Another Academy Berlin Blog III: How to work together instead of against each other in city-making?

It’s common for city actors to compete for the same flows, instead, could there be a model towards a joint action aiming for solutions that would benefit everyone? This is the third post of the series about cooperation in city-making which describes insights learned from the Berlin-based grassroots initiatives. We will continue to observe city-making practice from different angles within Autumn Another Academy Berlin.

Authored by our guest researcher Aleksandra Katasonova. 

Time for action

Living collectively in cities means not only to have a right to call for change but also to take responsibility and develop solutions. That is why I propose that general perceptions of a city can change from “the city as a service” to “the city as a common good”. Scaling the big development goals to smaller steps could inspire citizens to consider that not only their voice matters but also their action.

 Grassroots initiatives and do-tanks (instead of think-tanks) exemplify the way citizens make the city better for themselves. 

This overview illustrates that non-profit organizations and associations of citizens can act as developers creating valuable and sustainable projects. ‘From below’ does not always mean ‘priceless’ of ‘lefty’, first, it means making ourselves for our needs. That might become a pivot point in the city development process. Private companies may profit from self-administration from the side of tenants. A municipality could find proactive local partners able to consolidate the community. Citizens get the power to change things as they wish. 


Value in cooperation

When it comes to common goods, delineating a clear value for everyone can motivate different parties to act together. Many examples of this idea are located in Berlin, where transformations have been initiated by citizens associations. These are real cases that prove how not only private companies and municipalities can develop the city, but also citizens supported by collaborative agreements with different actors. 

The Berlin-based initiative Upstall Kreuzberg, it’s a great example. They started a public company in 2010 to preserve the so-called ‘dragoon area’ as public and prevent the space to be bought by commercial developers. The management of the space was undertaken by several initiatives that created the alliance Stadt von Unten (City from below)  to share the expertise on city development policy and self-management and made their opinion count. 

Funding for this project came from a network that supported the first pioneering activities and organized a participatory process with the local community. 

This alliance resulted in a model project “Self-governing and municipal”. The initiative group was legally commissioned to support the further development process, and now it keeps performing as a part of the Networking meeting Rathausblock.


Another example of the grass-root project model is  SAMTWEBEREI in Krefeld, which illustrates how cooperation helps to develop win-win solutions and finance projects. The municipality of Krefeld collaborated with the Montag Foundation to realize a redevelopment project in a former industrial site. 

Montag foundation financed a participatory concept development phase, in exchange, the municipality provided the site for the 99-year lease with a rent waived. Besides, the foundation announced a call for “pioneering renting” in which tenants were charged rent prices below the market price before the significant reconstruction was done. Montag foundation committed to contributing to cultural and community orientated work generating a local fund to support community projects.

In this case, the municipal property was developed towards common good with an extra financial profit by a private company, while the site stayed as a municipal property, preserved from privatization and speculation.


First small steps 

Big private development projects, and even public ones, frequently cause tense relations in local communities. These communities could reject projects because it’s hard to imagine how they would profit from them in the long term, yet the uncomfortable changes for their lifestyle do happen in their immediate future.

Communicating the broader picture with efficient marketing strategies can ease some of these tensions, and first users are one of the most effective tools for these strategies. They simplify the positive publicity process of a site by humanizing it, they create a positive image of the site and they build relations with locals.

Therefore, the standard practice for grassroots initiatives can be considered pioneering as it proposes a step-by-step reconstruction. First tenants occupying buildings at the early phase profit from the reduced rent while they create recognition, commitment within the local community, and bring first profit to invest in the redevelopment process. 


Cooperation agreement

A cooperation agreement is a way to establish ground rules for communication, decision-making, and sharing responsibilities within such projects. The practice of model (pilot) projects aims to create replicable prototypes for the common good instead of commercial profit. This legal procedure provides equal rights for actors involved.

Relevant examples of cooperation agreements are the agreement for the Redevelopment area Friedrichshain- Kreuzberg – Rathausblock or the Koop5 agreement for redevelopment of House of Statistics site.


What else could we learn 

Grassroots initiatives are able to act as professional non-profit developers by:

  • Coping with particular needs and problems of the local community
  • Developing and operating property, social and cultural activities –  where activism becomes a job
  • Preserving municipal property and land from privatization and speculation; and realizing development not FOR profit, but WITH profit.

Grassroots initiatives can create trust and commitment within the local community, increase inclusion and social bond, that makes them reliable partners both for municipalities and private companies.


What are the challenges

Since grassroots initiatives encourage self-management and self-administration, the extra responsibilities might be challenging to deal with. 

In SAMTWEBEREI  a mixed-use complex in Krefeld located in an old factory – it was planned to implement a self-administration model within tenants. The non-profit, responsible for the project development, “Urban Neighborhood Samtweberei gGmbH” (UNS) commissioned all the tenants by the rent contract to one hour of voluntary work in the district per square meter rented. 

The idea is that with this work tenants support the local community and create positive confirmation and recognition of the UNS. The contributions made by voluntary work are supposed to be offset against the rent and part of the annual utility bill. However, during self-evaluation UNS found out that some tenants were critical of the strategy, in their view, the “work of creative people at low wages” is bought over this way. Even if the volunteer contribution gained a rent reduction, the implementation was not well received.

Implementing a participatory process can also be challenging in its financial set-up. Not every city can provide funds for this when it’s a public project. In the case of SAMTWEBEREI, for example, the funding came from a non-profit foundation; Upstall Kreuzberg implemented a self-investment scheme supported by donations to the registered association. 


Further posts will provide more information about particular tools and practices for city-making. 

Follow us 




Comments are closed.