Decaying spaces matter: Empowering communities through urban regeneration.
The accumulation of demographic and economic decline in a city is an old phenomenon. It is its persistence in the long-term as well as a crisis of local public finance, which characterize the shrinking city. “Shrinking cities” challenge urban planning to imagine new ways of thinking deprived spaces, and thus become the place for innovative urban alternatives. Make Better is one of them.
Make Better (MKBT) tackles urban deprivation, housing, and decaying space through commons in Romania. It is an NGO and consultancy firm working toward virtuous urban (re)generation with cities, communities, politics. They enriched the Co-Cities research as their projects illustrate how initiatives could build a Co-City. It is now part of our online map, an open database identifying innovative urban projects across the world: link of MKBT project. MKBT’s project “lively Făgăraș” is one of them, implementing co-governance to activate underused spaces.
Empowering communities through urban regeneration
In Romania, some cities as Făgăraș lost 20-30% of their population. In that context, “urban regeneration” projects aim to make cities livable again, but it could also be a process that marginalizes communities already present. Therefore, Make Better develops the idea that abandoned or latent spaces have resources to offer and can respond to the community needs: it is just a matter of facilitating them.
It is in this state of mind that they co-organized the “Lively Făgăraș – Civic appropriation of derelict spaces in shrinking towns” project, to revitalize the area of Făgăraș. It was implemented between March 2021 and September 2022, in partnership with Făgăraș Country Community Foundation (FCCF). The role of communities is central in this project : a participatory mapping of underused spaces has been implemented, as well as several ideation workshops using gamestorming and other participatory methods, temporary events organized with the community to test some activation ideas, as well as co-governance structures were set up for a selected number of latent spaces.
“ From the design of interventions and events, towards their organization and on-site implementation, the local community is the most valuable resource and catalyser for both short-term and long-term transformations.” stated the “Lively Făgăraș” toolkit.
In Făgăraș, MKBT and their partners engage with local actors in all stages. They tried to make fun and attractive events, established and communicated “ground-rules” to develop a care attitude, and think their events as the most inclusive as they can (accessibility, topic of interest…). MKBT observed participation from deprived areas, which might also have been due to the location – next to the place they were living at – where people would feel welcomed. That is why housing and decaying space is a great tool for including marginalized groups: it is concrete and visible.
Regarding this very last point, the MKBT staff noted in an interview led by LabGov that there can be a sort of nostalgia about the glorious past of decaying cities. Thus, the organization thinks of memory as a tool for fighting negative impacts of shrinking cities. In Lively Făgăraș, old photos exhibitions conveying community memories, and stories of Făgăraș community and the Jewish legacy, were settled. Besides, gastronomic experiences linked to place memories were implemented. The goal remains the activation of space regarding community’s needs and experiences. Thereby, memory has a place in urban regeneration and constitute a community building tool.
Towards a Co-City?
“Lively Făgăraș” project led to write and specify a protocol, enhancing the shift from urban commons to the City as a Common.
“Lively Făgăraș” tested a collaborative process to engage citizens for discovering, thinking, and generating co-governance tools for giving life to otherwise abandoned spaces. Throughout the process, youth was deeply involved, and then ‘space ambassadors’ were identified, as civic groups or members of the community that are willing to contribute even more to revitalizing the targeted spaces. The steps are:
- Discovery. It is the very first phase to identify deprived spaces and link them with community needs. Participatory mapping tools, mental maps, urban exploration in groups, walk along conversations with residents, urban education, questionnaires, interviews…
- Ideation. How could such spaces be transformed and for whom? In this phase, game storming, brainstorming exercises, mental maps and facilitated discussions are led.
“Collaborative maps engaging youth to make and discuss places with reconversion potential and routes most used by themselves and local residents”. Source : Screenshot ghid-Făgăraș-EN_AE.pdf (incredereinFăgăraș.ro)
- Activation. This step is about concretely valorizing the space and empowering the community in the long-term. The method is to build urban furniture which allows to test various new site uses, to organize entertaining activities for various age groups to catalyze their engagement, revealing the history of the space… Temporary events are a key moment.
- Co-governance. This very last step enables key stakeholders (owners, users, administrators) to get organized with roles and responsibilities, to take care of these spaces on the long term. Various forms of co-governance tools as contracts, partnership agreements, open letters of cooperation… can be implemented.
The process is composed of several steps, deeply detailed with very concrete tips and tools, available through an opensource. Such a protocol enables replicability and transmission of experiences to build the City as a Common. This enhances multiple governance experiments and participate to what LabGov named “Experimentalism”. The different phases also recall and give strength to the first steps of the Co-City Cycle which compose the Co-City Protocol (Co-City Protocol | LabGov). In fact, it includes the cheap talking and mapping phase, which foster collective intelligence to activate space according to community needs, exactly as the “Living Făgăraș” protocol aims to.
In Făgăraș, MKBT tried to connect with local actors and already existing initiatives, as well as foreign organizations. They organized temporary events to get the community involved, and work with a large range of other actors: local restaurant, NGOs, museums, and community foundations already actives and sometimes engaged with high school. Their actions head towards the idea of implementing an eco-system of public, private, cognitive, social, and civic actors, the so-called quintuple helix model as a tool for urban co-governance promoted by LabGov. An online platform, Trust Fagaras, was set up to
Among several sites identified and activates by the Living Făgăraș experiment, Comuniteca is a probating example of Co-governance. There is now a contract between the Senchea College and FCCF for the renovation and use of one classroom to host the Științescu STEM hub for kids and a coworking active community space. A volunteer-based workshop was held “to renovate and arrange the space for its new use, with financial and in-kind contributions mobilized by FCCF from the community and other international funds” (Source: MKBT).
Although MKBT directly relates to the Common paradigm, the terminology of commons is not that much used in Romania. Thus, the only fact of creating temporary events and using deprived spaces has already pushed discussions toward co-governance. “Living Făgăraș” promotes an innovative vision of decaying spaces, in considering it as an opportunity instead of a loss, to foster civic participation, and empower youth and other community members. It reflects efforts made by actors in shrinking areas to reinvent urbanity and urban governance, toward a Co-City.
E. G. Carayannis, T. D. Barth, D. F. J. Campbell, The Quintuple Helix innovation model: global warming as a challenge and driver for innovation, Journal of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, n. 1/2012; C. Iaione, E. De Nictolis, La quintupla elica come approccio alla governance dell’innovazione sociale, in F. Montanari, L. Mizzau (eds.), I luoghi dell’innovazione aperta. Modelli di sviluppo territoriale e inclusione sociale, Torino, Fondazione G. Brodolini, 2016.