Active Citizens in Urban Green Space

Across European cities, citizens nowadays play a prominent role in the management of public green spaces, but what does this mean for authorities? Find out more in this blog by Thomas Mattijssen, research fellow at the Wageningen University.

While urban green spaces were traditionally developed and managed by authorities in most of the 20th century, my research and that of many colleagues highlights a stronger involvement of citizens in recent times.

Many local authorities struggle with budget cuts and scarce resources for green space management. This is the reason that policy makers and public officials often tend to look somewhat hopefully at citizens and their activities regarding green space. Expectations are high in many countries, whether we talk about ‘localism’ in the UK, ‘participation society’ in the Netherlands, or look at the policy documents of the European Union. Citizens are expected to be active citizens that take responsibility for their personal living environment.

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Active citizens in urban green space

Many bottom-up initiatives considering urban green space show that citizens can indeed be active citizens – they have proven to be knowledgeable and capable of managing varying types of green space. As research experiences across Europe show, efforts by citizens can lead to positive outcomes and are sometimes celebrated as a success by authorities. However, my own research findings suggest that the majority of citizen green space initiatives are relatively small-scale compared to ‘traditional’ management. Our bias to focus on successes and good practices tends to overlook other examples where citizens are less successful.

In this time of budget cuts, we should reflect on expectations placed on citizens. Cutting budgets for green spaces and simply expecting citizens to take over will usually not work. Although citizens can certainly contribute to the management of public green spaces in urban settings, there is a danger of ‘instrumentalizing’ citizens – expecting them to achieve policy objectives of authorities. Citizens are not always interested in being involved in green space management, nor always equipped to implement it, and they might have different objectives than the authorities.

I believe that rather than instrumentalizing citizens, we should try to look more from their point of view. Instead of trying to enlist citizens in the management of green space, authorities and other parties involved in its management would do well to start with looking at existing grassroots initiatives.

Albeit small scale, some existing initiatives can realize important social and environmental effects with relatively little resources. Yet, current research shows that many local green initiatives struggle with collecting resources and often receive relatively little support from authorities. I believe that a little investment from authorities in supporting such groups can potentially realize important local effects with relatively little means.

With this blog post, I plead to see citizens’ green space initiatives as a local addition to management, rather than as a replacement. Authorities cannot just expect citizens to take over, however, they can probably benefit from the existing energy that citizens invest in the development and management of urban green space.

This blog post is authored by Thomas Mattijssen and is a part of the #EFUF2016 blog competition.

Featured photo by East Hudson.

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