Community and Sustainable Urban Design

Community gardens have gained a lot of attention and popularity over the past years in terms of community-driven and sustainable urban design, which can help cities in addressing their social, economic and environmental problems. Although South Korean and Slovene cities don’t have much in common at first sight the Community Eco Garden in Maribor may provide a valuable example of how to integrate community-driven and sustainable urban design as a part of larger efforts to strengthen the lacking social cohesion in cities.

Limitations of neoliberal policy
Cities compete to attract new investments, corporations, events and tourists, which are expected to boost their economic growth and urban development and improve the quality of everyday life. There is little evidence, however, that such competitive urban policy inevitably results in a long-term economic growth and urban development that is equally beneficial to all citizens. In contrast, a growing body of evidence suggests that the actual benefits of competition are unevenly distributed among different social groups in cities. Social polarisation and economic inequalities, declining communal life, and decreasing civic and political rights are believed to be largely the consequences of neoliberal policy, which is primarily focused on unrestricted economic growth.

The limitations of neoliberal policy became evident during the present economic crisis, which was to large extent generated by speculative urban development. Many cities are realising that competitive urban policy can neither sustain their long-term economic growth nor significantly improve the quality of everyday life. Efforts have been made to find alternative approaches which can lead towards a more sustainable and just urban development on the long run. Community is often placed at the centre of sustainable urban development which is focused on reviving local economies, strengthening social cohesion, trust and solidarity among citizens, promoting comprehensive regeneration of deprived urban areas and on establishing new forms of civic participation and self-management in cities.

South Korea and Seoul used to be no exception in promoting neoliberal policy in order to boost the economic growth and urban development rather than improving the quality of everyday life for different social groups. Little if any attention has been placed in the past on the environmental or social consequences of rapid economic growth and urban development. The country, therefore, ranks low in several areas, which directly affect social cohesion and quality of everyday life. Environmental quality, health, income, jobs and earnings, social connections, subjective well-being, as well as work and life balance in South Korea are visibly below the OECD average. In particular the so-called social connections, which refer to ‘perceived social support network’, are one of the lowest among the OECD countries. Besides, South Koreans express a rather low level of interpersonal trust, low community tolerance to minority groups, and little confidence to the national government, which in consequence also negatively affects social cohesion.

Social cohesion and sustainable urban design
Recent OECD study suggest that in order to preserve South Korea’s successful economic and social achievements of the past, new policies and practices must ‘be put in place to strengthen social cohesion in pursuit of stronger, more inclusive growth’. Social cohesion is hence seen as the key for not only the economic growth, but also for sustainable urban development in the future. Urban policy is in this case expected to provide a decent quality of everyday life and equal housing, job and education opportunities to social groups with different economic, social and cultural backgrounds; promote their integration by addressing dominant forms of economic, social and political exclusion; sustain existing social and cultural structures in cities; and encourage civic participation in decision-making. As an instrument of urban policy, sustainable urban design cannot address each and every aspect of social sustainability in South Korean cities. It can, however, create inclusive places, which promote shared values and civic culture, sense of social equity and solidarity, place attachment and collective identities among citizens.

Such places should be at the same time a result of active civic participation in urban design process, which not only improves its quality, but also mediates and creates trust between different public, private and civic stakeholders. These partnerships are specifically based on consensus and shared responsibilities among the stakeholders and decrease the dependence of cities on outside resources, which has a positive impact on sustainable urban development. Citizens consequently perceive and use places that are built with their participation better than when these are made without them. Civic participation in this way improves the rational use of resources in cities and strengthens the political legitimacy of urban policy in general.

Community gardens have gained a lot of attention and popularity over the past years in terms of community-driven and sustainable urban design, which comes as no surprise. Community gardens do not only contribute to environmental and economic sustainability, but also affect a wide range of other areas, which contribute to a stronger social cohesion and improve the quality of everyday life in cities. Positive impact of community gardens can be expected in terms of better access to safe food, health and psychological well-being of citizens, attractive environment for leisure, recreation and education, or provision of new jobs. They also encourage social interaction between different social groups and can result in a stronger sense of community.

Community gardens in Maribor, Slovenia
The Community Eco Urban Garden in Slovenia’s second largest city of Maribor is a good case in point. South Korea and Slovenia don’t have much in common at first sight. Yet both countries experienced an unprecedented economic growth and rapid urbanisation during the post-war reconstruction, which had similar social, economic and political consequences on the everyday life in their cities. Although social polarisation and economic inequalities in Slovenia are lower compared to South Korea, Slovenes also express a low level of interpersonal trust, low community tolerance to minority groups, and little confidence to the national government, which in consequence negatively affects social cohesion.

The garden itself is located on the periphery of the city, nearby a popular recreational area and the somewhat deprived Borova vas neighbourhood, which is one of the most densely populated areas in Maribor. The Community Eco Urban Garden provides about eighty individual gardens with eight shared gardening sheds. At the moment there are more than two hundred citizens involved in the Eco Urban Garden Association, which formally manages the garden. Special gardens for the disabled and children, and a smaller children’s playground are also provided on the site. A larger community building offers space for communal activities, such as the educational and cultural programmes or the association’s regular meetings. All facilities are constructed by following the principles of sustainable construction and urban design.

The initiative has started as a part of the Maribor European Capital of Culture festival in 2012. A small group of Urban Furrows activists aimed to establish a pilot case of sustainable urban gardening in a close collaboration with the nearby residents and civic associations from the city. The Municipality of Maribor provided the land and funding for the gardens. The activists have built on a long history of urban gardens in Maribor, which dates back to the mid 19th century, when a housing colony for railway workers was built. Each family was provided with a small garden and orchard at that time. Successful integration of collective housing and gardens was common in Maribor until recently. With the emergence of market economy and privatisation of public goods two decades ago, however, the gardening has become socially and economically marginalised practice, expelled to the outskirts of the city.

The Community Eco Urban Garden brings urban gardening back to Maribor and re-establishes it as a viable approach to community-driven and sustainable urban design. In this sense the gardens should be seen as a part of longer tradition of urban gardening and self-management of local communities in Slovene cities rather than a result of recent trends. Yet the garden does not romanticise the bygone communal life on the Slovene countryside nor does it try to idealise the collectivity of the socialist past. The Community Eco Urban Garden in Maribor effectively provides the local community with access to certified ecological food production and creates a new communal space; while at the same time it empowers the citizens to act collectively in pursuing their shared interests beyond the realm of urban gardening.

Although urban gardening is thriving at the moment in South Korea, the Community Eco Urban Garden in Maribor may provide a valuable example of how to integrate community-driven and sustainable urban design with larger efforts to strengthen the lacking social cohesion in society. Community gardens might be small in size, but they can play an important role in addressing diverse economic, social and environmental problems in our communities and cities here and now.

Additional info on Community Eco Urban Garden can be found at Urban Furrows.

The article was first published and presented on the Public Design International Symposium in Seoul, on November 26th 2014.

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