The ideas presented herein are not based on any purposeful research, therefore the following essay should be seen as a hypothesis based on personal observations, yet one that, I hope, might offer something useful for both academic debate and practical experiments.
City starts with a contract
In many respects, city exists to serve a collective interest. Historically, people have discovered benefits in defending themselves and exchanging goods together. The Greek polis was an autonomous city ruled by a direct assembly in the agora, the etymological origin of ‘politics’. Sharing physical space with others has been and is an important aspect of human life. City communities want to grow, because a bigger city means more efficient
economies of scale, benefits for business and opportunities for people. However, once the city expanded beyond its fortification wall, the feasibility of direct democracy was lost, because it was no longer physically possible to gather everyone in a city square. In the Western world, the polis has given way to urbs (or urbanization), where self-government usually takes forms of representative democracy: citizens elect their mayors, city councils
or parties to represent them.
Economy of scale does not think
Even an ideal democratic system works as a machine that prioritizes interests of the many. At the same time, economies of scale make people calculate and act using collective models and large decisions. As a result, local, relatively singular problems and original ideas have little chance of attracting support from the authorities. At best, one can hope for a benevolent noninterference. Even though nurturing singularity of a place and local spirit is beneficial to the city in the long run, it is something that sends administrative computers choking and crashing. Therefore in order to build something extraordinary in our back yards or streets, we must do it ourselves. Not because powers that be are hostile, but simply because that is how democratic system works.
Talka 1.0 works no more
Many of us can still remember taking part in rural communal works (talka in Lithuanian, dugnad in Norwegian, bee probably the closest equivalent in English) – haymaking, forest cleanup – when extended families or even neighbours would be called together and, after a good day’s work, would sit down for a feast. This was possible in the country, when the space in to be worked belonged to one owner or a family, when knowing one’s neighbours
was an inevitability and extended family was the central element of social space. These conditions are weaker if not altogether absent in the city, therefore using principles of the traditional talka to better urban spaces is tricky at best.
Let us not forget, however, one factor of some power, the collective interest. It is what underlies the existence of not just the city itself, but also every company, institution, fellowship or event. So if there is a collective will to bring a change to one’s immediate environment, it should be a sufficient condition for amassing resources necessary for the change: time, labour, finances.
The obvious obstacle might be the diversity of people living in a neighbourhood and their divergent interests. Quantitative reasoning suggests that when there are many people, there must be some common interests. On the other hand, however, the greater the number, the less familiar people are with one another. As a result, rallying community for a particular task might seem quite challenging. How to reach and convince them? How to avoid the all-too-common spirit of suspiciousness: who is this man knocking on my door, presenting himself as a next-door neigbour and offering to join some project? Does he want to make use of my credulity? Take my money for an alleged common purpose and then vanish?
On the one hand, urbanization has spelled the end of the talka, but at the same time it has taught people to actively seek others for help. We know where to turn and whom to call about any everyday issue. In the age of the internet, the task is even easier, while very singular and not widely recognizable projects can use crowdfunding platforms that I see as a promising option for implementing neighbourhood ideas and solving problems.
Crowdfunding is there for anyone who has a communal cause but lacks resources. They can present their ideas to a global audience, allowing sympathetic internet users to contribute financially and help make a particular idea come true. This model is used to fund technological inventions, new products, films, etc. Donations are usually made using online banking services that initially only reserve the sum in a donor’s account. The reservation
stays until a project secures sufficient funding or until its fundraising deadline expires. If it fails to reach the target, sponsors get their money back, and if it does, the project authors have no excuse not to go ahead with their idea. Amazing opportunities, it seems. You want to install a bench – let’s see how many neighbours would agree to contribute (not just financially, but also with their own work, tools, transportation, what have you). If there’s collective will, anything could be achieved!
2.0? It is so last year
The idea is hardly new, but successful examples of its use are still relatively few. For instance, the Luchtsingel railway overpass in Rotterdam was financed this way. It was an expensive project and it is easy to point out at least two factors that helped it succeed: with the local government’s support, communicating with the community was much easier and more effective and people who contributed to the bridge were rewarded with having their
names put on sponsorship plaques. In Colombia, people similarly funded a skyscraper, BD Bacatá, although their rewards – fame and shareholder privileges – might seem less comprehensible to many a Lithuanian. The tally in Lithuania includes several small-scale artistic projects; a witty sale of the Šančiai kiosk deserves a special mention, where symbolic shares were sold to several dozen enthusiastic buyers.
One might find even more smaller, neighbourhood-level projects. And not just onoff initiatives, but also several dedicated platforms like spacehive.com (UK, 2012) or neighbour.ly (US, 2012). However, when one looks at the list of their projects and sums they
have raised, one is not convinced that this is the magic recipe for the future of community endeavours. It is nevertheless a part of that future, since technical and political opportunities are and will continue to be expanding and those who fail to jump on the bandwagon, as history suggests, will find themselves increasingly at a disadvantage.
We live in the city because we find life better here. Not necessarily cheaper or more profitable, but often more interesting, rewarding and meaningful. And we discover these qualities in very particular spaces that enable more varied lifestyles. Variety is an asset, yet representative authorities can only nurture it through prohibitions. It is up to us to positively create it and we still need to find effective ways to do it. Clearly, support from local authorities, even non-financial, is a crucial factor. Not least because they have to sign off on many projects at one stage or another. Clearly, attracting business is a good idea and there is nothing wrong if there is profit to be made. There is also much to be said for attracting non-financial forms of contribution from professionals, ordinary volunteers and people with ideas. It goes without saying that efficient neighbourhood-level communication demands new methods that not even local authorities themselves currently possess. Therefore when we are making this happen in Lithuania, we should make full use of the experience amassed elsewhere as well as the courage to do it in an open and farsighted manner.