Have you ever thought about who owns the city where you live in? That was a striking question for many of us attending ‘People-Driven City’, the international seminar of the urban festival ‘Lähiöfest2017’ (‘Festival for Neighbourhoods’) at the University of Helsinki. Are the owners the ones who have the political power, the businesses, or are they the people who inhabit it, the citizens?
The seminar brought together experts as well as activists involved in projects that interlace placemaking, city planning, entrepreneurship and community involvement, and it wanted to inspire broader discussion on urban planning and development by presenting varied initiatives from traditional structures to grass-root work. The aim was to look how and where “top-down” and “bottom-up” initiatives can meet, the emphasis being on the areas of the city in the midst of change.
During the day we learned about fascinating international cases. One of them was MakeShift (UK/FR) organization, which designs, builds and manages new public destinations that house communities of local, independent businesses. One of them is Peckham Levels project, which is transforming seven empty levels of a multi-storey carpark into an experimental cultural destination by creating affordable workspace for artists and entrepreneurs. Not to mention the cases of Lola Lik culture hub and The Movement Hotel (NL) run by refugees, both located in Amsterdam at a former prison. In those cases, the deserted places in a city are being taken over by an organization and the people are developing the city with the help of these organizations.
Internationally, many cities have recognized the importance of supporting the initiative of their citizens and co-designing the city. There are also some good examples in the City of Helsinki, one of them being ‘Maunula House’, a community centre, which serves as the first community centre in Helsinki to trial participatory budgeting. It means that some of the decision-making power and funds intended for developing operations are given to the users of the community centre. With this kind of model the municipal residents are allowed to be engaged in the annual planning of the community centre, also in all the stages of budget allocation from idea generation and planning to voting and making decisions about activities. A great example of co-creating the city.
The message of the day was clear: people make the city what it is and what it represents. The citizens should be the ones marking out how the city works. But does that work in practice? Do all the citizens have a possibility to have an influence on what kind of city they live in? In today’s networked world of fast information flow and online-based communication, it often feels like we have more influence and more possibilities to act and create new things. The technology enables the engagement, and party that is why it’s still socially explicit who can invent and create new cool things and who gets the ideas heard.
Often, it is not the retired lady from the suburbs, but it doesn’t mean her opinions and needs are not relevant in the society. There is also a lot innovation happening among the citizens, but how can we bring that forth and make it visible? Hence, the role of the cities and their representatives in supporting the citizens’ and non-profit organizations’ initiatives was ranked high among all the speakers in the seminar, both in the areas of business and culture. It was stated, that the role of the city municipals should be rather enabling than controlling. The city should not try to run all the projects itself; it should cooperate more with organizations and think of them as partners.
The question is, how can the city act as a facilitator and create solutions for this two-way communication and co-creating? There is still a lot to be done in the decision-making and processes on the public sector, in order the cities to be able to create value together with their citizens. We as future service designers can be of much help in this big task.