Opinion: if you want faro, take your time

The pitfalls and perspectives of participation in reuse - By Riemer Knoop

Katendrecht and Kop van Zuid near the Maas river in Rotterdam. Image: Frans Berkelaar/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

BOEi, a social enterprise focusing on the redevelopment of industrial, agricultural and religious heritage, is a Faro-connecter: in other words, a practical partner of the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE) in the Faro Programme. The aim of this programme is to investigate whether and how the Netherlands could implement the European Faro Convention. The Faro Convention encompasses a perspective on heritage in which citizens’ initiative and participation are a natural part of heritage practice.

With the motto “learning by practice” BOEi tested the principles of the Faro Convention against its own practice in 2019 and 2020. BOEi organised a webinar and final meeting in December 2020. For this occasion, Riemer Knoop (Gordion Cultural Advice) wrote a column on the pitfalls of participation in reuse. This column was originally written in Dutch and published by BOEi. The translation is published by the European Heritage Tribune with permission of Riemer Knoop.

Pitfalls and perspectives of participation in reuse

Riemer Knoop. Image: BOEi

When one of my brighter Master’s students at Hangzhou University raised her hand during a workshop on The Participatory Museum, she posed the question – in exquisite English –  whether when working in a participatory way you still need the museum as a building. I had to give her an uncomfortable answer. She understood perfectly well – after all, she did not study at one of the top universities in China without a reason. But the answer was both no and yes.

No – if you start from the people for whom you are doing it, about whom it is, and with whose stuff you want to do meaningful things together, then you don’t necessarily need that building or an existing collection. Then you are talking more about an écomusée, a platform of, for and by the members of the “community”. A place where you are working with each other, and where you look for things that are needed, which you then gradually assign heritage values during the process. Or not, who cares?

But then again: nobody operates in a vacuum, and none of us are the same – on the contrary, that is the strength of a local community. And so you want to offer space to a multitude of voices and relate to what was already there. The voice of the classical expert – in the case of a museum the curator and the public worker – is part of that. And caring about what you have been given – the collection – should also have a place in that. Only no longer as an end, but as a means – and that is what the international ICOM museum community got into such a terrible row about in Kyoto last year, it seems an eternity ago. Are museums there for the collection or is the collection an end for something that goes beyond us?

Anti-social?

It is within this rupture, this contradiction, that we operate when we talk about Faro. Power to the people, heritage with a bottom-up approach, that’s great – but how do we keep the balance? Because there are pitfalls along the way. I will name three: thinking that “it” was already like that, sham participation, and a lack of time.

There are people, experts like me, who think that we have been doing “it” in a participative way for a long time. The four former Belvédère professors, responsible for building a bridge between the Dutch Ministries of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment (VROM) and that of Education, Cultural and Science (OCW) with their “conservation by development”, talked in their legacy (the 2014 booklet Karakterschetsen) about the “socialisation” of heritage.

From something fixed and strictly scientific to something dynamic and democratic, because value and meaning are negotiable and multiple. Everyone is allowed to think something of it. Those who live in or around it are the real experts because of their lived experience. Classic experts are quick to flip their lid: “Are we anti-society?” What a load of crap. That’s not what it’s about at all, it is about the multitude of voices.

Inclusion and tolerance

The second pitfall: of course, everything is very open and dynamic, everyone is allowed to say something – but on our terms. Participation becomes a form of repressive tolerance, tolerance that becomes an attitude of permission. The Stadgenoot, a housing corporation in Amsterdam, once allowed me to attend a residents’ information evening in the Vogelbuurt in Amsterdam North. A monumental school building was set to be converted into housing for residence permit holders mixed with young people from the neighbourhood.

You’re from the municipality, you can’t be trusted, you want to impose something on us, after this project you’ll be gone in a flash and we’ll be left with nothing

I was greeted by a wall of suspicion. Is this a hearing? You’re from the municipality, you can’t be trusted, you want to impose something on us, after this project you’ll be gone in a flash and we’ll be left with nothing. It didn’t go well. Turns out, there are many steps on the “participation ladder”: from sham openness, via listening and allowing people to take initiative, to actually taking people seriously and therefore daring to give them control in crucial phases. “Who is at the table and who is not?” “Along what set of rules do we want to interact with each other? “Who is this ‘we’ anyway?” That’s hard work, folks. And empathy helps.

Take your time

The final pitfall: the factor of time. If you want to adopt a participative attitude as a relocator, i.e. give residents and users (stakeholders, interested parties and those entitled) a role as partners in the design and future of their area, you have to take out time. Time to invest in the relationship, to earn trust, otherwise it will never be theirs. Make sure a lady from the Vogelbuurt does not consider you as “someone from the municipality who will be gone soon anyway.” And if you want to take them seriously, it can’t be a quick project with a fixed outcome. No one feels fully part of a development if they are only allowed to sign at the dotted line. You need time for these things.

Almere Harbour seen from above. Image: Ekim Tan/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

I have examined six cases: the Katendrecht quarter in Rotterdam, the former industrial Binckhorst area in The Hague, the Amsterdam red light district near the Oude Kerk, the Wildemanbuurt neighbourhood in Osdorp, Almere Harbour in the centre of town and the municipality of Westerveld in Drenthe. In all those places, it turned out participatory initiatives needed about 7-10 years to generate enough trust to get people on board.

So, folks, if you want Faro: take your time, treat your partners seriously, and don’t think you were already doing this from the start. Then, that Chinese master’s student will finally have her answer. Don’t let a place take you hostage, but use it as a base to build a new ecosystem.

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