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Bringing the commons to life

A new ecosystem of spaces for public-civic cooperation
Ghent / Belgium
Size of city: 
260 000 inhabitants


City of Ghent Policy Participation Service
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Thanks to the inspiring Naples practice in the Civic e-State network, the City of Ghent developed new policy tools  of  commons co-governance. These have been tested in  the  pilot project of the Saint Joseph Church for the community-oriented management of the building.  The result is the creation of a series of legal and management strategies adopted by the public administration to boost cooperation between different departments of the public administration, and between city-led services and residents’ initiatives.

Solutions offered by the good practice

 Despite the strong tradition of civic engagement and participatory governance dating back to the nineties, the city of Ghent could not count on a regulatory framework supporting the wide range of civic initiatives from inhabitants. The occasion to experiment a new  policy framework came with the example of “civic uses” in Naples about reuse of abandoned buildings as commons. In this frame the city of Ghent wanted to co-design a frame of co-management of public goods through a pilot project in the reuse of the 2018 desecrated Saint Josef Church  located in the Rabot-Blaisantvest neighborhood.  Rabot is one of the poorer ones in the city, known as an arrival district with  70,5 % of foreign descent residents (District Monitor Ghent, 2019) and with more than 90 nationalities.  In 2019 the City of Ghent purchased the church  to give it a new purpose in the form of public-civic management.

In the past, the city had been experimenting with civic-led temporary use of brownfield sites and empty buildings for over a decade (e.g. DE SITE in REFILL URBACT project) providing subsidies via the Temporary Use Fund with a budget of €300,000 available for citizens managed initiatives. Despite this, the public-civic management of the saint Josef Church presented a series of challenges new to the city, not least given the fact that the church was classified as historical heritage.

In order to realize the project, the City of Ghent has used several instruments. An open call to find a project coordinator was launched and a real estate agreement was closed between the manager and the City of Ghent.  The project coordinator provided a threefold plan that encompasses the organisation of the use of the Church by citizens and organisations, the maintenance of the Church building and the creation of the democratic and economic management models for the Church. The coordinator must do so in respect of the guiding principles, e.g. all aspects of the plan must be community-oriented and take into account the specific needs of the diverse and colourful neighbourhood the Church is located in.

Throughout this procedure, the Policy Participation Service of the City of Ghent organised a Urbact Local Group (ULG), made up of members of different city administration offices, so that the citizens and organisations could be directly involved in the management plans of the building, given the opportunity to visit the site and express their wishes while giving their input on the uses. The scope is to strengthen collective responsibility, so that each member of the community contributes to the site’s management.

Following Covid-related delays, Ghent made the church building temporarily available in a city tool called ‘room finder’, giving citizens access to the building for their own projects up to 12 times a year.

Sustainable and integrated urban approach

The approach undertaken by the City of Ghent is fully aligned with the integrated approach of the Good Practice of Naples that it transferred. Ghent is a good example of combining vertical and horizontal integrated approach proposing a balanced coordination among soft and hard measures. In particular, the horizontal Integration was enhanced through the creation of a cross-departmental working team: the Local Administrative Working Group (LAWG), made up of members of the Policy Participation Service, the Real Estate Service, the Urban Development Service and the Legal Service. This has represented a key highlight and added value to the project. Some representatives of the city’s participation and legal departments met and started working together for the first time through this pilot.

The LAWG task force has worked so successfully that it will keep existing after the project and make a regular consultation between different services involved in making urban real estate accessible, for example encouraging the re-use of abandoned buildings and developing the necessary tools for this purpose.

In addition, a legal-administrative incubator will be established, which will offer support to starting-up residents' initiatives.

Participatory approach

The city of Ghent has a long tradition of participatory governance, boosted with the former Mayor Daniël Termont (2007-2018) as the strongest supporter of civic participation and co-creation.  Before that, already in the 1990s, Ghent  had created a Participation Unit to encourage a bottom-up approach to planning and decision-making. Civil servants of the Participation Unit function as Neighborhood managers in order to connect with citizens and with society in the 25 districts of the city. They deliver tailored work to create more livable, more social and more sustainable districts. They are the go-between between various stakeholders in order to find solutions to urban challenges existing in the neighborhood, linking the city council and the city’s residents.

Over the years, the unit has developed different instruments (Participation platform, Crowdfunding platform, Temporary Use of vacant buildings, Participatory budget, neighborhood management projects, including subsidy agreements, permits for using public space et al.) to enable and support citizens’ ideas and initiatives.  More recently, citizen initiatives and civil servants co-wrote Ghent’s 2017 Commons Transition Plan for a sustainable and ethical economy. The political will and support in participation extends after the Termont mandate with the assignment of a Deputy Mayor of Participation.

As for the specific case of the Saint Josef pilot, the URBACT Local Group (ULG) methodology has been fundamental in enhancing citizens and organization participation and involvement, as it entailed various activities and tools not only to make citizens actively engaged in the process, but also to listen and debate about their views and concerns on the management of the building.

Differents identifications and monitoring tools are been used to listen to people to people's concerns, such as:

  • Neighbourhood of the Month;
  • sounding board groups & think tanks;
  • a participation platform;
  • think tanks with long-term participation projects (En Route, "Room for Ghent", citizens' cabinet);
  • SWOT analysis and monitoring table for indications (neighbourhood analysis, recording and following up on indications);
  • detection of indications by means of stories (testimonies).
What difference has it made

The positive influence of Civic eState network can be felt at many levels in Ghent. It has given a boost to the cooperation between city services and in the cooperation between residents' initiatives and the city administration; it helped in creating a stable task force in the municipality called the Local Administrative Working Group ( LAWG) to make a regular consultation between different services involved in making urban real estate accessible; and implemented a pilot project in the reuse of the Saint Joseph Church.

The tangible result is that Saint Joseph Church is now returned to the neighborhood as an open space that gives local residents the opportunity to develop activities and a social network based on their own needs and possibilities.

Ghent plans to bundle a lot of ideas and work towards a kind of step-by-step plan of how as a city they can improve their organization for the benefit of the commons. To help a long-term focus on citizens initiatives, a “catalogue” was elaborated by  the Local Administrative Working Group to make a concrete step-by-step plan together with the two services: the Policy Participation Service & the Real Estate Service of the city.

This will help to sum up the work done and what forms of involvement the city organizes for and with the neighborhood, providing a basis for replicating the pilot approach in other areas.

Transferring the practice

Through Civic e-State the City of Ghent joined a community of European municipalities that experimented in their local contexts the creation of urban commons regulation in a transnational  peer-learnig mode of cooperation. Ghent learned a lot from the legal documents (city regulations and agreements) received from Napels and Barcelona. These documents contained interesting definitions and principles, which have been adopted for the open call of Ghent's pilot project. At the same time, Barcelona and Amsterdam opened Ghent's eyes to the importance of measuring the social return of certain projects.

Then, after visiting similar initiatives in the other partner countries, the City of Ghent has succeeded in applying the practices and learnings in the Saint Joseph Church pilot project.