Community spaces and their networks make our cities more cooperative, fair, and resilient

On 8 and 9 November 2022, Ljubljana hosted an international conference The Power of Civic Ecosystems, organised by IPoP – Institute for Spatial Policies. Guests from across Europe discussed the importance of cooperation between cities and civil society, and its importance for the quality of life and services in cities as well as for effective response to day-to-day challenges.

Participants were welcomed by IPoP Director Marko Peterlin, who also announced the launch of the publication Moč povezanih skupnosti v mestih. The publication is co-published by IPoP and Eutropian, organisation supporting cities and NGOs in advocacy, research, and policymaking to develop inclusive urban processes. The publication summarises the publication The Power of Civic Ecosystems with foreign practices relevant to Slovenian context and examples of successful cooperation between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and cities in Slovenia.

The participants were also addressed by the Minister of Environment and Spatial Planning, Mr Uroš Brežan. He emphasised the key role of NGOs and citizens in building connected communities and sustainable urban development. In this context, he stressed the importance of Mreža za prostor, a Slovenian network of NGOs and civil initiatives in the field of sustainable urban planning, which contributes to raising awareness of the importance of spatial planning and raises expectations towards public actors in this field.

Levente Polyak, co-founder of Eutropian, introduced the topic in his keynote speech about methods and practices of building strong local networks, as presented in the publication The Power of Civic Ecosystems. Through his experience of participating in the URBACT programme as lead expert of the transfer network ACTive NGOs, he learned how to effectively mediate between local government representatives and NGOs, who often find it difficult to find a common language.

“The more cohesive and collaborative a civic ecosystem is, the better it can use available strengths and resources and respond to societal challenges.”

In the course of his work, he has learned the importance of well-functioning civic ecosystems, which include informal groups and neighbourhood associations, civic initiatives, volunteers, community-based organisations, as well as professional NGOs. The more cohesive and collaborative a civic ecosystem is, the better it can use available strengths and resources and respond to societal challenges.

Levente Polyak pointed out that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for the success of connecting civil society and NGO. The network needs to be tailored to the needs and interests of each local context and to integrate existing good practices. However, motivated, and active citizens, an effective framework for cooperation with local authorities and a broad, supportive community always play a key role.

Inspiring practices from Riga, Dubrovnik, and Pula

After the presentation on cooperation methods between civil society actors and cities, we had the opportunity to hear about interesting foreign good practices. The presentations and the discussion were moderated by URBACT expert Wessel Badenhorst.

The presentations were opened by Irina Vasiljeva from the Riga City Neighbourhood Centre. She presented the NGO House Riga, its background of the establishment, the purpose, and functioning. It’s an organisation established by the municipality, which provides space and resources for local NGOs to implement their missions and learn from each other. It is a locally and internationally recognised model of successful cooperation between NGOs and the municipality, which other participating European cities have tried to replicate in the framework of the URBACT transfer network ACTive NGOs.

The NGO House was created as a response to the lack of space for NGOs and the local community to meet and work together. In 2010, the municipality opened the NGO House in the old school premises, offering NGOs services in the areas of education, research, and cooperation, and providing a springboard for many NGOs to start and develop. The budget of the NGO House is entirely in the municipality’s domain. The NGO House has three staff members, a director and two project coordinators, who are employed by the municipality.

The NGO House provides users with a space to carry out a wide range of activities, while providing the necessary equipment free of charge. The frequency of visits and interest in using the NGO House is increasing rapidly, which shows that the NGO House has effectively responded to needs of the local community.

Petra Marčinko from the Art Workshop Lazareti and member of the Platform for Lazareti, presented the cooperation of NGOs through organic growth and bottom-up approach to preserve the social-cultural centre of Lazareti. The need to provide spaces for the local community is even more pronounced in Dubrovnik due to the intense tourism and the lack and commercialisation of spaces where the local community can meet and create.

Lazareti are a cultural heritage complex not far from the Old Town of Dubrovnik. The Art Workshop Lazareti signed a 25-year lease agreement with the Municipality of Dubrovnik in 2000, which represents the first and only Croatian example of such a long-term civil-public partnership. The three buildings of the complex have since then become home to NGOs that provide activities and events for the local community.

Due to the constant pressure for eviction and commercial use of the premises, the organisations came together to form the Platform for Lazareti. This consists of five NGOs working in the Lazareti complex and working for the development of a social-cultural centre open to the local community. After several years of negotiations, projects, and efforts to build and strengthen public-civil partnership and trust between public and civil actors, the Platform for Lazareti is today a great example of a model of cooperation between the Platform and the City of Dubrovnik.

Jan Franjul, a member of the project team of the Rojc Associations Alliance, presented the process behind the creation of a new management plan for the Rojc Community Centre, a large community centre in the former naval school and barracks in Pula. Rojc is home to 110 organisations in a wide range of fields, from culture and sport to psychosocial support, health, and national minorities.

Jan Fanjul described the turbulent history of the development of cooperation between the Rojc Community Centre and local authorities. This led, among other things, to the establishment of the Rojc Associations Alliance in 2011 and to a re-examination of the governance model of Rojc, which is currently not resistant to changes in political will and offers limited autonomy and sharing of responsibilities. To this end, organisations, and individuals, as well as the public and public stakeholders, have developed a participatory governance model, the progress of which has been halted due to the change in city authorities.

The presentations were followed by a discussion in which the guests concluded that clear and participatory communication is the cornerstone of bringing together different communities in cities. It is also essential to recognise the uniqueness and strengths of the actors involved and how they can contribute to a common goal. This way of working promotes sharing of power and resources as well as cooperation.

Slovenian good practices of community integration in small towns

The second part of the conference brought together representatives of Slovenian municipalities, ministries, and experts to discuss Slovenian practices of community integration and opportunities and obstacles they recognise. Moderated by IPoP Director Marko Peterlin, Maja Majnik from the Municipality of Idrija, Katarina Košnik from the Municipality of Bohinj, Tatjana Hočevar Kerševan from the Ministry of Public Administration, Tina Lisac, national expert of the Good Practice Transfer Initiative, and Tomaž Miklavčič from the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning were included in the discussion. The aim of the discussion was to talk about the experience of cooperation between NGOs, local communities, and municipalities in small towns, which are prevalent in Slovenia.

Maja Majnik pointed out that Idrija’s local community is small and highlighted the parallel between the challenges faced by a small town and a “small” person. Like a person without special social and financial power, a small town is isolated from the events of the national centre, has less power of participation, less financial power and is has a weak network. NGOs, as intermediaries between the local community and the authorities, therefore play a key role in empowering the local community and advocating for its interests. Idrija is proud that the number of NGOs, however small, is comparable to the number of organisations in larger cities. As a result of the participation of the Municipality of Idrija in the URBACT networks, and by bringing together local actors in the very heart of the city, the Town’s Living Room Pr’ Golitu opened with the mission of connecting all generations through educational, cultural, and other activities.

Tina Lisac gave a brief presentation of the URBACT National Practice Transfer Initiative, which over the past year and a half has enabled six municipalities to learn from the experience of the Idrija’s Town Living Room and to design their own practice tailored to local needs. She also explained the role of local groups, which are an integral part of all URBACT projects, as they allow for the involvement of a wide range of individuals and groups in the planning process. In the context of the creation of the Town’s Living Room in Idrija, this included representatives of the younger and older generations, as well as representatives of schools, kindergartens, and the health sector. Tina emphasised the added value of the local group as a way of enabling direct communication with representatives of different social and interest groups on what are the wishes and needs of the community. In addition, members of the local group are expected to be proactive and encouraged to identify their strengths and skills to contribute to change for the better.

Katarina Košnik described that Bohinj’s biggest vulnerability of the local community lies in the tourist dependency of the area, where the pulse of events is only felt during the tourist season for the needs of tourists, but not out of season for the entertainment and engagement of the local population. At the same time, there is a lack of key infrastructure and a migration of young people out of the area who find it difficult to integrate into the local community in case they return. When the municipality was offered the opportunity to participate in the URBACT project and to transfer the good practice of Idrija to its own city, it was happy to join. It was clear from the start that Bohinj needed a physical space where local people of all ages could meet and spend time. The soon-to-be empty kindergarten building was identified as a suitable location. They are planning to refurbish and upgrade the facilities in the building to make it as suitable as possible for a wide range of activities and attractive to a wide range of visitors. The space, conceptualised as a town’s living room, will soon open its doors for a two-year test period. Katarina concluded by saying that the time has come for the local community to get active and start working from the bottom up to show that there is a need for such a shared space.

Tomaž Miklavčič stressed the need to invest sufficient financial resources in small towns for the purpose of bringing civil society together, as the EU consists of a lot of small towns. He pointed out the enthusiasm of all EU Member States for revitalising towns and cities, for contributing to a better quality of life and for working together, also through the existence of the URBACT programme. He sees cities as communities where NGOs play a role as both a facilitator and a representative of citizens in relation to local and national administrations. He concluded that the Ministry would like to work more and better with NGOs, and that every citizen of a city should be given a voice and the opportunity to participate in shaping and deciding the future of their city.

Tatjana Hočevar Kerševan explained the legal and regulatory aspects that municipalities have to take into account when providing premises for NGOs. According to the current legislation, a municipality can rent space to an NGO working in the public interest for a maximum of five years, with the possibility of renewal for the same period. This often proves to be a disadvantage, but past practice has shown that a time limit on the use of space by a particular organisation is the most effective solution, as it improves the accessibility of space for different NGOs and their activities.

The importance of libraries for smaller local communities and the integration of library services with other activities and services that can strengthen the local community were also discussed by the conference participants. The panellists concluded that cooperation between NGOs, local communities and cities, and bottom-up action and support for activities, is fundamental to the realisation of civil society initiatives.

The site visit, which concluded the first day of the conference, took the form of an urban walk through the centre of Ljubljana. The walk, led by Aidan Cerar and Marko Peterlin from IPoP, provided participants with concrete examples of how local community, informal initiatives and NGOs are working together to improve Ljubljana’s spatial planning. The discussion included the redevelopment of transport and public spaces in the city centre, the Zunaj project involving residents in the management of open spaces, the past and future of the Autonomous Rog, and the history and management of Metelkova.

The second day of the conference took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova and was dedicated to an introductory meeting of civil society organisations from all over Europe working in the field of sustainable urban development. Over the last two decades, NGOs and various civil society organisations have established themselves as important actors in various fields of sustainable urban development in many European cities. Although they share many common challenges and methods of action, there is not much cooperation between them, nor are they yet recognised as relevant actors at European level. The meeting therefore sought to identify common themes and challenges through a series of intensive workshops and agreed on further steps to strengthen networking and cooperation.

Photo Gallery (Day 1)

Photo: Gaja Naja Rojec

Photo Gallery (Day 2)



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