Time to study urbanism. Iryna Solovei on the conditions and components of the post-war transformation

/ Interview /

How to scale the initial "citizens restore the square" scheme to the "people restore the city" stage? What motivates ideas, meanings and money to invest in post-war cities? In the context of the discussion about post-war scenarios for the eastern regions of Ukraine, the most affected and sometimes practically destroyed, PRAGMATIKA.MEDIA turned to the experience and opinion of Iryna Solovei, community development strategist, president of the public organization Garage Gang and co-founder of the platform bigggidea.com.

We articulate the role of creative initiatives in urban metabolism and future post-war recovery, and look for ways to multiply the power of connections and integrate cultural change into viable business models and resourceful urban infrastructure.

The interview with Ms. Iryna is part of the material "Do not let go of the east. Looking for a better script for difficult regions"published within the framework of the special project"The future of small towns".

PRAGMATIKA.MEDIA: It is often heard that small towns in Eastern Ukraine are deprived of their own identity — as if they are some kind of barracks around factories. Something devoid of roots and its own history. What is your opinion? Do the towns have their own "genius of place"?

Iryna Solovei: The experience of direct work in small cities of Ukraine, which our public organization Garage Gang implemented from 2009 to 2019 in all 35 cities, revealed the axiom that as long as a city exists, it has a spirit of place, a holistic idea that organizes the common life of people. Residents may poorly recognize it and fail to reproduce it in the city's identity, but both in large cities, with which our team worked within the framework of the "City Code" program, and in small ones, the communities of which we and our partners developed during the program "Metamisto: East", this organizing urban "gene" is reproduced in various aspects of cities as a fractal.

The "Metamisto: East" program carried out the research and reproduction by a mythologist of 6 small towns of Donetsk and Luhansk regions: Lysychansk, Bakhmut, Pokrovska, Severodonetsk, Kostyantynivka, Dobropillia in the works of modern artists. We were surprised to discover that these cities have a history that not only sets the local cultural microrhythms of life, but also has cultural value at the national level. The poet Volodymyr Sosyura spent his childhood in Lysychansk, whose "Love Ukraine... with all your heart and all your deeds" is on almost everyone's lips even now. For Pokrovsky, Marko Zaliznyak, the author of documentary photos about the life of the Ukrainian village during collectivization and the Holodomor, is a symbolic figure.

The people of the city get involved if the program considers their role as the most informed and committed players in the city

Of course, the experience of the Soviet times devalued distinct local manifestations, and people gradually learned the mantra, which was supposed to preserve the remnants of security and free them from any responsible attitude towards the city: "There is nothing special here. We are like the rest." Such an imposed attitude, unfortunately, over time leads to the gradual destruction of the cultural capital of the city, the destruction of the architectural heritage as the embodiment of its history and evidence of a certain role in national development, to the ignoring of meaningful lines in the process of creating new urban solutions, to the reduction of the attractiveness of the city for young people and entrepreneurs.

Presentation of the book "Transformations of the Ukrainian East" as part of the "Metamisto: East" project. Photo courtesy of "City Code"

Presentation of the book "Transformations of the Ukrainian East" as part of the "Metamisto: East" project. Photo courtesy of "City Code"

We found that almost every city has a character that grew out of its history. Because of this, it is very painful for me to think about the fate of the urban communities in the East of Ukraine, which the enemies are now dealing numerous blows to. And because of this, it is very gratifying when you see that the occupiers in their public places are fearfully writing under the photos of the murals with Sausyura's poems in Lysychansk, that there are such paintings all over the city.

The art and active culture of the city is a manifestation of the citizens' attitude to the space in which they live, work and celebrate such small victories as the emergence of a new public space where you can hear music and children's laughter. I choose to believe that a great victory will come to these cities, which we will all celebrate together, adults and children.

PM: What experience is there in the dry residue after numerous cultural interventions initiated by your team in the cities of Ukraine? How did people react to the actions of urban planners, artists, and architects? How amenable was the urban fabric to transformations?

I. S.: We started working with the creative city model in 2009, and already in 2010 we had two projects: the national "Fura Kultura" and the international "Woman 3000", which activated the creative communities of 10 cities. Every year, we offered 5-6 cities activities with a focus on one or another element of a creative city: connections, ideas, actions, spaces, new industries.

One of the successful interventions, which made it possible to increase the openness of Ukrainians to new things, were charity meetings to discuss creative ideas of "Sunday Borsch". These events became the prototype of Splinkoshto, a crowdfunding mechanism on the platform Big Idea, which started in 2012 and in ten years helped to successfully attract funding from 70 individual benefactors for 000 projects for a total amount of over 566 hryvnias.

Attracting funds from citizens in those years caused a certain skepticism in almost everyone, except for our team. It was openness to new things and the first successful examples that encouraged projects to try crowdfunding on our platform. Today we can note that the productive example of Spilnokoshta played an important role during the Maidan and at the beginning of the war in 2014, when the now-known army aid funds just appeared. As then, the lion's share of funding for these funds of competent assistance to the army is attracted from Ukrainian citizens and businesses.

Discussion within the framework of the "Meter" project - the transformation of the Zhytomyr plant "Electromiryvaet" into an innovation park. Photo: Anna Rogotska, Maria Matyashova. Photo courtesy of "City Code"

Discussion within the framework of the "Meter" project - the transformation of the Zhytomyr plant "Electromiryvaet" into an innovation park. Photo: Anna Rogotska, Maria Matyashova. Photo courtesy of "City Code"

In 2015, as part of the "City Code", we invited cities to join arthakathons, which were supposed to activate interdisciplinary interaction in Kyiv, Dnipro and Ivano-Frankivsk. In the capital, we worked in the "Isolation" space, which moved from Donetsk to test our concept for urban activities. In Dnipro and Ivano-Frankivsk, the challenge for implementing the concept was precisely to find a suitable space.

Our local partners, "Kultura Medialna" in Dnipro and "Teple Mysto" in Ivano-Frankivsk, a few years after the joint arthakathons founded the influential interdisciplinary spaces of the international level, Dnipro Center for Contemporary Culture and Promprylad.Renovation, respectively. In both cases, citizens, business, local self-government, and international organizations are involved in funding the operation of these spaces.

Sometimes what activates and unites people is thoughtful disagreement with your intervention and people's desire to act in their own way

In 2016, the program evolved to offer a method for enhancing the creative potential of small towns, "Metamisto: East", through which citizens participated in the study of the urban fabric, the design and construction of public spaces and their cultural activation. Our goal was to have a shared positive experience where the ideas of residents find feedback and are translated into practical solutions, so that when our program activities end, this sense of community and resourcefulness remains and gives impetus to new urban innovations.

Already in 2018, the program was transformed into an interdisciplinary school "Constructions of interaction", where our colleagues and partners retained the role of mentors and stewards, and city teams worked independently with their own ideas, inspired by the experience of cities from previous years.

One such team from Berdyansk was formed by police officers who sought to transform an abandoned street that caused a negative attitude among the townspeople. Thanks to the training program, this team was able to organize the involvement of people, conduct research with them on possible spatial changes, design an intervention, get the support of the local government, convince everyone and implement the desired steps that transformed the attitude of many towards this street and helped to return it to the active use of the city.

Transformation of an abandoned cinema into a public space, Kostyantynivka. Photo: Marichka Varenikova. Photo courtesy of "City Code"

The people of the city get involved if the program considers their role as the most informed and committed players to the city, and this requires the initiators to be empathetic and to be a beginner. Such openness is possible if you come to the city not to self-realize or assert yourself, but with curiosity about the specific urban context and trust in the energy of the residents, which is looking for an outlet and a form.

The skills and competencies of urban planners, architects, cultural explorers and social innovators are needed to complement the grassroots energy of citizens and assist in the rapid prototyping of a vision that will enable the combination of creative forces already present in the city. Actually, it is most important to activate the community of the city, even if it is not possible to realize your initial idea.

Our experience in Slavutych proved that sometimes what activates and unites people is thoughtful disagreement with your intervention and people's desire to act in their own way. It was a great lesson and reminder for us that the ultimate goal of the program is to revitalize an urban community that is able to organize itself, to create spaces where citizens can concentrate talents, synergize ideas, make necessary things and see new art.

Our colleagues from various city organizations have a similar experience, who sometimes receive a warm response, and sometimes a sharp disagreement, but in any case, a successful intervention encourages people to connect, revise their attitude towards the city and start acting together. The processes of urban development are quite complex and complex, so I strongly recommend to all those interested in working with the urban fabric in the process of reconstruction and post-war transformation of the country, to look for formal and informal educational opportunities right now in order to find out what factors affect the level of people's involvement, methods of planning urban activations and specialists from which disciplines will be needed in the team to achieve the desired result and leave the city more vibrant than it was before your intervention.

PM: You wrote that "volunteers are an important basis of Ukrainianism - people who bridge gaps in the social fabric with their actions." Are the efforts of volunteers, agents of influence enough to close the gaps in the spaces of our cities in the East? Is it possible, in principle, to turn square kilometers of burned-out, fuel-oil-soaked industrial zones into gardens, and is it necessary?

I. S.: Each city is a living system, and together they shape the dynamics of the region and set the impetus for the growth and development of the entire country. If you change the optics of perceiving the possibilities of cities, the question of converting square meters into gardens makes sense only at the level of a play on words. Instead, questions that always make sense in the context of the ecocycle of growth and development of social systems become relevant:

- will people's talents flourish in the city?

- is productive interaction between organizations from the private and public sectors being built?

– are natural conditions such as clean soil, water and air preserved so that children grow up in a healthy environment?

- does access to technology allow citizens to be actively involved in important decisions and to expand their access to various services, including cultural, social and financial ones?

- is the dynamics of business ventures sufficiently brisk?

– is the educational infrastructure diverse enough to retain young people and attract new residents?

Hackathon in public space "Zaliznyak", Pokrovsk. Photo courtesy of "City Code"

Urban life thrives at the intersection of these different dimensions, and people of good will can become initiators and agents of transformation in each of them if they are able to maintain an awareness of the growing interdependence between different urban players. The question is, are these volunteers ready to build bridges between players and by their actions intentionally facilitate the process of finding synergy in their co-operation? The impulse coming from such people may die out, without finding a sufficient response, if the dimensions of the city are considered separately and functionally, as it was mostly done until recently.

It is worth noting that in the previous decade, the centers for the emergence of such agents of innovative transformations in Ukraine were the sphere of culture and creativity. In the next decade, which unfortunately coincided with a pandemic and is marked by a terrible war, it is very important that business and local governments also join in and can absorb the cultural changes and integrate them into viable business models and resourceful urban infrastructure.

The question is, are these volunteers ready to build bridges between players and by their actions intentionally facilitate the process of finding synergy in their co-operation?

Fortunately for us, the difficult experience of living and working in the conditions of a pandemic and war showed entrepreneurs in different cities as active and responsible subjects who began to delve even more into the issues of urban development provoked by the pandemic, and the war catalyzed the active search for working solutions. I am convinced that entrepreneurial flair with a dash of leadership will allow Ukrainian business to continue to choose such an approach that will be productive for the city and profitable for its founders. This is very important because in the process of creating value for the city, which will be available on an ongoing basis, it is necessary that the business system is viable and can work in a sustainable way in the long term.

Actually, specialists in the reconstruction of cities after natural disasters, when they share their experience with Ukrainians who are already thinking about the reconstruction of communities and the processes of post-war transformation, emphasize that the success of such programs depends on two conditions: the level of involvement of community residents and the ability to establish processes for mutually beneficial principles. This is easier to predict in communities that have only been partially affected by military action, because there are already volunteers helping to dismantle destroyed homes, and entrepreneurs see a way to connect thanks to the available logistical opportunities, as well as closer coordination of actions with the municipal authorities.

The goal of hackathons, discussions and lectures is to strengthen the creative potential of small towns. Photo courtesy of "City Code"

The goal of hackathons, discussions and lectures is to strengthen the creative potential of small towns. Photo courtesy of "City Code"

It is obvious that it is more difficult now to think about recovery models for cities that are temporarily under occupation and are waiting to be liberated by the forces of the Ukrainian army. Some cities, such as Kherson, have left up to 60% of residents, and any model for these cities must first of all offer approaches for the return of people who may find it difficult not only economically, but also emotionally.

High risks of a potential outflow of residents are also faced by cities that have not suffered physical losses so far and receive large numbers of forcibly displaced citizens, but after the victory and the opening of the borders, a new wave of people's mobility will begin. These risks will manifest themselves differently depending on the timing of the opening of the borders, the duration of the war and how the acute phase will end: with the victory of Ukraine or the freezing of the conflict.

Ukraine has not faced such challenges before, and for the first time we will learn to support the vital activity of cities in such circumstances. Accepting these challenges is important to stay on the path of renewal from a post-industrial society, when cities have almost lost their charm and caused consumerism on the part of the population, to a participatory society in which people think of themselves as citizens, active co-creators of the urban environment.

In a participatory society, citizens, together with business and self-government bodies, seek the optimal trajectory of growth and development of cities and at the same time are able to use the tools of national policy in the regions. Such an optimal trajectory of the city as a living system flows through the points of convergence of self-organized grassroots energy and institutional solutions. When the points coincide more often, it means that the trajectory becomes more transparent and understandable for different players, and the urban environment is enriched with various data and enhanced with new technologies.

As a society, we are already taking some successful steps towards such a transition in most cities thanks to an active culture of citizen involvement in city decisions, including through participatory platforms such as crowdfunding and public budgeting.

PM: Is it possible to implement development scenarios other than the "provincial post-industrial zone", "transit territory", "frontier" scenario in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk regions?

I. S.: It is important to discuss scenarios for many cities of Donetsk and Luhansk regions with people who were born there, grew up, worked and gained important life experience in these cities. Without the participation of these people, trying to think about the scenarios for these cities is probably useless. With the involvement of these people, anything is possible. Many conversations with different people from Donetsk region and Luhansk region have already been recorded and sketched, even played musically.

All these 8 years, the cultural and public spheres of Ukraine created space and opportunities for people who fled the war in 2014 and for those who fought to defend the country. Thanks to dialogues and open forums, the experiences and positions of these people were more visible and better heard by fellow citizens from different regions of the country. Thanks to cultural and public projects with veterans, a network of spaces was created and ways to overcome PTSD through art and creativity were developed. Many different books have been published and discussed about the experiences of soldiers who volunteered and served in the army for a period of time.

How we will heal and resuscitate these wounded cities, what plots will help us tell their stories and how we can develop them, is currently impossible to predict. Now I can say that the most important thing is that we have such an opportunity as soon as possible, and I assure you that we have enough different skills, talents, methods and love for this work. These cities are a part of our common future, and the Ukrainian army is making every effort to make it so.

Any model for temporarily occupied cities must offer approaches for the return of people

The experience of our organization in Donetsk in 2010 and Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in 2016 was very cool in each of these cities. To understand new challenges, our team uses weak signal analytics, which is effective for navigating the ever-changing, complex and symbol-filled urban environment. The goal of our organization is to make cities more vibrant after the war through cooperation.

Actually, our team is developing the Big Idea platform as an ecosystem for co-funding urban projects and programs of post-war transformation, offering participation tools for Ukrainian citizens, businesses, local governments and donors. To implement transformations in urban communities on a practical level, our team always relies on the power of small steps and meaningful engagement of the urban community. This allows you to productively overcome potential conflicts between the stability of decisions, their expressiveness and identity on the one hand, and flexibility and openness on the other, and thus, together with partners and citizens, implement a holistic approach.

The Most Fest festival, Kostyantynivka, 2018. Photo: Formografia design studio. Photo courtesy of "City Code"

After the military victory of Ukraine, the results of the reconstruction and modernization of our cities will be more permanent, if today in the cities where we can already work, we manage to establish productive relations between the players from urban planning and institutions from the post-war transformation. A certain synergy of ideas, efforts, resources and connections between specialists in these organizations is critical for meaningful and systematic work in the interests of each of the cities of the state and will help to take into account the current meanings of Ukrainianness and the challenges that the war that came to our infinitely beautiful country additionally manifested 8 years ago - in the Crimea, the cities of Donetsk region and Luhansk region, and it was only five months ago, when it became full-scale, unfortunately.

Successful coordination of cooperation in the context of post-war transformation of communities is based on dynamic relations between local and national scales. A very important criterion for the productive coordination of such cooperation is the balance between the autonomy of communities and their interdependence within the state. It sounds complicated and complex, which is why we should all start learning both urban planning and working with data, and form a culture of network interaction. We have both the credit of trust from the world and the high expectations of Ukrainian citizens, and this in itself is a powerful enough attraction to start the process.



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