A small Ukrainian town can teach us how to build thriving communities

It’s an important lesson about surviving adversity, building and thriving local communities.

Not far from Kiev, the small Ukrainian town of Irpin, famous as a site of resistance to the occupation in the early days of Russia’s invasion of the neighboring country, has many lessons for the visitor, as I discovered last weekend.

An intimate reminder of the senseless, terrible destruction of war – the destruction of an obviously much-loved cultural center, the now roofless and windowless school, the snow-blown devastation, the random destruction of a bungalow here. , a block there, a glass shop on the corner collapsed.

And a military lesson about the way smaller, lightly armed forces desperately defending their home can — sometimes — hold back larger, more heavily armed troops. The people of Irpin talk about it with understandable pride, while also acknowledging how the military experience of some of them from Russia’s last invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was invaluable.

But the lesson I didn’t expect from my trip – one that resonated immediately in the UK – was about the importance of the local and regional in rebuilding a fractured community.

The deputy mayor of Irpin told the Greens and deputies of the European Parliament who visited our group: “After the war, big companies will go to Kyiv. They will not come here.”

He made a point that resonated with the civil society representatives and campaigners we met in the Ukrainian capital (they came to us in a hotel with a very good bomb shelter, a reasonable measure after a week of relentless, unpredictable bombing by Russia). Country).

Civil society representatives – the opening of society in pre-war Ukraine, the strengthening of police and financial institutions (all things that make joining the EU now a conceivable option) – are crucial to the changes taking place in Ukraine – they plead with the international community. Ensure that support for the creation of a new Ukraine from the ashes created by Russia does not go only to the central institutions (further strengthened by the inevitable needs of war).

They want to see it delivered as directly as possible to local and regional institutions. It has been said there, and as we well know, that it is often used better and fairer, and also has less risk of corruption.

Civil society groups also stressed the importance of terminology. It should not be about “reconstruction” because the plan should not be to replace what was here before, but to create a new climate and a socially just society that is compatible with nature.

Ipi also has lessons on this. The deputy mayor told us that solar-paneled medical facilities have fared better than most in the chaos, having an independent power source that can continue to operate or at least restart quickly even during fighting. Decentralized green energy is sustainable energy, unlike large centralized supply systems, so it is vulnerable to attack (a fact that the Russians are now deliberately exploiting) or other shocks.

It is not easy for large central institutions, UN bodies or national governments to connect with local government and local institutions. So, as we discussed with the officials in Irpin, there is great potential to offer large-scale support for people-to-people connections across the continent and beyond, for twinning, perhaps hospital-to-hospital or school-to-school linkages. this works for both parties.

But in England there is a problem with that, of course. Now desperate for cash and resources, councils and other local bodies will find it difficult to engage in such relationships, which could benefit both them and Ukraine’s devastated cities and towns.

Therefore, Irpin’s tough fight against the Russians was not only a result of military experience and courage. It was, officials told us, a place where he built his strengths in effort and determination to thrive. Growing rapidly before the Russian attack, its population swelled by internally displaced people from the east from the 2014 war, it was warmly welcomed and supported to rebuild its lives.

Opportunities for them came from the promotion of Irpi as a place to visit with beautiful green areas (six large parks) and excellent sports facilities. (The sports stadium — you guessed it, destroyed by the Russians — only got a nice new bullet-shattered roof in 2021.) “We didn’t want people to go to Kyiv for vacation,” said the deputy mayor. “We wanted them to stay here”

I have no doubt that Irpin will rebuild and develop again. It deserves our direct support and assistance – and those who deliver will reap huge benefits in return, helping local communities to survive and thrive.

Natalie Bennett is a former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a member of the House of Lords.

Photo credit: Vladyslav Vakulenko

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