Partnership and Cooperation—a Challenge for Democratic Cities in the 21st Century

15. 3. 2017

Miami, Florida. My colleague Matúš and I have a few minutes to spare, so we set off to explore the renowned “art district” not far from downtown Miami. We hail a yellow taxi and the driver confidently navigates the route to the nearby neighborhood: evidently he is used to driving curious tourists there. We get out of the cab but immediately rush back to ask the driver if this is indeed our destination. He assures us that we have arrived in the right place and drives off. We look around, not really convinced. We are in a wide empty street, surrounded by narrow sidewalks, brightly painted single-storey buildings and not a pedestrian in sight. On closer inspection, however, we detect on the graffiti-covered walls the outlines of closed gates, suggesting that the properties are in use. We walk around, looking in vain for any sign of life. Eventually we find an open entrance. We walk in and suddenly everything becomes clear—the life of the art district is taking place inside! Its closed compounds harbor cafés, galleries, landscaped spaces, open-air sculptures, children’s playgrounds, and people.

After a while we leave the art district and head back to our hotel downtown, a short walk away. We walk a few blocks and are suddenly taken aback. The style of the buildings has not changed but the bright facades are gone. We pass a few more streets, turn a corner and nearly collide with a sizeable group of people hanging around. Soon we realize they are not just hanging around but most likely spend the nights here. We quicken our pace, feeling somewhat uneasy. Luckily, a few streets further down we hit the main drag. Our heartbeat slows down and soon we are within reach of the InterContinental Miami hotel. This is the venue of CityLab 2016, the conference Matúš and I are attending, organized by the Aspen Institute, the Atlantic publishing house and Bloomberg Philanthropies. It comprises three days of intensive exploration of new and innovative ways of enhancing links among key city life players to enable them to work together on developing better, open, and creative spaces for life.

The participants included representatives of past, present, and future administrations of various towns and cities. The conference was opened by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Also in attendance was Amanda Burden, former director of the NYC Department of City Planning and a great advocate of walking in cities; Enrique Penalosa, the man who succeeded in inspiring trust in public spaces among the inhabitants of Bogotá; and Richard Florida, who took part in a panel on children and creative approaches to life. Held up as an example throughout the conference were cities that prioritize people over cars, are based on a partnership between the local governments and local residents, and regard public spaces as a key condition that guarantees a happy life for the local population. To be honest, American cities have been dealing with these kinds of issues since the 1960s. The pursuit of the American Dream in the form of a large suburban house with a garage and the adapting of the infrastructure of cities as much as possible to car traffic has resulted in an emptying of public spaces in US cities, displacing the inhabitants to the periphery. Thus the reality of early 21st cen- tury in Miami includes a derelict neighborhood taken over by the homeless people just a stone’s throw from downtown.

Amsterdam, Netherlands. A female shop assistant in a small shop in a busy street close to the city center has been murdered. It was a gratuitous crime for a few euros. However, most local residents knew that something like that was bound to happen one day. Street gangs, gambling clubs, seedy bars, and night-time clamor—this was the reality of their street. Nevertheless, a murder was too much even for this seedy neighborhood. It galvanized a group of active local residents who weren’t indifferent to their street’s fate, and since most of them were educated people, before long they came up with the idea of forming a cooperative. They collected seed money and set themselves a straightforward task: to improve the state of the busy and dangerous street.

They started taking leases on empty shops and looking for tenants willing to provide quality services that were scarce in the area, on preferential terms. And since their concept proved to be viable and profitable for the cooperative, the number of their activities increased. They took to leasing and transforming more properties belonging to the city, and buying and refurbishing some of them; they also started to run tenements providing social housing with additional services. At the same time they focused on working with delinquent youth, offering them better-quality leisure activities like apprenticeships, work experience, and skills as an alternative to self-realization in street gangs. What used to be a dangerous neighborhood soon became an exciting and inspiring area offering a wide range of services, firms, and vibrant public spaces, while the cooperative developed into a well-functioning company that is now an active and responsible partner of the local government.

My colleague Milan and I heard this story during a visit to one of the cafés mentioned above, directly from one of the original cooperative’s founders, a modest middle-aged chap, formerly a high-ranking manager in a Dutch corporation, for whom work in the cooperative turned into a full-time job and offered meaningful purpose to life. We dropped by during the threeday City Makers Summit 2016, a conference whose participants—experts, activists, artists, and representatives of European city councils—jointly explored ways of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century. The overriding idea of the conference was the belief that the complex issues faced by our society can be solved only by involving the public and other actors and that the problems of present-day cities cannot be effectively resolved solely at local government level.

The difference between Miami and Amsterdam is enormous. The vicinity of Miami offered sufficient space for anyone wishing to build a fami- ly home and the city center suddenly stopped being attractive. People moved away, depriving public spaces of their users and thus of natural regulation. The city became dangerous. The art district mentioned above is a bold ray of hope that life can return to downtown Miami. So far, however, the revitalization is taking place behind high walls. You would be ill-advised to walk there, as the public space is not yet quite safe.

The inhabitants of Amsterdam did not have the option of building on the outskirts. The city’s specific shape curbed growth and a principle emerged, whereby local residents had to learn to find consensus regarding the use of land (i.e. the city’s development). Participation thus became the basis of their thinking, a pillar of their culture. The city administration models currently in use in the Dutch capital represent a higher level of cooperation between local government and local residents, whose partnership is based on mutual trust and respect. This is the only way cooperation with the local residents can contribute to solving serious problems facing the cities.

If we want to build functioning, vibrant, and safe cities, we must convince mayors, along with local governments, that they have to initiate direct cooperation with local residents, build partnerships based on trust, and take joint responsibility for developing their shared city environment. Amsterdam is a great example for us to emulate.

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