Places transformed by people re-inventing everyday life
by Ruth van Andel
When trees in the city are cut down, Tafelboom gives them a second life. They use the wood to create tables that return to the place they came from, for the use of the people living there. Thus the tree remains part of the Utrecht neighbourhood in a new role.
Cutting the tree, sawing and drying the wood, designing and making the table, and telling the story of that process: Tafelboom is an initiative which brings art into practice, or rather, gives art a practical twist. In every handmade table there is a small drawer containing a booklet. The booklet tells the life story of the tree: what species, how old it was when cut down, where it used to stand and stories about the tree told by people from the neighbourhood and passers-by. “We got this idea when we heard that nothing was done with trees that are cut down in this city. Most wood goes to the shredder, hardly any of it is really used. That seemed an awful waste.”
In De Ruimte (IDR), literally “In Space”, is a social space on the wharfs in the heart of Utrecht. In summer 2011 an old cloister vault was restyled into a flexible workspace with a professional kitchen and a separate meeting room. In De Ruimte caters to sustainable initiatives, social entrepreneurs and innovative individuals. The three female founders of IDR hope it will contribute to a solidary economy and a network of people creating solutions for a sustainable and social society.
Freelance workers bent over their laptops in concentration, and intent conversations going on in the white plastered cloister vault. This is the dream-come-true of designer/social entrepreneur Talma: a place to meet for people working on sustainable, social, creative projects. A space where they can work, inspire each other, where new ideas develop and cross-fertilisation takes place. Talma is bringiner her plans to life together with text writer/communications consultant Judith and creative multi-talent Arianne.
Become the co-owner of a windmill in Utrecht? Install solar panels on your roof or that of your neighbourhood school? Energie-U does all of that, together with you. This community initiative tries to make it easier for everybody to become involved in local energy production and energy saving.
Hundreds of Utrecht citizens collaborate to realise these goals. Do-it-yourself is the motto. Energie-U enables people to reduce energy-costs and realise sustainable energy projects.
STUT Theatre was the first theatre in the Netherlands to offer inhabitants of less affluent neighbourhoods their own voice through community theatre. STUT’s shows were and are performed by local residents, who tell the stories of their own districts and lives. STUT was founded 35 years ago and is still making shows about current social topics.
“Bottom up. That was the motto during those first days, and it still is. Listen to the people, and to their unique stories. Then let them tell, or play, those stories themselves.” Donna Risa has been connected to STUT as stage manager and artistic director for the past eleven years. She talks about the collaboration betweenan educational theatre run by students and the citizens of a deprived neighbourhoodthat came into existence during the seventies with great enthusiasm.
When you take a good look around you, there is food growing everywhere, even in the city. Berries, plum trees, but also chives and goutweed, it’s a waste not to use all these edible plants and fruits! Plukdestad.nl is a website for and by citizens of Utrecht (and now other towns as well), to show places where edible plants can be found. It also has a calendar to show when to pick which part of the plant and recipes for delicious ways to prepare them.
Foundation is a concept by Rikkert Pauw and Jet van Zwieten. It involves collecting trash and old furniture from a neighbourhood and using it to turn a garbage container into a house, which is then used as a temporary meeting place for citizens and passers-by.A house growing out of a container. It was originally a concept of a logo for Rikkert’s carpentry, ‘a dumping ground for dreams’. Jet thought it was a nice, albeit a somewhat complicated starting point.
“That’s when Rikkert said: I don’t want the house growing out of a container to be just a logo, I want to make it reality.” Two years later Rikkert the carpenter and Jet the graphic designer were in Milan. During the international Public Design Festival they created their first Foundation project. An empty container was placed in the parking lot of a supermarket and Jet and Rikkert searched the neighbourhood for materials.
De Vrijstaat is a creative “freehold” where children and youngsters between 6 and 16 years can express themselves through various art forms. The heart of this freehold is the monumental farm house Hofstede ter Wijde, tightly nestled between the old city of Utrecht and the new suburb Leidsche Rijn.
In the extended grounds of De Vrijstaat there are several buildings where projects can be housed. The House, The Farm and a treasure trove of other beautiful places, like The Building and The Paperdome, host the artists and their work.
The courtyard also offers opportunities for gardening, cooking, camping and generally playing “in the wild”. Every season De Vrijstaat shows an exhibition on a new theme, allowing children to combine a visit to the exhibition with a program of workshops around the same theme.
VIP: Very Inspiring People, Places, Projects, Process & Philosophies. The VIP-bus goes round the city and countryside around Utrecht. It spreads fresh ‘cultural goods’ along the way and it has a new ‘fresh offer’ of inspiration every week. The VIP-bus brings Utrecht ideas, unique stories and meetings with local talent.
Dennis Nolte never liked sitting still, which cost him his previous job. In 2002 he decided to quit so that he could create a place where ideas are formed and connections are made between Utrecht and the rest of the world. “I wanted to travel around and move people, my motto was: turn your passion into your profession.” So Dennis bought a small caravan. “It certainly was exciting. I had given up a great job and suddenly left with barely anything at all.” Yet Dennis persevered, and traded the caravan for a mobile grocery wagon.
Designing benches to put on the ‘walker route’ at an older person’s flat, rejuvenating a fallow area with graffiti or offering a serious plan for the neglected playgrounds nearby. Students meeting children in Utrecht’s more problematic neighbourhoods, playing sports and then starting a local project together afterwards. The Move Foundation does the full programme.
“Our students rowing association ,Orca, is located in the middle of Hoograven, one of Utrecht’s less well off neighbourhoods. We cycled through it every day, yet we had no contact with the residents at all. Conversely, the neighbourhood’s children didn’t know what Orca was either. I thought this was a little strange. This is what sparked the idea of doing something with local residents, just to get to know each other.”
i-did+ connects creators and consumers within the fashion-industry to make fashion more sustainable together. We develop collections for well-known fashion labels and designers in their studio in Utrecht; help marketing sustainable fashion; and guarantee maximum sustainability, great craftsmanship, and a high quality personal service near home.
i-did+ offers an educational program and a place on the labour market to women who usually don’t get that chance. It helps strong and fully capable women, who can’t find proper work because of a language barrier or cultural differences. We combine fashion with contemplation, crafts and working opportunities.
i-did+ is the successor of i-did slow fashion. “It was never my intention to start a fashion label”, says Mireille Gijssen, initiator of i-did slow fashion and i-did+.
De Wilgenhof is an ecological vegetable garden, maintained by inhabitants of Utrecht-West. During the “co-operative gardening days” everyone is welcome to learn more about ecological gardening, by working together on maintaining the flower beds, the “wilderness” around the pond, the herb garden, strawberry beds and the many other vegetable beds in the garden. And while working they also learn a lot from and about their neighbours, whom they might never have met otherwise.
‘The crush’, ‘box-in’, ‘catch’, ‘identity match’, ‘cross the line’ and ‘explosion’: these aren’t TV-shows, but interactive games designed by Critical Mass to let people experience what exclusion, rows, discrimination and freedom are all about. The foundation seeks answers to current social questions in creative ways through shows, lessons and methods.
“We teach how you react to themes like bullying, prejudice or freedom and others experience these subjects, not by having you sit still and listen, but by making you do and experience these things yourself. We offer you ways to be able to discuss difficult themes. You take a look at your own ideas and behaviour through examples from both near and afar. Which gives you insight into the workings of social processes, and you learn how to recognise situations and how to deal with them.”
If one of your children visits de Krakeling, you will be expected to join in. This day care centre in Wittevrouwen is based on parent participation. This means that the parents share the responsibility of taking care of the children and the centre’s organisation.
Over six years ago Sara Heesterbeek and her husband Mark were made aware of the Krakeling, while looking for a nursery for their oldest daughter, Luka. By now their youngest daughter is nearly four years old, and it’s time for them to bid the nursery farewell. “It’s a real pity. Of course it costs a lot of time and energy, especially if you really go for it, like Mark and I did. It grows on you.” Sara says.
A special school for mentally handicapped children created a beautiful opportunity for students who had great difficulty learning to gain self-confidence and practical experience in a safe environment.
Broodje Talent (Talent Sandwich) is a catering service, but it is also part of the teaching curriculum of the Herderschee school, an educational institution for young people between 12 and 20 with severe learning difficulties. Broodje Talent employs the students in the preparation of sandwiches, using amongst other ingredients, fresh produce from the school gardens.
The students also prepare pies and snacks and are involved in delivering and serving the food to clients.
The ‘Maanzaad (Poppy Seed) house of Makers consists of a versatile group of creators from different regions and disciplines. They create mixed media and mixed culture projects, like plays, art displays, games, stories, objects, poetry and music, but they also create playgrounds, residences, temporary gardens and public art, often in cooperation with local residents.
“People who are interested in their surroundings are often the kind of people who insist on contributing, just like me.” Marij Nielen has greeted many visitors in the local café by now. They are located in the middle of Lombok, a neighbourhood in which Marij lives herself and works in a lot. “I sort of enjoy facing strong opponents. It’s not scary or annoying to me for some reason. It usually gets better results when people with strong personalities try to work together, like two melodies which counter each other form a musical arrangement together.”
The Soupbus Utrecht offers night time meals, consisting of soup and bread, to homeless and poor people. It’s all made possible through cooperation and support from the community. The initiative is supported by the energy put into it by volunteers and its initiator, Wan-Ho.
“The homeless don’t need to be pitied, but everyone can use a bit of human attention now and then. You don’t have to be a scientist to realise that.” Wan-Ho Groenestijn has accomplished a lot in the past few months. In September 2011 the Soupbus Utrecht was only a figment of his imagination, in December he was serving soup in the middle of Utrecht together with a group of volunteers every evening. “At first everyone kept laughing at me, even the homeless. I told a – now very close- friend who is homeless himself, of my plans. He said: ‘Wan-Ho, do you even realise what you are bringing upon yourself?’ And I said: ‘I’m going to do it anyway!’ In December my friend had to admit: ‘you were right, you’re here now.’”
GreenWish advises individuals who want to start or scale social enterprises and sustainable initiatives.
People who wish to start an energy co-operative in their neighbourhood, or serve healthy lunches at school; who build a sustainable animal shelter, tend a vegetable garden next to the Foodbank, start a sustainable pop-up store or a rooftop farm; the variety is endless. GreenWish offers coaching, expertise and a network of people and organisations interested in furthering sustainability. Thus GreenWish hopes to speed up sustainable development from the bottom up, linking the energy of driven innovators throughout the Netherlands.
“We cannot afford not to take seriously all the ideas for sustainable development that pop up in society these days. You will not find innovation, crazy ideas and lateral thinkers in large, settled institutions. They simply do not allow them, they immediately ask: 'Who is going to pay for this?'; or 'When do we start making a profit on it?"