Building a learning city
The rural city of Larissa developed its learning city strategy as an answer to the manifold challenges, brought along by the severe financial crisis. The capital of the Thessaly region established a strongly committed network, involving a broad range of partners from public bodies, more than 30 associations, NGOs and the civil society. Together with these partners, the city launched a wide range of initiatives and projects targeting all citizens. Learning opportunities are thus offered all year long to the city’s inhabitants, in a variety of forms illustrating the plurality of learning. This includes more than 15 educational, cultural and sports activities, which are proposed in various Community Centres spread in different neighbourhoods as well as the municipal library, attracting 3,800 readers per year. Additionally, punctual events encounter a great success, with thousands of participants each year. Larissa stresses the importance of mingling learning and playfulness, to increase the interests of citizens and create a friendly learning environment.
In order to ensure the high quality of activities proposed, multiple training programmes were organised cooperatively by the municipality and voluntary experts. Cooperation is one of the keywords in Larissa. The commitment of the local government emulated a vast network of partners and, most importantly, triggered a high volunteer participation from citizens, such as experts and teachers. The immense efforts deployed by Larissa to increase the efficiency of its material and human resources, to activate a powerful network of partners and provide a wide range of learning activities created a compelling interest for learning among inhabitants.
Larissa based its learning strategy on the activation of a solid network of partners, as well as a committed community of citizens to build a thriving, inclusive learning environment. The city has been deeply hit by the economic crisis and its aftermath, leading to a serious financial and social crisis. Despite a lack of public finance, Larissa took the crisis as an opportunity to tighten links within the community and tackle various challenges.
A wide range of activities is proposed all year round to a growing community of learners in multiple learning facilities, such as Community Centres or the municipal library. In order to ensure that everyone can participate in those activities, they are free of charge for the less well-off and vulnerable families. Dedicated centres for disabled children have been created, and projects are developed to increase disabled people's access to every part of the city, for example the “White Taxi”, which offers free transportation for all disabled people. Larissa provides a genuine support to marginalised communities through its learning strategy, targeted at creating an inclusive city. The municipality launched projects triggering intergenerational exchanges between young people and senior citizens, and created specific courses to familiarise the latter with computers and modern technologies. A “Second Chance School” offers courses for 150 Roma adults, allowing them to achieve high school degrees. Besides, a specific initiative aims to trigger entrepreneurship in the Roma community, in partnership with educational institutions and labour administrations. Through learning and information, Larissa created a supportive environment for refugees in the region.
The creation of this compelling learning environment has been made possible with the great efforts of the city to build a strong network of partners on the local, regional, national and international scales. Partners such as the Thessaly Region, the Association of Municipalities of the Region of Thessaly, the Greek Institute of Employment, the University of Thessaly, local associations and volunteering citizens are sharing resources, good practices and participating in multiple projects at the impulse of the city.
- Developing a plan
Larissa has to overcome many challenges linked to the crisis that has affected Greece over the past decade: lack of public finances, recession and unemployment. In addition, inhabitants became increasingly vulnerable, due to the weakening of the welfare state and of traditional support networks in families. The absence of interconnections with and within the civil society has been identified as another challenge to tackle by the city.
In 20158, the newly elected city government set several mid-term goals: create a solid network at all scales; increase dialogue between the public and private sectors and the civil society; develop a holistic approach to supporting vulnerable groups. Over the past two years, the municipality already created a dense network of social organisations, working cooperatively with the municipality on its social policies and notably on the deployment of projects related to learning and education. More than 30 organisations are now supporting vulnerable groups, including refugees and the Roma community. Through networking activities at the local, national and international level, the municipality moreover engaged a dialogue with citizens and international organisations. Larissa is, however, moving forward to build a learning city, and is setting up a dedicated Learning City Committee.
Larissa has laid the solid foundations of an ever growing, friendly learning environment. In the long-run, this will be part of the development of a sustainable city with a high quality of life. Larissa aims to become an eco-friendly city, through a continuous improvement of accessibility, public transport and local consumption. Most importantly, one of the city’s goal is to be a role-model at the national scale: a city transforming crisis into opportunities thanks to learning and education for all. The ambition of the city is to give priority to citizens, to educate, to encourage, and to engage them throughout their life.
- Creating a coordinated structure involving all stakeholders
The municipality has been recently working on creating a Learning City Committee, to settle down the informal network that the city created on local, regional, national and international scales over the past years. Larissa signed a Cooperation Pact with the Hellenic Adult Education Association, making the organisation the scientific institution responsible for the implementation of this dedicated Learning City Committee on the basis built by the city through its cooperation, participation and networking activities.
Larissa indeed set the conditions for the development of a strong network. In October 2015 already, the city organised a workshop entitled “Networking and Developing Social Skills” bringing together representatives of 30 organisations from the public, private and third sector. The members of the network now gather regularly during meetings, engaging in an open dialogue to share knowledge, best practices and discuss possibilities of collaborating on specific projects.
In addition, the city signed numerous cooperation agreements, notably with the Greek Institute of Employment foster employment among vulnerable groups. As the leader of the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) in the region, Larissa coordinates the work of other municipalities to support 5,000 families. A National Conference on education for the disabled people was held in May 2015, to exchange experiences, set priorities and raise community awareness. Larissa is moreover member of a committee that coordinates actions to support the refugees in the Region of Thessaly, triggering network mobilisation from civil society organisations, volunteers and social services. The network is also supported by the UN Refugee Agency in Greece, which is in constant communication with the local authorities and offers training to the personnel at the refugee camps. Additionally, NGOs, Red Cross, teachers of private centres participate and co-ordinate a variety of actions in favour of refugees.
- Mobilizing and utilizing resources
Larissa has succeeded to activate the resources of its network partners. Larissa is the leader or member of various programs advocating for social inclusion and empowerment of the most deprived groups, such as the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD). The city takes advantage of the funds it receives from these groups to build an inclusive learning city. It allows the municipality and involved partners, for example, the Unemployment office, the Organization against drugs, private schools, or educational institutions to cooperate on various actions.
The city is sharing costs with partners on many projects: the Thessaly Region and the Association of Municipalities of the Region of Thessaly participate to the funding of educational and celebratory events such as the Larissa Learning City Conference. The University Hospital of Larissa, Health Care Societies and Municipal Polyclinic are supporting the most deprived with free healthcare and advice. Partners and Larissa city developed a Mobile Health Unit that gives free access to major clinical laboratory testing in every neighbourhood. To increase the efficiency of available resources, facilities are used to host learning city projects: health care facilities or local centres against drugs are, for example, used as venues for training civil servants.
Citizens also participate to the building of a learning city on a voluntary basis. Experts are training civil servants on healthcare, and retired teachers are working together with the Deputy of Education to upgrade and extend school library materials. This highlights the successful activation of the community around the Larissa’s Learning City project.
- Making learning is accessible to all
Larissa has developed a comprehensive offer of playful learning activities taking place all year across the city, covering people of all ages and gender, accessible free of charge for the less well-off. In collaboration with private learning centres and volunteering teachers, the city provides 150 disadvantaged pupils with free tutorial lessons during their academic year. Inhabitants have access to an offer of more than 15 learning, cultural or sports activities in Community Cultural Clubs. At the demand of citizens, meetings and discussion groups on parenting counselling and personal growth are also offered in the venues at least twice a month.
The “Summer Camp in the City”, experimented as a pilot project in 2015 to give children access to fun learning activities during summer, led to the creation of 10 creative centres following its success. Two of them are accessible to disabled kids. The “Disability and Local Community” project moreover explores solutions for transportation, education and creative activities for disabled people, with the involvement of various organisations.
Regarding the learning needs of senior citizens, there are various initiatives, such as a project organised by Community Elderly Clubs and the General Secretariat for lifelong Learning which helped 100 elderlies to get familiar with computer literacy. The “Living Together” initiative, encourage the exchange of knowledge between generations, strengthening family bonds and creating a sense of belonging. Besides, senior citizens are invited to a series of educational and informal meetings and they recently published their own newspaper.
The Second Chance School gives the opportunity to 150 Roma adults to achieve a high school degree, and the Aristotle University Program against Drugs offers an increased access to arts to children from the community.
- Organizing celebratory events
Larissa organised an International Conference on Adult Education and Lifelong Learning in 2015. Following the success of this international event, the city launched a second edition in October 2016, entitled “Seeking common actions in a period of crisis”. This conference was organised in cooperation with the Region of Thessaly, the Association of Municipalities of Thessaly, The General Municipal Clerks Union and the Hellenic Adult Education Association. Citizens were invited to participate in the conference, to co-shape the definition of an efficient Learning City and to plan the next step of Larissa’s strategy together with national and international experts. Experts included Ted Flemming, Alexis Kokkos, the awarded Learning Cities of Swansea and Cork, and all Greek cities members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities.
The city of Larissa organises many other events celebrating mutual acceptance, learning and culture. An awareness week on disability in collaboration with Greek National Confederation of Disabled People (ESAEA), local disability associations, parent’s associations and schools fostered respect around creative learning activities.
More than 60,000 people participated in the Pinios River Festival, that proposes a series of playful educational activities. The annual Book Exhibition, that takes place during ten days in the central square of the city is attended by more than 50,000 persons annually since 15 years. The Mill Performing Arts & Media Festival finally gives the voice to youth artistic groups and creative associations, that propose contemporary and interactive performances to the public.
- Monitoring and evaluation
The evolution of the Larissa Learning City initiative, and of related projects is evaluated over time by several means: citizens, experts and the municipality assess the progress made and highlight the possibilities for a way forward.
First, to understand the ever-changing needs and interests of citizens, the municipality invites them to feel dedicated forms, which also allow Larissa to gather information about learners profiles (socio-economic status, learning capacity, needs…). Personal Tracking forms deepen the understanding of learners curriculum and give information about the courses, projects or activities learners took part to. The municipality moreover conducts evaluation interviews with learners to better understand their perspectives, opinions, and views about their progress. The vast majority of participants to the ‘Networking and Developing Social Skills’ - 95% - considered for example, that their attitude changed highly or very highly after the workshop.
The two editions of Larissa-Learning City conferences were the occasion to evaluate the progress of Larissa on a broader scale. During workshops and exchanges with international participants and experts, Larissa assessed its progress and based the next step of its strategy on this result.
The municipality completes the assessment of its strategy by citizens and experts with annual reports and meetings. Reports by each of the municipality’s department highlight qualitative and quantitative progress, such as the number of participants to activities. Meetings with local groups and representatives of all organisations involved in the Learning-City project are the occasion to exchange about issues and opportunities.
- Achievements and the way forward
All inhabitants benefit from the building of a learning city in Larissa: as an example, more than 3,800 readers borrow 28,000 annually in the municipal library.
A strong network established between the public sector, NGOs and citizens with a better use of their material and human resources and a shared vision to create a culture of learning throughout life is leading to the successful implementation of creative projects. The wide participation of the children “Summer Camp in the City” pilot project, for example, and its development in a long-standing Centre of Creative Occupation: applications from families soared, from 50 for the first Summer Camp to 300 for the Centre.
Larissa-Learning City various projects moreover participate to the creation of a more inclusive city. The “Second chance school” is attended by 50 adults from the Roma community, and offers them the opportunity to get a high school degree. They are also invited to participate to events, courses and workshops in cooperation with educational institutions and labour administration to foster entrepreneurship in the Roma community.
Besides, a significant mobilisation in favour of refugees in Larissa, motivated by the Learning-City network, avoided any reaction of fear from inhabitants and triggered empathy.
The City Council agreed to fund the establishment of a Youth Centre and created a Youth Council, illustrating the growing political awareness of the importance of an active participation of the youth in the local society, notably through learning.
- Additional sources
The World Bank: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD [Accessed 6 June 2017]