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Social design: Designing the neighborhood

Tante Netty ('Aunt Netty') has been handing out compliments to local residents for ten years. With positive interventions, in collaboration with artists and designers, the team is sustainably changing neighborhoods. A conversation about successful bottom-up urban development. 'We know what works and what doesn't.'

The situation on Monday morning at Tante Netty on the Edisonstraat in Woensel-West: about six 'Netties' have gathered for the weekly meeting. Neighbor Frans just dropped in for coffee. No one invited him. Everyone welcomes him. And joking around with him: 'Frans, can you make your own coffee, please!'

On the agenda today is this interview. A retrospective of how Tante Netty developed over the years, from the first actions around the Edisonstraat to projects throughout the Netherlands. We talk about how the organization has professionalized and learned to get local residents and policymakers on board.

But first: what is Tante Netty? 'We're a project agency', says Rob van Kaam, who does press and copy. 'A collective of freelancers that work in neighborhoods. We do social interventions with the help of young artists and designers to get people more involved in their own neighborhoods. We encourage them to participate.'

Tante Netty
Tante Netty

Tante Netty's name derives from the very first project, an offline interNET gallery. So Netty, but with the feeling of your aunt. 'Someone you can easily go to, to tell your story', summarizes project officer Bart van Santvoort.

'People sometimes just have a lot on their minds. They don't need another one telling them what to do. Every project usually starts with a chat on the street. People often share great stories about their amazing stamp collection or how they ran a marathon. People can do great things; that's basically the feeling we're trying to stir up.'

Take neighbor Frans, who went back to school later in life. The sixty-year-old, hard on the outside, soft on the inside type of guy, decided five years ago to learn to read and write. It is a personal victory that stands for an entire neighborhood. Woensel-West, named one of the 40 worst neighborhoods in the Netherlands about a decade ago, has turned into an attractive place where young families, migrant workers, and old residents successfully live together.

Rob van Kaam
Eindhoven is learning to be a big city

'Eindhoven is learning to be a big city', notes Rob. 'And that city belongs to everyone, but therefore also to no one. We are very accustomed to things being solved for us, but you can also change things yourself.'

A headache for many neighborhoods: litter. Together with designers like Roos de Bruijn and Bouke Bruins, Tante Netty turns it into something fun. For example, by dividing the neighborhood into teams and launching a contest of who keeps his container the cleanest (by putting the bag ín the bin instead of next to it). Or by transforming the dump into a city beach ('Costa del Bennekel'). It's playful and aesthetically pleasing, and you can't ignore it. Even better: people see their own neighborhood in a new light.

Tante Netty

By now, Frans has finished his coffee. 'Houdoe.' The conversation turns to how Tante Netty has professionalized. Since May, the leadership has been divided into a business and an artistic side. Gaia van Egmond is responsible for the creative part. She helps makers to take their work to a higher level and knows how to select the right designers for the right assignment. Lisette Aarnink ensures that all the professional parties are on board.

An essential aspect of Tante Netty's working method is that artists can focus entirely on their project, and the organizational part is taken care of by the Netties. Successful projects are even being copied to other neighborhoods in the Netherlands. Netty designer Ludo Schlechtriem: 'We know what works and what doesn't.'

Tante Netty
Tante Netty

Tante Netty not only learned how to get local residents on board but also policymakers. Lisette: 'For subsidy applications, you have to be able to describe exactly how you work. But our strength lies precisely in the interaction between local residents and designers. The outcome is not predetermined. Nevertheless, this has also been an important learning point for us; we can now clearly demonstrate the impact of our projects. Also, we are becoming less dependent on subsidies and working increasingly on commission. But no matter how we do it, the approach is always super positive.'