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The role of active citizens in an urban green infrastructure

The global population is becoming concentrated in larger and larger cities. The pressure on the urban green infrastructure is mounting in response to the growing problems with flooding and rising temperatures caused by climate change. At the same time, the participation society is very much on the rise, not only in the Netherlands but in many other countries, too. Public authorities are increasingly shifting their responsibility for green infrastructure to private companies and citizens.

In an international scientific review Arjen Buijs and his colleagues at Wageningen University discuss the contribution of active citizens to a liveable and resilient city. Based on examples from 16 European cities, the researchers conclude that the contribution of citizens is being given a more prominent role in municipal policy. This is resulting in more inclusive forms of control, or 'mosaic governance'. Arjen Buijs: 'Unlike what is often thought, there's no need for the authorities to scale down. Instead, they should change and be more open to and connect with the mosaic of active citizen networks.'

This mosaic governance is an aspect of DIY democracy, which takes the form of a more modest and facilitating government that joins in with social initiatives. Mosaic governance makes allowance for the diversity of community groups, but also for the diversity of a city's green space. 'It's no longer enough for the local authority to pursue a single policy for the whole city', says Arjen Buijs. 'Policy is becoming a mosaic of partnerships between local authorities and social organisations. This gives us ways of getting the best of both worlds. Active citizens contribute innovative ideas, energy and local commitment; they provide the manpower needed to get the job done and create social cohesion in socially strong and less strong districts. Above all, they make sure that the green space meets local requirements.'

But life isn't always easy for active citizens. It can be difficult to arrange constant supply of volunteers, or to find the funding or expertise needed to develop high quality green infrastructure, or to pay sufficient attention to natural values and the importance of aligning other ecologically important green areas. The context-based form of cooperation in mosaic governance makes it possible for local authorities to devote their years of experience and overarching vision to playing a major but flexible role in eliminating such obstacles. In cases such as these municipal policy consists of a toolbox of flexible instruments, incorporated in a broad vision of urban green infrastructure.

In their study, published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, the researchers give three examples of civic initiatives that have successfully contributed to urban planning and control. In Amsterdam, De Ruige Hof has protected an unspoilt area measuring 13 hectares against urbanisation for 30 years. Active management has turned it into a biodiversity hotspot with recreational functions for the vulnerable district of Amsterdam Zuid-Oost. In Malmö, Sweden, citizens in an urban expansion district have started work on mobile forms of urban agriculture that keep pace with the growth of the district. This has created local jobs and improved the liveability of the new district. In Edinburgh, Scotland, a local group of citizens is maintaining 10 gardens on government-owned land under the name Granton Community Gardeners. The group produces healthy food, provides information about organic gardening and a healthy diet and runs an alternative food bank for the most vulnerable groups. The group's members are drawn from people with a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. The group also makes a strong contribution to cultural integration in the district by actively exchanging cultural approaches to growing and preparing food.

Arjen Buijs: 'Local authorities need to find an approach that not only provides for the diversity of knowledge, experience and resources among those involved, but also the wide range in scale, types of green space and its local significance. That takes hard work. There's not much chance of a single form of cooperation getting results for the environment and the local community alike.'

Source: Wageningen University & Research

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