How to manage a city?

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Brussels is a capital city which is present in the media nearly every day. Is there anything else, apart from "great politics," attracting our attention to the development of a city whose size is comparable to that of Katowice or Częstochowa?

Katarzyna Romańczyk, from the Institute of European Studies at the Jagiellonian University, is analyzing how municipal authorities are managing the city of Brussels, a relatively small urban center where the needs of inhabitants have been pushed into the background for years by the interests of international institutions. The main aim of these studies is to analyze good practices and to determine the most effective tools of municipal policy. What should the authorities in other cities avoid? What could they learn from Brussels, which, as it might seem, has better conditions for development?

Brussels can make a deceiving first impression. Perceiving the capital of Belgium mainly as the bureaucratic seat of the European Union, without taking into account its other functions and metropolitan problems, is a large simplification. Social and spatial fragmentation, a high level of unemployment (22% in 2013), suburbanization, and difficulties with the adaptation of immigrants make Brussels a city full of paradoxes. Additionally, due to the political divisions between the Flemish and the Walloons, sometimes many municipal institutions in Brussels either work together or parallel to each other, and sometimes even against one another. Bringing the conflicting parties together requires making difficult compromises. Authorities are striving to solve these problems comprehensively and to simplify the complex administrative structure of the city. However, because of its ambition to become the cosmopolitan capital of Europe, the city often evades such attempts. Thus, what form of urban governance might seem to meet the expectations of residents in these conditions?

Tool: neighborhood contracts

One of the main challenges Brussels faces is the implementation of sustainable development, understood, in simplified terms, as progress in which the needs of citizens are satisfied with their participation in urban governance, without constituting a threat for the development of future generations. So-called neighborhood contracts are an example of a good practice in this area. Neighborhood contracts attract the attention of the local community and create a kind of forum for its activity. How are they realized? The Brussels-Capital Region is administratively divided into 19 communes, which in turn are divided into 118 districts. The average area of one district is approximately 1 km2. Neighborhood contracts are programs containing an action plan concerning selected areas of the city. Projects accepted under these contracts are defined and realized with the participation of inhabitants. They refer to the closest environment of residents, including the improvement of road infrastructure, quality of public spaces, housing conditions, the development of social and cultural activities, and, finally, environmental protection. Bringing the civil dialogue from the commune level to the lowest district level evokes an increased response among inhabitants. The importance of civil participation is growing as the inhabitants are starting to use more efficient tools to determine their needs and to communicate them to local government authorities. This does not mean that the local community is free from conflicts and tensions or that it always speaks with one voice. Nonetheless, even if they fail to reach an agreement, residents who show sufficient motivation and involvement do not feel excluded from decision-making circles.

In the years 1994–2013, 72 neighborhood contracts were realized in Brussels. Each of them consisted of projects, within which, among other things, new kindergartens and nurseries for children were created (25% of all initiatives), over 1500 communal apartments were built or renovated (24%), sporting equipment was constructed sport objects were constructed (8%), and the space of municipal parks and gardens was revitalized (7%). In the district of Canal-Midi (commune Anderlecht), where there are numerous social problems and a large number of immigrants, so-called soft projects were realized (e.g., trainings improving the professional qualifications of the unemployed, language courses for foreigners, extracurricular activities for children, or workshops on cultural animation) apart from infrastructural investments. These actions initiated changes and encouraged improved integration and entrepreneurship.

Map of the Brussels-Capital Region divided into 19 communes.
Communes covered by neighborhood contracts
are marked in orange; communes without such
contracts are in grey. Source: K. Romańczyk, own work

Let's go for a…diagnostic walk

"Diagnostic walks" are one of many forms of communication among inhabitants. People interested in new projects walk through their district together, evaluate its strong and weak points, and then discuss and determine common needs. Such a form of direct contact facilitates the recognition of local problems and improves efficiency in solving them. Finally, the abandonment of the centralized model limits the influences of the monopoly of coalitions of politicians and developers. It seems that the socialization of the decision-making process on the district level has become an important element of the sustainable development of the city. Although negative phenomena cannot be completely eliminated, this approach gradually reduces them.

Although participation projects that have been realized in Western Europe are based on a stronger and more affluent civil society, it should be emphasized that similar practices have already been introduced, with varied effects, in Poland, such as in Sopot, Zielona Góra, and Poznań, among others. Each town is different, so imitating proven models does not always bring expected results. However, it is worth watching the experiences of other centers and mechanisms functioning there in order to develop an optimal management model adapted to local conditions.

In this light, the research conducted by Katarzyna Romańczyk concerns the urgent question of governing metropolitan cities, which are the source of the most important social and economic problems in the era of globalization. Showing the influence of participation projects on the development of the Brussels-Capital Region is not only an attempt to explain the meanders of municipal politics in one of the major European capitals, but also a contribution to a wider debate on the future development of cities.

Research conducted by: Katarzyna Romańczyk, PhD — Project Manager