Capable Cities In and With The Public

Three days in Vienna gives support to an even stronger emphasis on community work also in Helsinki. The success of cities should be measured based on the sense of capability of their people, not only based on the efficiency of its services.

Tag on the wall of 5er Haus youth club.

Tag on the wall of 5er Haus youth club.

 

Let’s start from the basics. Vienna is a city of 1,8 million people, so three times larger than Helsinki. In a city run by Social Democrats, every fourth Viennese lives in a city-owned, cost-regulated apartment (Wiener Wohnen). This makes the municipality with its 220 000 homes the largest landlord and housing administrator in Europe.

Youth clubs are often in the public housing buildings.

Youth clubs are often in the public housing buildings.

 

One could say that in both cities – meaning our very own Helsinki and Vienna – migration is largely a Eurasian development, which differs from most Western European capitals. When in Helsinki every sixth young person speaks another mother tongue than Finnish or Swedish, in Vienna seven out of ten children and teenagers have at least one of their parents born in another country. The largest communities are Turkish and Balkan – and German. In Helsinki the largest migrant communities are Estonian and Russian.

One factor that separates the cities is city administration. In Vienna you have a central and district decisionmaking level with political leadership in both. Helsinki has only a city-wide decision making level. It is safe to say that in Vienna it is a lot more likely that people know someone involved in running the city. Having worked now for the city of Helsinki for 1,5 years, I have come to realise how rare it actually is not to have political decision making closer to people.

When looking at young people’s services, the cities have a similar approach. Vienna has wien xtra focusing on city-wide services and the Association of Viennese Youth Centres running most of local youth clubs. Both could be described as social, non-profit companies founded and largely run by the city with politicians and the youth director in their boards. Helsinki’s youth department has a similar split with one division handling local work and one running the city-wide services.

Standing on the side of potential

As said, there are tons of similarities. But there were two strategic things, which we could learn from. First of all, more or less everyone we met talked about supporting and starting from the potential in a young person. I feel this is very much ingrained in the way our youth workers interact with teenagers. But maybe it would not hurt to articulate it in a clearer manner. Verbalising something that would seem obvious to you as a professional often makes it easier to gain respect and understanding from others.

Bernhard (right) is the director of youth club 5er Haus. In the back is a banner with pictures from youth club visitors.

Bernhard (right) is the director of youth club 5er Haus. In the back is a banner with pictures from youth club visitors.

 

The potential perspective is something that I feel really defines the essence and distinctiveness of youth work. It means that your starting point is not teaching, correcting or ordering. When youth work is successful, it strengthens a young person’s capability to set goals and make choices themselves. It also means that you give a young person the possibility to define themself even when the context would send another message. It also means that everything you do is voluntary. In this sense the goal of youth work is positive freedom.

Taking a moral stand

Posters supporting same-sex public displays of affection.

Posters supporting same-sex public displays of affection.

 

The second interesting issue in their strategic positioning is a strong and clear support of feminism and diversity. City of Vienna has for instance produced a tool guide for debating against xenophobic sentiments. They have run massive public awareness campaigns on accepting same-sex affection in public. All the trams of Vienna have a rainbow flag all month to celebrate Pride month. All city-funded youth organisations are required to do gender-specific work. They have separate employment services for girls outside employment and training. Just to name a few.

Vienna has a brochure giving advice on ways to answer xenophobic comments, here for instance the idea that immigrant youth it looking for trouble.

Vienna has a brochure giving advice on ways to answer xenophobic comments, here for instance the idea that immigrant youth it looking for trouble.

 

I have seldom witnessed city administrations that take such a clear moral position. It is bold. Just to compare to Helsinki, of course we have policies on increasing the number of migrant staff members, we have anonymous recruiting (you hide personal information like mother tongue, gender or age when choosing people for job interviews) at the youth department, we have had rainbow flags at city hall during pride month, we have international cultural youth centres and we have trained our staff on diversity. But I feel we ought to consider whether that really is sufficient. In Finland we still have too much silent acceptance of xenophobia and sexism. The trip made me wonder whether we should be more vocal as a city on addressing racist language and homophobia. Should all children learn in school intercultural skills like in Singapore? And should we increase affirmative action or loosen up language restrictions to quickly grow the number of experts and managers with a migrant background? Should the city employees (there’s 40 000 of us) be a task force to help you when you are being harassed? Should it be easier to hire directly from the community you want to reach? It is quite shocking that in Helsinki over 40% of teenager girls report sexual harassment from the last month. It does not help a harassed immigrant, a bullied gay teenager or girl hearing vulgar comments if the people around have the right values but actually do not do a thing.

Cities Are Social

Many of our hosts talked about social environment. It became clear how strongly Viennese youth work spreads to the public space. Youth clubs do social environment analysis by interviewing the key players in the neighbourhood (like janitors, shopkeepers, principals etc). The city hall even has a 5-person Team Fokus, which helps the neighbourhoods in carrying out the social environment analysis. This would be something worth considering in Helsinki. A lot of services in cities would benefit from a more broad use of qualitative research methods.

Vienna has a lot more outreach work in the neighbourhoods with youth workers walking through parks and cafes talking to teenagers. Many neighbourhoods have Fair play teams, which mediate conflicts often between young people and the rest of the population.

Backbone does mobile outreach work in the 20th district. Most of their working hours are spent going through parks, cafes and gambling places.

Backbone does mobile outreach work in the 20th district. Most of their working hours are spent going through parks, cafes and gambling places.

 

Excursions within and outside the city are a big method in their work. Many youth workers mentioned that a lot of young people have a very small radius they move in and even visiting a park on the other side of town seems like a stretch. When the barrier to leave your neighbourhood grows higher, you easily start choosing out options for your future. In Vienna they have actually noticed that trips with the kids have a snowball effect on the entire family as the kids are able to suggest things to do to their parents. The importance of public space to young people is also demonstrated by the policy that under 18-year-olds can use public transport free of charge.

In the 20th district 14-year-olds decide annually on a 60 000 € spending on public parks. Every class in the area appoints four members to the planning parliament. The district mayor has ruled that all the changes need to be carried out before the end of the school year. The model combines two important issues: every 14-year-old knows someone taking part in the decision and the issue is one with concrete results. This is really something we should examine when we develop our participatory budgeting of local youth work.

These benches at a 20th district park are a result of participatory budgeting.

These benches at a 20th district park are a result of participatory budgeting.

 

The importance of public space is also seen in the service that the city offers to families advising them monthly on free or extremely affordable things to do in Vienna. Over 36 000 families have subscribed to it.

Capable Cities Have Capable People

The trip made me think of what it actually means to be a good city. You cannot measure the success of a city by looking at services. Just as an example, half of Helsinki’s budget goes to social and health services, which most people do not need or use.

Cities´ success should be measured on the sense of capability of their citizens. Most people in welfare societies are otherish, meaning that they also strive for the good of others. Even when not using child support services, most people wish that these services exist. Same goes for youth work. I am convinced that it is important for parents to see the local youth club or library even if they would not need them right now. This is also why a lot of people still are members of the Lutheran church even when they are not religious: we want to support the work they do with children, the elderly or the ones neglected.

We ought to strive for a society where people have the capabilities to run their lives and play a significant role in the lives of others and where there is a helping hand if you trip. The capabilities are results of the services we provide, the legislation we have, people’s personal abilities and choices as well as the social bonds forming a group. Good cities should be measured by the question brilliantly coined by Martha Nussbaum: “What are people really able to do and be? What real possibilities do they have?” Who and how these possibilities emerge should always be a secondary, yet still an important issue.

The trip to Vienna makes me even more passionate about young people and youth work as an aggregate for change in local government. As urban researcher Charles Landry pointed out in his recent Creative City Index report about Helsinki, the next phase of cities needs a new take on collaboration with citizens when solving organic problems. Most cities – I dare to say also Vienna and Helsinki – are still very much working on the Predict and Provide model. According to Landry, Helsinki is good at solving complicated and often technical challenges but rather poor with the multifaceted, behavioral and complex. We have a great history with efficient divisions of tasks but not with collaboration. One could say that this is also the greatest risk in our world-famous education system.

Most Helsinkians want to live in a social environment, which is kind and fair. This sentiment is even stronger in young people. When we manage to approach our fellow Helsinkians as competent people with tons of potential, we will see a revolution in volunteering.

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