Civic economy

Mutual involvement, active citizenship and the ability to manage for themselves of inhabitants. Themes that, also prompted by cutbacks, become more and more prominent. But does this ‘civil society’ exist in the Netherlands? What can we expect of the self-organizing capacity of inhabitants?  And to what extent can a local authority or corporation stimulate or facilitate this?

Everyone who is skeptical about the ‘civil society’/'Big Society', like the undersigned, should read ‘Compendium for the civic economy’. This book contains 25 inspiring examples that (despite the different social and political context) offer several starting points for city problems all over the world. The ‘Civic economy’ is about the social initiatives that are embedded in an alternative and often local economy. Projects that are completely dependent on social entrepreneurship, innovation and the combination of local social capital and several networks. Projects that also show how inhabitants (or groups of inhabitants) and social entrepreneurs can contribute to the economy and the social welfare of neighborhoods. But above all, they are bottom-up initiatives that fit the needs and abilities of the users and that have come into being without government intervention. And especially the latter fact is very interesting. Whether it is about an ecological amateur theatre, a multifunctional accommodation that is managed by local residents or about a creative workplace and meeting place for self-employed persons, they are every one of them self-supporting projects where local communities call the shots. Relying on personal effort, social networks and a variety of financial sources.

My enthusiasm is probably riffed on the promising nature of the project descriptions. It shows that residents, entrepreneurs and social organizations can achieve a lot when the right people come together in the right place, recognize opportunities and seize them as well. That’s the promising and inspiring feeling I had when I read them, but even more when I visited a couple of projects in London myself  (more about that at a later time).

With these kind of books, with a diversity of project descriptions in it, it is always complicated to draw general conclusions. However, the authors succeeded in doing so. It starts with a worthy plea for creating a climate in which these kind of initiatives can come into being and grow slowly.  A culture in which professional organizations can make use of the forces and unused resources (empty buildings, human capacities) in a neighborhood. Similar to what we in the Netherlands call ‘natural neighborhood renewal’.

The book ends with a number of tips to recognize these opportunities and to create a receptive ground in which these initiatives can come into being. It still isn’t a handbook though, like the title would suggest, but it offers an interesting look behind the scenes of local initiatives.

The handbook can be downloaded for free. Discussions can be found on

For those who want to know more about books on the city in spring, there is an overview.

Photo: Dalston Eastern Curve Garden (Londen), reuse of wasteland by residents and social organizations
Photo by Gerben Helleman