Recently, a municipality in the state of Berlin invited residents to choose the trees they would like to see planted in their street, as part of a new tree planting programme. The meeting took place in a neighborhood cafe that gave them space; residents were presented with three options with trees suitable for the location, and after an introduction by experts about the pros and cons of each option, citizens discussed and voted. This is a simple example of a relatively clear question with no particular controversies or rivalries. Nevertheless, the main questions that should concern us when it comes to citizen participation are already visible here. Some of them are practical and others relate to more theoretical and methodological issues:
“For me, the first step should be the provision of accurate, accessible, and continuous information – not advertising.”
First, citizens were asked to choose in the last phase of the process, after the decision at a higher level to place trees in this street. Alternatively, the residents of the street could have been asked whether they wanted trees in the first place or maybe something totally different, such as benches or a playground. In a similar way, all residents of the municipality could have been asked if they prefer trees on that particular street or somewhere else. The municipality, however, had already decided, based on wider environmental planning, that trees on that street were important for the climate of the whole area. This raises two questions: (a) At what stage of the decision-making process do we include participation? (b) At what scale does it take place and how does it fit into a wider plan that does not only concern that specific microspace?
More than six weeks have passed since WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. While we are all trying to cope with our everyday lives, some in more critical conditions than others, there are already discussions about how we shall live together “the day after” – in particular conversations about the future of public space. I would like to share some thoughts here, in the form of questions and work hypotheses, that may help us move forward with the debate. Let me start with three propositions about how to think about public space and we can take it from there:
(1) The way I understand public space here, is as space where chance encounters with the ‘unknown other’ is possible. Let me explain: You do not expect to see an uninvited stranger in your private space (and if you do, you’d be alarmed), but you take it for granted that you will bump into strangers in streets, squares, and parks – but also in pubs, shops or buses. Indeed, following Simmel, that could even be the constitutive element of urbanity. Public space, in this particular understanding, is less about property and access rights, but rather space that has the potential to confront us with people we do not know – not by design, but by chance. Today, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic (it is true for other epidemics, too) it is precisely this chance encounter with the potentially contaminated other, that is perceived as a threat. And this could be a threat to urbanity.
As has been my habit in the past weeks of semi-seclusion, I went running again in the park today. I am lucky enough to be living in a city, Berlin, where getting on a bicycle and going to the next park is not a luxury, but part of people’s everyday life. I was shocked to find out that in other cities where green in the city centre comes at a premium, such as Paris or my home city, Athens, the authorities decided to close down public gardens and parks, adding a further burden to people’s confinement. Now, I don’t pretend to know anything about public health, so it is not possible for me to judge the decision on such grounds. I do wonder, however, whether controlling the use of public spaces, making sure for example that people don’t gather in groups, wouldn’t have been a more sensible measure, in terms of both mental and physical health. Indeed, urban green in the 20th century was planned having people’s health in mind (s. blog posts about epidemics and the history of urban planning in the 19th and 20th century here for part 1 and here for part 2).
Berlin is in a very privileged position with about 41% of its total surface green (forests, urban green and agriculture) and water. The city has 2,500 designated green areas, comprehensive landscape and biodiversity plans, and a recently adopted “Charter for Urban Green” – all contributing to a high quality of life for the city’s residents. The protection, maintenance and further development of the urban green is responsibility of the twelve boroughs and the city-state administration (Senatsverwaltung für Umwelt, Verkehr und Klimaschutz or Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection).
This is the second and last part of the blog post on the epidemics behind urban planning, Part 1 examined the origins of urban planning in the 19th century, and how the fear of epidemics and the social unrest which would ensue from them, shaped cities in Western Europe and North America. You can read Part 1 following this link.
By the early twentieth century, housing conditions for people of the working classes had once again become appalling in most cities of the industrialized north. In 1902 the Dutch government decided to pass a housing act containing several provisions to address this crisis. Among others, city authorities were to develop building codes setting quality standards for construction, while cities with over 10,000 inhabitants were to develop an expansion plan indicating different housing zones. In terms of housing provision, the act gave municipalities the right to provide financial support to non-for-profit housing associations that worked in the field of public housing. Following the act, Amsterdam’s social-democratic government commissioned the architect Hendrik Berlage with the design for an expansion plan of Amsterdam’s South (Amsterdam Zuid) and provided subsidies to housing associations even into World War I, when private construction had come to a halt. The plan for Amsterdam Zuid is for a city where green permeates everything, the vast courtyards, the streets and squares. Housing and retail are largely separated and – underpinning the form – there is a political conviction that even lower classes deserve adequate, affordable housing and the role of the state is to provide it.
In 1862 in Berlin, the building
engineer James Hobrecht undertook the design of a ‘development plan for
Berlin’s surroundings,’ today known simply as the ‘Hobrecht Plan’. Hobrecht was
part of a broader Berlin movement, which, starting in the mid-nineteenth century
and following several epidemics of cholera, believed in the role of central planning
in sustaining and improving public health. Politicians such as medical doctor Rudolf
Virchow (1821–1902) considered contemporary sewerage, like that already seen in
parts of England, to be indispensable for the improvement of public health in
the capital. Whereas Hobrecht is mostly remembered for the 1862 Berlin
development plan, undoubtedly one of his major contributions is the
modernization of the sewerage system.
The ‘Hobrecht Plan’ provided the
outline for the development of a big part of Berlin and it is still visible
today in large areas of the inner city. It was the first complete street plan
for an expansion of the built-up area inside the municipal borders, with the
main goal to provide a street pattern for predominantly agricultural areas
around the existing city that were to be designated for construction, providing
housing for Berlin’s exploding population.
Collecting, analysing and sharing Best Practices, i.e. examples of projects, policies, cases, etc. that have worked out in one place and could be applied to others, is a very common practice in Place Management. It is argued that people and organizations in one place can learn from the experiences of their counterparts in another and that, after considering their adaptability, can apply similar techniques in their own context. This seems like a reasonable assumption: while we mostly learn from our own experiences, and psychologists have demonstrated the validity of this argument, we do take into consideration what other people have experienced elsewhere, albeit marginally.
When Eleusis, a small industrial town in the vicinity of Athens, was appointed European Capital of Culture for 2021, people received the decision both with joy and surprise: Joy, because this town, once one of the most important ritual sites in ancient Greece and home to the goddess Demeter, was back on the map; Surprise, because industrialization has clearly left its mark on the town, whose landscape is marked by factory chimneys, large industrial complexes and a commercial harbour. However, the choice of the European Commission is not based on what the city is, but on what it can become according to the bid book. And it was the bid, with its promise of a “passage to EUphoria” that managed to convince the jury.
In this blog article I explore the opportunities of creating an institutional framework for citizen participation in the new public company Athens Urban Renewal SA.
The consequences of eight years of austerity can be seen everywhere in Athens. The past years have left deep scars in the fabric of the Greek capital: unemployment and homelessness, poverty and public disinvestment, growing social rifts and street riots – paired with a threatening growth of extreme right-wing ideology permeating many aspects of public life (e.g. media, police, justice, church – even schools). At the same time, the number of tourists visiting the capital has risen exponentially, creating tensions in the housing market, as more and more flats turn into holiday rentals, making prices soar. While the art scene is flourishing, youth unemployment remains above 40%. Abandoned buildings and deteriorating public space on the one hand; AirBnBs, vibrant street life, cafés and entertainment venues on the other. I can’t remember Athens so fascinating and so depressing at the same time.
The Municipality of Athens has undertaken a series of measures to tackle those issues, including the renewal of central neighbourhoods and the rehabilitation of municipal buildings among others (s. Vaiou 2018 for a critical assessment of the reuse of the former municipal market). Additionally, a new public organization with the telling name of AthensUrban Renewal S.A. (Athens Anaplasis SA.) was founded, complementing the actions of the Municipality. I was asked by its President, Prof Nikos Belavilas, to join the advisory scientific committee of this new state agent, an invitation which I gladly accepted, as I see here the opportunity to institutionalize citizen participation in urban development. Continue reading “Principles of citizen participation in urban development in Athens”→
Forest fires devastate large areas on the Mediterranean every year, some of them – such as the 2018 fire in Mati, Greece which cost 100 people their lives – with numerous casualties. These are places, built over decades or centuries, where people live the year round, with or without visitors. It is with growing horror that I read – year after year – media outlets referring to these places as “holiday islands” (or “Ferieninsel” in German). Admittedly, for many Brits and Germans, this is what most of these islands are, and the local population is just a folklore backdrop for their holiday spending. But, even if we see it just from the journalist’s viewpoint: what exactly would the article (s. screenshot above) miss in terms of information if its title were “Wildfires hit Greek island” omitting the attribute “holiday”? Continue reading “Places – not Destinations”→
The Treacle Market takes place on the last Sunday of each month in the Cheshire town of Macclesfield, UK. Over 160 stalls sell local delicacies, vintage clothes, antiques and handicrafts. The streets of Macclesfield bustle with life, attracting people from towns and villages in the area. However, this regionally important event recently received a serious blow: in April 2018 the partly subsided bus services in Cheshire East – run by Arriva, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn (German Rail), the latter property of the German state – were reorganized, with the result that villages were left without connecting buses on week-day evenings and all day on Sunday.
“As IPM research has shown, accessibility is the number 1 factor affecting town centre vitality and viability. For many communities, the local bus service is imperative. Especially for people with mobility issues. What may be considered as edge of town to someone who is able-bodied is not walkable for others.”