In response to municipal budget cuts in the subsidies for local initiatives in Rotterdam, 16 of them in Feijenoord in the fields of business, culture, education, healthcare and sports, joined forces in the summer of 2013. Together, they settled in a vacant part of a building owned by the district government and started a community centre, which they named the Experimental Garden of Feijenoord [De Proeftuin Feijenoord]. The other half of the building is a sports hall that is rented by local sports clubs and is managed by civil servants. The Experimental Garden currently exists of 69 initiatives and the number continues to grow. It wants to become a long-term community facility (Maroned, 2014). It is run by volunteers, including the leaders and participants of the initiatives and other visitors of the centre. The City supports the project with a grant of € 450,000 per year for the fulltime employment of a coordinator and curator, building maintenance and by leasing the building low-cost for the first year (Van der Leeuwkring, n.d.). From the fall of 2014, the City will gradually decrease its financial support. Eventually, they want the initiative to become self-sufficient (Alacritas, 2014).
The 69 initiatives target different resident groups. Altogether, the Experimental Garden wants to attract participants who represent the population of Feijenoord, an interviewed project leader explains. Amongst other resident groups, the project aims to attract vulnerable groups: (informal) caregivers, elderly people, lonely people, (Muslim) women who do not leave their homes often and youths. Interviews with project leaders and the coordinator confirm that the project attracts a diverse group of participants, in terms of age, ethnicity, culture and religion, education and occupation, household type, interests and needs and knowledge and skills. Like the majority of residents in Feijenoord, most participants have low incomes. Most live in Feijenoord, some have their residence in other parts of Rotterdam South and a few live outside Rotterdam South.
The main goals of the Experimental Garden are to increase social cohesion among and social mobility of participants (e.g. Maroned, 2014). According to interviewed project leaders, the City finds the latter goal most important. Yet, the direction and participants of the Garden give priority to both (Maroned, 2014). According to five interviewed project leaders and the project coordinator, the project achieves to raise social cohesion by facilitating positive encounters between the different local initiatives and different audiences. Encounters are enabled through weekly meals for participants and leaders of initiatives, monthly roundtable meetings with the leaders, thematic working groups (e.g. on building maintenance) with participants of different initiatives and by letting initiatives share resources (e.g. cookware) and activity spaces (e.g. a knitting club and a youth organisation are active in the same room at the same time). Through the range of activities at the Experimental Garden local residents can become acquainted with unfamiliar activities and people. The coordinator and initiative leaders ensure that activities are accessible to diverse groups, encourage participants to join (new) activities, recruit new participants and encourage participants to treat one another with respect. The coordinator also facilitates connections between participants and organisers and ensures that groups collaborate on an equal basis (Alacritas, 2014). Regulations are collectively decided upon with project leaders and volunteers. According to the interviewees, the project achieves to increase the social mobility of participants by offering a range of activities through which they can improve their health and social and professional skills, enhancing their social networks through interactions with other participants, professionals and project leaders and encouraging participants to support and learn from one another.
The Experimental Garden is open to visitors 7 days a week from 8am – 10pm on weekdays and from 10am – 10pm in the weekends. In about 18 different rooms, the project offers about 20 activities per day during the week and 10 per day in the weekends (We Love the City, n.d.). Every month, the initiative is visited by 1000 visitors. Participants and leaders of organisations are responsible for the programme (We Love the City, n.d.). Volunteers and trainees support the project as hostesses, homework supervisors, course leaders, or handymen. A management board supports the volunteers and trainees. The board exists of a coordinator, a trainee (a university graduate) and a sports ‘programmer’. A supervisory board, comprising volunteers from outside Feijenoord, advices the management (We Love the City, n.d.).
Perceptions and use of the concept of diversity
The diversity of initiatives and visitors of the Experimental Garden originated when local initiatives decided to collaborate out of financial necessity. After its foundation, this diversity is explicitly understood as the project’s main quality by the interviewed project’s leaders and the central coordinator. The project builds upon this diversity to achieve its main objectives. By partaking in a diverse environment, participants learn to live and work, and profit from differences. According to interviewees, this helps them to better understand, tolerate, appreciate and connect with diverse people outside the Experimental Garden. The diverse activities and the encounters between residents increase the social mobility of participants as well (Alacritas, 2014).
Main factors influencing success or failure
The following factors contribute to the project’s success. First, the method of learning through interaction as well as sharing the building and materials allows the project to achieve its goals in an inexpensive way. Before the start of the Experimental Garden, the 69 initiatives together received € 450,000 of municipal subsidies for which they individually organised a few activities a week in separate locations throughout the neighbourhood (Van der LeeuwKring, n.d.). In contrast, currently all activities are concentrated in the Garden, which is currently open 14 hours a day and provides 10 to 20 activities per day. Second, the shared objective to preserve the initiatives and the Experiment Garden encourages participants and project leaders to cooperate. Third, as the project is carried out by the community, it is responsive to local needs. A leader of an initiative is for instance currently setting up a project for, about and with people with dementia after he identified local demand for this. Fourth, by building upon the qualities of the community and offering activities that are in their demand the project is visited by a wide range of local residents. Fifth, because visitors are diverse, most local residents can identify with one or more social groups. Therefore, an interviewed project executive explains that the project is a safe place for many local groups, also vulnerable ones. Sixth, according to an interviewed organiser, the fact that project leaders get along well both personally and professionally contributes to the projects successes. Seventh, an interviewee mentions that the policy that obliges residents who receive benefits in Rotterdam to conduct voluntary work in exchange might act as a push factor for local residents to become a volunteer. Finally, we find that the coordinator of the Experimental Garden contributes to the success because she is trusted by participants as she has no interest in a particular person or initiative, she encourages participants to develop their talents and builds the project on this, she encourages interaction on the base of respect and equality, and she uses her social network to give participants and organisers fruitful connections.
The project faces three main difficulties. First, the City is currently reducing its subsidies and cutting back on the salaries of the coordinator and the curator. The analysis above has shown that the coordinator’s function is essential for the project’s success and the task of maintaining the building for 69 initiatives and about 1000 visitors per month requires too much time and responsibility for volunteers. As the project mostly facilitates low-income groups, the participants cannot be asked to pay for this, project leaders argue. Alternate financial constructions are conceivable (e.g. involving local companies or other prosperous actors). Nevertheless, hitherto, there is no alternative financial plan. Second, the Experimental Garden faces a shortage of local volunteers who are able to perform responsible and complex (managerial) tasks. As Feijenoord has few high-skilled residents, those who volunteer at the Experimental Garden are charged with high workloads, interviewees explain. Finally, the Experimental Garden is in conflict with the district government about the use of the municipal sports hall in the building. Participants want to make more use of and eventually run the sports centre on a voluntary base. But, the City refuses to give tasks to volunteers, although they have promised to do so as citizen participation is a key priority for them.
The Experimental Garden has received significant attention by municipalities, research and other local initiatives in the Netherlands, where public subsidies for local initiatives are structurally declining. The arrangements’ partnership construction (of 69 local initiatives) and method of generating social cohesion and social mobility through exchanges between residents with diverse backgrounds and skills, offer an innovative and low-cost solution for preserving the initiatives. For the continued existence of the Experimental Garden it is important that the initiative retains a professional coordinator, that the project leaders develop an alternative financial plan to adjust to continuing budget cuts, and that the City acknowledges the importance of such a facility in a low-income area and provides more (organisational) support.
Image: Courtesy We Love The City
 In the report we refer to the government of Rotterdam as the ‘City’ and to the socio-spatial configuration of Rotterdam as the ‘city’.