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European Support for Urban Practitioners Needed 23.5.07 [EN]


Ilda Curti, QeC-ERAN president, 22.5.07, Brussels 

May 22, I participated in an European Workshop in Brussels, organised by QeC-ERAN (Quartiers-en-Crise/European Regeneration Areas Network), an independent European NGO, that I have been co-founding in 1988/89. After being taken over by political urban representatives in 1993, it has been searching in vain, mostly, for a role between giants like EuroCities and the Committee of the Regions. But now, as the European programmes like 'Urban-I' and 'URBAN-II' are replaced by a complicated new system, where the cities have to find their way for European funding for their integrated neighbourhood redevelopment programmes, this organisation gives again a proof of its relevance for the promotion of quality and and sustainability of territorial urban interventions.

The human factor 

For those interventions are done by humans. By project leaders and -managers, who are crushed between the needs of emancipatorial actions in the field and the obligations of reporting about them in terms of day-to-day politics. Haroon Saad, QeC-ERAN Director, resumed an audit of the results of a questionnaire with 159 repondents, that illustrated convincingly, that our colleagues, whether in the urban government, or in a  project-staff, need support on exactly the same issues as have been singled out by the European urban ministers' conference in Bristol (fall 2005). In 'huibslog, the continuation of 'Huibs' Urblog, we published a first, rather irreverent impression of the workshop.

By this enquête, the urban practitioner becomes visible: he or she has an university grade (in any sector), is mostly over 40 and is a woman (58%). Those people are essential to urban renovation. Nobody else can do what they do. But their skills are not a study- or learning subject in universities. Recently, the UK started an academy, the ASC, to provide training and courses for urban practitioners. It has an Europe-wide ambition, but, as we evaluated here, it remains for the moment stuck in UK-specific activities. As a commercial-inspired institution, it tries to specialise in heavily subsidised consulting in Eastern Europe. Behind the QeC initiative, is a demand for European facilities for training, peer review and quality control over urban projects. This is exactly what we try to do by e-urban. For, as an integrated European approach to urban renovation recedes, cities all over Europe are opting more and more for an integrated approach to their marginalised neighbourhoods. As Claude Jacquier, at the final conference of the URBACT-Regenera city-network in Lyon, concluded, the human factor, the project leadership, is esential to the quality, the sustainability, of the urban redevelopment project.

Project leaders stretched between two roles 

The urban project leaders (elected urban government members) and -managers (civil servants or hired people) are mostly torn between two roles:

1. They have to manage volatile community processes, steering them by all means into the direction of emancipation, participation in the regional economy, social empowerment, delivering education, cultural deployment, and self-government by local organisations of different kinds. That work needs investments in the most unexpected activities, which have, in most cases, no subsidies that are provided for.

2. They have to 'translate' what they are doing into the wordings and benchmarks, set by an authority (or several authorities) with quite different priorities in mind. They have to manage 'partnerships'  with and between services, the private sector and local initiatives, over which they have no sway. And, mostly, their political bosses don't have that either. To put it squarely: The whole instutional landscape they have to work with, is not embedded into their project. That is why Jacquier pleaded for a systematic inclusion of institutional benchmarks into the project plan and into the project evaluation.

As we stressed before, people in this situation need empowerment, they need more skills (and power) to manage those conflict-ridden fields. No wonder, that one of the most stressed needs was: "conflict solution" skills. And, if I may follow my gut feelings about this, this need is not about internal personal- or personnel- related conflicts, but it is about institutions which follow their own, particular logic and who tend to opt out of the partnerships, the moment that the heat of urgency within the political sphere subsides. In practice, project leaders deal with those problems by mobilising inhabitants, other institutions and/or offering money to co-invest. That does the job, in most cases. But the eternal risk of partners ('stakeholders', as they are called now) who enter into conflicts and opt out, remains.

Scientific audit doesn't help either. Universities are as compartmentialised as (local) authorities. If the job of evaluation is given to an economic department, it stumbles over the money spended on a multicultural singing choir, for instance. Sociologists question the need for non-public house-entrances and governance departments do not understand, why the project group is managing inter-institutional conflicts, in stead of resolving them.

Urban regeneration projects are about regeneration, emancipation, not about structural or governance reforms 

Well, the answer to all that is, that a locally coordinated intervention has its own, particular, rules. It cannot deliver along the lines that economists would prefer, nor along those of the sociologist. The project leader has no mission to reform the style of governance. Without that, his or her role is already difficult enough. Maybe, local experience with integrated approach will help to streamline the cooperation of services. Maybe, private enterprises' experience with partnerships in local development will help to change business strategies from quick profit into more sophisticated middle-term investment policies. But that is only a side-effect of urban neighbourhood development. We have to work with the institutional landscape as it is. And it is about that, that we want to learn from each others' experienxces.

This is why I understand the need of thespondents for better tools to deal with conflicts as a demand for support from local, national and European authorities. In daily practice, European support often acts as an engine for establishing cooperation by institutions on a local level. Now, with the new European rules for cities coming into force, an impetus for local sectorial integration is very weak. It depends, more than before, on the local inventiveness, to realise integrated intervention. This local inventiveness is no abstract thing: It is human. Men and women, dedicated to their community, do that work.

An European funding for the (continued) formation of urban practitioners? 

Corinne Hermant-de Callaraÿ, representing the DG-Regio at the workshop,only cale upo with a meager subsidy for lovcal project monitoring groups. Something more than that must be possible, given the billions, REGIO is going to spend. Some millions from that budget must be earmarked for the people who will have to do the job. For their training (an European academy?), for improving the quality (a set of riules) and for a better position of urban leaders and managers, offering them a chance to communicate and to unite.

Is it going to happen? A first step has been put on that road. What will be the next one? 

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