Young people have great ideas for the sustainable development of their hometowns. The Romania-based project Com’ON Cluj-Napoca created an environment that fosters these ideas. Larisa Dumitroaea describes the outcomes.
Participatory budgeting aims to involve citizens in a democratic process of deliberation and decision-making to determine the optimal way to spend (part of) the public budget. Com’ON Cluj-Napoca aims to involve young people from the local community in the development of that very community through a mechanism based on these principles. This participatory approach aims to demonstrate the capacity of young people – especially of those who are not the “traditionally involved” type.
Our aim is to draw attention to and support young people and informal groups on their path, to help them change society through a process of sustainable, responsible, and inclusive urban development.
How Do Young Residents of Cluj-Napoca Perceive Their Urban Surroundings?
Their participation in the budgeting process gave a very insightful view of their perceptions of the city, as shown by a recent study on the programme impact:
- The ”self-reflexive Cluj narrative” has as the core idea of the city as commonly shared valuable social space represented by architecture and their social significance. In this respect, these places stand for social values, but are not known and exploited and enjoyed enough by the locals.
- The “Hungarian Cluj/Kolozsvar narrative” is about the Hungarian minority, and highlights the importance of ethnic tradition (language, dances, music, school) in a local context. It is focusing on their culture and historic presence in the city (the idea that “we are here, too”).
- The “global/multicultural European Cluj narrative” refers to Cluj as a place highly connected to the world – via language, Erasmus projects, foreign investors, and students – not in economic or political but in cultural terms expressed by the open-minded and curious locals. The idea of civilisation and being civilised is an important element of this narrative.
- The “entertained Cluj narrative” is extremely simple but very important. In this respect, Cluj is a young and joyful place, populated by inventive and active youngsters, and promotes values such as activity, self-organisation, small-scale social groups; inter-group interaction (for example between young and older generations) is inclusive, grass-root, and autonomous.
- The “city of culture and art narrative” presents Cluj as a prominent place of culture and science, dominated by artistic centres and universities. Having the socially involved artists as central figures connects different social groups and classes, taking the role of bridging people and strengthening the local social fabric with their cultural products.
- The “city capitalism narrative” – organised around the idea of personal career and success – focuses on activities that help young professionals to be productive and to adapt to the changing labour market.
- The It is important because it gives a voice to the marginal groups and their special needs and illuminates some other images of Cluj as a city struggling with environmental problems, mobility problems, and housing problems, too.
So why is participation in budgeting processes important? Well, given the chance, the youngsters will act towards and thus emphasise subjects important to. For example, we could tell about Cluj’s youngsters that they are focusing on the present (not the past and traditions), in a post-ethnic milieu (there is no real ethnic conflict in Cluj), involving socially active and responsible actors (mostly average youngsters, pupils, students, scientist students, artists, designers), doing something they consider useful for them and others, bridging communities (youngsters and elders, culture producers and larger audience, professionals and aspirants, Romanians and Hungarians, locals and foreigners) in interesting settings (expositions, classes, walks, gatherings), and promoting different common interest (curiosity, professional, leisure).
What Ideas for a Liveable City Did the Participants Come up With?
- Excharge (Phonogen group)
The project aimed to equip a public tourist attraction in Cluj-Napoca with a modern phonograph built by the group, which transforms the mechanical energy used to operate its handle into an audio presentation with relevant historical information. In this way, the tourist objective is able to tell its own story to the visitors. Requiring only the mechanical energy of the user to operate, independent of other power sources, it has provided users with an authentic and educational experience during their visit to Cluj-Napoca. The device is accompanied by a text-to-speech (TTS) application that allows the conversion of previously written and verified information into an audio speech. Moreover, the energy obtained by rotating the handle allows the supply of a light source to illuminate the tourist objective during the use of the phonograph.
- A kind letter to Cluj (Reflect group)
During the first year of the pandemic, in times of uncertainty, with mental health challenges, healthy relationships between people have become increasingly difficult to maintain, and feelings of loneliness have become increasingly pressing. Thus, the “A kind letter to Cluj” initiative aimed to strengthen connections between people, build a sense of belonging to the community, and inspire them to be gentler with themselves. As part of the initiative, Cluj people were invited to write anonymous messages to answer the question “What would you have needed to hear at a tough time in your life, and think is worth sharing with others?”. Each person participating in the initiative received in turn such a letter, as a sign of reciprocity and shared humanity. Subsequently, the messages were gathered in the largest letter addressed to the Cluj community. In addition, these activities have been accompanied by a series of webinars on the topic of kindness to oneself.
- Question (K)it! – Deep Conversation Starter Cards (Sunflower Compass group)
Believing that keeping a sense of curiosity towards each other is primordial even in the case of deep friendships and nurturing the curiosity, the Question (K)it! was born: an easy card game, which ignites deep conversations, dialogues, and self-reflection. The rules are simple: every player draws a card, on which they will find a question or an open-ended sentence. Afterward, they will answer the question one by one, and the others will listen to the storyteller. The intention is to extend the current set of 70 questions with the help of a psychologist, to divide the questions into different sets of topics. Furthermore, different versions will be available for different age groups (teenagers, adults and elderly people)
By implementing Com’ON, we want young people not only to actively participate in city life, but also to let their creativity run wild, to take part in decision-making, and to develop a sense of belonging to the city. The results of the programme are representative of what youth can do when given the opportunity to actively participate.
Without further ado, if a city wants a more empowered and independent community, to increase mutual trust and appreciation between young citizens and local authorities or other citizens, to increase the cohesion and inclusion of young people, to create more accountability and transparency in decision making and a more deliberative culture (among others), a participatory budgeting process for youth may not be the only solution in this regard, but is certainly one of the ideas that can lead there.