Innovative solutionsAn extensive study into social cohesion in Heerlen began in 2019. In addition to the Municipality of Heerlen, its organisers include the Association of Dutch Municipalities, Statistics Netherlands (CBS), Brightlands Smart Services Campus, CoTown, central organisation Heerlen Mijn Stad and neighbourhood organisation Grasbroek-Musschemig-Schandelen. The project obtained funding from the European Commission through the Urban Innovative Actions programme, with the aim of offering innovative solutions to the social and economic challenges facing Heerlen. If successful, the study is likely to be replicated in other European cities facing similar problems.
Hans Schmeets, programme manager at CBS and professor at Maastricht University, explains why CBS is participating in this project: ‘Our expertise lies in the field of data collection and analysis. An earlier baseline measurement taken by CBS showed that Heerlen is lagging behind 50 similar towns and cities in a number of areas. That measurement was based on 17 key indicators drawn from a 2012–2019 study on Social Cohesion and Well-being and showed that Heerlen’s residents appear to have very little trust in one another and in public institutions. The same applies to their level of participation in aspects of public life such as volunteer work.’ From May to September 2020, CBS conducted another survey on social cohesion, this time involving over 1100 respondents in Heerlen. ‘Due to the Covid crisis, we were unable to visit people at home, so we contacted our respondents by phone and online. In total, we examined and compared five different areas. It was an approach that revealed major differences in social cohesion and well-being.’ CBS expects to be able to present a full report on the study to the Municipality of Heerlen in June 2021.
The project benefited enormously from the constructive cooperation between CBS and the Municipality of Heerlen’s Urban Data Center. Tim Muller, UDC coordinator on behalf of CBS, explains, ‘In recent years, we have carried out a number of valuable studies together and taken stock of the problems we encountered. Heerlen has been struggling with socio-economic problems for years. Not least, high levels of unemployment, a sharp demographic contraction and an ageing population. This has implications for the municipality’s disposable budget, among other things. Despite this financial challenge, the municipal authorities work hard to create as pleasant a living environment as possible. To strengthen this ambition, Heerlen launched an innovative project with three goals: to improve public spaces, to increase citizen participation and to stimulate the local economy. CBS can help by carrying out research at various phases of the project to obtain an accurate picture of the current state of affairs.’
Driving forcePieter Bonnema is the project manager at the Municipality of Heerlen and the driving force behind the research into social cohesion. It was his idea to develop a digital currency platform that would reward citizens for participating in the local community. But before the pilot could get under way on 20 March, a number of barriers had to be overcome. ‘We held high-level discussions with the Tax and Customs Administration, which initially wanted residents to be taxed on any additional earnings, however small. In all likelihood, that would have discouraged many people from joining our project. However, in the summer of 2020, we were able to persuade the State Secretary for Finance to arrange an exemption for citizens who would be doing the odd jobs. That was a huge step forward for us.’
With this pilot, we are encouraging activity, involvement and contacts, while boosting quality of life and the local economy’