The Winter Training School: Co-creating Urban Spaces

The Trust Map researcher Catherine Wilkinson won a bursary from COST TU1204 to attend The Winter Training School on Co-creating Urban Spaces: The Transformation of the Given City in Reykjavik, Iceland from 29th March – 5th April. The school gave participants the opportunity to explore why and how the Reykjavik community of Breiðholt is being transformed from a disadvantaged suburb into a thriving community. Throughout the school Catherine gained new knowledge about co-creating within a city setting, and developed new toolsets for addressing technological, social, cultural and economic urban challenges in an interdisciplinary, people-centred manner.

The People Friendly Cities in a Data Rich World COST Action acknowledges that the citizen tends to play a marginal role in the making of their cities. The city is largely the product of top-down expertise and of a process from which the citizen has been excluded. Despite this top-down approach people, in their role as citizens, have had to build personal and collective biographies from the infrastructure of the city. The school was structured with lectures in the morning from local and international experts, practitioners and academics, and fieldwork and self-directed case study research with fieldwork in Breiðholt in the afternoon.

There were a number of interesting talks, including Cities, Happiness and Quality of Life, by Kevin Leydon, Professor in Political Science and Sociology, NUI Galway, and An Environmental Psychologist’s View on What Makes Cities People Friendly by Pall Lindal. Other insightful discussions include Kevin Leydon’s talk on Understanding Public Participation, and Lessons from Living Labs by Gulia Melis, from the Higher Institute on Territorial Systems for innovation. After the first day of lectures, and an introduction to Reykjavik City Council and Breiðholt Neighbourhood Council we were divided into groups and each provided with a project brief. In my group was Dr Ilaria Fumagalli, Environmental Engineer, and Sustainability Consultant and Dr Silvia Rossetti, Research Fellow in Urban Planning, both from Italy.

Our brief was concerned with the Breidholt Project and the Breidholt Congress, more specifically. We analysed the background and context for the Breidholt Project, the drivers behind the project, the functionalities used and the specific outcomes. As regards the Breidholt Congress, we considered the Public Participation action of the Congress, its political context, and applicability. We provided recommendations for further development of Congress, both for Breidholt and for this method of public participation more generally.

A number of key questions guided this research project:

  • What were the drivers behind the decision to start the Breidholt project?
  • What specific actions have been taken within the project?
  • What are the benefits (for both citizens and for the public actors involved)
  • Why was the Congress initiated?
  • What are the benefits of the Breidholt Congress?
  • What have been the main challenges of the Breidholt Congress?

In answering these questions we used primary and secondary data collection methods. We conducted informal interviews with stakeholders involved in the Breidholt Project, and the Congress, and engaged with a range of media and documents relating to both the Project and the Congress.

Using the neighbourhood of Breiðholt as a site for in-situ exploration, myself and other participants worked on a series of group assignments that focused on analysing various approaches to people-friendly urban development and ideas to solving practical urban problems. The Breiðholt neighbourhood in Reykjavik is uniquely diverse within the national context, both in income dispersion and nationalities of its inhabitants. Breidholt has the highest proportion in Reykjavik of low income households and immigrants, and traditional indices of performance in primary schools measure low achievement rates in many neighbourhood schools. Issues of language and social exclusion have been prevalent since the establishment of the neighbourhood in the late 70s and gang activities, violence and alcohol/drug related problems more prominent than in other Reykjavik neighbourhoods. Media discussions on most topics concerning Breidholt have been predominantly negative. To counter the stigmatisation caused by negative associations with the neighbourhood and mitigate the local challenges, the city of Reykjavik, over the course of the last 10 years, has put high emphasis on various projects and programs aimed at tackling the issues in Breidholt, with surprisingly positive results. My group had an opportunity to meet the people behind these initiatives.

My key areas of learning from the symposium were how and why actual public participation activities reap intended results and others not. I also gained an introduction to interdisciplinary viewpoints on public engagement and what makes a city ‘people friendly’. Further, I learned about novel approaches to public engagement in urban development and for increasing social cohesion. I also learned about the physical, institutional, communal and personal framework of urban spaces. On the last day of the training school, 5th April, each group presented their work to the COST Action during a symposium which took place in the city hall. This was a great opportunity to receive detailed feedback from faculty, local experts and members of the international COST network during their annual symposium.

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