Urban Alternatives is launched by a collaboration of different actors which are united in their efforts to create a more democratic, just and sustainable world. This map seeks to highlight initiatives that work towards this goal. Proposal for initiatives not listed yet can be made directly on the website. This process is open to new collaborations.

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Leeszaal Rotterdam West

Social & Solidarity Economy

What challenges did this initiative look to address?

Leeszaal started in 2012 when the public library in Rotterdam decided to close 18 out of 24 libraries. After vehement protest in the area – in which around 1000 people signed a petition – came to nothing, two neighbours decided it was time to formulate a tangible, positive, and imaginative answer. For they believe very much in the necessity and importance of public meeting spaces for the well-being of neighbourhoods, individuals, and cities.

Today, they are running the space with almost 100 volunteers, from 19 different countries, ranging from 11 to 84 years of age. Leeszaal is open 5 days a week, facilitating over 15 language classes each week as well as organising or hosting over 100 events each year revolving around language, literature, and imagination. They maintain an ever-changing collection of 25.000 books which you can just take away; there’s no paid staff and around 20.000 visitors each year.

What has changed?

One of the defining characteristics of the Leeszaal is that it is a public meeting space in the literal sense of the word: a place where you can meet anybody, and which is not owned by one particular group. This was a clear ambition from the start. It is neither another space for highly educated freelancers and creatives, nor for immigrant mothers, young people, or 40-somethings into mindfulness; Leeszaal wants all of them, together, next to each other, or one after the other. By starting with a very socially and ethnically diverse group with very different educational backgrounds, they have been able to fulfil this ambition. The value this kind of public space provides is that it expands people’s imagination.

By creating an environment in which you can consciously or unconsciously come into contact with people and worlds you are not (yet) a part of, new things might emerge. Additionally, they have added new programmes to the cultural and social domain; given new life to the square we look onto; improved the perceived safety of the neighbourhood as well as the image to outsiders; showed policy makers that much more is possible (especially with and by people they normally think can’t do anything) and much more.

The pioneering phase is done and now it is about continuation. This leads to questions such as: how to finance Leeszaal in the long term? How to organise its long-term duration so as to maintain quality but allow Leeszaal to remains open to new people, groups and ideas? And how can the initiators share coordination? These are the questions currently being explored.

How did it happen?

Crucial to the success of Leeszaal is the approach with which the project was initiated. Rather than coming up with a finished proposal, the initiators of Leeszaal visited all kinds of social and cultural groups in the neighbourhood and asked two questions: “What does your ideal Reading Room look like?’ and “What are you willing to do yourself (as a person), to contribute to a new Reading Room?” The first question was asked in order to figure out what people thought was lost with the closing of yet another public, non-commercial space. The second was specifically targeted at individuals. They were looking for people to build something new with, not organisations with which we would have to cooperate. They also did not want to create a wish list, but rather involve people from the very beginning and make clear, that it would not be them alone turning these wishes and dreams for their common Reading Room into reality.

Additionally, they started with a 5-day festival as a prototype to test out the ideas and people’s commitment. They had around 1000 dedicated visitors who all anxiously asked whether this new Reading Room would only be there for a week. Based on the success of the prototype and the positive feedback they got, Leeszaal officially opened on the 31st of January, 2013 and has been open ever since. Financially they are consciously independent from the local council. After the festival they approached a foundation and received 50.000€. Today, Leeszaal runs on very low costs: donations, renting out the space, selling coffee and tea (for 50 cents/cup) and funding for particular cultural programs. Through this they make around 50% of the money. But this also means they are not, nor will they ever be financially self-sufficient.

Public spaces and public good offered in such a new way will never be able to fund themselves completely. Unless they ‘sell out,’ wrecking the particular public nature of spaces like Leeszaal. Of course they could go commercial and make more money, but they would lose a large part of the public. And they could of course apply for basic funding from the government, but that would mean they are again dependent on it and on its ever-changing policy goals. So they maintain autonomy – scraping by is a price you pay for being independent. That doesn’t mean they want to do everything on their own, just that they want to think about the conditions under which they start a relation. It is all about relational autonomy.

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