Why and how to support communities in placemaking?
Much has been written about public engagement. Since the late 1960s when Sherry Arnstein introduced the participation ladder, participation has been continuously researched and articles on it are a staple in the research literature. Participation is a social topic and the social-economic context is ever-changing, so it is only right that the participation research has become a permanent part of the sciences related to spatial planning. Of course, research alone is not enough, if new ways of enabling and encouraging participation in spatial planning do not emerge from the findings. The Zunaj project¹ (Eng. Outdoors) is just that – modern support for communities in their placemaking.
One of the characteristics of today’s society is that people like to express their wishes and expectations and they do this a lot faster and more directly than a few decades ago. People are not only ready to listen, but they also like to talk and change the space they use or identify with within their dynamic. For the field of participation in spatial planning, this means that there is a mass of individuals and communities who might not want to participate in long public debates that clearly will not end with a visible result. But this does not mean that these same people and communities are not interested in the places and the city. They are very interested! They will happily pick up a shovel or a brush to fix something, organise a street gathering, encourage their neighbours to tidy up the park together and the like. A lot of local communities are happy to work to improve the open spaces of the city if a small amount of financial aid is provided to make carrying out the envisioned small local actions easier.
About the pilot project in 2019
In 2019, prostoRož and IPoP, with the cooperation of the City Municipality of Ljubljana, carried out a pilot project called Zunaj (Eng. Outdoors) dedicated to supporting small local actions envisioned by the residents of Ljubljana.
The Zunaj project represents support for communities that are interested in placemaking. How to support communities in carrying out their ideas, for example, to tidy up the block surroundings, organise a movie night in the neighbourhood, build a new bench at the bus station, etc.? The project is based on the assumption that it is easier to support the development of community-created content that relates to community-selected spaces than it is to offer people a chance to work together to improve spaces that have been chosen for them based on the authorities’ judgement. People simply prefer to work on the places they care about.
The role of the professionals in this process was to formulate the conditions and criteria for picking the best submissions. Those proposed small actions that did not meet all of the pre-set conditions were eliminated. Based on the criteria, we then evaluated the others and selected the ones that would receive organizational and material support in the amount of EUR 500 to cover the material costs. The 10 simple, pre-set conditions included requirements, such as the place has to be publicly and freely accessible, it has a number of active supporters and it has a maintenance plan in place. The ten subsequent criteria included aspects like: the action encourages outside gatherings, it supports the connection of the local community and brings benefits for the community rather than just individuals.
The call was opened for several weeks (in the spring of 2019) and communicated in different ways: online posts, media articles and flyers handed out in neighbourhoods and parks.
The Zunaj project follows the inspiration of foreign mechanisms of public participation in placemaking, like the Grätsel Oase in Vienna and the Neighbourhood Matching Fund in Seattle. At first, we wondered whether the Slovene context is perhaps less suitable for such a call, as people might not be accustomed to this kind of support. Even though the initial response of the proposals was slow-going, we managed to receive sixty proposals by the end of the call. The ensuing selection process was hard, as there were a number of good applications and interesting small local actions envisioned by the initiators.
10 initiatives for small actions² were selected based on the criteria. We made sure they were diverse since this was a pilot project and we were interested to see how supporting different types of local actions works out.
Each action had a mentor – a representative from prostoRož or IPoP offering organisational assistance to the project initiators. Each action working group created the implementation plan together with their mentor that included the estimated material costs, while the work was the voluntary contribution of the community. The mentor was also responsible for communication with city administration representatives. Communication is the key on projects such as Zunaj; communication between the members of the community implementing the action, communication with the representatives of the NGOs coordinating the project and communication with the city representatives, i.e. the local officials.
Part of the purpose of projects such as Zunaj is to support community building. It is based on the idea that places in which communities are more connected are a more pleasant place to live. They are also safer. However, strengthening the ties with and within the city government is equally important. For a successful public engagement, it is crucial to achieving the collaboration and coordination of different municipal departments. The Zunaj project involved the Department for Environmental Protection, the Department for Spatial Planning, the Department of Economic Activity and Transport and the Department for Local Self-government of the City of Ljubljana. The communities involved in the spatial planning process may not understand the dividing lines between the responsibilities of different city departments. This cannot be expected of a community, so it requires a new way of collaboration between different city departments. These can then address communities they come in contact with during the project even outside its scope. The number of communities interested in public space and engaging in public life is not infinite. Through projects such as Zunaj, we can learn about where these communities are and to what spaces they feel especially connected. Then, when planning some other measures in those parts of the city, we can also engage those communities, because: 1) they know a lot about the area in which they are active, 2) they are already interested in the area, so there is a greater chance they would adopt the initiative, so it is best to include them from the earlier stages onward.
Lessons learned as well as recommendations and opinions for future implementation
Zunaj was a pilot project that has warranted development in the direction of some kind of mechanism. This means the call for proposals would be open year-round and that the community could apply for the project when it is ready and whenever a need arises in the space. This would increase the number of quality spaces created in partnership between the city and local communities. The city would also save a considerable amount of money since this kind of spatial planning represents a small investment for the city and costs less than it would have if the projects were done in the usual top-down way. At the same time, the city gains significant input in the form of voluntary work by local communities.
With the Zunaj project or others of its kind, we should not forget that they are intended for small local actions, which means they should not be used for bigger actions or measures that are in the domain of public investments. It is worth noting that the support for small local actions amounted to EUR 500 per action and therefore the expectations regarding the scale of the small local actions should be proportionate. This does not mean that the funds should not be increased, but that they should be increased gradually.
The risk of these kinds of projects is that they become the domain of traditionally middle-class urban communities. The most commonly supported communities are those with educated individuals with skills for project application. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but certainly one of the challenges remains as to how to extend the spectrum of applicants to those from less affluent social classes, sometimes referred to as the working class. The city belongs to all of them and projects like Zunaj only make sense if they support sufficiently diverse community practices.
¹Zunaj is a project of the City of Ljubljana. The project started in 2019 on the initiative of prostoRož cultural association and IPoP – Institute for Spatial Policies. The initiators and implementors of the local actions are residents of Ljubljana.
²Information about 2019 pilot project and selected local actions (in Slovene): http://prostoroz.org/portfolio/items/zunaj/
Information about the 2020 project call (in Slovene): https://www.ljubljana.si/sl/moja-ljubljana/javne-povrsine-in-utrip-mesta/zunaj/
Photo: Nejc Trumpež