Civic activism as a resource for cities
A significant social change is taking place in civil society in Helsinki and neighbouring cities. Activities based on networks and peer-to-peer production are emerging due to the internet and social media, inspiring new forms of agency. This leads to changes in civil society and thereby also changes in cities and how they are planned and developed. Citizens are liberated and empowered to organise and act as both individuals and communities without the authorities as a middleman. The question is not of participating in decision making in society, but of acting directly to improve the urban environment, its spaces, its service and cultural offering and its operationality.
Thanks to digitalisation and the internet, cities have become an even stronger growth platform for communities, functions and services. Social media is more than just a tool for communication, it is a form of organisation and operation for citizens (see Idström 2016). It is leading the change in civil action towards more active and community-based consumption, as well as networked-based self-integration of urban communities (see Wallin 2015). In a shared economy, collaborative consumption is not limited to obtaining and using goods. It also means participating in the production and circulation of goods and services (e.g. Botsman & Rogers 2010, Lindblom & Mustonen 2016.
Together, social media, collaborative consumption and network-like development lead to the simultaneous development of local and virtual groups and modes of action, which challenge the urban organisations and structures inherited from the industrial world. City-dwellers work together with others to create a city that reflects themselves and their values. These actions are called urban civic activism. Acts of urban civic activism are united by their use of the internet as a platform, which maximises the opportunities for supply and demand to meet, while also minimising costs and enabling the rapid growth of new modes of operation.
The term “activism” has been used to describe typically reactive social movements and actions aimed at political influencing, such as demonstrations and expression of conflicts. The English term “urban activism” is still often used in this context (e.g. Jacobsson 2015). Recent developments appear to have broadened the field of activism to include not only the reactive but also the proactive. According to our definition, urban civic activism is
- collective activities organised by citizens themselves on their own terms, usually outside of non-governmental organisation
- of an initiative-taking nature, proactive and constructive
- directed primarily at action, rather than political influencing or the expression of a political opinion
- relies on a do-it-yourself spirit and commons way of thinking
- utilises the internet and social media in its activities and organising
- and happens either in an urban space or is related to a city and its environment.
Governments and above all the city authorities should recognise the field of urban civic activism and the underlying functional and operational change in civil society, as it affects encounters between the administration and citizens as well as the social and economic dynamic of the city. The most important thing is to recognise the possibility to utilise the new activeness of citizens as a resource. The goal of activists to achieve an ecological, collaborative, fair and functional city largely corresponds to the strategic goals of the City of Helsinki organisation.
Here we present forms of urban civic activism primarily in Helsinki in order to describe the phenomenon and classify its dimensions with the goal of understanding the scope, connections and meanings of activism. We suggest preliminary conclusions regarding what we feel should be done in the city administration .
Events and spaces: spontaneous culture and activity
When talking about urban civic activism, the first things that may come to mind are city events like Restaurant Day and Cleaning Day, as well as buildings and spaces used by activists in a new way, such as the Lapinlahden Lähde and Herttoniemen Taukotila spaces. When it comes to events, the city administration is ideally involved in developing them, cooperating with activists and aiming for a “one-stop shop” policy for granting event permits. The value of events for both city-dwellers and travellers has been understood by the city authorities, although Restaurant Day, which would go on to be an award-winning event, was originally created as rebelling against city regulations.
The Cleaning Day event – in which anyone can offer their secondhand items for sale in public spaces – involves exchanging goods among peers according to an ecological way of thinking. A motivation of environmental awareness can be found in many, if not most, forms of urban activism, even if this is not overtly stated. Community is often mentioned as both the content and the goal of urban activism activities.
A community can be born through social media, but it also needs physical spaces. When spaces are adopted into public use, the city authorities often confront criticism from activists. The ways in which the local authorities administer the use of spaces owned by the City of Helsinki are not perceived as supportive of spontaneous activities; instead, the activists feel these practices sometimes act even as a barrier to meaningful use of space. However, the city real estate department works within its mandate and is dependent on the activities of other administrative bodies, whereas pop-up communities are not easy contracting parties from the perspective of legislation and economic accountability. In order to better serve the space-related needs of urban activism, the mission and operational culture of the city’s real estate authorities should be developed in the framework of political and administrative decision-making.
Economy in transition: peer-to-peer services, crowdfunding and new business
The significance of urban civic activism for the renewal of the economy and markets is related to changes in the supply and demand of goods and services, work, exchange systems and the conditions for the development of all of the above. Activists maintain virtual and physical meeting forums which function as innovation platforms, create opportunities to test business ideas through city events, build platforms and operating models for exchanging services and recycling, renting and borrowing goods, shift the provision of food from market giants to direct trade platforms and develop the use of virtual currencies.
Examples of citizens’ network-based operational models, known as the sharing, peer-to-peer or citizen economy, include Facebook flea market groups and REKO local food groups and food co-ops. According to a study, in just over a year and a half, Finns purchased goods for around 500 euros through peer-to-peer web commerce platforms, which is already more than Finns spend on services and goods in Estonia (Finnish Commerce Federation 2015). Peer-to-peer web commerce platforms are part of a shift in trade that is primarily affecting traditional department stores. For more information on attitudes towards peer-based consumption and the establishment of such trade among Helsinki residents, see Lindblom & Mustonen 2016.
In terms of food trade, the REKO food groups, consisting of local food producers and consumers, already have over 250,000 members in more than 160 groups, of which the 20 Helsinki metropolitan area groups have around 35,000 members. The basic principles of REKO’s operations are direct encounters between producers and consumers, local food, ethical production practices, openness and transparency. REKO’s activities are carried out by a network of administrators on Facebook and occasionally also in seminars, and the network also carries out research and development activities.  The success of REKO’s activities is based on the growing demand for ethical, small-scale food production and on the use of Facebook as a platform that “everyone” already has and uses to spread new phenomena effectively. The successful operating model has gained interest in the EU and has been adopted already in Sweden.
Citizens are more and more likely to purchase food directly from producers through networks such as REKO food groups. In the Puotila district, a school courtyard was used for a REKO food distribution event thanks to the headmaster who was sympathetic to the activities.
The centralised nature of the Finnish food market is one motivation for establishing food co-ops. There have been food co-ops in Finland since at least the 1970s, but they have become more popular in recent years thanks to the internet and a growing interest in organic and local food as well as different kinds of diets. Large food co-ops operating in Helsinki include the Elävä Maa ry organic co-op and the Herttoniemi, Laajasalo and Haaga co-ops, which each have hundreds of members. There are also community-supported agriculture activities, and the groups operate also more generally as local communities.
In terms of other food-related activism, urban farming has become well known through activities such as the ‘Turntable’ (Kääntöpöytä) centre in the Pasila railway yard arranged by the environmental organisation Dodo. On Mustikkamaa island, there is an ‘edible park’ (an open, educational community garden) maintained by volunteers; and urban foragers, who gather wild herbs for their dinner table, share tips in their social media groups. The economic significance of this kind of activism is small, but their social and cultural value is great. In the urban landscape, these activities can be seen in the historical kiosks sold by the City of Helsinki to crowdfunded city groups in Käpylä and on Museokatu.
Crowdfunding has also been used to raise funds for a restaurant making use of surplus food, an art hotel, graffiti painting, and aerobics classes in public parks (Mesenaatti.me), as well as for an organic village and women’s resource centre (Ehta Raha). These forms of activism usually represent social innovation and entrepreneurship in which the content and collaborative nature of the activities are more important than an economic motivation. However, they still provide new means to earn an income at the local level and lead to cooperation with local actors. For example, in the Laajasalo district, young people can get summer jobs weeding invasive plant species from the area thanks to a crowdfunding campaign organised by the Saaremme co-operative and the Laajasalo–Degerö association.
The border between activists and start-up entrepreneurs is blurry, as both groups are supported by the possibilities of the internet, social innovation, collaborative ways of working, environmental awareness and a self-motivated entrepreneurial spirit. For example, Helsinki-based CoReorient operates based on wise consumption of resources and the crowdsourcing of work. The smart container pilot projects, organised by the company in cooperation with other bodies, have demonstrated how services and the everyday lives of citizens can be organised more resource-efficiently and in a way that is supported by people’s own initiative. CoReorient’s PiggyBaggy delivery service crowdsources the transport of goods. The transport and container pilots in the Kalasatama district, for instance, have demonstrated ways to fill gaps in public services when services have been cut, or when they do not yet exist in a new area.
Business opportunities also emerge through the new service needs generated by the increase in different platforms. The Helsinki-based company Hostaway is developing a service that makes it easier for people renting apartments to use several listing services at once. This will help to diversify the use of listing services by offering alternatives to the most popular market giant, Airbnb. Wikimploi, on the other hand, aims to “uberise” work by combining a workspace, workforce, work community and assignments in one package. Recci is developing the recycling of clothing and textiles and also has a second hand clothing store. Many forms of activism operate within the circular economy. Food and transport seem to be the most interesting sectors when it comes to the financial dimension of activism.
Activists take on administrative tasks: support for asylum seekers and urban planning
Another feature uniting startups and activism is the ability to act quickly when compared to administrations, large corporations and traditional neighbourhood and housing associations, for example. When a record number of asylum seekers arrived in Finland in 2015, one Espoo resident contacted the City of Espoo to ask how the city was organising the reception of an unprecedented group of asylum-seeking minors. Feeling that the matter had not been adequately addressed, this citizen founded a Facebook support group for young asylum seekers and, together with the group, began to coordinate the reception of the youth in cooperation with the Finnish Red Cross and the City of Espoo.
The group made it possible to organise, for example, clothing donations and activities for asylum-seeking children and youth. The city administration’s task of receiving asylum seekers was handled better and faster than could have been done by the authorities alone. The city administration wanted to ensure that these activities would continue, and therefore hired the activist who had started the initiative in autumn 2015 to continue work as a part-time coordinator. The example demonstrates the potential of activism in improving the resilience of cities, or their ability to cope with sudden changes.
The relationship between activism and the city authorities has been developed for a particularly far in the case of the Facebook group Lisää kaupunkia Helsinkiin (‘Towards a more urban Helsinki’). Founded in 2009, the group, which had nearly 10,000 members as of 2016, gathers together interested individuals to develop the city to be more urban. In the group, people present areas for development, make concrete suggestions for urban planning solutions, comment on plans made by the city departments and activist groups alike, and review the results of resident surveys carried out as part of planning projects. The most active members also attend discussion events organised by the group, take field trips together and provide background for conversations on their own blogs. In addition to interested citizens, group members include researchers, officials and decision-makers.
The group has become an active and enduring discussion forum in addition to the opportunities for discussion organised by the City Planning Department (Laakso 2015). The City Planning Department has recognised the significance of the group as a resource for planning and aims to further develop cooperation with the group. The group’s founder, Mikko Särelä, also feels that the group has reached such a status that the department listens to what its members have to say.
One important feature of the group from the perspective of the administration are its international connections. Activists in the group share examples of urban planning and ideas from abroad and discuss how they could be applied to Helsinki. Members of the group have also been involved in organising the international YIMBYcon event, which aims to attract urban planning activists to Helsinki every year. This means activists do their part to build up the reputation of Helsinki as a YIMBY (‘yes in my backyard’) city. The event offers opportunities to enrich urban planning in the Helsinki area using ideas and expertise from abroad, such as when activists are inspired to organise planning workshops in order to develop parts of the local urban landscape.
Activists channel information, ideas and expertise aimed at improving the city through collaborative planning events, for example. At the YIMBYcon event organised by activists in August 2016, participants made plans to use underutilised spaces, such as the office space pictured here in the Herttoniemi industrial area, in a new way as a collective living space.
The connections between spontaneous citizen activities and the development of the city are multifaceted, and our work in describing them is still in progress. However, the examples described above already demonstrate how citizens can act spontaneously to promote the city authorities’ goals of an ecological, collaborative, fair and functional city. The first conclusion of our work thus far is that the administration can be most successful in achieving these goals if the concrete activities of administrative units and their working culture are adapted to support citizens’ activities to benefit the city community.
From the perspective of the administration, citizens are still benefactors of and participants in administrative activities, but it is becoming more and more beneficial to think of them as initiative-taking, self-organising actors and cooperation partners – in other words, as a resource for urban development. The administration can, in a limited but still significant way, influence how the resources of civil society are liberated or developed, or remain untapped.
Secondly, in reconceptualising the relationship between the administration and citizens, it is important to recognise the diversity of the forms and content of activities, as well as of the citizens themselves. Activism often represents ways to spend leisure time and also to have fun, but at the same time, it also works for the benefit of society, both locally and more generally. Some forms of activism, such as the Lisää kaupunkia Helsinkiin (‘Towards a more urban Helsinki’) Facebook group, aim directly at developing the society in the long term. Others, such as Facebook flea markets, are more interested in serving people’s immediate needs, but, at the same time, they impact development in the long term by changing people’s everyday lives and the way people live, consume and earn a living.
The third conclusion is that the redevelopment of the relationship between citizens and the administration requires discussion beyond the traditional divisions of roles, as well as a renewal of concepts. In order to identify and bring together resources, it can be helpful to talk about citizens not only as residents, but instead as service providers, service designers, community managers, entrepreneurs and holders of office, for example. Activists fill, for example, these roles.
When citizens are approached as a resource, it is wise to refrain from making a strong distinction between work done by volunteers and work carried out as part of a job. A person in public office can become an activist by volunteering to take on tasks within their own work that benefit the community more than what would be required by their position. It is also important to note that the resources of urban activism do not automatically disappear even if the activities shift from volunteer work to business operations or a position of public office. Activism also means human capital and an operating culture that radiates into other areas of society.
We have developed the concept of the fourth sector to describe the field of urban civic activism and to analyse its relationships to and influence on society. By the fourth sector, we refer to the area of civil society that, with its quick, lightly organised, proactive and activity-centred nature, is structured outside of the third sector, or the field of non-governmental organisations (Mäenpää et al. 2016). However, the fourth sector is, above all, a type of activity that can be done by people other than those in the fourth sector proper. For example, when carrying out local development projects, project leaders can aim to identify how traditional third-sector associations and the current fourth-sector activities in the area can be used as resources for the development project and possibly for local cooperation in the future as well.
A self-organising city thrives with a bustling fourth sector in which different forms of activities and organising emerge and disappear, take on new forms or begin to become established. For further discussion on the interaction between the sectors, see Mäenpää et al. 2017.
In order to enable more detailed discussion and development work, it can be helpful to examine activisms from the perspective of their content, nature and goals. As a tool for this, we have developed a content classification for activism (Figure 5). The classification is based primarily on the cases we have identified in the Helsinki metropolitan area. The categories can be helpful in identifying activism activities and resources and provide ideas for the development of self-motivated activities. The classification can also provide an impetus for considering what may be missing from the categories or examples. What forms of activities not yet seen here before would be welcome.
Towards a typology of urban activisms. Examples of urban civic activisms classified according to the content of the activities. One form of activism may have features from one or several categories.
For example, the crowdsourced transport enabled by the PiggyBaggy service can be identified in the classification as a shared economy service at minimum, but the classification can also be used to consider its significance as, for example, a promoter of community (does transporting grocery bags increase the sense of community?) and supporter of activism (does the transport pilot create conditions for innovative cooperation between stores and activists in the future?). Facebook groups can also be regarded as space-related activism, as they in themselves create virtual space that is meaningful to citizens. Some of them act as tools for modifying physical space.
How to manage a city of activisms?
According to Helsinki’s recently introduced city brand, “Helsinki means people whose ambition is to solve meaningful problems and to build the world’s most successful everyday life.” In the contemporary-style urban activities organised by citizens, the residents of the city and their everyday needs are influenced by worldwide environmental awareness and benefit from the open operating possibilities of networks in the local contexts, united by social media communities.
Throughout history, cities have gained new impetus for development when their inhabitants have freed themselves from rigid operational models (Mäenpää & Schulman 2011). The city authorities can either promote or hinder the society-renewing power achieved through the internet, participatory consumption and community-based operating models. Does Helsinki’s new participation model inspire people to do influential deeds in the changing roles of work and leisure time?
Adoption of new roles by citizens can be seen most clearly in the framework of sharing economy, in which the production models of society are being reorganised. Citizens do not simply consume what is offered: instead, they create their city themselves. For example, when city residents create food distribution networks, maintain places for exchanging goods and services or crowdfund local services for themselves, we come close to the concept of inverse infrastructure, which refers to technical systems created locally (see e.g. Anttiroiko & Heino 2013).
The more the service infrastructure of city life is built from the bottom up, the more the city administration and decision-making system must reposition themselves. It is not enough for citizens to be engaged to participate in the activities of the administration. On the contrary, the administration must adopt ways to participate constructively in the activities of citizen networks.
Pasi Mäenpää is researcher and docent at the University of Helsinki Department of Social Research. Maija Faehnle is an external researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE (University of Helsinki Department of Social Research.
 The article is based on the Kaupunkiaktivismi metropolin voimavarana (‘Urban activism as a resource’) research project (2015–2017, see kaupunkiaktivismi.wordpress.com (in Finnish)). Funded by: The Helsinki Metropolitan Region Urban Research Program, the Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland, the Uusimaa Regional Fund of the Finnish Cultural Foundation, the Heikki von Hertzen Fund, the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Finance. Research partners: Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Lahti, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Ministry of the Environment, the Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland, the Finnish Environment Institute, the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities.
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