Trusting civil society and residents to co-shape regeneration projects in deprived neighborhoods

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Imagine a city where residents of moderate means can fully enjoy the neighborhood they are living, collectively engaging in community projects that strengthen social relations and improve urban infrastructure.

In this case, persistent social problems related to health, living conditions and education are likely to have been identified early on by local residents, social workers as well as municipal actors. But what can be done to address poverty and lack of equity? A response may be initiated by civil society organizations. Especially those already engaged in local community projects and who are familiar with the context may call on municipal support to address these issues. Consequently, an urban regeneration project may be conceptualized by the civil society organizations and supported by the municipality. The good cooperation and a common interest between those two bodies would be crucial.

The project is especially likely to be facilitated if it aligns with municipal orientations. Indeed, to counter decreasing public subsidies for social intervention, local public authorities tend to rely on the engagement of local dwellers to conduct urban regeneration projects. In such a set up, much freedom is likely to be granted by the municipality to local project proponents which could trigger the experimentation of innovative participatory tools and methods. It may include workshops enabling residents to collectively envision a desired neighborhood, reflect and discuss on options and learn about self-organization. Next to these deliberative settings, citizens could be invited to engage in hands-on activities e.g. in the community center or shared garden, which may be very inclusive.

However, such an innovative intervention might face obstacles as it emerges. For instance, changes in institutional and political settings e.g. dismantlement of previous social and welfare structures or budget cuts may generate ambiguity and insecurity about the project development. In this context, project proponents may be confronted with mistrust and scepticism, for instance, about the participatory process and its outcomes. Whereas previous regeneration projects implemented in disregard of the local community may have undermined the residents’ trust in such interventions, changing and new municipal actors could be suspicious about the effective outcomes of participatory methods.

To keep out of institutional turbulences, project proponents could decide to operate quite autonomously, at risk of loosening relationships with institutional actors. Other obstacles may be overcome by means of the institutional work done by the project proponents, including a better understanding of the local history, context and dynamics as well as the creation of trust among different actors. When successfully developed, such an intervention should enhance community building, empower citizens as well as establish new relationships based on cooperation and mutual trust between citizens, community-organizations and public actors.

These governance arrangements being successfully developed and experimented by the project proponents, including the municipality, could be replicated in other neighborhoods. Eventually, this may be the basis for a new participatory and inclusive approach to local urban governance.

Do you want to learn more about this scenario?

Take a look at the detailed description of Regeneration of a deprived neighborhood in Rotterdam that has inspired this scenario.

This scenario fits under the approach:

  • Experimentation labs. This approach refers to place-based social experiments that test ideas, methods and technologies from different domains in order to better address specific (and complex) urban challenges in a contextualised manner.

It addresses some drivers of injustice:

  • Exclusive access to the benefits of sustainability infrastructure. This driver refers to the ways in which territory, identity, education, knowledge, and information are used to draw lines, privileges, and hierarchies between social groups, and especially to how this leads to an uneven distribution of benefits from urban sustainability efforts.
  • Material and livelihood inequalities. This driver refers to the ways that the underlying distribution of economic resources gets expressed within urban sustainability efforts, reinforcing or exacerbating unjust outcomes.
  • Uneven and exclusionary urban intensification and regeneration. This driver refers to the ways in which new urban developments might force trade-offs between the social and environmental goals of urban sustainability projects. It involves public efforts to improve a neighbourhood’s physical structure and boost its economy by attracting investment, usually in the sectors of real estate and tourism.
  • Limited citizen participation in urban planning. This driver refers to the limited involvement and engagement of citizens and citizens’ initiatives in decision-making around the planning, design, implementation and/or evaluation of urban sustainability-oriented interventions.
  • Lack of effective knowledge brokerage and stewardship opportunities. This driver refers to the ways in which (access to) useful information and know-how around sustainable urban interventions and their benefits is not shared effectively or equally among disciplines, sectors or social groups, and thus constrain the potential for both sustainability and justice.
  • Weak(ened) civil society. This driver refers to the ways in which collective civic groups that share common interests (other than the state, the market, or the family) are either not constituted and impactfulenough to influence and benefit from sustainability efforts or are indeed constrained by interventions that carry sustainability objectives.