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January 25, 2016

Civil Initiatives Challenge Notions of ‘Good Life’

Civil Initiatives Challenge Notions of ‘Good Life’

By Jens Adam

The social and political landscape of German cities is changing rapidly. A key aspect of this transformation is the increasing relevance of civil society groups in shaping and developing urban spaces. Such groups have taken responsibility for local libraries or formerly public swimming pools, or are undertaking activities to revive neighbourhoods and cities.

Some initiatives follow the principles of direct democracy, others invent new business models, while others focus on a specific service or facility in order to ensure its preservation and continued operation. The activists involved experiment with organisation: they create associations, foundations, cooperatives, small companies, local forums or informal networks.

Such developments have at least four consequences:

  1. Discussions of what constitutes the "good life" and how to shape urban spaces.
  2. The expansion and increasing diversity of participants in such discussions.
  3. The continuous renegotiation of relationships between civil society and city halls, and their respective responsibilities.
  4. The formation of new knowledge about what shapes urban space along with the relevant mechanisms.


From the outset, the SEiSMiC network in Germany decided to concentrate on different aspects of these developments during its meetings. For instance, last September representatives of civil society initiatives and city authorities gathered in the western city of Wuppertal for the second national workshop to discuss collaborative forms of urban development. Four examples of the co-creating of urban space took centre stage and were discussed:

  • a long-term participatory process to remodel a neglected square in Berlin;
  • the transformation of a former industrial compound into a flourishing cultural institution in Schwerte;
  • the rearrangement of an abandoned old people’s home into a unique residential complex that brought together a diverse group of people — including refugees, hotel guests and artists — in Augsburg; and
  • the moderation of conflicts that arose when skateboarders started taking over space in a public square in Dortmund.


It was the overall aim of these discussions to identify effective ways of collaboration between civil society and urban administrations to shape urban space. New constellations of actors and innovative forms to co-create or finance urban matters emerged, all of which can contribute to better quality of life in German cities.

Jens Adam is team member of SEiSMiC Germany