The world is becoming more complex on a daily basis. Nowhere is this more apparent than in cities. Citizens are making new demands on urban administrations, above all for the ability to effect bottom-up change and take matters into their own hands. But often cities lack the administrative structures to field these requests, or it’s unclear who the right contact person is. Sometimes the issue could be addressed by several different contact persons in several departments with differing opinions and perspectives – from parks and green spaces to traffic regulation and public safety.
So the opportunity to participate is foiled and the possible innovation is squandered – all for the lack of a proper contact person.
Two cities have taken a different tack, responding to these demands by creating new laws and untertaking administrative restructuring. Both cities created clear points of contact and reduced the barriers to participation significantly, with positive results.
In their book “Building Platforms,” representatives from the ZwischenZeitZentrale in Bremen describe in great deatil how they created a new agency to bring actors from different departments in Bremen’s urban administration together in order to enable temporary uses of vacant buildings. The creation of a new point of contact and the reduction of bureaucracy and hurdles to participation have meant that a plethora of new creative businesses have been able to be started, and a number of vacant buildings and lots have been reactivated.
In Bologna, a senior citizen’s request to install a bench turned into the catalyst for “Collaborare è Bologna,” a regulation passed in 2013 “for the care and regeneration of commons.” There is now a new central point of contact and a simplified participation process. Citizens can propose projects on their own and, if approved, receive mini-grants and the support of the city to implement them.
What can we learn from these examples? Well, the basic principle is: if you want people to participate, and contribute their good and creative ideas to regional growth, then you need to make it easier for them to do so. Create an inter-departmental agency or a central contact point. Create a micro-grant scheme to support grassroots projects. Let people get involved and take responsibility for their city.
This could be particularly informative in peripheral and rural areas with a centralized (state) government. Creating an agency like this, for example for the promotion of creative industries in small and mid-sized cities, combined with a micro-grant scheme and an award for excellence in innovation, would not only remove the pressure from municipal governments, but also catalyze innovation where we need it most – small and mid-sized cities characterized by the downward spiral of demographic change, negative economic development and structural change.
We need to make it easier for citizens to participate in urban development, both in large cities and in rural areas. This will require some restructuring on the part of city and state administrations. But it is critical that we create new opportunities for participation in order to facilitate bottom-up social innovation and regional growth that everyone can benefit from.