Can civic spaces strengthen local networks?

Edited on 10/04/2024

Can civic spaces strenghen local networks - COVER

Riga NGO House expanding activities (read more here).

Three women who are volunteers at the Riga NGO House during a festivity.

Only strong and connected local communities can effectively adapt to the constant changes in our society. Bottom-up and local initiatives have a great role to play.

NGOs and civic initiatives are proving to be a key link to overcome the growing mistrust between public administrations and citizens. In cities across Europe, different forms of cooperation between cities and civil society have increasingly become important for the quality of life and services in cities, strengthening social cohesion and brining local communities close together.


The cities also have a role to play. Municipalities and city administrations can support these local networks by offering access to spaces, materials, knowledge and funding, as well as providing opportunities to cooperate. If considered, some factors and conditions can contribute to thriving communities and cities of equal opportunities. Some of these success factors are outlined below.



The power of civic ecosystems


Time after time, the NGOs and civil initiatives have proved to be strong allies to overcome various challenges and, as a consequence, to contribute to sustainable urban development. Connections and cooperation between local organisations, civil society and public administrations can create powerful synergies, not only building strong local networks, but also enabling the so-called “civic ecosystems”.


“In Europe there are more and more, not dozen but hundreds of big projects, millions of euros projects that are managed by NGOs and all kinds of cooperatives and social economy actors. These are the people who are actually reshaping our cities. It is really important to recognise the scale in which these organisations operate and are therefore really significant actors in our cities,” says Levente Polyak, co-founder of Eutropian and previous URBACT Lead Expert, at the conference The Power of Civic Ecosystems, which was held in Ljubljana last year.

NGO House in Riga (LV)
NGO House in Riga (LV)



In a publication of the same name, Levente and other authors explored how to build better cooperation between public administrations and local civic societies, showcasing good practices that cities and NGOs can draw inspiration from. The publication leans on the lessons learnt from the ActiveNGOs Transfer Network, where the URBACT Good Practice-labeled NGO House in Riga (LV) was adapted by other EU cities.




Riga’s NGO House is a successful initiative, where the local administration acknowledged and seized the potential of civic ecosystems. Coordinated by the municipality, it contributes to a more democratic and inclusive society by offering equal opportunities and access to spaces, activities, events, trainings and much more. Since 2013, the NGO House has accomplished different objectives when it comes to the integration of people of different ages, social groups and nationalities. All by supporting existing NGOs and promoting citizens' awareness of local affairs.


As Irina Vasiljeva, from the City of Riga, explained “it's a space where NGOs can come, they can make their activities, they can get educated on different topics, it's a space where NGOs can start participation. For some NGOs, it's a cradle. When they start working, they come to NGO House, they get benefits that NGO House offers, become stronger and then they leave our nest, become independent and become the partners of Riga NGO House”.



Syracuse (IT) was among the partner cities from Active NGOs, which had the opportunity to learn from Riga – and the other project partners – co-designed three new civic spaces in their city. They had to re-consider how to put in practice the original good practice, as the municipality did not have as many public funds and large structures available to support such cooperation, at least not in the same way as Riga does. But that has not stopped the Syracuse city’s staff.


Instead, they have co-designed the spaces together with local associations who now manage them. They even formalised their collaboration by forming a governance model, called “House of Associations and Volunteers”, connecting all three civic spaces. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the Mayor and 27 active local organisations to ensure a smooth dynamic. As Levente Polyak also brought up at the conference, “the coexistence and collaboration of organisations make them more suitable to use each other's resources, to share resources, build projects together so in a way be more efficient than acting alone.”


Small cities, especially those facing a population decrease, can also benefit from establishing strong local networks. For the past years, Idrija (SI) has been a shrinking city, suffering from social and economic challenges. To better connect the local community, they found a solution by establishing a Town’s Living Room. This inclusive and innovative practice was designed by the people on the ground – also known as the URBACT Local Group, a multi-stakeholder group of people from the city following URBACT’s Networks. Having taking part in two networks, the CityCentreDoctor Action Planning Network and the Re-GrowCity Transfer Network, the municipality of Idrija was able to consolidate a rich experience.


Civic engagement


Today the Town’s Living Room in Idrija is a space, where everyone can find something for themselves. It counts with a variety of activities based on the “by the people for the people'' model, involving different diverse groups, encouraging active citizen participation and creating a thriving community.


Furthermore, thanks to URBACT’ National Practice Transfer Initiative pilots, six small Slovenian municipalities got the chance to first-hand learn from Idrija’s story. They understood the practices, adapted the idea to their local context and, ultimately, transferred the Town’s Living Room initiative to their own cities. As a result, they created their own local networks and established similar community spaces.


Temporary use as a creativity tool


It is important for cities to recognise the potential of the NGOs and community’s involvement in the revitalisation of empty spaces. Bottom up initiatives can offer for temporary use for places in decay. By doing this, users enrich abandoned spaces and their surroundings, maintain the premises, and reduce certain costs for the owners, as maintenance.


URBACT Civic eState - City governance diagram

Another Italian city benefited from the participation in an URBACT Network, particularly to explore innovative solutions to tackle the challenge of empty spaces. By taking part in the 2nd Chance Action Planning Network, the city of Naples (IT) adopted a participative approach to renewal a large abandoned building in the city. Today, the building serves as a place where citizens and civil initiatives are encouraged to meet, exchange and, most importantly, express interest to implement pilot projects through temporary use. No permanent use is foreseen for this building, making the spaces lively and ever-evolving.  Naples was awarded with an URBACT Good Practice, thanks to this initiative and later continued its URBACT journey leading the Civic eState Transfer Network.


Despite having a long tradition of participatory governance, the city of Ghent (BE) has also learnt a lot from Naples and other partners by participating in the Civic eState Transfer Network. With knowledge gathered along the way, the municipality co-designed a bottom-up approach on how to support citizens’ initiatives, including providing legal and administrative support. Their pilot action included a temporary use of an abandoned church owned by the city, where citizens were given access to build their own project with public support.



How else can cities support civic ecosystems?


Ensuring that NGOs and civil initiatives with access to space is one of the best ways, which local authorities can provide for local community. Certainly, this is not the only way and there is much more a city can do:

  • offer access to equipment NGOs and civil initiatives can use for their activities;
  • funding opportunities for their activities and their cooperation with the city (stable funding mechanisms spanning over a few years can provide NGOs stability, helping them to develop and professionalise). This can include innovative funding mechanisms fostering cooperation instead of competition and allowing equal opportunities for all;
  • create a way to promote the work of local NGOs and their activities (on websites, social media, monthly papers, community boards etc);
  • organise workshops and lectures, legal and accounting consultations to help NGOs develop and professionalise;
  • create events where NGOs can meet, exchange ideas, and establish new collaborations;
  • transfer some public functions to local NGOs, recognising their work and showing faith as well as shading burden on public administration and allowing for new and innovative approaches;
  • and formalise the cooperation between the city administration and NGOs by signing a letter of intent for cooperation.





How about you? How does your city support the local civic ecosystem? Tell us on social media and tag us @URBACT
Interested by other examples, check out The Power of Civic Ecosystems publication!
Submitted by Nina Plevnik on 04/05/2023
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Nina Plevnik

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