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The city that ‘we’ own - by Federico Savini

Publication date 18-01-2016

Amsterdam inner city, 2015. Households buying a plot of land and building their own dwellings, with gardens and work space. A network of about 50 people gets together with an architect and design their own block, perhaps including a small theater and few socially rented houses. Another group of neighbors decides instead to produce, use and store its own energy, building solar panels and their own in-house grid for waste water filtering. At the same time, a group of creatives finds out that there is a little piece of land in the city and propose a project of cultural use of the land, perhaps adding a café, selling local beers, and using food which is partially grown on the spot.

Photo: Google Images / Creative Commons / Bispringen verrucktes haus auf dem kopf.

These experiences have filled our popular magazines in Amsterdam in recent years. Progressive and optimistic politicians, engaged young architects and ambitious start-ups get together frequently to discuss how these practices can make the city a ‘better place’. In doing so they feel part of the city, or even owners of it. Some perhaps add a little bit of ideological flavor and envisions a future of self-made urban space, where everybody might get to decide, adapt, design and improve the urban space as he or she desires. What do these practices  tell us of how we understand and experience the city? And, most of all, what type of city will emerge from this type of engaged and creative civic society? 

I have been asking myself these questions in a recent research project. Reading several works which optimistically tend to benchmark best practices across Europe, I wondered whether a self-organized urban society is changing the durable institutional conditions according to which the city evolves. Any practice of spatial appropriation or transformation entails three main challenges. First, it reshuffles and mutates the way the city is conceived as a system of units, interlocked and interdependent. Secondly, practices of self-regulation do problematize the sets of regulations, legal frames and cultural norms that have been consolidating in the years of modernity. Lastly, it raises important questions on public and private finances, as the new engaged civic society is the society of bank mortgages, the crowd-funding and the sharing economy. With colleagues, I published this framework here.

What have we discovered? We looked at 6 projects in Europe, two in Amsterdam and an equal number in Copenhagen, Helsinki and Istanbul. We are interested in appreciating the diversity of approaches in different contexts, were legal, financial and spatial frameworks are radically different. Yet, what we discovered seems to follow similar logics. First, a self-regulated city, made of projects, creative pop-up initiatives, and self-managed housing projects tend to be a disaggregated city. Governments seem to struggle to maintain their capacity to govern, by interconnecting, the urban and regional space. Secondly, the self-regulated city is a private city, and a privately regulated city. Legal frameworks tend to be too universalistic to appreciate the wide diversity of self-organized dynamics. Therefore, general legal frameworks, often emptied of their mitigating capacity against undesirable development, are refilled with punctual, ad-hoc public private forms of legal agreements. The contract, contextual, highly specific, and cogent for two (or more parties) is used to govern relations between the public, the private and the civic domain. Lastly, a self-organized city seems to be a city of risk. The short term certainty of ‘realizing’ emerging initiatives and financing local projects is preferred to long term financial stability. The strategic, publicly endorsed financing of small scale projects seems to erode the funds available at the city level, which were used to finance quality, to redistribute wealth, and to enable coherent city-regional change.

Federico Savini

Federico Savini is Assistant Professor at the department of geography, planning and international development studies at the University of Amsterdam. He coordinates the European project ‘APRILab’ within the JPI ‘Urban Europe’ framework program. His research is concerned with the political and institutional challenges of civic engagement, self-organization and self-regulation. More generally, he focuses on urban politics and urban planning, combining sociology and planning studies.