How do we reconnect with one another as we venture into the new normal? This question is currently being posed by people across our continent, as well as by national and EU level governments.
For cities, which have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, much groundwork has already been laid. I’m not talking so much about how we re-forge social connections, but, rather, how we engage with and listen to one another.
Last month, European lawmakers decided that the ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’, which was supposed to get its first run out on Europe Day (9 May), should go ahead, just as soon as they figured out when events can start being held.
The idea – a grand debate with citizens across the EU, to shine a light on people’s voices, share new ideas, and find a possible new common ground for Europe – has many parallels with existing examples of citizen engagement from the local level.
In fact, over the past several years, there has been a growing movement for and recognition by city governments of the need to include people much more in decision making processes.
The new ‘Eurocities principles on citizen engagement’ prepared by our Working Group on Creative Citizenship, encapsulate many of these ideas, which are being tested and shared by cities across Europe.
EU can learn from cities
Firstly, by working with and for city governments, we recognise how greater public participation in governance can strengthen representative democracy.
That’s why the city of Nantes, for example, has held three great public debates on topics that are at the heart of citizens’ concerns, such as the energy transition or considering the valuable place of senior citizens in society.
The idea for these debates, which propelled the city to being crowned European Capital of Innovation, has always been to mobilise as many people, associations, companies and others as possible to engage in a comprehensive debate, come up with and test out new ideas. Each has resulted in a set of citizens’ recommendations being presented for consideration to the city. For example, an ‘office of the Earth’, which will fund 500 projects by 2025, or a recommendation that residents should not be more than 300 metres’ walk from the nearest green area, be it a public garden, park, forest, watercourse etc. and that nature in the city should become a top priority.
Secondly, many cities such as Madrid are taking steps to ensure that public policy is a shared endeavour between city governments, citizens, civil society and other local actors.
The Decide Madrid online portal gives local residents the power to decide how to shape the city they live in, and has led to green-lighting ideas such as turning plastic waste into fresh asphalt for the city’s roads; reducing fossil-fuel consumption and energy bills by installing photovoltaic panels on public buildings; and making space to park bicycles outside school doors.
Thirdly, cities like Athens have already taken huge leaps in recognising that citizens are often, the best placed to propose solutions to challenges in their everyday lives.
SynAthina is a common space that brings together, supports and facilitates citizens’ groups engaged in improving the quality of life in the city. By coordinating the invaluable resource of citizens’ groups, the city of Athens actively listens to the needs of its people and is thus revitalised.
Concrete impacts of the project have included programmes to reduce the risk of marginalisation faced by refugees through, for example, offering Greek language classes or non-formal education to prepare children for Greek schools; a mobile unit for homeless people to be able to wash their clothes; and offering free support to young people who want to start a social enterprise, through things like consulting and support services.
Fourthly, an essential component of working with citizens in this way is to do with rebuilding people’s trust in political processes, which are all too often shattered due to a lack of clear and obvious results. And, as is the case in all our cities, this necessitates clear communication and feedback on why and how certain policy ideas are selected, while others are shelved.
Participatory budgets, such as practiced in Lausanne, confer a part of the city coffers to develop projects proposed by local residents. For example the city’s new ‘object library’ where residents can get things they want to use once without having to buy them.
Lastly, getting citizen engagement right means being willing not only to experiment, but to take on board learning, both from within your own city limits but also from other cities, and to invest in organisational, administrative and political innovation. In Braga, the recently opened Human Power Hub, was inspired by social innovation happening in other cities. It asks people to identify social problems that are affecting society and empowers them to think about different solutions and build start-ups with a social impact to solve those problems.
There is so much going on in cities, and with the Conference on the Future of Europe soon to get underway, there is much the EU could take from the best practice of cities in working with people towards a new European localism.
Read our principles on citizen engagement here: 2020_Principles_on_citizen_engagement_FINAL