Cities, actors of change

Emmanuel Moulin

By Emmanuel Moulin, on August 10th, 2017

> Read Emmanuel Moulin's articles

URBACT’s Emmanuel Moulin takes us on a trip to the Brussels of the future in this article first published as part of a collection for his former doctorate supervisor Prof Dr. Klaus Kunzmann. As a 75th birthday tribute to Kunzmann, who 20 years ago identified five key challenges for spatial development and planning in Europe, a special issue of ‘disP – the Planning Review’ was dedicated to the challenges facing Europe 10-20 years from now. One of these five key challenges is “the further development of the concept of the multi-cultural society in European cities, and socially acceptable management of spatial implications of immigration”

It’s 2030 and we are in Brussels; it’s early afternoon and Béroukhia Seidha finishes her mint soda, firmly seated in her chair which is facing the uncharacteristically radiant sun. Is she aware of the progress made since the beginning of the millennium to anchor democracy in her city?

BrusselsThere are 30 others like her who enjoy the charm of this planted courtyard surrounded by old industrial buildings that were renovated 20 years ago to house the services and activities that breathed new life into the neighbourhood.

Today is the monthly meeting of the district council; she was picked to take part two years ago and is now at the halfway point of the term. Today’s agenda is extensive and the discussions will be lively; she keeps thinking about the service exchange project that she submitted to the council 3 months ago and is preparing her arguments.

This project is one that is close to her heart; it will affect all the residents of the neighbourhood but also small companies and the co-working spaces which abound in the area next to the businesses, housing and small vegetable gardens, which muscle in on formerly neglected spaces.

The needs are huge for the elderly who live in the many multigenerational buildings in the area, for helping climate migrants who have been regularly pouring in for 15 years, for childcare, for certain business services, etc.

All the areas of the city now have a participatory budget; it is a procedure that has been established for many years and used in most European cities. Residents of the neighbourhood have chosen this service exchange project as one of their priorities in their annual vote and she will have to make the case for it this afternoon.

This civic engagement costs her a great deal of energy but she feels so recognised today – an immigrant, the daughter of an immigrant.

Through universal minimum income, introduced 3 years ago in 2027, Béroukhia Seidha can now have a decent life with her two children, and, although of course she has to be careful, she can live without the constant feeling of trying to survive. She has seen changes around her; her nephew, a gifted boy, finally decided to enter into higher education, something he would never have done without this right. In recent years, the rapid disappearance of market sector jobs due to automation and digitalisation has rendered the situation untenable; fortunately, after lengthy negotiations, the States of the European Union managed to reach an agreement on this universal minimum income.

How did we get to this point?

A couple of decades ago Europe was just beginning to recover from the financial crisis of 2008 and all that went with it: the poverty, massive youth unemployment and other new dangers were on the doorstep with the influx of migrants, the digital transformation of society, etc.

VolunteerFaced with these challenges, the cities of Europe have gradually begun to understand that they must reinvent their course of action; faced with the weakness of representative democracy, particularly amongst young people in deprived neighbourhoods, they had to develop and implement their policies in a different way.

While Europe was beginning to drift toward a securitarian and nationalist populism, we saw initiatives intended to rebuild a relationship of trust with local entities and citizens. Elected officials and city administrators understood that they needed to reinvent their role, moving from a command and control role to that of a facilitator, enabling the co-construction of policies.

This transformation was slow at first. However, initiatives have appeared here and there; beyond the participatory budgets that have begun to emerge, a few cities have resolutely committed themselves to building a new agreement with their local entities and inhabitants.

The city of Amersfoort (Netherlands) launched the slogan “allow to do”, based on trust and funding of inhabitants’ initiatives to improve their neighbourhood; municipal employees were encouraged to leave their offices to act as the team leaders of these groups of inhabitants. The mayor referred to them as “free-range civil servants” (volunteer officials).

The city of Ghent (Belgium) made a habit of bringing together more than a hundred local initiatives each year for them to exchange directly with various municipal departments in a large social innovation “market”.

In 2014, the city of Turin implemented a social innovation platform for young people to get together with organisations and entities wanting to integrate their services and listen to their needs more attentively.

Collaborative digital tools began to be used by municipalities in their relationships with residents in order to co-develop and sometimes co-decide their services with them.

The city of Melbourne has already experimented with an ambitious approach whereby 45 panellists drawn according to their age, sex, profession, etc. were selected. Advised by the municipal experts, they identified 11 recommendations for the city’s ten-year development plan, 10 of which were taken up by the city council at its meeting on 30th June 2015.

These exceptional initiatives at the time were gradually shared and circulated in Europe, particularly through the URBACT programme, which has since become a key resource centre for cities and local entities in Europe. Rather unbeknown to decision-makers at the time, since the beginning of the 2000s this programme had already been promoting an integrated and participatory approach to urban development by city networking and learning by doing according to the phrase “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.[1]

ParticipationThis radical horizontality in preparing and implementing decisions has become more common. The reinvention of a true local democracy in cities has gradually changed a Europe which was drifting away; little by little it gave free rein to aspirations of a society that is united, friendly and responsible towards future generations.

New leaders gradually took the lead in cities and then in higher levels of government. The European states understood that, despite pressure from financial interests that had nearly destroyed them, they only had to give the necessary frameworks for action and protection.

The afternoon of this spring day in 2030 comes to an end. A fresh wind picked up as if Brussels has the secret; members of the district council gradually left the court. Béroukhia Seidha isn’t sure if she is shivering with cold or joy, she is so proud! After lively debates, the service exchange project has been unanimously accepted and will be funded and she will have to change some aspects of its proposal with the help of the municipal services. Furthermore, she was appointed to represent the city in the European alliance of participatory funds. This is no small matter; these funds now account for a significant proportion of public investments and the governments are eagerly awaiting the alliance’s annual accounts, as are the lobbies who rush to attend the debates.

This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in disP – the Planning Review on 26 June 2017, available online.

Find more about Klaus Kunzmann and his work here.


[1]  Jerry Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems

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