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Edible Cities Network

Rotterdam is one of the cities participating to the Edible Cities Network (EdiCitiNet), an international cooperation of municipalities that aim to increase the ‘edibility’ of urban spaces. In this blog, Vincent will describe his experiences at one of their recent workshops.

Edible Cities Network: Negotiations between citizens and the state

By: Vincent Walstra

In Het Klooster, a meeting place for local communities and organizations, a group of about fifty are sitting together. They have gathered to discuss the launching of an ‘Urban Living Lab’, an initiative of the municipality of Rotterdam to facilitate the increase of edible greenspaces in their city. ‘’We must put seeds in the ground; it is growing season’’, someone from the audience says. This particular comment does not refer to the gardening season, but is a metaphor used by an urban farmer to stress the urgency of action.

‘’We must put seeds in the ground; it is growing season’’

This workshop is organized by the Rotterdam representatives of the Edible Cities Network (EdiCitNet), an international cooperation of municipalities that aims to increase the ‘edibility’ of urban spaces. Aside from the international members of the EdiCitNet, a variety of local civil servants, urban farmers, scientists and other people with relevant knowledge have been invited to debate about the fundamental purpose of this project. The search for a collaboration between top-down and bottom-up actors is echoed in a key question posed by one of the leading figures of the Urban Living Lab project: ‘’Where does the municipality meet the initiative of its citizens?’’

Critical reflections of urban farmers

As anthropologist I am, or try to be, aware of the various perspectives and interests of different actors, and the friction between them. Today, I find myself at the heart of this friction in Rotterdam, where top-down governing and bottom-up innovation meet. What’s more, is the added horizontal dimension of the EdiCitNet who aim to share best (and worst) practices between the collaborating cities Andernach, Oslo and Rotterdam.

At first glance, the inclusion of urban farmers in the process of designing the Urban Living Lab and its purpose show an attempt at establishing a collaboration between citizens and the state. However, the fact that these urban farmers, who encompass about one-fifth of the attendees, are the only ones expected to be present on a voluntary basis, reveals something about the power relations amongst today’s attendees. One could say that the urban farmers are obliged to attend because they depend on the municipality for both financial and spatial support. Although being absent might not directly impair the future of their projects, it would exclude them from the negotiations around shaping the future of the urban landscape.

From a more positive vantage point, the informal and interactive atmosphere of the workshop creates a platform where the urban farmers can articulate their desires and dissatisfaction about the municipality’s governance directly to civil servants. And they don’t hesitate to do so:

‘’The Urban Living Lab exists for ten years already, with the citizens!’’
‘’Sometimes pioneers make mistakes.’’
‘’This will never be a commercial project.’’

These are three statements voiced at the workshop that summarize some of the main concerns and critiques from the urban farmers. Firstly, urban farmers are impatient because there have been multiple projects like the Urban Living Lab, but generally they do not achieve distinctive results. Secondly, there is need for structural support from the municipality that would create a sense of trust that the urban farmers can rely on support even when they lose their ‘newness’ and momentum, or make mistakes. Thirdly, there is need for an appreciation of initiatives beyond finance and numbers, one that acknowledges the qualitative values urban farmers add in the social and ecological domain of our society. In this case, trust goes the other way, from the municipality to the urban farmers.

The mobility of civil servants

The next day, the workshop continues, but now only with the EdiCitNet-members. Having processed the comments of the previous day, I wonder how hard it can be to give in to the requests of the urban farmers. After all, the demands from yesterday were quite clear.
However, civil servants are no machines, they are citizens themselves, who operate in a tightly structured bureaucratic system. With a new administration every four years, they have to answer to new agendas and visions time and again. A lack of structural support should therefore not be entirely unexpected. Especially when this support has to be based on valuing qualitative contributions in a society where actions are legitimized in predominantly financial terms. Moreover, what yesterday’s discussions indicated is a requirement to shift from auditing through contracts, financial records, and paper documentation, to an auditing system based on mutual integrity and trust.

 

There are citizens, be them urban farmers or civil servants, who search for possibilities to alter or bypass this society-wide system of financial favoritism.

The need for such a transition in the auditing culture in the Netherlands is further emphasized when we visit the Voedseltuin Rotterdam. This is a publicly open food garden where they are growing food for the urban poor. Their initial idea to supply the foodbank failed due to hygiene restrictions. Hence, administrative obstacles restrict this initiative’s mobility in a meticulously regulated society. However, thanks to innovative thinking they have found a way to supply their target group through alternative distribution channels, going around the costly processes of monitoring their food subjected to top-down hygiene restrictions.

What strikes me during this two-day workshop is the municipality’s fear of favoritism when supporting urban farmers. Especially when considering that under the rubric of ‘the free market’, a neoliberal discourse masks a system of financial favoritism. Whereas the government is anxious about favoritism for non-profit social projects, it does not hesitate to allow for-profit multinationals to occupy urban spaces. As a result, in Rotterdam, the reality is that it is easier for a fastfood restaurant to open a new franchise than for a local food garden to produce free fresh vegetables for local citizens. Fortunately, the EdiCitNet workshop has also made me aware that there are citizens, be them urban farmers or civil servants, who search for possibilities to alter or bypass this society-wide system of financial favoritism. I look forward to delving deeper into this friction between established systems and innovative movements, and as an academic contribute to the negotiations between citizens and the state.

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