Tap into existing community networks

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Tap into Existing Community Networks

❖ “Tapping into synergies with other groups really helped us to kick-off.” ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021)

❖ “It takes a lot of time to connect with other community initiatives. Even with volunteers we need to train them. And, we have to address wider racism as well.” ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021)

General ambition

Both longstanding and emerging initiatives can greatly benefit from connecting to and learning from existing community networks that are working on similar or complementary issues.

Tapping into networks can involve sharing tools, resources, and knowledge about organizational structures and problem-solving amongst initiatives both within and between local communities. Emerging projects especially benefit from networks providing important financial and in-kind support ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). They can gain legitimacy and political and public visibility. Established initiatives, too, have much to gain by sharing their knowledge and resources within communities: they benefit from strengthened networks, get a reputation boost, and may receive additional financial support.

Local networks of community organizations are valuable resources for government authorities and larger-scale initiatives seeking to undertake interventions within a city. They are likely to have better knowledge of local contexts and community connections, and can be good catalysts for innovation and change ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). Furthermore, local networks of civil society actors can offer municipalities an “outward view” of what is happening across the city and help develop stronger relationships for future knowledge exchange and collaboration ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). Building alliances and good relationships between municipalities and civil society groups will balance “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches, and foster more successful and integrated projects in the future ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).


Citizens rescuing and sharing food in Berlin

To develop locally, Foodsharing groups tapped into the resources of the national network. They used the same online platform as well as the same principles and organizational structure. Social resources were also used to gain legitimacy, as Foodsharing is well known in the food sector. This helped regional groups to develop partnerships with food retailers such as supermarkets and possibly to gain support from local actors, such as community centers, as hosts for public fridges (Q13). Moreover, Foodsharing was able to become successfully established in Berlin because there was already a thriving sharing economy in the city (Q26a). Tapping into communities engaged in sharing economies for services, mobility, clothing and other purposes provided Foodsharing with the public engagement it needs. Finally, Foodsharing has been able to extend beyond its organizational network and support initiatives starting up elsewhere. The group YUnity originated from Foodsharing and develops online platforms and tools that enable others to start their own food sharing networks (Q31a).

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Co-creation of a sustainable neighborhood in Freiburg

Housing cooperative networks in Germany inspired, to some extent, proponents of the Vauban Project. Specifically, they benefited from the expertise of the cooperative confederation regarding economy, law and tax policy (Q26b & Q27b).

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Community Land Trust Brussels

The ability of fifteen community associations to self-organize and present a united appeal for establishment of a Land Trust was very important for the intervention’s emergence. Additionally, the project learned from experiences in experiments for alternative affordable housing both within and outside of Brussels (Q26).

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BürgerEnergie Berlin

BEB is supported by a large number of alliances, including cooperatives, ethical banks and renewable energy companies. The cooperative expanded rapidly in both numbers and donations through synergies with networks established by other energy cooperatives and movements in the field of energy and politics. Schönau Cooperative was instrumental in the success of BEB, passing on knowledge and expertise. Furthermore, in order to reach out to people and inform them about the cooperative, BEB worked together with the media, joined a network summit called “NetzGipfel”, and took part in demonstrations and other events to inform people about their initiative and recruit participants.

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Superblocks in Barcelona

The Urban Ecology Agency is led by superblocks visionary Salvador Rueda, and was an important source of expertise in designing and implementing this project (Q15). The City Council also engaged multiple community networks by creating neighborhood working groups to design individual superblocks (Q14), which was critical for gaining public support for the project.

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Some action idea(s), examples, and resources from UrbanA’s "Berlin" Arena (03.21)

❖ Engage with actors on different governance levels, from neighborhood associations up to the local municipality: Activate networks "up, down, laterally".

❖ Develop a proper vision and strategy for learning from others, otherwise learning from other places can be more of a hindrance than a help.

❖ Exchange and learning programs like URBACT promote sustainable urban development, largely through networks: https://urbact.eu/

That is not all! Additional insights from the “Berlin” Arena are included throughout this Enabling Governance Arrangement.

Relation to justice in urban sustainability governance

Tapping into community networks may overcome injustices caused by Weak(ened) civil society, Lack of effective knowledge brokerage and stewardship opportunities, and Unquestioned Neoliberal growth and austerity urbanism.

‘Weak(ened) civil society’ refers to the ways in which self-organised civic groups that share common interests (other than the state, market or family) are either not sufficiently present and effective to influence and benefit from sustainability efforts, or are indeed constrained by government- or business-led interventions with sustainability objectives. Tapping into the resources of existing community networks can reinforce and strengthen local organizations, and help broaden and diversify engagement with sustainability efforts. In addition, forming alliances with other movements can help increase legitimacy and public support, which in turn can help overcome regulatory or political barriers.

‘Lack of effective knowledge brokerage and stewardship opportunities’ refers to the ways in which useful information about sustainable urban interventions is not shared effectively or meaningfully among social groups, sectors or disciplines, which thus constrains the potential for both sustainability and justice. Tapping into the resources of existing community networks includes two-way sharing of information and skills. It allows grassroot groups to stay informed and to learn about sustainable urban interventions, and increases opportunities for them to engage in and benefit from them. Creating spaces and mechanisms for learning to occur can facilitate such connections and improve attention to the variety of local needs, wishes and capacities ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).

‘Unquestioned neoliberal growth and austerity urbanism’ refers to processes of privatization, commercialization, budgetary cuts and state withdrawal from various sectors, and how they can undermine urban sustainability and justice, guided by an ideology of unfettered economic growth that often aligns with austerity policies. Creating alliances with other community networks can provide grassroot initiatives with resources (e.g., human, financial or organizational) to which they otherwise lack access. However, in this context, relying on internal community resources may risk reinforcing the rollback of the state, through delegation of government responsibilities to residents and volunteer-run activities.

Critical reflection

While networking is essential for initiatives with limited scope, developing partnerships itself can be resource-intensive. Challenges can also arise between groups with different identities if they are not sensitive to one another. The time, skills and effort needed for meaningful collaboration and open communication can also be a constraint for organizations with limited means ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). Furthermore, connecting closely to already existing initiatives may deprive emerging initiatives of their distinctive and innovative characters or limit their appeal to particular social groups. In addition, it cannot be assumed that initiatives are willing to share their information or distinctive expertise if they perceive others as potential “competitors” (for public funding, participants, etc.). Furthermore, since many initiatives for sustainable and just cities are unique “trailblazers”, the relevance and value of advice from other community groups may be limited. Much learning still has to take place in the context of the initiative itself.

There is also a risk that strong community networks operating in a certain domain (food, housing, etc.) alleviate, and unwittingly enable, state deficiencies. In as far as they replace the state’s responsibility to organize provision, such initiatives may be instrumentalized in line with neoliberal logic by compensating for or even fostering roll-back of the state.


Inner-city community energy in London

As a pioneer organization, Repowering offers professional services such as legal, structural, financial, and marketing aid to other upcoming community energy projects. However, there is an ongoing internal debate regarding what information Repowering is willing to share freely and what they maintain as exclusive expertise that should be protected (Q32). Furthermore, Repowering had access to limited external expertise in the sector from which to draw, and therefore had to learn through their own process of innovation: “It wasn't like we got an answer from other people and they helped us out. It was the other way around. We trail-blazed the whole sector" (Interview with practitioner) (Q26).

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Covid-19 connection

In the context of the pandemic, some public institutions supported various economic sectors but did not provide adequate assistance to many social sectors. Civil-society organizations have complemented deficiencies in public social assistance, especially in the sector of food and housing by providing meals or temporary housing for those in need. Tapping into resources of existing community networks provides such emerging local initiatives with ‘internal’ resources (i.e. internal to the community) that the public sector is unable to offer. This support allows community groups to survive and pursue sustainability and justice goals within cities in situations of selective governmental intervention.