Citizen Participation – Buzz Word or Reality?

Textul care urmează este traducerea relatării scrise a jurnalistelor Kristina REŞTEA și Luminiţa SILEA (, prezente vinerea trecută (15 aprilie 2016) la Fabrica de Pensule, când a avut loc discuția ‘Citizen Participation – Buzz Word or Reality?’ moderată de Dr. Martin Schwegmann și la care au participat Laura Panait, Mădălina Mocan, Dr. Norbert Petrovici, Prof. Simon Güntner și Nils Scheffler. Acest panel a avut loc în cadrul unei întâlniri de lucru la Cluj a rețelei internaționale Actors of Urban Change. Noi, ca organizatori și participanți, ținem să mulțumim jurnalistelor pentru obiectivitate și interesului real pe care îl au constant față de proiectele în care suntem implicați și față de problemele urbane ale Clujului, în general.   

Examples from people who change cities. What other Europeans do, what we (do not) do.

Authors: Kristina REŞTEA, Luminiţa SILEA

Translation: Anca CHIȘ

Link to original article in Romanian.

Actors of Urban Change Exhibition at Paintbrush Factory Cluj with the 10 projects selected to participate in the program. Photo: Panos Georgiou

Greening courtyard to create meeting points- in Budapest; artistic „guerrilla” actions to draw attention to social and urban problems- in Skopje, Macedonia; a summer school that aims at reconfiguring a workers district in the city- in Porto, Portugal; a citizens` radio in Messolonghi, Greece; a cultural centre for children and young people in the satellite city- in Novi Sad, Serbia. Dacia, a cinema reborn as a meeting place for the residents of the largest city district- in Cluj, by involving the citizens in the shaping of these actions. All these are winning projects in an international competition launched by the Robert Bosch Foundation. The team that implement these projects came to Cluj as well, one of the winning cities. Having the cinema as a project theme, yet not inaugurated by the municipality, the participants, the Cluj team and the foreign guests gathered Friday night at the Paintbrush Factory to discuss about involving the citizens in community affairs.

Following the international competition, Lala Panait (Colectiv A), Silviu Medesan (architect) and Cristian Manolachi (town hall employee) won a 13.000 Euro grant, offered by the Bosch Foundation at the international competition, with a project- replica to the „At the Playgrounds/ La terenuri – Shared Space in Mănăștur” initiative. The project will be applied to the newly renovated Dacia cinema in Mănăștur, not in use yet. Here is the set-up for the events that are supposed to be generated by the neighbourhood residents, who will also participate in these events.

Specifically, the Cluj team won 5000 euro for the events project development, 5000 euro for inviting experts to give advice on the working process and 1300 for each of the team members to visit the partner countries for shadowing internship (to assist urban actors from the partner countries in their activities, while learning from each other in the shared experiences).

Bridge in Park Est. Before the panel discussion the guests went on a field trip curated by Lala Panait and Silviu Medeșan, visiting Cluj historical center, Park East, Somes River, La Terenuri Project and Cinema Dacia. Photo: Panos Georgiou

One hundred and thirty projects from European cities were entered at the „Actors of urban change” competition launched by Robert Bosch for 2015 of which ten were selected. The program launched by the German foundation aims to support urban development through cultural activities and multi-sectoral collaboration in Europe. Their support amounts to over 13.000 euro for 18 months, during which the finalist teams will learn by visiting European cities and networking but also by working with the Robert Bosch Foundation experts to implement their project.

These days, the Cluj team welcomed the foreign guests who visited the city. They had a debate moderated by Martin Schwegmann, urbanist and program officer for Actors of Urban Change, at dusk of day and weekend.

The discussion did not take place in the cinema, which still is in a never-ending reopening process since the end of last year, as the Cluj team expected. It took place at the Paintbrush Factory. However, on the day of the discussion, there was a visit to Cinema Dacia, and some meetings with the citizens involved in civic actions, such as creating the East Park or saving the Somes bank.

Participating. Examples from the Germans.

The citizens. The residents. They are important in the decision making process when it comes to the community, stressed Nils Scheffler, urbanist in Berlin. „ I can imagine what project I need to implement in a place, I can sense what the need is. But the people who live there, they are the ones who really know”, said Scheffler. However, the solution of involving the citizens in the decision making process is not infallible „It is a good tool, but it must be used properly”, he noted.  Lala Panait, with several active projects on the issue, believes that: „How you breathe, how you eat, that’s how you must get involved in the city’s life. I see it as a natural reflex”.

Simon Guntner, a specialist in political science at the Hamburg University has brought home examples in terms of citizen power. Or of some citizens. The example comes from Germany’s very recent history- as a refugee host: in July and August last year in Hamburg even over 1.000 refugees were arriving per day. The mayor found, or thought he did, a solution: to build cheap housing for the newcomers, and when they would leave Germany (in a few years) the buildings could become social houses. The big mistake, Guntner stresses, was that the mayor did not inform the citizens. „Those who realized that 2.000 refugees would live next to them reacted. They wanted to be informed. There were street protests, some of them far right, against the refugees, some against this way of doing politics. Amongst the protestors were rich people, lawyers. Imagine these people, in suits, protesting. Not exactly the protestor’s classical image. They were saying they are pro integration, but against the political elite. The procedure was blocked where these buildings were supposed to be built. Politicians forgot how to convince the citizens that they need to be considered while making a decision of this type”, said Guntner.

From the left: moderator and program manager Dr. Martin Schwegmann; Nils Scheffler, urban and URBACT expert; and Prof. Dr. Simon Güntner, professor for Social Science and Social Policy, Hamburg University of applied sciences. Photo: Panos Georgiou

Communication and the need for infrastructure.

„We need public spaces where people can meet, build with respect, with consideration for them. In Romania many public spaces are old, they are not made to encourage communication” mentioned Lala Panait, one of the initiators of the La Terenuri project, which aims precisely at creating such a place in the neighbourhood. ”I do not know if in Romania there is a neighbourhood identity” mentioned Madalina Mocan, from the Faculty of Political, Administrative and Communication Studies in Cluj- Napoca. ”If we only use the official channels we will fail. And participation needs infrastructure. We need to see: what type of infrastructure fits this generation? ”, Scheffler intervenes, who championed new venues to the detriment of the great new Facebook communication.

For some time now La Terenuri was initiated in Cluj, however this project still needs support. „We tried to understand the specifics of the place where we act. There is a tenant association who has a saying in what happens there, but there is also a number of teenagers very involved in our initiatives. There are groups that are waiting for something to happen, people who feel neglected, who do not go downtown very often, and who are not linked to life in the centre. I feel like we just started with what we do in Mănăștur” said Lala Panait. „If people get involved in the environment and see results, see improvements, they will continue to get involved in the future as well. If they do not have a public space where to express their opinions you will have different results. Some fall into extremism; others are lured by people who claim to listen„ said Scheffer.

Norbert Petrovici, who was involved in the city development strategy and in the participatory budgeting process started by town hall a few years ago in Mănăștur, says that, compared to the 90s, there is now a higher percent of educated people. They are informed, and so they can get involved. On the other hand, he also mentioned a curiosity of current times: a businessman was the left party candidate for town hall (with reference to the „independent” candidate Octavian Buzoianu supported in the local elections also by PSD).

Panel discussion: Citizen Participation – Buzz Word or Reality?. The ‘flower’ moment. Photo: Panos Georgiou

The flower from music class, municipality’s only replica for the foreign guests in Cluj

Manolachi tried to crack a joke and he concluded that .. the debate was boring and „almost put the audience to sleep”. He remembered how during music class in school there was a ritual he still remembers to this day: before class, they would stand up, raise their hands up, approach them to their noses and say: This flower smells very good. „I have not understood to this day why they were making us do this. Probably to prevent us from being sleepy”, he completed. „Any connection to something?” asked the experts after politely laughing. Manolachi completed that the „Flower did smell good” and the debate was thus concluded.

Attending the debate, the president of the Cluj-Napoca 2021 Association, who prepared the file for city’s candidature for the title of European Capital of Culture, Florin Moroșanu, who has experience in engaging the actors from Cluj, including public ones, did not intervene in the discussion. „We wanted more examples from then. Not to talk about dogma” said Moroșanu after the debate.

Actors of Urban Change visiting Cinema Dacia in Mănăștur. Photo: Panos Georgiou

A Friday with Fed Cup, a bad day for Town hall to join you

The headrest is to get Town Hall involved; say the two actors of change from the Cluj team. „Nobody is interested in what we wish to do, or that we managed to put Cluj on the Bosch project map to change the face of cities. We were told that we can even get the Town Hall glass room for the debate, but we were told that none of the officials would be there, especially on the Fed Cup preparation day. Who would be interested in what we do? Or that we brought into town some people who know what they are talking about and are light years ahead of us… ”, said the team after the debate. They also added that that they visited Cinema Dacia on the day of the debate and two boys welcomed them, form the team that manages cultural objectives. „One of them said he will manage the cinema, but he kind of whispered it. They avoided interacting with the foreign guests. On the other hand they announced that they are in a good place with the event organizing, being booked for several months”, added the Cluj team.

The participants in the program on the Paintbrush Factory roof top. Photo: Panos Georgiou

„We initiated the participatory budgeting process and we worked in Mănăștur. Last year we involved young people. It is very hard to get people involved. They mind their own problems, punctually, and they strictly mind them being solved. However, we will not give up and try to empower the community for the city’s greater good” added the Town Hall team.


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