REFILL Political Meeting Athens

Political representatives from the REFILL partner cities met in Athens on Februari 26 to discuss the concept of temporary use of vacancy and its future impact in our cities.

The URBACT-methodology is all about creating synergies between the golden triangle of city administration, civil society and political representatives. Only when those 3 parties put their shoulders under the implementation of the Integrated Action Plans that every city is designing, these can have real impact.

Therefore, the REFILL-network was keen to organize a political session to involve the last group of this triangle to participate in a network meeting. Seven out of ten cities sent a political representative to Athens for a political debate where they could exchange with their colleagues on how to engage citizens and bottom-up initiatives through the participative practice of temporary use. They exchanged also on how as political representatives they can support this process.

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Amalia Zepou, Deputy Mayor for Civil Society and Innovation of the hosting city, welcomed the network and revealed some interesting projects that introduced new way of policy making for Athens. She sketched an image of the city with over 1.000 empty buildings. A problem that increased heavily due to the country’s economic and financial crisis. The Synathina digital platform however maps out more than 270 community groups, trying to interlink them. It was the starting point for the first temporary use project in the city, called ‘Traces of Commerce’. In this empty arcade a business incubator was tested out for several periods. The City was enthusiastic about this approach and decided to take it a step further and launched an open call for the revitalization of the abandoned Kypseli Market. The bid was won by a dynamic organization, Impact Hub, that developed a collaborative management structure to run the place and fill it with a mix of young entrepreneurs, cultural and educational actors and an administrative one stop shop.

Next was an inspirational speech from Daniel Termont, mayor of the Lead Partner’s city of Ghent. Policy proposals to overcome complex urban challenges, are no longer invented in the City Hall alone. The future is to the cities who co-create these solutions with their citizens. This requires an organizational shift for city administrations, requiring from civil servants to adopt a more facilitating and enabling role towards civic initiative takers. Not only does this mean to question legal frameworks, it also means that the city administration doesn’t always have to decide or act for the citizens. Citizens themselves should come with proposals and politicians and city administration can facilitate.

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In the political debate, the other cities joined, represented by their Deputy Mayors in charge of (aspects of) temporary use. The central question being: how can you as a politician lever on the city policy in order to facilitate and stimulate temporary use and other forms of co-creation with citizens and bottom up initiatives?

The debate pointed out the similarities between cities: citizens reclaiming their position in the process of city making. The willingness of citizens to participate, but also the search of cities on how to deal with that. On the other hand, there was a variety of strategies present around the table. The City of Bremen has an agency for temporary use, the ZZZ. The city of Ghent works with a Fund for Temporary Use, while the city of Helsinki experiments with digitalisation to disclose underused spaces through systems of smart locks.

The politicians praised that REFILL is fighting a problem – i.e.  vacancy – and turning it into a solution – i.e. temporary use. It was even mentioned that in some contexts of influx of migrants, high unemployment, huge vacancy, temporary use is not only fun to do, but a necessity. They even recognized the seeds for inventing new forms of democracy and policy participation in the collaborative practice of temporary use.

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All political representatives agreed that it was worthwhile to invest in temporary use and the networks it creates, for several reasons. It’s not enough anymore to inform or consult citizens. Citizens want to act. And that is exactly the opportunity temporary use offers them. In doing so, they enhance social cohesion in the neighborhood. But since these temporary places are often a breading place for experimentation, it is also where social innovation occurs.  Not to forget the chances it gives to new forms of economic activities. Even though difficult situations can occur once the permanent development takes over the place of the temporary, the added value it creates remains high.

And last but not least, several politicians stressed the importance but also the potential to engage vulnerable groups in temporary use. They are not always the loudest and therefore often missed in partipation and consultation processes. Therefore, since temporary use is  a very hands on form of participation and co-creation, it is an ideal opportunity to engage people from migrant and refugee communities, youngsters, elderly,…

 

On the header picture, from left to right: Kateřina Šebestová, Deputy Mayor of Ostrava for Environment and IT projects and services;  Amalia Zepou, Vice Mayor of Athens for Civil Society and Innovation; Joachim Lohse, Senator of Bremen for the Environment, Urban Development and Mobility; François Jégou, REFILL Lead Expert; Daniel Termont, Mayor of Ghent; Hans Buijtelaar, Vice Mayor of Amersfoort for Real Estate, Mobility and Finance; Nasima Razmyar, Deputy Mayor of Helsinki for Culture and Leisure; Bassem Asseh, Vice mayor of Nantes for Civic Engagement; Ovidiu Cimpean, Director of the Local Development and Project management division of Cluj-Napoca, representing Mayor Emil Boc; Agnieszka Osipiuk, Project Coordination and Urban Regeneration Office of Poznan representing Mr Mariusz Wisniewski, deputy Mayor of City Development and Real Estate.

 

Article written by Ariana Tabaku (City of Ghent – Belgium)

 

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