Workshop We Own the City!

The ability of citizens to organize themselves, for example through social media, has increased very much the last few years. As a result, in many communities local initiatives have emerged, like neighbourhood businesses and local energy cooperations.

This raises new questions about the relation of these initiatives and democracy. Who decides what initiatives add to the greater good? Who owns the resources? Who owns a community organization?

Trust in the City?

The City of Amsterdam runs an organization called ‘Trust in the City’, funding neighbourhood initiatives. The idea is to encourage entrepreneurship, especially in deprived neighbourhoods. People from those neighbourhoods often find it difficult to claim available subsidies due to intricate rules and conditions. Also, after receiving funding those entrepreneurs want to be accountable to the community, not the City Council. Meantime, the community has misgivings about an enterprise funded by the City, as they think of it as ‘our company’. Trust becomes an issue, notwithstanding the good intentions of all involved.

In the UK, similar problems have emerged. Local initiatives are tendered, even to commercial entities. Often services are customized to locals only after they are delivered, causing a massive failure of matching supply and demand and costing lots of money. Accountability to the neighbourhood isn’t taken care of in most cases. This doesn’t apply to community based organizations, who are naturally accountable to the people around them, though government funding still raises a certain level of distrust.

Most of the time, ownership is transferred from a municipality to a local community on a temporary basis. Any time the City is no longer satisfied, it can be taken back. An enterprise cannot be really durable like that. Trust is key. Of course risks are involved, like accountability, leaking of public funds to private organizations. Building a durable, trustworthy community business takes time. Preferably some professionals are involved to ensure this, but too many are a risk in themselves, as it then tends to become a ‘normal’ company.

Choosing the right scale to tackle an issue is essential. Public resources are owned by municipalities, but they often aren’t aware of specific neighbourhood problems. Sometimes a smaller scale is better, so people can feel ownership. Then they will take care of, say, a windmill, while profiting from it. The right scale can only be chosen after thorough investigation of all alternatives and consultation with the people concerned (and engaged).

In Rotterdam people from a particular street challenged a plan for its reconstruction without trees. They developed an alternative plan with trees and a referendum ensued: 85% voted for the latter. In Almere, seeking to be the world’s greenest city, a group of inhabitants formed a Green Council. Almere mandated them to decide on all plans. Now that’s transferring ownership!

Some form of outsourcing ownership is inevitable, since people can’t be engaged on every issue. Both are key to successful ownership, which should be defined clearly. However, information should always be readily available as much as possible, for example through digital platforms. Full financial transparancy and more facilities to participate are needed to regain trust in policy making, creating a common feeling of ‘we share the city’.

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