former grassroots activist Amalia Zepou initiated synAthina, a community platform which maps the tremendous amount of citizen-driven initiatives emerging as a result of the crisis. She soon found that out of 350 initiatives providing indispensable services and enhancing the liveability in the city of Athens, only five were considered legal. Since her election as Vice Mayor for Civil Society in 2014, Zepou is working on changing legislation to ensure these initiatives are in line with government norms and civil servants are better equipped to cooperate with City Makers, enhancing institutional innovation.

Cities are becoming global drivers of change
In the run-up to the present Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the Dutch government worked on an EU Urban Agenda, designed to make the European Union more ‘urban proof’. Traditionally the EU focused on common interests such as agricultural and infrastructural integration and the prevention of conflicts, but in recent years there has been growing awareness of the fact that challenges are accumulating in our cities. Fortunately, cities are more than just a container of socio-economical issues; they often provide the innovative, cost-effective and adequate solutions for these challenges. As the official statement of EU Urban Agenda reads: ‘The EU Urban Agenda aims to promote cooperation between member states, the European Commission and cities in order to stimulate growth, liveability and innovation in the cities of Europe. It is a new working method to ensure maximum utilisation of the growth potential of cities and successfully tackle the social challenges.’

A survey conducted among the twenty-eight member states of the European Union resulted in twelve priority themes for the agenda like urban poverty, affordable housing, inclusion of migrants and refugees, sustainable use of land, climate adaptation, the circular economy, innovation and responsible public procurement, to name just a few. In 2016, the EU Urban Agenda will formally yield the Pact of Amsterdam on May 30, a commitment by the member states and European Commission to put emphasis on urban development.

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Over the past years, the networks of the New Netherlands and New Europe have shown how addressing the urban challenges is no longer – or perhaps never has been – the preoccupation of governmental institutions alone. Through a series of nine Metropolitan Field Trips to date, Pakhuis
de Zwijger, Stipo, Inspiring Cities and Deltametropolis Association illuminated the changing dynamics in the capital cities of the European Union, where an emerging movement of City Makers, social innovators and public developers, and governmental actors are all seeking a new role.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, governments allover the continent faced decreasing public budgets. Where Southern European countries were confronted with fierce austerity measures and economic reform imposed by the Troika, the relatively young democracies in Eastern Europe already suffered from a troubling low trust of citizens in their government. And in countries normally characterised by a strong welfare state, public services were being stripped and governmental programmes started to promote active citizenship and participation as an instrument for cutting expenses.

Metropolitan Field Trip Budapest

In the UK, this led to the Big Society programme, in the Netherlands to the so-called ‘participation society’. In reality City Makers have been taking care of the liveability in their direct surroundings all along, but only now it was upon the government’s request for shared responsibility. With this shared responsibility comes a new division of tasks and a quest for new strategies of all actors involved. Agora Europa and Pakhuis de Zwijger therefore invited representative organisations of the twenty-eight capital cities to work on a joint City Makers Agenda.

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We aim to show how the innovative strength of our cities comes from the accumulation and density of human resources and participating institutions, and how effectively tapping into the existing energy could notably enhance the social innovation in our cities. We notice how the changing dynamics between government and active citizens often result in an increasing sense of insecurity and distortions in the balance of responsibilities. In the worst case this can lead to paralysing restraints and growing distrust.

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City Makers add value where politicians fall short
The ambition to enhance citizen participation is often articulated in complex processes of citizen consultation, where for instance people are invited to provide input for the design of public space. After expressing their opinion, the actual work is then executed by professionals, who are confronted with the dispute responsibility to serve the interests of all co-discussants in the process.

Inherently wrong in this train of thought is the assumption that participation is articulated in political processes alone, and active citizens all have the ambition to become pseudo-politicians who without any form of mandate whatsoever, feel a strong need to express policy recommendations. Don’t get me wrong, some of us do, but most people would rather start great initiatives to offer their city, neighbourhood or street whatever they feel is simply not provided yet. And whoever pays close attention to all the pragmatic activities taken up by City Makers in our cities, has a magnificent overview of the priorities of citizens and where politicians fall short.

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The City Makers Agenda makes visible what is practiced in the cities and how City Makers do what they do best: making the city a better place. There is a great surplus to be found in the many competences that are at hand, if you look at it from a network perspective. However, in order for the movement to flourish, some requirements have to be met, such as an adjustment of restrictive legislations and providing facilities for professionalisation. Because of declining public budgets, City Makers often face difficulty getting activities financed. Activities which add value to the community, such as providing health care or welfare services, the development or maintenance of public space or offering affordable housing. Public budgets are exhausted and it proves challenging to come up with a sustainable business model for communal purposes.

Metropolitan Field Trip Budapest

This emphasises the need of networks and third places facilitating the exchange of know-how and models for social entrepreneurship, alternative financing such as crowdfunding and instruments to measure impact and value creation, indispensable when trying to capitalise on an initiative. And since one of the priorities of the EU Urban Agenda is innovative and responsible public procurement, this may be a great opportunity to start talking about decentralising budgets and adjusting procurement contracts where public services are taken over by citizens, through so-called societal procurement.

One of the difficulties when handing over responsibilities from a welfare system to active citizens, is assumption that inclusiveness gets lost. Most City Makers initiatives serve the interest of a certain target group and therefore can’t be held responsible for the protection of the common good. Tasks may be distributed differently, but it doesn’t mean a greater participation of citizens necessarily replaces the representative democracy. It should still be up to the government, or another representative body, to provide a framework ensuring a balance of interests, and at the same time allowing for great freedom within.

It is inaccurate to think that civic engagement is above all a good instrument in times of austerity. It takes a lot of investment in the innovation of processes we took for granted for so long, and a lot of ‘creative bureaucrats’ (as said by Jochen Sandig, creative director of Radialsystem V in Berlin) who are humble enough to take a facilitating role towards their electorate. All over Europe experiments emerge where traditional roles are redefined, where civil servants take the position as advisor or accelerator in bureaucratic processes or as mediator in legislative changes, as seen earlier in the case of Athens.

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Bringing change for the public benefit
It is often argued that true change doesn’t happen in collaboration, but usually springs from an isolated attic somewhere in Silicon Valley. I believe this is also where excesses are created, such as Airbnb and Uber, which had a huge disruptive impact on malfunctioning structures but also brought about loads of unwanted side effects. The desire to control these side effects is often sensed among City Makers. How do you know you are still on track with all those societal ambitions you had whenyou first started? A possible juridical solution was seen recently, when Kickstarter decided to register as a Public Benefit Corporation. This means the societal values expressed when they were founded (in their case delivering a platform for alternative financing of independent music) are ingrained in their organisational structure. So no matter how much they grow or how many shareholders they attract, the company will not be able to shift away from these core values. In order to combine commercial and societal activities most initiatives now have to come up with complex models, in which responsibilities are seperated between several legal entities, all accountable for certain parts of the same project.

What is a public benefit corporation?

The best practices thrive on motivated and pioneering individuals
Apart from the recurrent discussion upon inclusiveness and democratic legitimacy, the collaboration between local institutions and City Makers often gets thwarted because of the different ways in which they are organised. Most initiatives work in a very integrated manner, adding a lot of complementary values on a relatively small scale. They (re-)create a couple of physical buildings, and some jobs along the way, whilst rethinking the use of resources, contributing to the disruption of the food production chain and creating a place of belonging for people in the neighbourhood. And all of that on some acres of neglected wasteland. From the perspective of any governmental department – social, environmental, spatial or economic – the tangible results may be limited, but the overall impact is larger than the sum of its parts. This shows the need for new value assessment systems, which are more tailored to everyday reality. Systems able to take into account the unique qualities of each and every initiative, without a constant focus on upscaling and replicating it elsewhere. The best practices often thrive on a collective of magnificently motivated and pioneering individuals. And copy-pasting wouldn’t do justice to the intrinsic value. An integrated approach towards value assessment gives government officials a helpful toolset when prioritising citizen-driven initiatives over simply the highest bidder in a tender process.

Over the next months we will keep collecting input for the City Makers Agenda, together with all our partners throughout Europe. This will be a matter of strengthening the network itself as well as an inventory of the assets and needs within the City Makers movement. We keep on sharing stories on our platform citiesintransition.eu.

And with the pre-summit on 4 and 5 February and another Metropolitan Field Trip to Paris from 10 to 13 March coming up, we believe we will be well-prepared for the City Makers Summit from 27 to 30 May, parallel to the informal ministerial meeting about the EU Urban Agenda and the signing of the Pact of Amsterdam. During a four-day programme we will demonstrate the best practices, present the outcomes of the City Makers Agenda and advance on the demands within the network with lots of workshops with know-how and practical tools in Amsterdam and in cities all over the Netherlands.

We invite everyone to ensure together we increase the (im)Pact of Amsterdam!

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Involved city makers
Charlot Schans
Project leader New Europe at Pakhuis de Zwijger
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