The 5th Informed Cities Forum came to me like a…
Which way to the future? This was the question asked by the 4th Informed Cities Forum that was held in Rotterdam from 26th-27th of March. 164 participants from 22 European countries went on an exposure therapy between civil servants, scientists and active citizens.
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Informed cities alongside Rotterdam
Rotterdam is the city of bridges. Five of them connect the different parts of the city with each other. The impressive Erasmus Bridge connects north and south Rotterdam, parts of the city whose people suspiciously stayed away from each other, never even visiting the other side. The Erasmus Bridge, affectionately called “The swan” by nickname-fond Rotterdamers, changed that. Due to the bridge Rotterdam started to become one city.
Similarly, one of my many impressions of the 4th Informed Cities Forum (IFC) organized by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability was that the organizers tried exactly that: Building bridges. The Informed Cities Forum was designed to bring civil servants, local actors, city planners and scientists together to exchange their knowledge and experience in order to develop their cities towards sustainability.
In my first posting about the IFC I want to focus on one aspect that I found brave and innovative about this conference. This time, a strong focus of the program was on actually meeting the citizens and their local initiatives and the question how local administration can work together with these dynamic bottom-up movements.
The exposure therapy part of the forum was the fact that the participants personally went on field trips to some ventures of local initiatives and citizens of Rotterdam, whether they were done with the consent of the local authorities or not. Talking with them instead about them.
The fact, that civil servants and city planners met Rotterdam citizens who grow mushrooms on coffee grounds, transformed vacant parks into community gardens or who squatted run down community centers, renovated them and are running them without public support or funding. In a community centre of Carnisse we visited people whose hearts are beating for the center, their place of voluntary work (more information in Dutch: http://veerkrachtcarnisse.nl/ ).
Or the fact that passionate grassroots advocates like Alexandros Fillipidis actually met equally passionate advocates of transformational change like Ugo Guarnacci from the rather top-down EU Commision in the panel discussion asking “How to move beyond experiments?”. Conference participants from very different fields were coming together, actually meeting and listening to each other.
And surprisingly, many participants from very different backgrounds argued on the same lines: Let’s bring people together, give them trust and responsibility and leave space for failure. But there was also uncertainty on how to go about it.
Project Luchtsingel as an example for urban cooperation
Accordingly, the conference venue was not just any venue and the conference dinner was not your ordinary conference dinner. The forum took place in Hofplein Station, which was the former last stop of the train line between Rotterdam and Scheveningen. The station was finally closed down in August 2010. It was later renovated by the Hofbogen B.V., revived by local entrepreneurs and the railway viaduct was redeveloped into a public green space by the district municipality North. The Framework for this idea was The Highline in New York.
The conference dinner took place just across the bridge… It was held in a rather unusual party-atmosphere in the ground floor of Schieblock.
Schieblock was a former vacant office building in the center of the city which was transformed through a broader initiative called Luchtsingel to reactivate a neglected part of inner city of Rotterdam.
The idea of Luchtsingel is to connect formerly detached buildings and to bring the north area of Rotterdam closer to the city centre. A strikingly yellow wooden bridge transforms the area into an attraction, also because the wooden planks of the bridge have been donated by citizens. A roof top garden called DakAkker, an activities terrain at the Hofbogen and the Park Pompenburg were designed to revive the area. It worked so well, that an installed trampoline has to be rebuilt stronger, due to the masses of enthusiastic children in the park.
The bridge ends after leading through the Schieblock building, which hosts over 70 different companies, galleries, shops, bars and restaurants and is a creative open space usable by many initiatives.
The roof top farm DakAkker is the first rooftop garden mostly run by volunteers to grow vegetables in the Netherlands. It sells its produce at a pop-up shop on the roof itself, at festivals and to the surrounding restaurants, bringing its produce to them by foot using the bridge between them.
Luchtsingel seems to be a good example of transforming a part of the city through cooperation and co-creation between the urban administration, local entrepreneurs and grassroots initiatives.
At the conference dinner the vegetarian food itself was cooked in soup kitchen style and served by volunteers of several initiatives in Schieblock. The participants could later visit the fruits of this cooperative approach with a tour to the rooftop farm and or discuss the re-invent of the city’s future in a forum theatre.
It all made for a very close and non-hierarchical atmosphere. A way of showing people what is actually possible through the cooperation of unlike groups is to go out, see it, talk to the makers and be amazed. And that is exactly what amazed me at the 4th Informed Cities Forum in Rotterdam.
In my next blog post about the conference I want to focus on a few of the tools to actually bridge the gaps presented at the 4th Informed Cities Forum.