Urban commons: utilizing the Right to Challenge in Rotterdam

With a bang we published a booklet on urban commons two years ago: Urban Commons: Shared Spaces. Among the policy recommendations in the paper was the Right to Challenge, one of the five so-called ‘Neigbourhood Rights’, popularized through the UK Locality Act. Two years after publication, Rotterdam has been using the Right to Challenge extensively, setting an example for other cities, both Dutch and beyond. In this blog, we share the news.

But first: why are the Neighbourhood Rights (NRs) important?

First and foremost, because the NRs – such as the Right to Urban Space and Right to Urban Planning –  provide groups of citizens with the instruments needed to take control of their cities and neighbourhoods. The NRs can facilitate the shift from citizens being regarded as ‘hobbyists’ to being collaborated with on equal footing. Through this, they can put citizens back into the driver’s seat of urban development and help them regain control of the city. The NRs strongly relate to the commons, offering a practical tool for building a commons city.

What’s new in Rotterdam?

A few Dutch cities have been taking steps to implementing the NRs, with Rotterdam leading the troops. What’s striking are a few novelties in the way Rotterdam is implementing and working with the RtC. RtC means the right of citizens to challenge the government and say: we can do a better job at a certain task for the same price it was tendered for. In essence the RtC is an instrument for recognizing the responsibility and capacity of citizens, and securing funds in order to foster and safeguard the continuity of citizen initiative.

The first novelty in Rotterdam is the installment of a municipal team that deals exclusively with ‘challenges’. The team is lead by a so called ‘process manager’ who guides the challenge, chairs meetings with the challenger – a citizen collective – and the challenged party – a branch of government, and ensures certain quality criteria are met.

credit: GroenGoed Rotterdam; one of its eight urban gardens

Second is the shift of power to decide over whether or not the challenge is ‘accepted’, from Rotterdam’s administration to the responsible alderman. This way a conflict of interests is resolved and brings relief to the tense relationships civil servant – and especially those being challenged – have with the RtC (why would you accept a challenge if it challenges your own effectiveness?). Challenges in the new configuration of power are expected to succeed more quickly.

Third is a concrete rule that – so far – deals specifically with the domain of healthcare and wellbeing. It defines the portion of the budget of (semi-)public welfare organizations that can legally be challenged: 10%. The fact that this number, apart from being substantial, is legally enforcable, will be a huge driving force for more challenges to come.

The case of GroenGoed

GroenGoed is a foundation maintaining eight urban gardens in Rotterdam. They are experienced in using the RtC as to getting recognized for the importance of their work, collaborating on equal footing with the municipality and getting access to stable funding. Since GroenGoed’s work has a clear fit with the municipal ‘cluster’ Green, this has been their main entry point. However, commons initiatives lapse into different domains often separated within public administrations.

So does GroenGoed. It combines actions to greening the city with promoting the wellbeing of neighbours and fostering active, democratic life. Recently, it has filed a challenge with a local welfare organization using the 10% rule, which resulted in stable, longterm funding. It shows: RtC can be an effective instrument in negotiating change and taking steps toward a commons city.

This blog was informed and inspired by an update meeting on the RtC in the Netherlands organized by our friends at the LSA, Landelijk Samenwerkingsverband Actieve Bewoners (or in English: National Collaborative Network Active Citizens)