Toward A Good City For All
From March 24 to 26 2017, in cooperation with the GEF and with the support of Henrich Böll Foundation Europe, IPE organized a winter seminar for local activists entitled “Good City for All” at the Plitvička jezera National park in Croatia. The seminar aimed to produce transnational exchange about different practices of socio-ecological transformation and creating conditions for “a good life” in cities across Europe. Green and progressive speakers from Barcelona, Budapest, Brussels, Athens, Bologna, Belgrade, Sarajevo and Bilbao were invited to share their experiences and present various political strategies, practices, experiences and policies occuring at municipal level accross Europe as a part of broader wave of transformation emmerging accross the Old continent. The backgrounds of the speakers were diverse, from local green councillors to activists and scholars, but they all shared a particular approach to producing change at municipal level. Besides the abundance of individual lectures, which provided very useful insights and generated discussion, there were also local consultations organised on how to use these principles and cases to open room for high quality debate about the future trajectories of urban development in Croatia.
Watch some of the speakers here:
On December 6 in Zagreb’s Kino Grič, in cooperation with the above-mentioned partner organisations, IPE organized a follow-up public debate “Good City for All: A Debate on Transformative Practices in European Cities”. Speakers from Ghent, Rotterdam, Belgrade and Budapest talked about practices that aim to bring more environmental and social justice to their cities, as well as fight increasing inequalities and neoliberal tendencies in their urban environments. The talk was moderated by IPE’s Vedran Horvat.
Michel Bauwens from Peer to Peer Foundation was the first to go, and spoke about his proposed model of transforming Ghent based on some principles of the commons. Bauwens was hired by the city government to offer his vision of dealing with the growing number of urban commons-oriented initiatives, which the city often doesn’t see eye to eye with. From the city’s perspective, these initiatives want support but not control, and friction arises from their differing points of view.
Bauwens’ own perspective was encapsulated in an anecdote from an urban commons example in Ghent. A park that was taken over by the neighborhood is a home to two pigs, which are not allowed to live in the city. Unlike industrial pigs, whose tails are coiled because of the stress, these pigs have tails as long and loose as dogs. For Bauwens, this is symbolic: commons bring life back to the city.
His job was to learn how these initiatives work and what they want, and how the city could develop institutional processes to deal with their proliferation. The first step in his approach was to map all the city initiatives that use a shared resource – be it a park, building or something else – and that are run on the principle of co-governance and co-property. The second step was to conduct interviews with people from these projects. Finally, there were 9 workshops, one for each provisioning system (food, mobility, housing, etc).
Bauwens listed several main findings. Every single domain of provisioning has a commons ecosystem. Their growth is documented and exponential – from 50 initiatives in 2006 to 500 in 2016; a testament of people reacting to market failure by taking matters into their own hands. There is a parallelism between digital commons economy and urban commons economy, demonstrated by their same open policies. People from the city or regional government were involved in the initiatives in some way; there was an engagement of the public sphere in the commons sphere.
The analysis also identified a serious problem – the fragmentation of the commons, where different initiatives don’t cooperate, and sometimes don’t even communicate with each other. What is needed is an assembly of the commons.
Bauwens’ solution proposes a city commons lab (as seen in Bologna and other Italian cities), so citizens can always know who to connect with. The commons accord is the second step, and the third one includes the city as the convener of the commons support coalition, based on the commons accord, and possibly managed by the city commons lab.
Finally, he pointed out two main weaknesses of urban commons: they don’t yet make anything, just redistribute what has been made in private or public ways. Their next step needs to be commoning production. And they do not yet transcend neoliberal logic – they don’t have the means/power to make a change at the structural level.
Ana Džokić and Marc Neelen from Stealth / City in the Making spoke about their Rotterdam housing initiative that has opened a handful of previously boarded up or vacant buildings and restored them for living and working. They started and thrive in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis.
The mortgage crisis of 2010/11 left Rotterdam non-profit housing developers on the verge of collapse. With a part of their real-estate portfolio no longer sustainable, demolition seemed to be the only viable solution, but no money for new construction meant that these buildings became toxic assets for the owners. The best answer was to board them up and wait out the crisis.
City in the Making approached one of these developers to find out how much it would cost to keep the buildings in hibernation for ten years, and the price was 60,000 EUR. They then proposed that the owner transfer them the entire 60,000 at once to take care of the buildings for the next 10 years, all expenses included. Instead of boarding them up, this would open the buildings, make them accessible and allow them to contribute to the city, as a temporary commons for a period of 10 years. They signed the agreement in October 2013.
They now have eight locations and around 45 people living or working there, and the next step is to go beyond their current temporality. Along the way a couple of economic and financial principles have emerged:
1) make each building a self-sustaining entity in economic, social and environmental terms. The base for this is affordable rent for living and working spaces.
2) create a common finance pool for the maintenance of the buildings, but also to expand the network of the buildings.
3) have a minimalist or no-nonsense approach to investments.
4) where possible, replace money with non-monetary alternatives – exchanging income for labor so that rent could stay low.
5) keep financial pressure away from common spaces that perform for the community.
6) set up mutual support structure among inhabitants and users of this buildings, but also include the neighborhood.
Their reasons for developing the project were economic and social self-empowerment, fostering a sustainable and resilient society and establishing a replicable and scalable blueprint. What came out were different forms of living, which don’t fall into the category of nuclear family.
Džokić and Neelan pointed out that the current use of these buildings is training ground for what is yet to come – obtaining permanent buildings that would be made available for affordable housing and work, brought into collective ownership and be largely self-organized/governed, as well as having their own rotating investment fund.
Their idea is to be stubborn, self-reliant and inter-connected. So far, they have been defeated in their bids to buy a building, but they are part of a network of initiatives gaining power, and there is hope in that.
Ksenija Radovanović from Don’t Let Belgrade Drown spoke about the initiative that come together around the Belgrade Waterfront project.
The initiative involves people active in different issues – commons, public resources, privatization – who used their collective power and one big project (Belgrade Waterfront) to take their concerns where politicians will see them – to the streets.
From April to July 2016 there was a protest every two weeks, the biggest one mobilizing 20,000 people. What initially mobilized them was the incident on the 2016 election day, when masked men demolished the street in the Savamala neighborhood and tied up its residents. Police was called and they didn’t respond. For Don’t Let Belgrade Drown this was the opportunity to articulate and explain how such a thing can happen again unless people protest and prevent it.
When working on the project of Belgrade Waterfront, they realized that it’s not just about the huge development project or public money or dispersing responsibility. Belgrade Waterfront was the state in a nutshell. All the various questions that arose from it come down to: “What kind of city do we want to live in? What kind of society?” This doesn’t resonate with people, said Radovanović, but when brought down to the level of neighborhood it becomes tangible.
Don’t Let Belgrade Drown lost the waterfront project fight, but the victory is that people are empowered to react, so something like this can’t happen again. The citizens now react and call them for help, and new fights are taking place in Belgrade. Radovanović pointed out that the city is full of these struggle hotspots, and the idea is to dream about them in another way, together with the citizens.
The final speakers were Annamaria Babos and Petra Horogh who talked about their cohousing initiative Közösségben Élni.
Their initiative’s goal is to establish bottom-up living in Hungary, where people don’t know a lot about co-housing and community living. Közösségben Élni therefore organizes lectures and workshops, and also mentors and supports bottom-up groups. They spoke about their experiences of co-housing and of co-housing principles in general.
The discussion that followed raised several interesting questions, beginning with how to make social housing socially inclusive and available to everyone (not just the middle class), and how make that permanent. Another member of the audience wondered whether Don’t Let Belgrade Drown struggles could be framed as mere political posturing for the upcoming elections they will partake in. Different definitions of commons, roughly divided into struggles and solutions, were discussed next, followed by how we can measure whether commons are effective or not. The evening concluded with a question about what commoning means to the parties in the European Parliament. Who can help us bring it closer to reality?
Report by Lana Pukanić and Vedran Horvat.