“It is important at the neighbourhood level to create higher levels of place attachment, social networks and social cohesion, which can help to stimulate a neighbourhood to be more prosperous.”
The Netherlands is a nation that comprises diverse cultures, but there are still plenty of challenges in ensuring that minorities and marginalized groups are participating fully in the life of the society. Early in the millennium, the government identified over 50 neighborhoods that struggled with what was termed “spacial segregation.” These neighborhoods were characterized by a high population of ethnic minorities, low incomes, and were on a downward spiral both economically and socially. It was felt that one of the best ways to reverse this trend was to try to build social cohesion in communities by more actively involving residents (both native Dutch and non-native Dutch) in an urban renewal process. The overall aim was to create more multi-ethnic neighborhoods with different housing types and mixed income populations.
Revitalizing disadvantaged neighborhoods was—and continues to be—a huge job, but one part of the program focused on building a common vision, and social cohesion, among residents in 17 municipalities. Through funding provided by the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment, FORUM (a Dutch research institute that specializes in multicultural affairs) was brought in to help. Work started in 2001.The central focus of this effort took the form of creating housing workshops, or studios. Workshops typically involved 15-20 people from given neighborhoods who would meet for a period of 4-6 months. Having 8-10 nationalities represented in each group was common and FORUM sought out this diversity. The participants in the workshops dialogued with architects, municipal officals, and housing corporations, but mostly with each other to create new designs (and public spaces) for their neighborhoods. Until that point, most participants had not been involved in any urban renewal plans.
The residents participating in the housing studios worked with architects to, among others, ensure that their living environments reflected their needs and identities. They were also encouraged to reflect on what they wanted the social infrastructure of their neighborhoods to look like. The process itself led to a lot of social bonds being formed, including helping to lessen some of the tensions that had existed between aging native Dutch residents and younger non-native population groups. Participants from diverse backgrounds, and across generations, came to see that they shared some of the same ways of thinking about the liveability of their neighborhoods.
Many designs were developed for common meeting areas, such as a youth center, a senior center, playgrounds, and a tea house. Not all of these plans were realized, but some were. In Gasthuislaan, residents ensured that paved areas with colorful benches were installed in common areas. A Mediterranean house was created in the municipality of Arnhem, a number of dwellings were upgraded in the municipality of Zwijndrecht, and a playground for children was improved in the municipality of Enshede. Progress remains slow and fragile in many of the Netherland’s disadvantaged communities, but neighborhoods where housing studios have been set up have shown a notable increase in the resident’s confidence about the safety and future of their neighborhoods. Social bonding though was one of the most important outcomes. In Gasthuislaan, for example, the process led to a well-attended 50th anniversary party for the neighborhood, potlucks held in the central square, and, more importantly, sustained contact between residents.
One of the challenges that FORUM faced was not anticipating the extra time that was needed to establish the studios in cooperation with others. The social learning inherent in these projects also required participants to leave behind a victim role, to learn how to organize, to be open to new ideas, to be reflective, and to function with new group dynamics, all of which could be a difficult learning process. Sustainability was also a challenge. The process created a lot of initial enthusiasm, but budgets weren’t always available for the projects envisioned. Going from the design phase to the implementation phase could also take a couple of years and, during this time, motivation among residents dropped. And, communication between the municipality and local residents (related to implementing projects) sometimes broke down once the workshops had concluded.
One of the lessons learned was that sharing the vision and practice behind the housing studios necessitated close cooperation with the key self-help organizations working in housing and neighborhood development. Making sure that communication was clear and that everyone involved was informed and on board at the beginning of this process was critical. Having specific targets and agreements, active participation of local residents, and adopting a learning approach were all important elements of this process. While neighborhood revitalization in the Netherlands remains a work in progress, FORUM staff have talked about their work globally and note that governments seem to be shifting from just emphasizing physical structures to greater attention to social cohesion and diversity.
Interview Sources/Additional Links:
Rein J.J. Sohilait, Senior Researcher/Advisor, FORUM
Sean Tumber, FORUM