Posts tagged civic economy

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UK cities: from privatized dystopias to fertile soils for community projects?

How citizens and communities taking control of their neighbourhoods are outlining hopeful urban futures

Cardinal Place, London. A great example of not so great urban development

Ah, Britain. I had the privilege to visit London for two days, as a result of the kind invite by Philips’ Livable Cities programme to participate in a round table discussion and help select the winner of the #pinyourcity contest.

The great UK cities
A quick count tells me that I have been to eight British cities in the past two years. It keeps fascinating me how privatization is perceptible in these cities. Privatization has resulted in the securitization, shinification and standardization of the British inner city. Securitization is wonderfully described in Anna Minton’s Ground Control. Initially from 2009, an updated version was published this year – with an extra chapter about the impact of the Olympics on London in terms of the ‘suburbanization of the inner city’ (as I like to call it) – the book explains how British cities are now owned by private corporations, designed for profit and watched over by CCTV. The shinification is illustrated by the clustering of corporate offices in the city centers, most of them built since the 1990s after the market had been severely deregulated. Cities wanted to show that their city centres were back in the global game of finance, business and consumption. This great article by Rowan Moore shows how the sky scrapers that have been popping up over the past decade and will continue to be built over the next few years, do not meet planning guidelines, community needs and architectural standards. Still, politics seems to encourage the ongoing shinification. Often, these shiny towers do not contribute to their surroundings, producing anonymous and even hostile public space and hardly offering public facilities. And there’s the standardization, which has to do with urban environments becoming as safe, clean, and predictable (similar to other places) as possible.
The privatization has also resulted in a sharp divide. Both in society (after a dismantling and marketization of the welfare state), and in cities. Spatial segregation is increasing, just as the pressure on low-income residents of neighbourhoods that are the new frontiers of gentrification. The always great Polis just published a great article on new developments in Stratford, where UCL is planning to build a new campus, the protests against it (by the local community, but also by groups from within UCL), and the role and responsibility of the university in urban renewal.

Civic response
But a relatively polarized society also seems to encourage grassroots action with a social and sustainable agenda in cities. In Western cities, these seem to become the next popular urban thing, both for policy makers and for creative urbanites, as a sort of follow-up to creative cities policies and only symbolic creative production. I think that’s great, because there is much more ‘use value’ in it, compared to ‘sign value’. I visited three of those projects founded on such principles in London. Being on a tight schedule, I could only visit three of them in Dalston.

Dalston Eastern Curve Garden

First I visited Dalston Eastern Curve Garden. Created on the former Eastern Curve railway line running from Dalstion Junction Station in 2010, the Garden grows stuff but also has a great wooden construction under which you can meet, eat and drink. More recently, a glass house was added. Regular events and workshops are organized there, working together with local communities and youth groups. I was only there briefly, but it felt like a great place run by a great bunch of people.

Arcola Theatre’s bar

After that I checked out Arcola Theatre, which is amazing. In a converted paint factory the studio theatre is now providing high-end performances and plays, but is also delivering community engagement and creative learning. Moreover – and even more exceptional – it has set up an energy business, Arcola Energy. This added sustainability to its social agenda. The theatre became a testing and demonstration ground for energy-efficient methods, cutting its standard energy consumption by 60%, and Arcola Energy now does consultancy and provides sustainable energy solutions to theatres and other organizations. The theatre works with local volunteers and other organizations. It also runs a fantastic eco-café, now open all day and offering organic and handmade food and drinks from local gastronomes. One of the things about Arcola Theatre that I like most is Pay What You Can Tuesdays, which lowers the threshold for local people to visit the theatre.


My last stop before heading for the airport was FARM:shop. This is the third inspiring place I visited within not much more than a square mile. The name FARM:shop basically explains what it is. A farm in a shop. It is a café where you can have coffees and sandwiches. It is also an urban farming space, where different growing typologies are demonstrated – aquaponics, polytunnel, indoor allotment and a rooftop chicken coop. The produce is also sold in the shop and used in the food they sell. Their aim is to have shops like these all over the UK, connect peripheral farms to urban communities and inspire people to grow their own food. And it is inspirational. Especially because it has a DIY feel and the people are very nice. It makes you feel like doing the same stuff at home. And the sandwiches are incredibly good.


These projects are just three of them that I visited in a rush There’s a great publication, Compendium for a Civic Economy, which features more inspiring examples of communities and citizens taking control of themselves and each other in social enterprises. You can buy it in hard copy, but the first edition can also be read online:


No magic potion
The retreat of government from civic society (and handing over parts of it to private service providers) and a dismantling of the welfare state seems to evoke creative civic entrepreneurship. We should not see this as an overall solution because it cannot fill all the voids left behind and cannot help everyone affected by unemployment, poverty, sickness and gentrification. It is too easy to point at the success of a handful of (exceptional) projects to show that a policy such as Big Society is successful. I believe national and local governments should be the ones providing social safety nets. 
Visualising what is possible
Nevertheless, projects like these can (potentially) have a considerable impact on local communities, individuals, urban economies and the environment. And, their progressive and experimental character gives us an inspiring peak into the future of how we might want to live and work together cities. They are also showing us how to relocalize money streams to benefit local communities and that local governments are happy to chip in on meaningful projects. Moreover, they show that creativity is increasingly being used for more meaningful initiatives, rather than just for the production of symbolic value.

At first, coming to London to discuss livability, I couldn’t help but thinking about the city’s livability as also being segregated: to the rich, London is highly livable because high-end lifestyles are perfectly catered. The less well-off, however, are being more and more marginalized, and much of the city’s amenities are not affordable or suitable for them. According to Saskia Sassen, an inherent ‘quality’ of global cities is social polarization. But some kind of countermovement is taking place and I cannot wait to see it crystallize in the near future.

Images by dunclukPreoccupationsArcola Theatre, me. 

Note 1: I am always very much trying to decypher the ‘dark matter’ in urban development. But not all of the institutions’ agendas are solely driven by economic and financial growth in urban renewal. The Guardian published a great story about a housing corporation in chic North-London is building for low-income tenants in Islington.

Note 2: While the UK government is often characterized as only having acted from a privatization and deregulation mantra over the past decades, it is remarkable that all of the UK’s national museums have free admission (since 2001, actually), which is a great gesture to the country’s residents and tourists. This is something the Dutch government could definitely learn from.

Filed under privatization london public space capitalism neoliberalism civic economy community urbanism

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Urban Manufacturing as a Follow-Up to the Creative City

I came across this interesting article by Alicia Rouault at MIT’s CoLab Radio, giving examples of small urban companies specialized in high-quality small-scale manufacturing. I believe this is a good development, away from the creative-only focus, creating more socio-economic and local value.

NYC-based Buttonwood, producing the US’ best buttons ©MITCoLab

Since the end of the 1990s, there has been a lot of talk about creative cities. Cities should attract members of the creative class, a socioeconomic group ranging from architects to graphic and fashion designers to software developers. Richard Florida is the well-known messias of this dogma. The reasoning does make sense in contemporary postindustrialising (mostly urban) economies to a certain degree, but urban policy makers have been betting too much on creativity as the magical ingredient in urban development. Even in areas that lack far more elementary qualities, they have been flying in creatives to save the neighborhood. I have criticized these developments before, with a special focus on Amsterdam.
When the focus is primarily on the creative industries, the danger is that people who do not fit the creative profile, are left out and that there is gradually less room for them in the city because they are not creative or wealthy enough (in the case of Amsterdam, you can see that the growing demand for creativity goes hand in hand with a decline in the share of social housing in the total housing stock). Moreover, cities are more and more starting to look alike, because they are aiming for the same type of creatively and culturally “distinct” allure.

Heath Ceramics tile manufacturing in San Francisco ©MITCoLab

That is why I think a shift towards more small-scale manufacturing-oriented industries in the city is more contributing to the city as a whole. In contrast to just design practices and exclusive cultural events, more people can benifit from small-scale manufacturing.

Of course, this still has to do with design to a large extent, but design is only part of it. Moreover, in the examples mentioned and shown above, design is more directed at creating use value, rather than sign value. The value chain involves more than supercreative individuals. It also involves highly skilled people in, for example, carpentering, brewing and upholstering. Additionally, it can employ lower skilled people for less specialist but supporting activities.

Most of these companies are active in the food and beverage and apparel sectors. These sectors are gradually changing, because there is a shifting demand towards more locally produced, fresh, authentic and traditional goods and services. This opens up possibilities for activities in the value chain that require input from people from different parts of society. Moreover, it can boost local economies by connecting businesses from different layers of the economic spectrum, creating strong location-specific ties rather than an abstraction of the production process  (through outsourcing, etc.).

The changing consumer desires towards more exclusive, traditional, artisan, local, crafty, honest and good products (in contrast to big box, mass-produced and low-quality things) therefore offers potential for structural urban development and economies that benifit the people rather than the image of a city and the profits of large corporations.

Previously on City Breaths about this topic:
Are Civic Economies a Remedy for the Creativity Urban Policies Rash?

Filed under civic economy urban crafts creative city urban economy clustering urbanism

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Are Civic Economies a Remedy for The Creativity Urban Policies Rash?

How Amsterdam ended up looking like other cities and sold out its distinctive culture by pursuing a generic creativity dream. Will the crisis uncover this and open up doors for civic economies?


 ”Urban policymakers have become susceptible to the creativity fix .. the pandemic reveals their degraded immune systems .. weakened by decades of dependence on market fixes.

Jamie Peck (Professor in Geography at the University of British Columbia) wrote a striking piece on how cities in general are applying rather generic forms of creative policies, and how Amsterdam in particular has - in seeking to profit from a received reputation of a creative center - embraced this policy generica that generally replaces its cultural distinctiveness by a universally tradable competitive asset. By doing so, Amsterdam has become yet another event space in the spere of circulating images and investments.

Peck writes that “creativity policies are contributing to the extension and consolidation of culturally normalized neoliberal-urban rule. They purposefully legitimize and rationalize highly targeted and fiscally modest urban investments, justified on the basis of putative (but in practice highly elusive) economic returns.
… Creativity not only fits the cultural conditions of cities like Amsterdam; more broadly it also fits the political-economic conditions of neoliberalizing cities.
In other words, Peck explaines that the creativity policies are a panacee for urban development and just another form of neoliberalization, justifying operations that harm the poor and neutralize the distinctive, diverse and unique character of the city.

PICNIC festival at the NDSM-grounds, 2011. ©Andy Nash 

Some developments in Amsterdam
Several events and processes that took place over the past decade can be associated with the neoliberalization of Amsterdam’s assets in favor of the capitalization of ‘creativity’ and in order to make way for the ‘creative class’, such as the institutionalization of the formerly squatted NDSM shipyards and its adherent cultural identity, the reduction of the social housing stock, the adoption of an anti-squatting law, extensive city branding programmes, setting up initiatives that promote Amsterdam as a creative or global city (CCAA, Amsterdam Topstad) and large scale investments in business districts that will not flow back to the public or the city but rather to market parties (Zuidas, the IJ river banks). Regarding the social housing stock, some kind of auto-cannibalism is taking place: social housing corporations are now active parties in the market which causes social housing to have to sell itself off in order to continue to survive (Oudenampsen, 2007). Ergo, these corporations will sell social housing in favorable locations so that it can make room for more expensive housing, facilitating the ‘creatives’ and other more well-offs. Consequently, people depending on social housing are being replaced from the city’s nicer parts. 

Another creativity conference. ©Hub Amsterdam

But what about the crisis?
We have to wait to see how this creativity paradigm will develop, given the current financial and economic circumstances Amsterdam - just as other cities - is witnessing. But some large scale developments have already been paused or cancelled, just as specific programmes and investment schemes, leaving room for spontaneous, truly creative and meaningful initiatives. The interesting question is whether the tight neoliberal leash which the city is on, will be loosened now that there is no hailed market fix available. Perhaps the capital gap can be used by other kinds of activities that are not (solely) judged by their monetary value. Maybe the answer to a more meaningful economy lies in so-called civic economies.

Civic economies
A thing talked about often in the past year is the civic economy, especially after the Compendium for the Civic Economy was published halfway 2011. When ignoring the introduction by British PM David Cameron, this is an absolutely valuable publication. It gives new life and meaning to the term ‘civic economy’ by using 25 examples and showing how the economy can be organized in a different way.
In short, a civic economy is an alternative economy with more direct connections between consumers, users and producers, consisting of initiatives with alternative types of business models. It is about collaborative investments and productions, placemaking, filling in physical and mental voids, open-end approaches and social capital. A civic economy contributes to community resilience, everyday innovation and shared prosperity, and it is measured not (only) in terms of money, but by other standards such as social returns on investments.
It is not just a concept, it’s real and vital. The 25 cases - rooted in age-old traditions of the associational economy but using new organizing tactics - presented in the publication illustrate how civic economies are already taking shape in our cities.

The widely praised The People’s Supermarket in London. ©Channel 4

I see huge potential in these developments, giving back meaning to urban places, rather than just treating them as a commodity. It connects people to their environments, gives them the opportunity to learn and develop their skills and create communities. Moreover, it reduces the size of the global production and consumption loop, creating all kinds of environmental, economic and social advantages. If only local politicians can overcome their creativity addiction and help to create a fertile ground for these civic economies to flourish and grow, we could deploy the civic economy principle to save our cities. It should be about places and their economies, not about the potential worth of a housing block or the aim to attract wealthy home-buyers. People working in the public, private and tertiary sector and residents should join forces to create meaningful places and great cities, instead of creative cities.  
After the title of the recently published book edited by Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse and Margit Mayer, we should create “Cities for People, Not for Profit”. The Right to the City issue is more topical than ever, I would say. Civic economies have the potential to provide useful and powerful tools to create a certain balance in our cities, away from the profit pursuance and towards local resilience and real distinctiveness.

See also:
The documentary film Creative (Capitalist) City by Tino Buchholz, gives a good image of the creative rash in Amsterdam and frictions connected to this. 

Ahrensbach, T., J. Beunderman, I. Johar e.a. (2011) Compendium for a Civic Economy. London: 00:/, NESTA & Design Council CABE
Brenner, N., P. Marcuse and M. Mayer (eds.) (2011) Cities for People, Not for Profit. Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City. London: Routledge.
Oudenampsen, M. (2007) Amsterdam, the City as a Business, in: BAVO (ed.) Urban Politics Now. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.
Peck, J. (2011) Recreative City: Amsterdam, Vehicular Ideas and the Adaptive Spaces of Creativity Policy, In: Blokland, T. (ed.) Dutch Cities, url.

Filed under Amsterdam civic economy creative city gentrification neoliberalization crisis urbanism