Addressing bottom-linked governance and citizenship through Living Street in the City of Ghent

Addressing bottom-linked governance and citizenship through Living Street in the City of Ghent

In 2010 the City of Ghent, together with other four cities – Aberdeen, Rotterdam, Montreuil, Ludwigsburg – engaged in the European project Music, aimed at catalyzing and mainstreaming carbon and energy reduction in urban policies, activities and the build environment. The project represented an opportunity for decisive local actions to address sustainability challenges. In particular, the City of Ghent pointed at becoming a climate-neutral city. To implement the project, the City gathered around twenty people of Ghent society, who were involved or interested in topics such as pollution, sustainability, urban livability, though in different ways and with different roles. After the first meeting the civil servants in charge of conducting the brainstorming within the group realized that the topics mentioned above were not cause of concerns, while mobility and the way through which urban streets get used by their inhabitants were fundamental in the conception of a livable city. Addressing these topics, indeed, the group found the inspiration to think about different possibilities to approach urban space, reducing parking slots and car access to streets, implementing socialization spaces and outdoor activities. Therefore, new ideas and proposals were presented at the final event of Music, with the hope to see them realized, but the reaction of the City and its representatives was cold and doubtful for a lack of resources and for the proximity to municipal elections.

Therefore, the group of frontrunners decided to set up the organization Lab Van Troje, in order to try out one of their proposals using their own resources and their own energies. The chosen idea was Living Street – Leefstraat in Dutch – with the aim to turn Ghent into a sustainable, liveable and climate-neutral region. Concretely this was translated into planning a different way to live the street of residence for few months: the street was closed, usually during the summer months, reducing the area dedicated to the traffic and the parking but increasing the green areas and creating spaces for socialization activities.

Living Street in Maurice Verdoncklaan, Ghent. Source: interviewed resident.

One of the fundamental aspects of Living Street is the voluntary engagement in the project. The first group of frontrunners gathered by the City accepted to meet and to spend time on the issue for free; as well the citizens were involved only if they were interested in the experiment. Lab Van Troje, indeed, never opens applications or contacts anyone, it just receives the request of citizens. The latter, after a first informative meeting, are asked to ring the bell of all their neighbours collecting dreams and fears related to the street, on basis of which a plan is projected and then proposed again to every resident. If everyone agrees, hence, it is possible to organize the activities to create the Living Street. As the website reports, Living Street functions as a common project and a learning-by-doing process. Citizens, indeed, have to communicate, collaborate and interact with many different actors living and experiencing urban spaces daily. Both the implementation of the idea and the concrete realization of the Living Street become processes of commoning[1], as the practice of the creation, preservation, and use of commons is called.

Citizens working for the realization of structures to install in Kozijntjesstraat, Ghent. Source: interviewed resident.

The activity duration of Lab Van Troje has been settled for five years until 2017, hoping in the meantime to spread its insights into Living Street to the current system of residential street design. In total 50 Living Streets have been experimented from 2012 to 2016, with an increasing involvement of the City of Ghent, that acted more as a spectator in the beginning, while it took part into the project as an active partner in the last few editions. Considering the imminent end of Lab Van Troje, in 2017 the latter and the City of Ghent collaborate for the transition of Living Street under the guide of the City. The Meeting and Engaging Department has been appointed to continue building on the experiment by creating a new Living Street 2.0 project. The intention is to try out the experience implemented by Living Street in different environments or situations, by involving partners with diverse roles and functions and focusing also on the social aspects of urban life. One of Lab Van Troje’s volunteers has been hired by the Department, together with another dedicated civil servant, in order to give continuity to the project. Moreover, citizens who already implemented Living Street in their streets are involved in the transition from Lab Van Troje to the City, during a completely accountable process used to explaining them the reasons of the change and to collect by them past experiences of the experiment, suggestions and ideas for the future, and expectations towards the City.

Taking a look at the type of actors involved from the beginning – UE, City of Ghent, Lab Van Troje, research institutes, private companies, citizens – it is notable that the project crossed many different levels, depicting the concept of multi-level governance. In this particular case, I believe it is possible to use the notion of bottom-linked governance, achieved when bottom-up initiatives combine with top-down policies, including alternative mechanisms of negotiation between various groups and networks, potentially empowering local government and embracing alternative creative strategies[2]. I add, though, that the subdivision of society in top-down and bottom-up actors is not sufficient anymore to explain the current complexity and therefore it needs to be substituted by another representation. A complementary and parallel process can be identified in the conception of citizenship: in the last twenty years, debates about the re-scaling of individual rights and duties at transnational[3] or local levels[4] different from the nation-state level, have increasingly arisen; connected with the movement of the right to the city[5], also the vision of citizens claiming actively rights and responsibilities is more acknowledged. However, I argue that neither an idea of citizenship received as a “package” from the State or an idea of citizenship achieved by citizens as consequence of their activation in the making of the city[6] are fully satisfactory. Citizenship is, nowadays, a set of rights/duties co-shaped by different actors, tracing various dynamics at multiple scales to obtain or to concede benefits and responsibilities in the public arena. Thus, it is necessary to find a model that, always maintaining the idea of peer actors, interacting on horizontal basis, with principles of subsidiarity and accountability, in a reflexive and dynamic process, can better help in representing both this type of governance and this perception of citizenship.

 

 

L’articolo riflette su processi di governance urbana e sulle trasformazioni riguardanti il concetto di cittadinanza attraverso il progetto Living Street, implementato dal 2010 ad oggi nella città di Ghent, Belgio. Principale scopo del progetto è trovare soluzioni innovative al fine di rendere la città maggiormente vivibile da un punto di vista socio-ecologico. Dopo aver descritto lo sviluppo del progetto come pratica di commoning, viene sottolineata la necessità di andare oltre sia la ripartizione, ormai inadeguata, tra attori bottom-up e top-down sia l’idea di cittadinanza concessa dallo Stato o ottenuta attivamente dai cittadini. È indispensabile, infatti, trovare un nuovo modello che descriva la complessità attuale delle dinamiche sociali e la diversità degli attori che ne prendono parte.

 

References:

[1] Linebaugh P. 2008, The Magna Carta Manifesto. Liberties and Commons for all, London: University of California Press.

[2] Eizaguirre S, Pradel M., Terrones A., Matinez-Celorrio X., Garcìa M., 2012, Multilevel Governance and Social Cohesion: Bringing Back Conflict in Citizenship Practice, Urban Studies, 49(9), 1999-2016.

[3] Isin, E., 1997, Who is the new citizen? Toward a genealogy, Citizenship Studies, 1, 115–132; Sassen S., 2000, The global city: strategic site/new frontier, in: E. Isin, Ed. Democracy, Citizenship and the Global City, New York: Routledge;

[4] Baubock R., 2003, Reinventing urban citizenship, Citizenship Studies, 7, 139–160; Smith M. P., McQuarrie M. Eds. 2012, Remaking Urban Citizenship. Organizations, Institutions and the Right to the City, London: Transaction Publisher.

[5] Lefebvre H., 1996, Writing on Cities, Cambridge (MA): Blackwell; Harvey D., 2003, The Right to the City, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(4), 939-941; Purcell M., 2003, Citizenship and the Right to the Global City: Reimagining the Capitalist World Order, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(3), 564-590.

[6] Dahlgren P., 2006, Doing Citizenship. The Cultural Origin of Civic Agency in the Public Sphere. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 9(3), 267-286.