Disrupt & Innovate

COVID-19, European Cities and Climate Action – How Participation Makes Our Cities Clean and Healthy

17th June 2020 by Nadja Nickel and Aleksandar Brezar

Following on from their recent guest blog on populism and civic engagement, linking to the themes of our 2019 Innovation Report, the Democratic Society shares their experiences of another exciting project looking at climate action in European cities, as we look ahead to our upcoming 2020 version of the Innovation Report looking at urban inclusion.

By inviting and empowering residents to take informed decisions, we can ensure a collective responsibility around challenges that affect our communities, and we are able to strengthen the democratic foundation of the places we live in. 

Demand is growing for climate action that matches the scale and urgency of one of the biggest challenges of our generation. We need to ensure that this transformation process is adaptive, democratic and fair for everyone, but particularly marginalised groups in societies. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for new ways of working and a different angle on existing climate action endeavours. These huge challenges require response structures within our democracies that are agile, local and informed by evidence. However, these are of risk of being eroded within a state of emergency.

At the Democratic Society (Demsoc), we already knew we needed a longer-term, more conversational approach for changes to be planned and delivered with people, and a stronger civic infrastructure to allow this to happen. We are fully engaged in making sure that everyone in Europe – not just the eloquent and the sharp-elbowed – can access those opportunities, and that their voices are heard in a fair balance.

This is where our work together with EIT Climate KIC, called ‘Healthy, Clean Cities’ – Deep Demonstration’, comes to the fore. With 15 of the most ambitious mayors, municipalities and city communities in Europe, we are designing joined-up innovations to unlock wholesale transformation across all city systems – from mobility to waste to energy to health and the built environment.

As a design partner, the Democratic Society is set to bring participative methods into play in order to make sure that changes are made with people at the centre of the process in these 15 European cities, each with its own specific challenges and goals.

Experimentation builds long-term democratic and participatory capacity where we are working 

Our experiments in each place support both grassroots- and government-led efforts to ensure cities are becoming healthy, clean places to live, with methods that allow everyone’s voices to be expressed and heard. This has the underlying goal of building up the long-term democratic and participatory capacity and structures in the places where we’re working. In each city, our Local Connectors invest in localised and long-term efforts to empower residents and civil society. Here, we share some experiences from three cities: Kraków, Vienna and Madrid.

  1. Kraków, Poland

The role of residents in climate action is acknowledged by the city of Kraków as a high priority topic. Our Local Connector, Aleksandra Ziętek, sees the transition to a post-Covid-19 ‘new normal’ as an ”…unexpected experience which should benefit the whole process in the long run”. It is creating opportunities for us to use and build on the city’s existing public participation mechanisms to implement innovative and coherent working methods with communities. “COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown shed a light on the city’s resilience issues,” says Aleksandra, which sparked conversations around how residents use the city – how they travel, work and play – and how this resonates with the existing models and whether they live up to people’s current and future needs.

It also touches upon questions on how residents participate in the city’s life and how we can shape its future: “These issues led us to come up with five potential Kraków missions to pursue, one of them being a ‘flexible and responsive society’ which directly addresses the new circumstances we have experienced,” Aleksandra concluded.

  1. Vienna, Austria

Vienna has only recently added resident participation to its main strategy for sustainable development. Our Local Connector there, Daniela Amann, also sees the opportunity to build on the city’s existing capacities by identifying how participation can be better embedded in the city’s structure to enable governance learning, improved collaboration between city departments and – as a result – better participatory processes.

Daniela explains, “While some city departments have high standards in participation and experiment with innovative actions, others are still taking their first steps in public participation. In particular, city departments whose responsibility include climate action, such as energy, are lacking personal and financial resources to develop strategies to conduct participatory processes.”

Sarah Haas, the City of Vienna’s Deep Demonstrations Programme Manager, explains that: “Decarbonising Vienna – the aim of the Deep Demonstrations programme – is impossible without ensuring a just transition. [Demsoc brings] new perspectives and their years-long expertise in participation and social inclusion.”

  1. Madrid, Spain

Our work in Madrid is moving in two directions:

  1. Focus on existing community initiatives, which Local Connector Juan López-Aranguren explains as: “we want to check how…local initiatives link with each other, how flexible they are and how they could be escalated to a more ecosystemic approach.”
  2. Focus on city government and its needs, which Juan describes as “Sometimes the administration and private sector have really good programmes but they don’t know how to link these resources with [the work done by the] civic society… We can find a lot of creative solutions, research, etc. in informal proposals, such as civic action. Our role is to connect the needs with the responses and facilitate the connection and a good understanding to establish protocols or methodologies.”

One of these is the design of a ‘learning by doing’ methodology called “Communities in Practice” for a group of civic experts working on big issues, such as mobility or zero waste, to take an ecosystem approach to design their response. The city is now looking into how mobility can be reduced by learning from the current pandemic measures, and allowing for more teleworking and community workspace engagement.

Promoting ‘climate neutrality in collaboration’

In these cities and beyond, we are keen to promote ‘climate neutrality in collaboration’ to improve the quality of local projects, increase trust in government institutions and create local jobs and positive economic impacts. Holistic and sustainable changes in these cities will only be achieved if done together and with everyone in mind, with the residents being the ones to gain the most.

Follow the Democratic Society on Twitter and Facebook (@demsoc) to find out more about the project or visit  www.demsoc.org to sign up for our newsletter and stay updated.

Nadja Nickel

Director for Climate

Democratic Society

Nadja Nickel is the Director for Climate of the Democratic Society, Europe’s leading democracy non-for-profit. Previously, Nadja was the Managing Director of WithoutViolence, a non-profit communications and advocacy agency for the social sector. At WithoutViolence, she applied lessons learned from research and from existing behavioral science insights to solutions-focused advocacy on the issue of ending violence against women and children. In past positions at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), she advised former Federal President Horst Köhler in his role on the UN Secretary General’s High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Nadja holds an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from Uppsala University, Sweden.

Aleksandar Brezar

Western Balkans Network Lead/Communications

Democratic Society

Aleksandar Brezar joined the Democratic Society in 2019. His work with the Democratic Society involves finding novel ways of approaching democratic governance and citizen engagement in the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership areas of Europe, while addressing a variety of key topics, from climate change to European membership perspectives. Coming from a background in media and culture prior to joining Demsoc, Aleksandar worked on projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the wider Western Balkans area, with partners including USAID, TI, OSF, the European Commission and British Council.