Opsinjoren gives neighbours who want to organise a neighbourhood activity financial and organisational support. To counter the widespread negative discourse about the city, the organisers of the initiative wanted to do something positive by showing the people of Antwerp how they can have an impact on their neighbourhood and make the city a better place to live. Opsinjoren started in 1997 in Antwerp and was inspired by the ‘Opzoomeren’ project in Rotterdam. Like ‘Opzoomeren’ the initiative to organise activities lies with the residents themselves. The term Opsinjoren is invented by the city of Antwerp and comes from the term Sinjoor. Sinjoor is a nickname for people who, just like their parents and grandparents, were born in Antwerp. The most important purpose of the project is to increase local social cohesion, so as to reduce the anonymity in the city and to increase social control and therefore the feelings of safety amongst inhabitants. Hence, the target audience are all the people living in Antwerp. Nevertheless, the project has recently come to pay more attention to ethnocultural diversity.
Opsinjoren offers neighbours standardised activities in three categories. The first category is festivities. Festivities are organised by at least five neighbours and every neighbour is invited. Once a year, Opsinjoren organises ‘Neighbours’ Day’ (Burendag) on the last Friday of May. The idea is that in as many streets as possible neighbours organise a drink and have a chat, so that people in Antwerp get to know their neighbours better. Last year, 322 streets of the 3,379 streets of Antwerp joined ‘Neighbours’ Day.’ The second category of activities is concerned with playing. The most important activity format in this category is the ‘playing street’: streets are blocked for car traffic for maximum 14 days to turn them into a place for children to play together. The third and last category of activities is ‘cleaning and planting’. The most known and popular activity in this category is the ‘Spring cleaning’ (Lentepoets). Like ‘Neighbours’ day’, ‘Spring Cleaning’ is organised once a year by the city. During this last weekend of April everywhere in Antwerp people clean their streets together. In return for the cleaning, the neighbours receive a flower tub to make their street more attractive. In 2013, 522 streets in Antwerp participated.
The project is funded by the Flemish City Fund (Stedenfonds). Opsinjoren is run by the ‘Residential Environment’ department of the municipal ‘Living together’ unit, but other city departments also support the activities. No less than 18 employees at the department ‘Residential Environment’ work for the Opsinjoren programme.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
Because Antwerp is a very diverse city, Opsinjoren is automatically confronted with diversity, not only in ethnocultural terms, but also with respect to age for example. In this sense, the demographic reality of the city forces the initiative to work on diversity. The head of the department of Opsinjoren told us that they are confronted with diversity in general in three different ways. A first challenge is to teach active neighbours how to deal with diversity. Interestingly, the focus here lies on negative aspects of diversity, where people experience nuisance that are purportedly caused by ethnic-cultural minorities:
“Opsinjoren is a positive story, we sensitise, we start positive initiatives, but sometimes we mention that our street volunteers are confronted with negligence and real nuisance and illegal dumping. (…) So, supporting our clients in dealing with diversity is one of our main concerns.”
The second challenge is to reach out to a diverse public to become active participants. However, for people who do not speak Dutch it can be very hard to organise an activity since all the communication is in Dutch (Synovate, 2011). Finally, Opsinjoren works with a diverse team at the department, with people of different backgrounds.
However, as Loopmans (2006) has shown, white middle-class people were most involved and the initiative is struggling to reach and to include a more diverse public. In reaction, the Antwerp municipal government decided that Opsinjoren should put a greater emphasis on diversity to reach a diverse public. Nowadays, if active participants do not succeed in reaching their neighbours with an immigrant background, the employees of Opsinjoren will inform them how to include a diverse public (e.g. ring the bells to invite neighbours, separate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, use separate barbecues for halal meat, fish and vegetarian food).
In 2011, Opsinjoren was evaluated by the coordinators of the Opsinjoren programme and the municipal Office for Diversity Management. The purposes of this evaluation was to see who participated in the project and to investigate which factors are important for people to organise or to participate in an activity. In three streets, a total of 104 interviews with neighbours were held. The conclusion was that there was no remarkable difference in participation between people with and without a migration background. Nevertheless, the participation degree of people with a migration background differed in each street. In general, differences in participation had more to do with social status: home-owners, highly educated people and people with a job are more willing to participate (Stad Antwerpen, 2011). However, it remains one of the main challenges to include all neighbours. A participant told us it took her 10 years to include her non-Belgian neighbours.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The financial and organisational support of the city is one of the most important external success factors, which makes that streets where the neighbours do not have a lot of resources can also participate. The personal contact between the active participants and the employees of Opsinjoren is an important internal factor of the success. For example, when someone participated every year in the Spring Cleaning and Opsinjoren did not receive a subscription, the employees of Opsinjoren will contact the neighbour to ask why they did not receive a subscription and if they needed help.
One of the most important internal difficulties is that Opsinjoren can create a distinction between active and passive citizens. One of the main strategies of the project is to make people feel responsible for their neighbourhood. However, in (almost) every activity there are people who do not participate. ‘The core element is that when you become an Opsinjoor, you attain a special position; you enter into a special relation with your city’ (Loopmans, 2006). Sometimes, instead of promoting social cohesion, this distinction between active and passive citizens creates tensions between neighbours because some active residents are disappointed in neighbours who are not active, while residents who choose not to participate can get annoyed because active residents seem to claim the neighbourhood for themselves. The head of the department of Opsinjoren agrees that sometimes problems arise between active and non-active residents. Mostly, conflicts can be solved by agreeing on strict rules, like on what time the activity should end and where the activity should take place. When the Opsinjoren officials themselves are not able to solve a conflict, they ask for neighbourhood mediation. However, the possibility of conflict is inherent to the project.
Opsinjoren brings people together and increases social cohesion, although it may also undermine social cohesion by creating a division between active and non-active citizens. The innovative character of the project lies in the fact the neighbours themselves have to take the initiative, while the city only offers a supportive logistical, financial and conflict-mediating framework. Although it is a bottom-up project the current concept of Opsinjoren is relatively strict: people can organise several activities within the agreed categories of the initiative, but there is no place for ‘crazy ideas’, as the head of the Opsinjoren department called it. Therefore the head of the departments would like to get the possibility to support other activities that neighbours propose themselves. Furthermore, since the project is organised by the municipality of Antwerp it can be questioned how ‘bottom-up’ this project is.
 The term Opzoomeren comes from the name of the first street where people decided to clean and recover their street, the Opzoomerstreet in Rotterdam. This street is called after the philosopher C.W. Opzoomer. Nowadays the term Opzoomeren is in the Dutch dictionary. Opzoomeren means: cleaning the public space on its own initiative.