Three persons dressed like superheros

Anybody can be a change-maker in their community


Sustainable and just cities support spaces and processes that empower civil society. Grassroots initiatives and other civil society groups and individuals are at the forefront of demands for sustainability and justice. Using their grounded and place-specific experiences, they address issues relating to social inequality, exclusion and injustice alongside ecological unsustainability, often highlighting health, security, livelihoods and other at-risk considerations for the well-being of vulnerable populations.

Related keys: #Participation  #Solidarity  #Power 

Active residents become responsible participants in shaping their city through collaboration and participation. When municipalities listen to and begin to make use of tools, knowledge and experiences from civil society, regenerative visions emerge from the public realm. For example, the politics of the right to housing can activate communities, creating a culture for empowerment. Financial practices and instruments, such as participatory budgeting can enable communities to shape their territories, often involving very diverse and disadvantaged groups. Cultural groups and academic groups, especially those taking part in experimentation labs, can assist and support communities to engage in urban development through cultural solutions.

Civil society can build sustainable and just urban communities and cities from the bottom up – but only when diverse groups tap into existing community networks and find common ground, shared objectives and, sometimes, resources to create a comprehensive vision of change. Key challenges here include involving more diverse communities, finding suitable ways of making decisions and working together, while celebrating small steps in the collective journey. To sustain momentum over time, such networks will need to develop resilient and self-sufficient financing arrangements. Bridging different stakeholder groups allows communities to realise their visions, but care is needed to ensure decision-makers commit to a meaningful participation process.

The damages to urban communities caused by speculation, destructive forms of tourism, and gentrification can be countered. This works best when organized civil society actors challenge limited citizen participation in urban planning and wider political decision-making in contemporary cities. Strong for-profit forces demand weak(ened) civil society, so that the benefits they reap from unquestioned neoliberal growth and austerity urbanism remain unchallenged. Civil society groups must counter uneven and exclusionary urban intensification and regeneration. This includes cutting-edge “eco” projects, which heighten material and livelihood inequalities and racialised or ethnically inclusive urbanisation by driving out established communities in order to house new communities of wealthy elites.

  • The more participatory a society is, the greater its will to combat inequalities and injustices increases, becoming a more conscious and caring community. (Rafael Calado, FabLab Lisbon)

Inspirational example

Communities lead neighbourhood transformation, Lisbon

Civil society action has begun to transform the neighbourhood of Marvila in Lisbon, previously a long-neglected part of an industrial port area. 

Two local actors, 4Crescente - a community network of 4 neighborhoods - and a non-profit association Rés do Chão (Ground Floor), combined their powers in 2019 to create a community-led project Transformar Marvila com Jardim e Ciclovias (Transforming Marvila with parks and bikeways). This project came as an alternative to the city council’s proposal for more housing blocks. The community wanted amenities such as parks, play areas, gardens and bike lanes, comparable to those found elsewhere in the city. Thanks to local community organising, an urban design project is now underway to turn seven hectares of vacant public land into a city-scale public park. Initial ideas came from the neighbourhood, limited resources came from community groups and a community representative is part of the jury to select the final project in an architectural competition.

Abel Fonseca factory, in Marvila, Lisbon, was transformed into a co-working space and bar

Avenues for action

You might be wondering, what everyday actions can I take to put all this theory into practice? Take a look at the avenues for action, below, for some practical guidance.

Get inspired!

Network map


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FabLab Lisboa


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