Vulnerable people in disadvantaged neighborhoods, who were already struggling before the corona virus crisis, are now facing even more challenging circumstances. As a result, the looming risk of a social rift in our society could grow larger instead of smaller. That’s why a group of 15 mayors of large and medium-sized municipalities in the Netherlands is now calling on the Dutch government to make extra funding available to support vulnerable neighborhoods. But how should that money be spent?
The persistence of social issues calls for new forms of cooperation
We advocate a non-conformist approach based on new relationships between government, businesses, and citizens. We have to acknowledge that the social challenges in this country are too persistent to allow any single party to implement successful structural solutions on its own. Broad cooperation between different parties that actively work together is key. After all, the solutions we need require an integrated approach, based on the core idea of creating added value.
To create added value, we must bring together talent and brainpower to produce “levers.” In concrete terms, this means that an investment in real estate or area development should not only help create a new physical environment, but also contribute to solving social issues. A city square could be redeveloped in such a way that it also creates a pleasant public environment where residents can meet one another, with plenty of shade to prevent heat stress or sufficient water collection capacity to prevent flooding after heavy rainfall. In this case, investing in one solution helps make other solutions possible – working as a kind of lever.
A radically different approach in Rotterdam-West
In Rotterdam, we are experimenting with this type of approach in the Bospolder and Tussendijken neighborhoods, popularly known as the BoTu district. The municipality, a local housing corporation, the residents, and Rebel have all signed an agreement to set up an investment program aimed at making BoTu Rotterdam’s very first resilient district. This program, called Social Impact by Design, promotes active collaboration between government, businesses, and local residents. It’s based on a revolutionary, integrated approach linking the physical living environment with economic prosperity and social safety. Most importantly, the approach is inclusive, putting the interests of local residents front and center. It involves the development of interventions in which BoTu’s residents, entrepreneurs, and social organizations are all explicitly involved, ensuring local support – without which it would be impossible to tackle the challenges faced by the district. The emphasis lies on finding interventions that target and solve persistent social issues. This revolutionary approach does require patience and perseverance: the program will be implemented over the course of ten years.
Breaking down walls takes time and effort
Because bringing about a revolution is not easy. The approach in BoTu requires the various parties involved to let go of their traditional roles. We still see far too many walls dividing government, businesses, and citizens. Under this new approach, we are asking parties to climb over those walls and meet each other in the middle. This is a huge challenge, especially for the government. Because how does an approach like this factor in the government’s formal role and responsibilities? Does it mean municipalities will have to give up control over certain aspects of their remit?
Here, we would argue that while laws, rules, and internal procedures are vital to ensure legal equality in a constitutional democracy, they have never been intended to foster innovation – they protect the status quo. Only a great sense of urgency – the awareness that things must change – makes it possible to look for new forms of cooperation. Diligence is key, of course, but we also need confidence and the willingness to take decisive action. If we choose a different path, the mayors’ call for funding will fall short of achieving its goal. Because even €1.25 billion of extra funding will not structurally improve life in our most vulnerable neighborhoods if the government continues to make unilateral investment decisions without involving the people those investments are meant to help.