Using the conceptual lens developed, we analyze the case study results by identifying (1) the new social relations established in the area, (2) the new narrative of place, ‘Blossoming Carnisse’, and (3) the established symbolic places that were iconic for moving the transition forward. In this way, we explore how experimentation in the Resilience Lab creates new sense of place and enables urban sustainability transitions.
New relations between people and between people and place in Carnisse
The main element of experimentation in the Resilience Lab was the application of the different engagement and participatory methodologies for establishing new forms of collaborations between citizens and the city, and new social relations between the residents as well. The partners and participants involved in the Resilience Lab addressed it as ‘an experimental program’ within its spatial and administrative boundaries, with the focus to test new methods and practices on discovering (and co-creating) urban regeneration solutions or approaches. They discerned four different ‘fields of interaction’: home, school, outdoors and neighborhood. Each of these fields consisted of individuals, networks and institutions on which the activities were focused. By working together in the Resilience Lab, the aim was to increase the interaction between the different target groups via the engagement in these four fields of interaction and to discover/create more integral ways of working for transformation at the scale of an urban neighborhood. The working assumption of the Resilience Lab was that interactions took place via collaboration in practice and produced multi-faceted added value (financial, social and ecological).
Initiating the core activities helped increase visibility and trust of the Resilience Lab in the neighborhood, although competition and mistrust were still tangible. Some activities were seen as an add-on to current activities in the neighborhood, e.g., a participatory process focusing on the future quality of life and primary school activities. Other activities were more welcomed such as an intervention supporting local change agents to reopen the community center in a cooperative manner.
However, it was in the actual physical activities where different networks (of residents, practitioners of the Resilience Lab, civil servants, etc.) would meet and interact with each other. The two gardens, the three primary schools in Carnisse, the community center, residential homes and residential streets proved to be central for facilitating new and existing relationships, not only in a professional sense, but also—and maybe predominantly—on a personal level. For instance, different cultural and ethnic groups blended in language courses, sewing classes and agricultural workshops. But also, different age groups were mixed in cooking programs and festivities in the neighborhood center and at schools. And neighbors who never spoke to each other came together in greening their street, where they helped each other by planting flowers, shared a lunch and/or had a coffee. Interaction was, however, not always friendly and warm, since gossip, slander, and tensions were also part of working and living together in Carnisse (see “Symbolic places in Carnisse”). But also the physical presence of professionals and volunteers at a certain site and certain time created a needed sense of structure in the tumultuous life in Carnisse.
These sites proved to be central in promoting collaboration between different parties and networks, since they were the places where the different target groups interacted and collaborated in shared activities. Most of these collaborations were fuelled by a mutual interest in working together as to reach corresponding goals, which proved to be crucial to invest in longer term collaborations. Respondents stated that these collaborations are built on reciprocity and trust. In the 4 years of the Resilience Lab, different types of collaborations flourished: short-term and long-term; incidental and structural; one-sided (or ‘parasitic’) and reciprocal. It proved to be a challenge for the people and networks in Carnisse to create structural collaborations with each other, since people perceived an erosion of informal and formal networks. Residents moved relatively quickly to other parts of Rotterdam or outside the city (e.g., in 2011 59.6% of the residents moved within 5 years of living in Carnisse). Due to welfare reforms, professionals were frequently laid-off, did not get extensions of contacts or were transferred to other districts. Therefore, respondents questioned the long-term endurance of the collaborations, including the ability of primary school teachers, volunteers, and community workers to continue the activities of the Resilience Lab on their own and with their own funding.
Relations and networks were not limited to administrative borders of Carnisse. These borders proved rather fluid in both the conceptions of Carnisse itself as the relations and networks present. For example, children at primary schools in Carnisse often lived in other neighborhoods, and volunteers at the garden lived in other cities, or, villages nearby Rotterdam. People engaged in networks in Carnisse lived outside the administrative boundaries, but felt more ‘at home’ there than in their own neighborhood. Professionals engaged in Carnisse are active in other parts of Rotterdam and often do not live in Carnisse or the Southern part of Rotterdam themselves (some do not even live in Rotterdam). Place attachment, meanings, networks and relationships transcend the administrative boundaries of Carnisse.
A new narrative of place: “Blossoming Carnisse” in the year 2030
With the experimentation process in the Resilience Lab, a new narrative of change was created and summarized in the form of a future vision and the operating guiding principles of the Resilience Lab. The focus on the connection of people and places as “the starting point” for “learning infrastructures” in the area revealed the shift from a reductionist understanding of place to a socially mediating facility for change and development.
In 2012–2013 action researchers facilitated a community arena process that focused on envisioning a sustainable future of Carnisse. The central question was: “what does living entail in the year 2030 for a resident in Carnisse?”. A group of residents, entrepreneurs and professionals held 8 sessions in which they negotiated problem perceptions and shared meanings; some of which varied widely and even conflicted between groups. An outcome of the complementary field interviews was the coexistence of conflicting views on the neighborhood by policy actors who viewed the place with a stigma of a deprived neighborhood that requires extra policy attention versus the lived experience view of residents who expressed that there was nothing wrong with their neighborhood. Respondents holding the latter view were eager to highlight positive aspects, e.g., it is youthful and diverse population, and it is a nice, quiet, central location in the city. The policy interventions were discussed together with the weariness that people felt about participating in these processes and the erosion of institutional networks in the neighborhood due to severe budget cuts that led to closing of several public facilities (e.g., two community centers and the educational garden). The result of this process was a shared vision called ‘Blossoming Carnisse’ that included several transition pathways for the future, an agenda for transformative and experimental actions. It connected the expressed aspirations to initiatives already happening in Carnisse while also critiquing current neighborhood dynamics.
Another discursive turn was made in the Resilience Lab itself, where the practitioners and members tried to connect to an alternative discourse within urban planning in the Netherlands more broadly. This discourse focused on a proclaimed growing social movement of inhabitants and social entrepreneurs trying to reclaim public spaces and engaging in innovative practices (e.g., urban gardening, fostering community bonds, local currencies, co-creation of public squares and self-maintenance of community buildings). These trends were based on alternative paradigms and according to the Resilience Lab partners, appeared to be well-suited to current socio-economic needs of the community. In trying to distinguish the Resilience Lab from the status quo in neighborhood development, it drew up five guiding operating principles (during monitoring sessions) in 2012–2013:
Strengthening and utilizing the self-organizing capacity of its people fosters the resilience of Carnisse. It is about talking with people instead of talking about people.
People and places are the starting points: from here ‘learning infrastructures’ are built, guided by the daily routines and lifelines of individuals and their networks.
Methods and activities are developed in an organic manner in the Resilience Lab to fit the needs of the area, i.e., from a practical and operational rationale.
Connections and collaborations (on several levels) are sought based on innovation and reciprocity. This implies less pressure of bureaucratic control, rules and procedures.
Participants strive for a balance between top–down intervention and bottom–up self-organization.
In all the operating guiding principles, the notion of collaborative governance demonstrates that reciprocity and institutional connections are key for escaping stigmatization of the place and its people. The Resilience Lab and the narrative of change it co-created, helped establish a connection between the context of urban regeneration processes at the city level and its local social innovation processes. The Resilience Lab facilitated a dialogue about perceptions on the present and the future of the neighborhood, its problems and their origins.
The Resilience Lab opened an opportunity to discuss and negotiate the different meanings of Carnisse. One prime example was the envisioning process that drew from the historical roots of the neighborhood. By highlighting Carnisse as a place that is constantly changing and at the same time seemingly remaining constant over decades, it opened the notion of transformation. During the envisioning process, alternative (un)sustainable futures were also discussed, e.g., a ‘Bleeding Carnisse’ where Carnisse transformed into a ghetto. This vision contributed to the awareness of the possibility and drivers of change. Dominant actors like the district council stressed that due to the absence of housing corporations and physical investments not much could be changed in the coming years. When these actors followed the dominant narrative of a deprived neighborhood, residents and neighborhood professionals were offended by and countered this notion. A side effect of the Resilience Lab was that discussions about Carnisse with local communities increased the salience of the place around the administrative bounds of the project. Where residents did not exactly know where the administrative boundaries of the neighborhood started and ended, Carnisse became increasingly demarcated as an administrative ‘space’. This fixation was overlooked by civil servants who consider these administrative borders for granted and as generally known. To summarize, through envisioning, a common understanding and meaning transcending the different levels of ownership of the place and connectedness to it was created. The importance of living and working together as a community with ties to each other and to place was a center notion in the vision.
Symbolic places in Carnisse
The neighborhood of Carnisse was flawed, in the sense that it was not a common place most people could identify with and have shared meanings and experiences. Carnisse proved to be a somewhat amorphous signifier. As stated before, Carnisse was fixed for the actors who participated in more formal institutions and networks. For most of the residents and volunteers, however, Carnisse—and their sense of belonging and ownership—was more centered around certain public and private places in their living environment, like their home, certain shops, and public facilities like sport venues and community centers. These places commonly crossed the official borders of Carnisse and were part of another neighborhood. Therefore, the focus of the Resilience Lab shifted accordingly. For instance, the envisioning process was directly connected to the reopening of a closed community center, making it a symbol for change and an alternative future, and in this way, tapping into the transformative potential of these public places early on.
During the Resilience Lab, different places were revitalized like the community center (the Heart of Carnisse), two community gardens (the Carnisse garden and the Tennis garden), some family homes and three primary schools. These were places of encounter in the neighborhood and bottom–up collective practices were set up to collectively transform the relations between people, their place and their everyday routines. These different places were reestablished to manifest symbolic meanings in the area like the resilience of its citizens and an alternative future for Carnisse. In the sections below we highlight two of these ‘symbolic places’: the community center and the community garden. Both places have been reclaimed as a sort of counter movement by the local communities and transformed into more inclusive, open and broadly supported places.
Several community centers were closed-down due to budget cuts in 2010 and 2011, one them being Arend & Zeemeeuw that had a long tradition in Carnisse and Rotterdam. It was a symbol for the (historical) connectedness of residents with Carnisse, and it became a symbol for transition and resistance during 2012–2016, as residents and local entrepreneurs started a petition, occupied the building and reclaimed the center by running it in a self-sufficient manner. In 2012, the Resilience Lab played an active role in facilitating the action group and coordinated actions between different parties for reopening the community center. As of 2013, they reopened the center by organizing monitoring sessions for ongoing activities and conducting interviews and participants’ observations to map needs for the center to consider.
Relatedly, many activities were initiated by local communities like dancing workshops, flower workshops, educational activities, sewing classes, music workshops, religious events, parties, and games. This soon became a ‘flagship project’ for the ‘participation society’, and was celebrated by public officials and politicians. It led to several conflicts with the local municipality and within the action group. The municipality perceived the ‘action group’ as protesting against them and refused to back the group in reopening the community center (e.g., by asking for commercial rent prices). Within the action group, a conflict arose about how to reopen the center and who was in charge. In short, there was a group that wanted to transform the center into a welcoming place for all residents and to professionalize the its management and another group that wanted to keep the center as it was and run it via volunteering and subsidies. This conflict escalated and led to a departure of the latter group who was forced out (also because of pressure from the municipality). During the reopening in June 2013, the center was renamed as ‘The Heart of Carnisse’. In the following years, the center proved to be a meeting point of local communities (religious, sports, primary schools, child daycare, migrants, etc.). As to date, the center continues to have a somewhat conflictual relationship with the municipality with a constant threat of closing-down.
The professionally led educational garden was shut down in 2012 due to budget cuts from the local municipality. One of the partners in the Resilience Lab assisted the residents and volunteers in transforming this closed-off garden into a community garden, the Carnisse garden. In 3 years, the garden was transformed from an anonymous, shut-off place to an inclusive, open and broadly supported place. Crops, herbs and flowers were cultivated by and for the residents. These were traded to those who helped out with the garden (guiding principle of reciprocity) and were given away to people in need (in shelters, food banks, etc.). Primary schools organized educational activities, elderly homes organized activities on the garden, and ex-addicts were helping in the garden and in return, got vegetables to cook with for their shelters. The number of visitors, volunteers and collaborating organizations in the neighborhood (and the city) grew extensively (Fig. 2). It became a ‘flagship project’ and was portrayed in several studies and celebrated in media coverages. However, in 2015, it was shut down by the local municipality, because the ground was sold to a project developer who wanted to build a parking lot and buildings on it. During the closure in 2011, a petition was started which led to about 100 signatures, but in 2015 the action group (consisted of residents and volunteers) collected more than 2100 signatures. This led to escalating events in the end of 2015 that were discussed in the city council by political parties, several aldermen and the highest ranks of the administrative body of service department directors. Due to bureaucratic and procedural difficulties, the garden could not be saved, but because of a resolution in the city council, a substitute garden was to be created and cultivated.
We contend that both the community center and the garden functioned as symbols for the desired place, since they showcased and strengthened the connectedness of local communities with the places, and networks of residents and professionals were created to nurture them and later to prevent them from closure. This comes in agreement with research on community gardens that confirm that they require community effort to be established, cultivated and remain productive spaces. They require leadership for designing and deciding the type of cultivation (plot or mixed), whether the plants will be edible or not and what the accessibility of the garden will be. Community gardens are places for establishing community connections via greening (Tidball and Krasny 2014) and sites of strengthening social–ecological resilience. Okvat and Zautra (2014, p. 83) note that “positive engagement through gardening, beautification, and community organization reflects hope for better conditions and the agency to bring these conditions about, which might be quite important to demoralised or disenfranchised people in a disaster zone”; relevant for impoverished neighborhoods.