Conversational Cuts on WeMakeTheCity 2019: : Imagining inclusive and thriving cities

WeMakeTheCity 2019: Imagining inclusive and thriving cities

By Catherine van Rijswijck, 17 July, 2019

The city of Amsterdam has been growing at a rapid pace and is often portrayed as an urban success story. However, attracting migrants, investors, businesses as well as tourists means that this extraordinary growth brings with it certain drawbacks. Housing unaffordability as well as crowded cycling lanes, streets and public spaces take their toll on the quality of life in the city. Yet the Dutch capital is not alone because globalization, migration, climate change and digitalisation are interrelated challenges that all metropolitan areas face.

          In order to rise to these challenges, urban changemakers gathered in Amsterdam from the 17th to 23th June for the second edition of the WeMakeTheCity festival. The week was filled with conferences, talks, and workshops all aiming at addressing complex urban and societal issues. After careful deliberation of the wide array of events covering topics from social justice, over climate proof development to smart cities I picked as many as I could fit into a week. Some panel discussions and keynotes stuck with me more than others and I’d like to share some fascinating insights from those deliberations about the collective ‘We’ that make up the social fabric of cities and takeaways on how to take strides towards making the city better for everyone.

Strategies for inclusive cities

          During the opening night, several keynote speakers emphasized the fact that the challenges cities face are increasingly supranational and that in order to create more just and inclusive cities, we need to question the status quo. Indy Johar, the founder and Director of Collaborative Studio 00 and Visiting Professor at the University of Sheffield made the point that in order to initiate true change we need new institutions. He exemplified this by claiming that we need to reconceptualize property rights by taxing and trading property differently to optimize societal trade-offs and not just create value for a few privileged private companies. Digital technologies allow and even beg for a reexamination of traditional institutions. Technology is often, as part of the smart city narrative, portrayed as the enabler of change, however Torontonian digital rights activist Bianca Wylie reminded the audience that it is no panacea for urban issues. She further argued that there is a risk in using data to postpone action and disguise injustice: “we don’t need more data to make society more just”.

Social justice and minorities in our cities

The first conference of the 2019 festival echoed this urge to be critical of traditional structural narratives that guide urban transformation. Centering around diversity and inclusion in cities the event was kicked off by several European researchers such as Jens Schneider from Hambourg, Stijn Oosterlynck from Antwerp and Indy Johar dissecting the concept of ‘minority’. What does being a minority actually mean and who gets to define that? Those concepts should be rethought and give way to fresh narratives and politics.

Professor Philomena Essed from the US American University of Antioch pointed out that “inclusion is making diversity work” meaning that inclusion should be about making room for everybody and not forcing people to be part of something. Addressing institutionalised racism and dismantling narratives that are based on colonialism are vital in order to disrupt routine and initiate change.

Overtourism and alternative pathways 

With a lot of thought for food about institutionalized injustice, the next event was all about rethinking the costs and benefits of tourism. As Amsterdam is struggling with overtourism, different policy makers as well as local entrepreneurs shared their visions for more sustainable and fair alternatives. Among them Sito Veracruz, co-founder of FairBnB, an impact aware alternative to the Californian tech giant AirBnB. FairBnB is a vacation rental platform that reinvests part of their revenues back into local community projects. So if you rent out a room in say Amsterdam Noord, the start-up gives part of the money to an urban gardening project run by the community. As a more sustainable way of accommodating tourists, it does  not however, make up for the fact that home-sharing platforms negatively affect housing affordability and ultimately access to housing.

Affordable housing as a human right

          Dysfunctional housing markets and the rise of neoliberal politics were the central theme of the Wednesday event, kick-started by a keynote speech by famous scholar Saskia Sassen about the financialization and commodification of housing. Laurie MacFarlane, economist and co-author of ‘Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing’ spoke about how land is at the root of inequality and housing unaffordability. In order to tackle the urban housing crisis he emphasized the need for high-quality, de-commodified housing along with property taxes in order to reduce speculation and reforming the financial sector. To conclude Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-Foundation, a Finnish social housing provider, presented the Housing First strategy in Finland aiming to provide housing for every homeless person. Ending on a positive note, the Finnish example illustrated that the first step towards housing justice is the reappraisal of the purpose of housing as a human right not not a financial asset.

A city for everyone 

After days filled with  inspiring and thought provoking input, the last event turned the discussion over to improving democratic urban governance in Brooklyn, NY and Amsterdam. Carlos Menchaca, the first Mexican-American and openly gay person to have been elected to City Council in Brooklyn shared his experiences in representing a diverse civic community and fighting gentrification. The lively and fruitful discussion between Dutch politicians, activists and members of the audience that succeeded centred around the issue of representation and power in politics. People with an immigrant background need to part of decision-making processes; they need to claim their space, as they are part of the urban society. However, they often can’t participate in elections since barriers such as language and institutionalised xenophobia prevent them from actively shaping the development of their urban environment. Integration should and can be a two way road and urban change-makers need to pursue learning from immigrants by asking how they can contribute and how to include them in decision making processes.

So, who makes the city?

By far the greatest takeaway from the week was that we need to define who the ‘We’ in ‘WeMakeTheCity’ actually is. Both on a political and a practical side this needs to be answered. Anyone concerned with improving inclusivity must begin with developing a deep understanding of the lived experiences of the most vulnerable groups that they wish to empower. Making cities better for all is a collective undertaking that needs to take into consideration the day-to-day realities of every community that makes up the social fabric of a city.