Kloosterburen does not shrink back

The foundation of SintJan Kloosterburen is a citizens’ initiative located in the village of Kloosterburen and its vicinity. This village is situated in the municipality of De Marne, in the very north of the Netherlands; a region dealing with demographic changes. Due to the gradual depopulation of the area, villages such as Kloosterburen and their inhabitants are confronted with new challenges with respect to the (declining) local and regional facilities and liveability.

With an integrated plan on healthcare, housing, culture and ecology the initiative of SintJan Kloosterburen is aiming to contribute to a healthy and vital local community. The initiative fits within a transition of social and political thought on the role and importance of local initiative and civic responsibility. There is a growing ‘consensus’ between actors at different levels that local stakeholders will (have to) become more and more responsible for their own ‘well-being’ and should become less dependent on institutionalized partners such as (local) governments and health institutes.

However, as is illustrated by the experiences from SintJan, there is still quite a gap between thinking and acting and in practice there are still many obstacles emerging from this transition.

In this project by the Science Shop, financially supported by the Province of Groningen, students and researchers from Wageningen University have analysed the initiative of SintJan from different perspectives. The aim of this project was to learn from the experiences of SintJan and to translate these into practical insights and suggestions for SintJan itself, for other citizens’ initiatives and for those parties having to deal with these kind of initiatives.

The results of this project provide a better understanding of the challenges a citizen initiative, such as SintJan, is confronted with, both ‘externally’ and ‘internally’.

In dealing with external partners such as local and regional government, health institutes and housing corporations SintJan is confronted with a rather ambivalent attitude of these partners. On the one hand these partners are quite positive about the general transition and ambitions that SintJan stands for. On the other hand they are quite reluctant to accept, support and implement the practical consequences of such a transition. Part of this reluctance has to do with some doubts and misunderstandings about the (rather complex) goals of the SintJan project and the way the process is managed.

Dealing with the internal world of fellow citizens from Kloosterburen, SintJan has to deal with a lack of visibility and understanding of the initiative and the fact that many people maintain a certain distance to the initiative, even though they express their support.

The ‘lessons learned’ from SintJan suggest that these kind of initiatives might benefit from a more flexible and intuitive approach, where the focus lies on realizing small steps and activities so the initiative can develop in a more organic way. They also stress the importance of transparency and clear communication about goals, interests and the process. At the same time, this project illustrates the potential of these kind of citizen initiatives and the fact that this is still being underutilized and underestimated by many of the external partners.