Why research these initiatives?
“These initiatives are making such a valuable contribution to the city. They are established really quickly, are flexible and focus immediately on those areas with the greatest need. They are also not hindered by formal structures. Initiatives channel the city’s enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of residents who want to do their bit. At the same time, the initiatives have highlighted needs that were invisible until now. Although Rotterdam has an infrastructure for people who get left behind, there are still huge numbers of people who don’t quite fall into this category but are still falling between the cracks. And the space between those cracks has become much bigger during the crisis. Many people just about manage in normal times, but during the crisis they can’t cope. They’re not able to use foodbanks, as a formal procedure is needed for this, which is why informal initiatives are fantastic safety nets.”
What special initiatives did you come across?
“First of all the Indian Place hairdresser, which transformed into a foodbank. They set up the whole thing themselves and have now established their own foundation: Geronimo. The Villa Vonk initiative in Hoogvliet is another example. This was a community centre that delivered home meals to older people. After a while, the delivery drivers discovered that the added value was not only in the meals, but that someone visited the older people twice a week. It gives older people a chance to dress nicely and enjoy a chat. The community centre has now obtained new funding for this. Public Works is another initiative I really like. There were so many advertisement posters everywhere in the city about events that were no longer taking place. The initiator established an outdoor exhibition so hundreds of artists could replace these posters with their own art. This generated a huge sense of positivity in public spaces.”
What is your personal motivation to conduct this research?
“I think it’s amazing to be a university graduate and I consider this to be a privilege for which I’m grateful. Because I’m so grateful, I think it’s important that the research I do is not only relevant for the academic world but also to my home environment; in this case, Rotterdam. As university graduate you are paid from public funds, so I think that what you do should also help policy makers in the city in the short term. During the coronavirus crisis, I really had a strong feeling that ‘I want to do something too’, and this research is my way of contributing.”
How did you conduct the research?
“All credits should go to co-researcher Sophie Claessens (ESSB) for this. With a Public Administration bachelor’s degree and Sociology master’s degree, she was invaluable in this research. We worked together on this, and she conducted almost all the interviews. We made a list of fifteen extremely diverse initiatives and interviewed the initiators, the involved companies, the funds and the municipality. We examined how the initiatives were realised, what support there was from the municipality and whether a sustainable collaboration was created.”
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What is the most important conclusion?
“Many of these initiatives were established using existing networks. Initiators need to have contact with someone from the municipality to discuss an initiative. They need to have a good network in the neighbourhood to know where the greatest needs are. They need a range of existing contacts they can call on to answer the telephone in times of crisis and bring an idea to fruition. If these contacts aren’t there, you won’t get far. A well-connected city is the result of years of investing in civil servants who are known in the community, in local governance layers and in entrepreneurs who know their neighbourhoods well. In the Netherlands we often tend to arrange things very formally and then think ‘if people need something, they’ll ask for it’. Having a well-connected community is so hugely important for society to function well.”
What recommendations can give the municipality based on your research?
“Invest in the city’s connectedness and make sure this permeates through the municipal organisations. Informal initiatives need to be better positioned in relation to formal bodies. Such initiatives are currently often viewed as competition, but these are actually a valuable addition. Look at the needs of the initiatives and adjust your support accordingly, for instance by offering coaching if an initiative wants to continue after the crisis. Finally, we hope that this flexible approach continues. Hold on to what you learned from this crisis and try to integrate this in your every day work. We hope that our research