From art projects to community planning

What is city identity? How can you contribute to build it? What is the role of art in the process of public engagement? How a group of landscape architects became the pioneers of community planning? What are the experiences from the last decade and what is the way forward?

For the first Shared Cities:Cretive Momentum (SCCM) discussion Mindspace invited Gabor Szohr, landscape architect, co-founding member of Újirany / New Directions Landscape Architects – UIArchitects. Újirány Group has been active in the rehabilitation of District VIII of Budapest for the past 10 years. They realized a number of artistic and public engagement projects. This night we spoke about their experiences, their view on community planning and about future possibilities. The first actions of Újirány take us back to 2008/09, when the rehabilitation of Budapest’s Palace District started.

Újirány organized a set of artistic project with the purpose of building an identity for the quarter. If you wandered around in the area that time, you most likely saw the Budapest related quotes painted on the sidewalks, or classy pattern paintings framing the drain covers or plaques on the walls revealing the history of that building. These all intended to call attention to the deeper local cultural heritage. The urban cultural pop up space (Mikszáth tér 2., Lumen café) where our discussion was held, in 2008 served as a community planning space, where the locals could share their wishes regarding the future of the area. In the early projects of Újirány expression of opinions, strengthening the city identity and popularizing of the local cultural heritage were key elements.

Later, Újriány prepared their “You are standing here” poll-map game with similar purposes. Still in 2008 Újirány participated in the initiation of Rév 8 Zrt. and redesigned various inner courtyards in the Palace District. This is a milestone because Újirány applied community planning in order to engage the locals and created enduring values. The residents actively participated in turning the common areas into community areas, where they feel home and where they can organize different programs. And this is the real benefit of community planning, that the actual users of the area have a chance for active involvement and for expressing opinions already at the beginning of the planning process. Contrary to the classic planning, where users may only see the plans once they are published. Community plan is developed through a partnership of the experts and the public.

In 2010 Placc Festival gave a frame to Újirány Goup’s citizen engaging actions, which this time targeted the high number of intellectuals living in the Palace District. The programs aimed to invite these people to actively use the public spaces and streets of Dictrict VIII. Újirány placed sun chairs on the square to call attention to relaxation and to provide a place where locals could have a conversation without the need of consuming something. During another program they drilled wall bars to random places, promoting healthy lifestyle and again a chance to get to know each other through light conversations with strangers.

All these professional experiences in public engagement lead to the winning of the Teleki Square Community Planning Competition in 2013. This project lasted 3 month and applied most techniques mentioned above. Firstly Újirány alerted the locals than together they re- occupied the territory of Teleki Square, which that time was known as a dingy place of drug dealers and small gangs. They held lots of brainstorming, they listened to all opinions and wishes, planned and analysed budgets with the community. As the result of the hard work Teleki Square Community Park born and it satisfied the needs of all target groups of the neighbouring areas: they had playground for children, benches for the elder’s gossip parties, a stage to hold programs, green areas and a teenage corner.

Gabor highlighted that that during the project the locals learned to respect the opinion of their neighbours and the experts, accepted the votes of the majority and deeply understood the method of planning. They could make other people understand why it is necessary to cut out some decaying trees or what the cultural heritages of the given area are. Involving the public has a real community building power, which has a high significance regarding the post-life of the project.