Most places where I share community building stories from Seattle, I hear a familiar refrain: “That’s great, Jim, but we’re different. It could never happen here.”
I was subjected to that in spades when I was in the Netherlands. The detractors would go on to explain the “unique” obstacles to community building that they encountered. I’d hear: “Our society is so highly regulated that there’s no opportunity for community creativity” or “Government does everything for us, so people don’t take any initiative to do things for themselves.”
Those excuses may be even truer in the Netherlands than they are in some other places. And yet, everywhere I went, I saw inspiring examples of community building at its best. There is a large movement underway in the Netherlands that is called Burgerkracht (Citizen Power). In some places, it is led by new immigrants and refugees or by people in small villages who have never lost their sense of community. In other places, people are beginning to rediscover community as they realize that agencies are no substitute.
A workshop I facilitated with young people in Rotterdam
One of the early manifestations of the Burgerkracht movement began on Rotterdam’s Opzoomer Straad in 1992. Neighbors felt that the municipality wasn’t keeping their street sufficiently clean so they organized to sweep it themselves. They held street parties to build relationships. Then, they erected lights in the alleys to enhance safety. They went on to plant flowers.
Now, a grass roots Opzoomer network includes 2600 of Rotterdam’s 4500 streets. Participating streets need to hold at least four events a year. On many streets, new immigrants and refugees are teaching one another the Dutch language. There are reading programs for the children. Neighbors care for one another and hold fix-it fairs. They create gardens and art together. Christmas, Halloween and an annual Opzoomer Day are celebrated. This is so much more powerful than Seattle’s Block Watch program which is organized by the Police Department and limited to crime prevention.
Displayed outside of the community room, the banner reads: Berkel Park, Full of Talents
There are so many other examples of community-initiatives throughout the Netherlands. When a small village in Friesland lost its bakery, the residents formed a cooperative to operate their own. In the town of Zutphen, the low-income tenants of Berkel Park have organized their own community center complete with a Kid’s Club, common meal, and clothing and food bank. One of the most ambitious projects I visited was in The Hague where neighbors had purchased a large dilapidated building and replaced it with Emma’s Garden, a stunning refuge featuring a pond, brook, beautiful landscaping and art, a kitchen, and a large, curving mosaic bench among many other amenities; not only did volunteers do most of the work to construct the park, but they now maintain it and sponsor dinner parties and other community events.
Mosaic bench and sandbox built by neighbors in Emma's Garden
Yes, there is lots of bureaucratic red tape in the Netherlands, but passionate citizens haven’t let that get in the way. In Groningen, I was amazed to see that young people had converted a large, abandoned greenhouse into a beautiful, free café complete with kitchen, dining room, library, living room, rocket stove, composting toilets and plenty of artistic touches. They accomplished all of this in two months’ time. When I arrived, they were preparing to serve their first meal of salvaged food. I caught myself thinking, there is no way we could get away with this in Seattle.
An inflexible building code in Deventer did frustrate a community wanting to build an ecovillage, so they took their idea to the nearby town of Olst where officials agreed to work with them. Now, the first buildings of Earthship Olst have been completed. The walls are constructed of used tires, straw and other waste materials. No energy is imported to the village and no waste leaves. Again, it's difficult to fathom that an earthship could ever navigate its way through Seattle's building code and health regulations.
Paul Hendriksen is the founder of the Earthship Olst collective
My friend, Joop Hofman, had conducted “guerilla management training" for municipal officials in Olst. The training encourages civil servants to question their bureaucratic processes and to be effective change agents in support of community initiatives. Now, Joop is providing similar training in Deventer where he lives.
Joop introduced me to Gerlinda Tijhuis, a neighborhood process manager for the City of Deventer. Gerlinda was working in Voorstad, a lower income neighborhood with complaints about blight and crime. Government investments had done little to solve the problems, so Gerlinda took a different approach. Rather than trying to address all of the residents’ complaints herself, she told the community that they would need to take responsibility for much of the change. Neighborhood leaders complained to their alderman that Gerlinda wasn’t doing her job, but the alderman backed her up.
Gradually, the community stepped up and took one initiative after another. Volunteers who call themselves the Crazy Hanks started sweeping the streets. Neighbors cleaned and replanted the medians. A few residents removed pavers from the front of their homes and used them to create garden beds; now 185 households have done the same. Volunteers, including the owner of the local mustard shop, have turned a blighted property in the business district into a park. Another problem property adjacent to the railroad track was converted into a dog park. The football club uses their facilities to mentor and tutor local youth. As in other neighborhoods, there was an active playground association but now they are also responsible for a beautiful new community center that they own, manage and program all with neighborhood volunteers.
This paver planter is painted in the colors of the Deventer Eagles whose stadium is just across the street
While many local governments are removing barriers to community initiatives, some are taking an additional step of empowering communities. In the province of Limburg, the eleven villages that comprise the municipality of Peel en Maas have each developed their own plans with the assistance of my friend, Jan Custers. The planning process garners widespread participation so that the residents can hold their aldermen accountable for implementation but also take responsibility for much of the action themselves.
In Hoogeveen, they combine bottom-up planning with participatory budgeting. Once a community has developed their plan, citizens vote on how to allocate a portion of the municipality’s budget to implement key recommendations. There’s never enough money to fully fund the projects, however, so the community chips in with their own resources.
I visited a village in the municipality whose priority was to care for their elders so that they wouldn’t have to move out of the community to get services. Using local government resources and their own volunteer labor, neighbors renovated a former restaurant to become a very comfortable nursing home. Volunteers do much of the work to support the nursing home including cooking, maintenance, caring for the chickens and rabbits, managing the community garden, leading craft workshops, and taking the elders on field trips. Those elders who are not yet ready for the nursing home are matched with buddies who check on them regularly and make it possible for them to remain in their own homes.
A neighbor volunteers to maintain the village's nursing home
A more urban community voted to use their funds to help create a “Green Heart.” It includes beautiful landscaping, a football field, exercise course, whimsical playground, woodland trail, large insect hotel, lots of art, and other amenities installed by the neighbors. Some eyebrows were raised at City Hall when another neighborhood voted to use their funds to buy a mobile piano, but that has turned out to be one of the best investments in community building as it attracts and unites neighbors through music.
Yes, there are plenty of obstacles in the Netherlands. As in Seattle, there is still too much bureaucracy and too little community. But, based on my six recent tours of the Netherlands, I am hopeful that things are moving in the right direction. The key, I think, is to be less paralyzed by the bureaucratic obstacles and more inspired by community stories and opportunities.