Between the 27th and the 30th of May 2016, the Pakhuis de Zwijger foundation, in the Netherlands, promoted the meeting of more than 600 activists, coming from the four corners of Europe. Because they are normally involved in democratization actions of the cities, as spaces of inclusion, prosperity and resilience, they are called as the “City Makers”. It was during the “City Makers Summit” that they met, to talk about the main problems of their cities, and the practices that they have been developing, in order to solve them.
Visit to the centre of Zaanstad, which was complete renovated in the last 5 years, looking to offer more inclusion, functionality and visual beauty.
This Summit had two main goals. The first one was to provide field trips to participants to Dutch local based projects or initiatives, with actions developed in urban context, regarding the improvement of the cities and their people’s lives. The visits have taken place in Amsterdam, and also in other Dutch cities. They clearly reflected the work that Pakhuis de Zwijger has been developing in the past years, which has been to create networking among such initiatives, first in Amsterdam, then across the Netherlands, and, in the last year, throughout Europe. The second goal of the Summit was to prepare the City Makers Agenda, a document developed by the foundation, and for which have served the contents, ideas and conclusions produced by the numerous debates, round tables and seminars of the Summit. Starting from the experience of the City Makers, the aim of Pakhuis de Zwijger is to develop a document focused on the various problems that we now live in urban areas, such as the problems of affordable housing, the inclusion of refugees and migrants, the urban poverty and air quality – regarding its presentation to the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, that during 2016 is, among others, in Amsterdam. The idea is, through this document, to carry out a lobbying activity, looking to directly interfere in decisions present in the European Union Urban Agenda.
Through an ambitious schedule, the Summit involved participants from all social spectrums: activists, governmental leaders and entrepreneurs, who were able to talk about the interests that unite them, as well as the differences that separate them. Learning from others’ experiences, questioning, reflecting, drawing conclusions. It was a debate made by many voices, different in language but also in the expressed convictions. In fact, this Summit reflected very well the existing diversity in the European Union, which lately has brought more conflicts than consensus. What Pakhuis de Zwijger did was to help in the production of consensus.
Debate about Unconditional Basic Income, with the participation of Frans Kerver and Sjir Hoeijmakers.
Cities of Democracy
Almost unanimous was, however, the opinion of those who were at the round table, held on the third day of the Summit, under the theme of Urban Poverty. They argued that the EU financial funds are not being effective in fighting and eradicating this problem. Urban poverty is a relatively new form of poverty, and, in Europe, this is a very recent phenomenon. In the past, people came to the city to escape from the poverty of the countryside. The cities, unlike rural areas, were places of opportunities, where many people looked for better living conditions and more promising futures. However, with the increase of the unemployment rates in cities, urban poverty becomes a more frequent and serious problem. If in a rural context there are usually informal social support networks that help those who are socially vulnerable, preventing them to go hungry or to sleep on the streets, in the cities, where individualism reigns and social networks fail, the problem of poverty gains a greater severity, bringing increasingly tragic consequences – for those who suffer from poverty, but also for society in general.
This round table, which took place in Fab City, was attended by activists from various European civil society organizations, as well as representatives of some Member States governments, journalists, etc. The Citizenship Academy was also there, represented by Joana Dias. It was her who opened the debate with a speech that denounced the ineffectiveness of EU funding programs to combat urban poverty:
- For the complexity of the applications, the level of bureaucracy and language, inaccessible to most ordinary citizens;
- For the lack of spreading information about these programs in civil society and in particular among local based initiatives;
- For the lack of coverage of financing – these only cover the expenses inherent to projects, not funding the associations that promote them, such as costs with the headquarters, staff salaries, etc.;
- For its unsustainability – urban poverty is the result of structural problems that are not solved through one year, or year and a half, projects, which is usually the duration of the available funding;
- For only financing theoretical solutions, at the expense of real action – the money goes mostly to pay experts meetings (the higher expenses of projects funded by the EU are linked to air travel, hotels and restaurants!), and rarely is enough to promote actions on the field.
Round table about Urban Poverty, moderate by Iván Tosics.
After this, more problems have been pointed out by others, namely that there is no homogeneity at an European level in access to financing funds, being the eligibility criteria different from state to state, promoting many times illegalities and injustices. The result of this fact is that a lot of money goes for a few and little money goes for many.
Thus, the majority of those who were present agreed on the need to carry out structural and methodological changes in the functioning of EU funds. It should be asked “what to be fund?” and, from there, to direct the funds to respond to social problems which we live. They should be more accessible to all citizens, providing greater financial security. They should also become more flexible and organic, looking every moment to adjust to the existing realities in each region of Europe, responding to real needs that each Member State has. And they should finance real actions, not only theoretical solutions. Several voices defended the need for greater control by citizens, about how European funds are used by Member States. A public scrutiny to ensure that the money goes to those in need.
We now hope that these and other interventions made during the meetings, round tables and debates that took place during this Summit, will be included in the City Makers Urban Agenda. A first version of the document has already been presented at the informal ministerial conference for the EU Urban Agenda, last May 30th. There were commissioners, presidents, ministers and other European institutions. The document was accepted by the hands of the ministers responsible for urban affairs of the 28 member states of the European Union.
Although aware of the more symbolic than real character of this delivery, we hope that it has, in a near future, a real reflection on urban policies developed by the European Union. It is urgent that the European institutions show that they are truly on the side of the citizens. That the policies that they develop really serve to improve people’s lives, creating more opportunities, inclusion, environmental sustainability, equality. In order to let us change directions of a path that we consider negative, a way where are included measures such as austerity and blind cuts in the areas of health or education, or the lack of solidarity for the refugees arrived in Europe, or the existing inequality in the fiscal and financial treatment among Member States, a path that, on the contrary, is giving strength to anti-Europe radical and extremist movements. In order let us redirected Europe to a path of justice, equal opportunities, ethnic, religious, cultural diversity, freedom of expression. In order to let us make an Europe of democracy.
@Pakhuis de Zwijger