News Overview 2015

Culture Changes Cities

How do you breathe new life into a deserted place? How do you build an infrastructure for bicycles? What can you do to ensure new residents feel like they’re part of the city?

In Berlin on May 11, representatives of local initiatives in ten countries showed what the answers to these questions could look like. The Actors of Urban Change program of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and MitOst association supported them for 18 months so that they could achieve their dream: to develop a city or neighborhood over the long term through cultural activities.

"That takes courage", says Maja Pflüger, Head of the Culture and Education section at the Robert Bosch Stiftung, who kicked off the final event. "The participants got involved in an open-ended experiment."

Attaining Goals with Different Ideas

The goals and methods of the projects couldn’t be any more diverse. For instance, an initiative in Athens brought together residents, politicians, companies, and artists to redesign Varvakeios Square, which, following a radical renovation ten years prior, had become deserted and a popular hangout for drug addicts. With a bicycle workshop, rental bikes, and an associated app, the BikeKitchen in Bratislava laid the groundwork for making the Slovakian capital more bicycle-friendly. With discussion groups, soccer tournaments, and movie nights, an "open house" in Zugdidi, Georgia, became the place where, for the first time, refugees from the neighboring region Abkhazia could get together and take part in social life.

What all the initiatives had in common was that creative people, city councils, and private sector representatives worked together to develop solutions. "That’s what makes these projects so important," says Charles Landry, city researcher and global adviser for urban development, who gave the keynote speech at the final event. "Rather than specialists who renovate a city as they see fit, people who consider cultural aspects to be just as important as economic ones come together here." This approach is both modern and challenging: "There’s no way to predict what feelings and reactions you’ll be confronted with."

Learning to Overcome Obstacles

The participants’ experiences are a testament to this thesis. "Our expectations were perhaps a bit too ambitious at the beginning," says Paulina Paga, who wanted to revive solidarity in a neglected social settlement on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland. No one involved in the project had contacted the 4,500 residents beforehand. "The initial reactions were therefore very negative," says Paga. "We first had to learn to assume a neutral position and listen." Other teams had to deal with city councils, a process they were initially unfamiliar with, and all of them had to overcome the challenge of creating a shared goal out of the expectations of all the team members.

How do you get residents involved? How do you bring different groups together? How do you speak with local authorities? The point of the Actors of Urban Change program was to find the answers to these questions. The different groups regularly got together in various cities for Academy events, where participants had the opportunity to share their concrete experiences with challenges such as organizing guided tours and meeting points at cafés, as well as tried-and-tested techniques and methods including collective mind mapping. For many participants, this exchange with others involved in the project was the most important part of the program. "It boosted our self-confidence considerably," says Kotryna Valiukevičiūtė, from Kaunas, Lithuania. "When you saw what the others were doing or the problems they were dealing with, it made you feel like you weren’t alone."

Picture Gallery



City researcher Charles Landry about the tension between cultural heritage and creativity (extract).