‘In transit: Learning cities in Europe’

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‘In transit: Learning cities in Europe’

Sharing experiences and visions among European City Makers

Written by Inès Péborde, Floortje Opbroek en Charlot Schans, New Europe.

Knowledge sharing is an important element of both social interaction and innovation. However, it requires spaces and connectors, to create momentum. During the ‘Learning Cities in Europe’ session, when City Makers from all over Europe came together to discuss fundamental questions and challenges they were facing, such momentum was created. This interactive program was held during the Stadmakerscongres 2015 in Rotterdam. It was organized by In Transit, an initiative of the Goethe Institute, that launches a series of trips in 8 European cities in order to connect City Makers

Firstly, we were introduced to six bottom-up initiatives: Leeszaal and Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative from Rotterdam, Pikene på Broen from Norway, Plattform e.V from Germany, ØsterGRO from Denmark, Mitt 127 from Sweden and Yhteismaa from Finland. Each City Maker representing these initiatives brought up several topics they wanted to address amongst which were identity, citizen involvement, ownership and even economical stability. Afterwards, the issues were discussed on six round tables.

The New Europe team took part in 3 group discussions and had the opportunity to meet Aseffa Hailu representing Mit 127, Kristian Skaarup from OsterGRO and Jaakko Blomberg who initiated Yhteismaa. Here is what we learned from this collaborative experience.

The discussion lead by Asseffa Hailu mainly focused on empowerment and ownership. Hailu is the project leader of Mitt 127, an initiative by young people for young people from Skärholmen, an outer Stockholm district where 90% of the population has a migration background. Mitt 127 organizes festivals, launched educational programs and raises awareness of political issues amongst young people from the area. Through their initiatives, Mitt127 succeeded in creating a local community where everyone is welcome. An important question for Hailu is: how much ownership can and should you give to the community? Mitt 127 shows us that the community, and particularly children, can inspire and take charge when it comes to neighborhood projects and social participation. One of the obstacles the project deals with is acknowledgement, trust and funding from the government, which still leans towards older institutions when it comes to dealing with struggling neighborhoods in Stockholm. However, the project was recently picked up in Gothenburg, immediately receiving government funding, showing that there is hope when it comes to the project receiving the recognition it deserves.

Then, Kristian Skaarup was wondering how we could transform temporary bottom-up initiatives into viable long-term projects, taking as example his own experience of creating and managing an urban farm in Copenhagen.

Together with Sofie Brincker, Livia Urban Swart Haaland last year he founded ØsterGRO, an urban farm perched on the roof of a former factory building. This temporary project is specifically designed to fill some sort of gap during the crisis. They all know that a newly booming economy will mean the end of the project. This building is meant to be demolished and replaced by another one as part of an already existing master plan. If the crisis represents a wonderful opportunity for alternative and grassroots initiatives to blossom, most of them probably won’t be able to survive afterwards due to their economical fragility and the lack of public support.

The farm is already a success and achieves three levels of sustainability: environmentally, in terms of social cohesion and in terms of health. But what about the economical aspect? Skaarup and his partners have recently formed a company besides their already existing non-profit organization, in order to manage small profits they make out of selling farm’s products, renting a rooftop restaurant they built, memberships, guided tours, and educational programs subsidized by the municipality. But how can he transform this project to add more economical value, and find new sources of funding?

Starting with a business plan and proposing several products is crucial. The director of DakAkker, a rooftop urban farm in Rotterdam, explained how they developed a wide range of products and activities to ensure their financial stability. Connecting the farm to the circular economy, consulting or crowdfunding can also be an option. We ended the conversation by asking him the following question: ‘What do you personally want to do on the long term and how do you picture the relationship with your project and the neighborhood in 10 or 20 years?’ This is a crucial question for most pioneering City Makers who started their actions spontaneously. Unlike traditional buisinesses, endurance and growth is usually not their main objective.

According to Jaakko Blomberg, temporariness is not a threat for his projects. In fact, he sees it as an opportunity to involve Helsinki’s inhabitants in collective actions in public space for a short period of time and to give them a taste of civic empowerment. In 2012, he co-founded Yhteismaa, which means ‘Common ground’ in Finnish. Since then, they have organized many events ranging from a Cleaning Day, to turning a street into a long dinner table for everyone, or even organizing exhibitions in people’s living rooms. All these events attract hundreds and sometimes thousands of inhabitants and over the years, he observed a growing interest for public space gathering and placemaking in Helsinki. Yhteismaa creates funny and creative activities to raise public awareness of contemporary urban issues (waste, abandoned spaces, sharing and social values, etc.). This is also an interesting entry point for civic participation and empowerment because each citizen can contribute and directly see the positive impact of collective action. Jaakko is driven by the ambition to disperse a do-it-yourself mentality among the citizens of Helsinki, and not so much by endurance of the individual projects. Therefore he hardly needs institutional support for his activities, it is even better if they go unnoticed by the authorities at first. His motto is thus: ‘don’t ask permission, just do it. It is better to apologize afterwards.’ But they are very keen in taking good care of the public space they use, as for Jakkoo this proves that if responsibility is handed over to citizens, they act upon it.

To conclude, ‘Learning Cities in Europe’ created a space for City Makers to share their experience, analyze these key issues from their own perspective but also be inspired by other projects. This collection of stories, ideas and questions shows how context matters and projects can differ in term of scale (temporal or geographical), cultural, economical situations but it also revealed the similarity of their challenges and ambitions. In conclusion, there is a real need for solution-oriented platforms that enable City Makers to collaborate and share prototypes, ideas based on their own experience. And we are working on it.


In deze steden zijn nu stadambassadeurs actief. Dat worden er snel meer.


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