Interview Beitske Boonstra - City-making practices and social initiatives in times of corona

Beitske Boonstra examines solidarity initiatives in times of corona and city-making initiatives. Both types of initiatives make connections between, for instance, the municipality and society, in order to find solutions for persistent problems in neighbourhoods and the city. What skills do initiators deploy? How do they contribute to urban innovation?

City makers- what exactly are they and why is it important to study them?

I have been involved in city-making in Rotterdam for some time now, and I see that many city-makers act as boundary spanners. Boundary spanners stand in between organisations and make connections between them, for example, between the local authorities and society. City makers are people who operate independently and use their professional skills to improve their immediate living or working environment. It is about a particular personal involvement with an issue or a place where professional skills are used to find an answer, and often new and innovative connections between urban stakeholders are made.
I am therefore investigating the skills of city makers, not only to give this group of urban stakeholders more self-awareness but also to further enrich the literature on boundary spanning, which often solely focuses on boundary spanning within formal organisations.

You are also studying corona initiatives in Rotterdam. What role do connectors play in this? 

We have indeed conducted a study on corona initiatives in Rotterdam. How are they created, how are they supported, and to what extent are they sustainable, or do they contribute to sustainability?

Our latest research project is explicitly about resilience. It focuses on the question of how societal resilience goes hand in hand with organisational resilience. According to the literature, these should go well together, but it seems that organisational resilience could also be an obstacle in some cases. In particular, we will look at the linkage points which emerged between society and the municipality during the corona crisis. This is where the city makers and other connectors come into play again.

Both studies focus on how society and local government interact, what skills you need to do so and what innovations come out of this. It is really about innovations that can provide answers to persistent problems.

What scientific disciplines do you bring together in your research?

The research on city-making is primarily in public administration, but since I have a spatial design and planning background, it is already interdisciplinary by definition. Ultimately, every specific issue requires an interdisciplinary approach, and as a researcher, you have to adaptive with that. Furthermore, in my research, I am looking for fields of expertise outside public administration. Think of philosophy and psychology to grasp more intangible, intuitive skills. It is my ambition to relate these fields to public administration.

The research on resilience in corona times has a link with sociology. Public administration is more about the perspective on action and sociology about social developments, but there is a huge overlap. Sometimes my papers are published in a planning journal, sometimes in an administrative science or sociology journal.

In what way does your research have an impact on society?

I gave a presentation about city makers study at the city-making congress in Rotterdam in November. With this research, I would like to achieve that city makers are taken more seriously as a profession. There are already many beautiful initiatives by city makers, but temporality often hangs over them.

With the research on corona initiatives, we have already been able to generate impact in several ways. The municipality of Rotterdam is also a stakeholder in this research. We have organized two workshops with the initiators concerned, municipal officials and other stakeholders involved in the initiatives. The final report of the first corona research recently got published on the 'Kenniswerkplaats' website (in Dutch). We have made a podcast about social initiatives in corona times, and we are now working on some articles, both academic and professional. There is also an event coming up, open to everyone; On 20 May | Resilience and recovery after COVID-19: insights from the social & behavioural sciences, a conference organised by ESSB. 

In what way would you like to make an impact in the future? 

I want to contribute to the city's networking capacity so that government and society can work together on even more complex urban issues. Also, I would like to work towards a wider acceptance of networking and intuitive methods, both in practice and science.

I once graduated on informal creative initiatives in the port area of Amsterdam. The starting point of that master's thesis was that the solution is often already there informally but not yet seen. This runs like a common thread through my work. I have a doctorate in self-organisation and citizens' initiatives as a counterpart to participation. Sometimes people are already involved; in this case, you should not look at how you can involve people, but at what is already happening. This is also reflected in my current corona research. There are already very good and innovative solutions in the city for all kinds of complex urban issues. It is, therefore, essential to see where these innovations take place and how they can be incorporated. It is my aim to contribute to this. 

Vital Cities and Citizens 

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC) Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes:

•    Inclusive Cities and Diversity
•    Resilient Cities and People
•    Smart Cities and Communities 
•    Sustainable and Just Cities

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).