Interview with Levente Polyák, who is co-founder of Eutropian organization. He is urban planner, researcher and policy adviser. He studied architecture, urbanism, sociology and art theory in Budapest and Paris, and worked on urban regeneration projects for the New York, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Budapest and Pécs municipalities. Founding member of the Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Centre, board member of the Wonderland Platform for European Architecture.
Who launched this project and what is the purpose of the initiative?
The Cooperative City is a bundle of several projects, all launched by the organisation Eutropian, founded by Daniela Patti and myself (Levente Polyak). On one hand, it’s an online magazine (cooperativecity.org), presenting initiatives across Europe and beyond, projects by municipalities, citizen initiatives and organisations or various kinds. The purpose of this magazine is to document better the urban transformation processes we encounter. We regularly work with dozens of municipalities, architecture and urbanist collectives, local and international networks and citizen initiatives across Europe: we travel a lot, meet many initiatives and understand more and more what these experiences have to offer to others, and what projects in various parts of Europe have to learn from each other. In this sense, the magazine is our travel diary, complemented by the work of our collaborators who contribute with their testimonies. The Cooperative City Magazine will also have printed issues in various languages: the first issue will be devoted to community finance (in English), the second one to revitalising market halls (in Italian).
On the other hand, Cooperative City overlaps with the project Funding the Cooperative City, an initiative we launched three years ago, looking into the emerging financial models of community-led urban development projects and civic spaces. The idea came from a workshop we organised in Berlin in 2014 where we invited people from community-led urban projects in 15 countries - the meeting was very inspiring and we realised that there is a lot of new knowledge created in the field and initiatives have a lot to learn from each other. This is why we continued with 7 more workshops a year later and we’ll conclude this work with a book to be published in April.
We also used the name Cooperative City at other occasions: for instance, Living the Cooperative City was the title of a project organised with the Wonderland Platform for European Architecture in Vienna, a workshops series bringing together non-governmental initiatives that provide services for refugees in Berlin and Vienna.
How do you define the notion of the Cooperative City?
We define Cooperative City as a place of cooperations, where various stakeholders can contribute to urban processes and services with their specific knowledge, skills and capacities, and where there is a sort of mutual understanding of these roles. As with Eutropian we work in parallel with public administrations and community initiatives, strengthening this dialogue and creating cooperation between various segments of a city (municipalities, community organisations, the private sector, knowledge institutions) is particularly important for us, and we see how many opportunities and challenges do these cooperations imply.
In terms of problems and solutions, what are the similarities between the the countries the project covers?
With Funding the Cooperative City, we organised workshops in seven countries (Berlin, Budapest, Madrid, Rome, Bratislava, Prague, Warsaw, Rotterdam). The magazine covers practically all countries we work in, predominantly European cities, but occasionally also cities beyond Europe. While European cities share a lot of characteristics (relatively safe public spaces, an important role of public administrations, a relatively strong social welfare net), they also differ in many aspects. When working on knowledge transfer (that we do in our projects with community initiatives as well as with municipalities), we have to be aware of the different social, economic and political contexts. In some regions, the cooperation between public, private and civic stakeholders is very active and there is a strong trust between various actors of these cities. In others, local societies are very fragmented and many civic initiatives prefer to organise their projects outside of any institutional cooperation. In some regions, money is a taboo and citizen initiatives prefer to work without any monetary transactions, mostly operating with in-kind contributions of all sorts. In others, the civic sphere also operates with elaborated economic and financial models. These differences depend a lot on a city’s history, the experiences of its actors, good and bad memories, besides general cultural differences.
Budapest is in a specific situation: are there any problems and solutions that are Budapest-specific?
Budapest is the capital of a country in a deep political crisis, probably deeper than any other European countries. This fact largely contributes to the specificities of the political discussion that reaches new lows practically every month. This situation has an impact about how we speak about the city as well. In a context where a dialogue between public administrations, the relevant professions and the civic society is missing in relation to the most important development projects like the (now cancelled) candidature for the Olympic Games, the Museum District in the Liget, the Római part dam, the repurposing of the Buda Castle, non-governmental stakeholders need to mobilise their resources to create information, transparency and visibility for alternatives to the state-sponsored development projects. Also, with the withdrawal of the state and the city from many basic social services, community initiatives take an increasing role in providing these services, including drug prevention, food distribution, psychological assistance and various services in education and culture. We see similar roles for civic society in many other countries in crisis, but mostly because of economic factors, and less because of political ones.
How will you continue mapping new financial models once the financial support is over?
For Funding the Cooperative City, we used a variety of resources, including the Advocate Europe programme, a Visegrad Fund grant, funding from the Austrian Cultural Ministry, contributions of various embassies, and related EU projects. It’s a theme that resonated with a lot of audiences: based on some of the articles and videos we published, we were invited to consult a variety of municipalities in Europe and in the US, as well as to associate with EU-wide cooperation projects, and this process feeds us with additional resources and input that allows us to keep running this project even after the main funding is over. For the Cooperative City Magazine, we used a Departure start-up fund from the Viennese Business Agency, but once the magazine is launched, the content is created through the various projects we’re involved in, and our insight to both municipal projects and community initiatives through our involvement and cooperation with them.