Civil society and municipalities: building sustainability through collaboration

The Brussels launch of the 2nd European Day of Sustainable Communities

On September 22nd, the traditional demeanour of the EU buildings in Brussels was replaced by a sense of novelty: partly created by the large show-up of engaged actors from European civil society and municipal representatives and partly due to the urgent topic in question: How do we find ways to work together for local sustainable development?

We can build a link from the grassroots movements to the institutions. And we want this link!”

- Peter Schmidt, President of the Sustainable Development Observatory and EESC member.

The rigidity of the European Union halls was transformed by the daring facilitation of Sarah McAdam and Juan del Rio from the Transition Network. Participants were invited to step into vulnerability through the sharing of fears and hopes for the future, giving of thanks from indigenous communities, thorough use of natural metaphors, dedication of a moment to grieve and deep ecology exercises. This meeting between the traditional setting and spaces of connection sparked an atmosphere of creative flow - serving as a brilliant symbol of the conference purpose. Excitement was high and topics soared from co-creations to intersectional feminism and the breaks were alive with knowledge sharing and networking.

Projects, Perspectives and Potentials

The conference was initiated by a presentation of the Municipalities in Transition Project, an initiative by the Transition Network aimed at co-designing sustainable development policies with entire municipalities, as guided by the transition methodology. The project is currently in its test phase, but was cherished by both the Transition collaborators and the pilot municipalities.

Whenever we involve local actors on the ground, we get better quality projects”

- Rudolf Niessler, Director G Smart & Sustainable Growth & Southern Europe, DG REGIO, European Commission.

The crux of the day took place during the breakout session. Participants were invited to split into themed groups and discuss questions of contemporary urgency, regarding the municipal -civil society collaboration. From these participant-sourced talks the variety of challenges faced on the local scale surfaced. Mistrust and miscommunication between the municipal and civil level is experienced as a great barrier to collaboration. Another obstacle is the inequality in capacity; municipal actors are paid staff, while civil organisations often rely on voluntary work. The question of how to bridge this gap was posed in various formations including funding for small-scale projects, paid civil society work, the question of resources outside the monetary realm and universal basic income. A third challenge is experienced when policymakers and civil organisations share visions, but the administrative level plays a reluctant role. Municipal actors uttered their concern for how to create a mutual sense of ownership and assist local organisations without disturbing or taking over their work. The difficulty in initiating partnerships with complex systems such as municipal frameworks, along with an array of legal challenges was also communicated by several organisations.

A key factor to good collaboration is building trust”

- Sarah McAdam, The Transition Network

Crucial areas for bridge-building became evident later in the conference as EU officials and civil society agents presented widely different visions for the development ahead. The messages of EU officials Rudolf Niessler and Višnar Malinovská greatly reflected the policy agenda of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Sustainable Development Observatory (SDO). Visions were centered around economic and manufacturing dimensions including CO2-neutrality, energy transitions to renewables, sustainable food systems, circular economy and sustainable land-use. In a similar vein, Peter Schmidt, president of the SDO and EESC member, assured us that representatives in the European Union are aware of the unsustainable course and foundation of the current economic system - planting seeds of hope and passion in the crowd. The speakers also stressed informational campaigns and the importance of enclosing sustainable development in storytelling and positive narratives, such as the popularisation of ‘de-growth’ using alternative and positively loaded terms.

What we can do here is empower people. Empower them to know that they are part of the solutions”

- Andrew Cooper, Rapporteur on Climate Governance.

The perspectives of civil society agents resonated as a product of our time. The main themes were co-learning, co-creation and co-design, shared ownership, deep listening and human relations. Civil actors called for municipals and EU staff to increasingly allow for process work, rather than result-oriented projects. It was also advised that the EU bodies brought a longer-term perspective to their projects, as to achieve deeply satisfactory results. Desires for new ways of collaborating were expressed and ideas such as a municipality-facilitated civic society resource centres or social and ecological observatories were shared. Participants emphasised work for public cultural change and the fostering of cultures of care. Lastly, it was acknowledged that many activists ‘burn out’ due to the combined efforts of the above challenges, and that this should be of major concern to policy makers.

Working at the municipal level is essential, because it is actually where the work gets done”

- Ana Huertas Francisco, Ecolise Vice President.

Key Calls


All actors present urged municipalities and civil actors to find each other and form partnerships, assuring mutual willingness and an increased quality in results. A highlighted idea was the creation of novel spaces. Spaces where municipal officials and civil society actors can meet as human beings, spaces to be vulnerable and exhibit fears, to heal mistrust and invent new and common ways of communicating. But also, spaces where minds can flow freely and where we can ‘imagine other dimensions of existence’. One practical tool for the creation of such spaces were ‘cross-visits’. In cross-visits municipalities visit local projects and local projects visit municipalities and civil actors are allowed to visually experience each administrative step of an inquiry, facilitating mutual understanding.


I think we have to provide spaces for people to imagine other dimensions of existence. The difficulty is that we do not have any such space. The good thing is that there are a lot of ways to go there”

- Christiano Bottone, Municipalities in Transition representative.

How can ecovillages answer these calls? Ecovillages are unique as they provide an experimental space that not only imagines separate dimensions of livelihood, but carries them out and tests their resilience. In being a learning platform, ecovillages also assist in bringing transformative thinking and positive sustainability narratives to the public. As a result, they can expect to receive increased support and inquiries for collaboration from governance structures. In acknowledging the difficulty in meeting complex legal structures, ecovillages are advised to act in the unregulated spaces. However more importantly, ecovillages are encouraged to approach their local governments and municipalities to find synergies and establish partnerships. They are invited to use EU tools such as Horizon 2020 and LIFE to further their projects. In the aftermath of this conference, ecovillages can be light-bearers and take the first step in creating safe and healing spaces for municipalities and civil society to meet, trust and co-design the future.

We are not just saving the world, but we are making actually making a better world… The work here is absolutely essential.”

- Andrew Cooper, Rapporteur on Climate Governance.