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Grassroots Community Initiatives Discussed during the 8th European Congress of Local Governments

8th European Congress of Local Governments

Among the numerous debates held during the European Congress of Local Governments, the topic of cities occupied a significant place. And although the conference was dominated by representatives of local authorities and local government officials, discussions regarding urban development would be incomplete without taking into account the residents’ perspective. Citizen participation in the daily functioning and development of cities was the subject of the panel It’s Time for the Urban (R)evolution! Grassroots Community Initiatives Shaping Better Cities.

The panel debate was moderated by Małgorzata Burnecka (Coordinator for Cooperation with Local Governments, Marshal’s Office of Lower Silesia). The participants included: Francesca Traldi (Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Italy), Inga Kordynovska (Founder and CEO, ID Law Partners, Ukraine), Tomasz Pytko (New Media Expert, ToMasz, Poland).

The moderator, Małgorzata Burnecka, opened the discussion by observing that current city residents want to have more and more influence on the surrounding reality. Local governments strive to meet the expectations of residents by offering such tools for shaping public space as micro-grants and civic budgets. What these projects have in common is that the initiative must always be grass-root.

Francesca Traldi of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, pointed to several examples of such ventures from Italy, including an initiative by one Roman neighborhood community that raised funds to get a local market back on its feet after the pandemic. The sense of empowerment derived from the success of that project propelled residents to pursue other ideas, such as na outdoors book festival where several generations gathered on summer afternoons to read together.

Tomasz Pytko, ambassador for participation in Cracow, spoke primarily about the participatory budgeting in the city, due to his experience of being its consultant. His main insight regarding the approach of local government leaders is that they often see public consultations as a problem, an unpleasant statutory obligation. While, in fact, civic budgets work similarly to a crystal ball, offering clear indications of public sentiments and residents’ current priorities, which are often very progressive and innovative. Yet sometimes residents’ ideas conflict with local development plans, provoking hostile reactions of the authorities. In Cracow, where the participatory budget reaches 38 million zlotys, the residents’ fight for green areas is particularly visible, and indeed many green projects are being developed (e.g., the plan to plant trees in the Main Square, which was passed last year). Nonetheless, the authorities often resort to evasive manoeuvres: some of the problematic proposals in the civic budget are voted out or are not even submitted for a vote, which is all the easier now that the council that evaluates the projects has become fully presidential.

The panelist also discussed his reservations regarding promotion and encouragement to civic participation, without which the percentage of active residents is not high enough. In his opinion, cities should follow the example of Warsaw, inasmuch as it celebrates the closure of the yearly participatory budgeting programme with a ceremonial gala, which is how the civic budget should be treated – as a feast for the city, not an unpleasant duty.

A unique perspective on civic participation was presented by Inga Kordynovska, a lawyer and urban activist from Ukraine. Her work initially focused on Odessa, where for several years her organization managed to mobilize the local community through numerous projects, such as the restoration of historic doors. These experiences proved invaluable when the war broke out, as they had prepared the citizens to cooperate and take the initiative even without the support of the authorities, understandably preoccupied with other aspects of the conflict. The example of Odessa shows that few years are enough to build the social capital capable of effective action even under truly difficult, crisis conditions. Such basis gave rise to the Humanitarian Volunteer Center, which is now the largest humanitarian aid hub in southern Ukraine, working closely with the authorities to help the civilian population. One of the initiatives the HVC coordinated was to provide access to water in the city of Mykolaiv, where the russians destroyed the critical infrastructure. Their current priority project is Sandbox Kids, aiming to relieve the burden on women who, faced with closed kindergartens, had to assume full-time childcare at the expense of their work.

Kordynovska’s statement contains an important lesson for the authorities, who should learn to seek an ally in grassroots movements, given how effective a mobilized urban community can be in protecting its home.

Tomasz Pytko added that citizens often consolidate into grassroot movements precisely in times of crisis, albeit not necessarily as tragic and drastic as war. Even a minor conflict with the authorities – e.g. an indignation with a decision to put up soundwalls or cut down forests – often becomes a catalyst for active participation. Thusly formed social capital is very valuable, but according to the panelist the main task of city authorities when it comes to participation would be to create conditions in which the invigorating potential of conflict would not be needed. Cities should care about connecting residents by appealing to their daily needs and desires to improve the reality around them. Therefore, the challenge for local governors is to create informal spaces where citizen groups could form, exchange experiences and develop additional skills. The city authorities, according to Pytka, should provide spaces where residents would be brought up for civic activities from an early age – because wise management of the residents’ capital is key for the smooth functioning of cities.

The debate concluded with the following question: how to shape cities better, by means of revolution or evolution? The participants responded by pointing to the diverse conditions and needs of specific urban centers. Words of caution were uttered, however, reminding that revolution usually brings casualties with it, and the transformation of cities should not threaten the well-being of any residents. Yet, the panelists agreed that some revolutionary changes in the approach to civic engagement and understanding of urban life are much needed. One of the key dimensions is increasing women’s representation. As summarized by Tomasz Pytko, “I would like to live in a city governed by a female president, in a region governed by a female marechal, in a country headed by a

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