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Report from the international conference on integrated urban development and placemaking ”Merging the Split: converting Spaces into Places”

On 25-26 April 2019 the City of Split hosted the first international conference on integrated urban development and placemaking organized by the Association of Cities in the Republic of Croatia. The event was an opportunity to connect interested stakeholders and urban practitioners from Europe and beyond during two dynamic days of panel discussions and workshops. The article presents some of the highlights and conclusions from the conference.
The motivation for organizing the conference was to build upon the existing results of Croatian cities in the field of urban development and participatory approach to urban planning, acquired through the URBACT program and through the implementation of the ITI mechanism in Croatia. Specific goals included: familiarizing interested participants with available sustainable urban development practices and methodologies for designing and creating public places; transfering the knowledge and sharing experiences among city professionals and experts; discussing current issues regarding public space and engagement of the public in creating them. The conference was located in the venue of Multimedia culture centre in Split, an old socialist-era building, which gave an interesting and inspiring ambient to discuss and share knowledge.

Collaborators and partners of the conference included program URBACT III, World Bank – Urban Partnership program, Interreg projects CESBA MED and STEP-UP, Institute for spatial politics (IPOP), Energy institute Hrvoje Požar, association Teserakt, company Competent and three partner cities – Split, Šibenik and Zadar. The partners were a crucial element in giving the necessary expertise and financial support. The conference was organized under auspices of Ministry of regional development and EU funds and Ministry of construction and physical planning, and manage to assemby some 170 participants and speakers from 14 countries (Albania, Australia, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Hungary, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Serbia and Croatia).
The overall topics of the conference can be summarized in 5 theme groups: Sustainable and Integrated Urban Development; Public Participation in the Creation of Public Space; Urban Mobility; Public Spaces for Children & Youth; and Participatory Budgeting.
Roland Krebs (Superwien, Austria) opened the conference with a key lecture on Human dimension in urban development presenting the findings and lessons from several urban development projects from all over the globe. He presented the recent change from urban planning to urban laboratory practices which focus on process-oriented and flexible planning mechanism that is used forrealizing new challenges, changes and unforeseen events in real time. In contrast to the traditional urban planning, the urban lab approach promotes immediate action and continuous quality control along with new regulations for ground-floor zones and activation of local identities! Another important aspect is the timely inclusion of relevant stakeholders (private sector and citizens) in the planning process, shown on the example of Oberes Hausfeld neigbourhood in Vienna. A phased process has been used there following several simple steps: a) launching an open call for participants; b) establishing network of initial participating stakeholders; c) developing usage strategy for new buildings and spaces; d) design and construction; e) pioneering activities. A similar methodology has been used in the several cities in South America and Balkans (eg. Ksamil, Albania – video) producing local strategic plans for urban development with the list of concrete interventions.
Wessel Badenhorst (Urban Mode, Ireland) hosted the second key speakers’ session in the afternoon of the first day, focusing on the placemaking as a practical approach to create momentum in urban development. With the help of Alisa Aliti Vlašić, Maddalena Pornaro and Jere Kuzmanić three examples were presented during the session, each emerging from different local contexts of a tourist cities. Small interventions like ad-hoc street cinema (Split) or mobile shelter for homeless persons (Lisabon) can initiate interesting collaboration among permanent and temporary inhabitants that can lead to larger and meaningful development projects.
Sustainable and Integrated Urban Development topic group featured four panels and workshops (1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 4D) that addressed various urban issues and urban practices: available development mechanisms (Integrated territorial investments, Local development strategies, URBACT integrated action plans), different approaches to public spaces, methodologies for sustainable planning (CESBA MED, Urban Lab) and examples of good practices (Almada, Valencia, Trieste, Dubrovnik, Ksamil, Split). Some lessons could be extracted from presented cases and shared experience. A stronger cooperation among relevant stakeholders (citizens included) and different levels of (self)government is much needed. Sustainable and integrated urban development is a long term process requiring appropriate methodology, mutual trust and continuous effort to achieve it. An open attitude to social innovation is required since it enables an easier and effective implementation of citizens participation in planning process. Besides that, a strong recommendation for cities willing to implement territorial and integrated urban strategies is to start early with the preparations, especially concerning the creation of project ideas and participation of stakeholders. In addition, cities implementing ITI mechanism should secure technical assistance funds for supporting and educating the responsible city staff!
Public Participation in the Creation of Public Space topic group included three panels and workshops (1D, 2D, 4A) focusing on different methods and projects that facilitate or promote more active citizens’ participation while taking into account different cultural backgrounds and context of each city and community. Existing models and methods of planning used by cities are usually outdated and do not follow current challenges, so another more innovative approach is needed. The general experience showed that people tend to be interested for participation in planning processes but are easily discouraged if projects enter certain bureaucratic barriers and/or delays. To counter that risk simple low-cost and low-risk interventions are proposed, whose purpose is to stimulate thinking and alternative interpretation of the space. Such small projects have a positive impact on the community and its public spaces (examples of Microgranting and Urban Pockets projects in Novi Sad, City Acupuncture in Zagreb, Urban revitalization project in Amarante, and mini projects in Kranj). When reaching out to citizens and other stakeholders all means are recommended and eligible: web sites (of municipality, local communities, local agencies, partner NGOs…), social media, street posters, radio talks and jingles, local newspapers, direct communication, small public events, gatherings, workshops and meetings!
Urban Mobility group featured two workshops (1C i 4C) tackling different aspects of mobility in cities: the impact of technology and smart solutions on cities resulting in new ways that citizens move through or between cities (examples of Vienna, Zadar, Šibenik), and how changing mobility culture contributes to placemaking in small and medium sized towns and cities (examples from Slovenia, Poland and Croatia). The latter panel presented good practices that utilize walkability solutions (Ljubljana), evidence-based parking policies (Idrija) and the way local initiatives can launch investment campaigns for bicycle infrastructure using participatory approach and budgeting (Pruszcz Gdanski). The following debates highlighted the fact that similar problems exist in different countries, meaning same solutions can be borrowed and modified to fit in local context. That being said, participants concluded that small local initiatives go a long way and that high budget is not needed to start changing mobility since low-cost soft measures can have a big impact on space quality and traffic safety (eg. less cars around school). When considering urban mobility planning, a broader, regional perspective should be taken into account.
The panel/workshop Public Spaces for Children & Youth (2C) raised questions on main problems and challenges for children and youth regarding public spaces where they can play, move, learn. It is unclear if the cities understand enough children’s and youth’s needs and wishes and if they are sufficiently involved in co-creation of spaces for play and public space in general. As a solution to raised questions, panelists proposed a method and process named „Learning by Doing“ which is divided in 4 major steps (Field Research, Analysis/Consultation, Co-Design, Co-Construction and Craftsmanship). During the group work several conclusions emerged. The imperative for a public space to be pleasurable for multi-usage is to have free space that should be zoned but with clear connections for social interaction (that are soft and rich with greenery; made of natural materials and in different level heights). When discussing option in which play spaces contribute to the identity of the community, urban designers and placemakers should aspire to make subtle borders of spaces for play with no fences (buildings as physical separator from the traffic); spaces with a story to tell (interconnecting spaces with folk tales, fairy tales…); and preserve the already good public spaces and support it with missing elements.
The interactive workshop on Participatory Budgeting (4B) provided conference participants with an opportunity to get familiar with the methodology for inclusion of citizens in municipal budgetary process. When talking about participatory approach to sustainable urban development the practice of PB shows several benefits for cities that are implementing it: greater sense of citizens’ ownership of development projects and spatial interventions, education on local budgetary process, better identification of citizens’ priorities for their communities, and development of solid mutual trust between citizens and local administration!
The second day of conference started with four on-site workshops organized in three cities (Split, Šibenik and Zadar) – each taking a different approach to their local specifics – from urban planning and placemaking for public spaces to walkability and sustainable tourism.
The workshop ”City transformation – from industrial past to tourist future” that was held in Šibenik highlighted the problem of seasonality reflected in significant oscillation in the number of inhabitants in the old town during summer and winter season. Despite successful examples of urban transformation and spatial regeneration (eg. beach Banja), the town center is missing a stable level of present crafts and services throughout the year. Moderators and workshop participants concluded that during revitalization of urban areas, cities should always take care of the residents living in that part of town and their needs, so that urban spaces can have a lasting and sustainable function.

The workshop ”Public Space Observations and Ideas: Riva” held in Zadar put the focus on placemaking ideas for the open areas of the old town near waterfront. The participants inputs included existing features they liked (cleanness & greenery) but also suggestions for improvement of public space to make it a more welcoming and staying place for citizens & travelers (more communal equipment for sitting, exercising and playing, additional signes for directions, removal of barriers for mobility and accessibility etc.).
The workshop ”Northern Perimeter – Response(-)Ability” put focus on northern part of Split, the neighbourhood Kopilica, former industrial area, now a classic example of brownfield, that is selected for urban development. Geographically, Kopilica is a contact zone for boundaries of neighbouring cities (Kaštela, Solin and Split) that make a topographic, social and economic entity. Due to that, the are should not be planned only as a spatial resource of Split, but as a metropolitan asset that can functionally connect these urban areas in the near future. The second part of the workshop explored the option for the development of usable model for planning, the participants discussed the role of responsibility in spatial planning. Through a simple exercise that included or excluded communication channels in the creation of the model for Kopilica, some unexpected results showed up. The discussion offered a thesis that insight into the whole process and the obligation to communicate the vision at a higher level results with lower sensitivity for a lesser scale. Collective creation of great visions produces a vague vacuum in the creation of small special oases or ‘places’ between large parks, infrastructures etc. This is important to have in mind in the context of placemaking theory and practice. The conclusion of the workshops is that great visions should be designed only if they generate enough opportunities to create small, personal, and common visions.
The workshop ”Walkable Heritage: Public Spaces of Split 3” presented most iconic places of Split 3 neighbourhood during the first part. After that an interactive part of the workshop started during which participants got the chance to explore the emotional, rational and creative aspects of the current situation regarding urban mobility in the area and the lack of recreational and green spaces. Participants have added a fresh view on  the topic and some new ideas, mostly bottom-up approaches, but also some which could be classified as strategic and top-down. Most agreed that the area is a possible new or alternative city center, well planned but lacking some elements to its full realization. The proposed interventions included squatting of the unfinished path, possibly with some art interventions and/or gardening and “temporary use” as framework (choosing the goal which is most feasible and starting the activities). Participants agreed that for some bigger interventions, neighborhoods and microlocal NGOs should apply to EU funds in collaboration with the city administration, and to start experimenting with participatory budgeting and crowdfunding.

Several comments from participants and speakers nicely show the overall success of the event:

„Merging the Split was the right Place to present CESBA MED integrative sustainable planning framework. The feedback received by scrutinizing this very complex topic to plane & simple reasoning will help us in shaping a message not only in developing a tool.“ (Margareta)
„For me, it was a privilege to participate in the conference, specifically because it was so intimate and ‘close up’. Participants were able to engage with each other personally, in small groups, in the plenaries and in all kinds of spaces in a very interesting building. The result was that by the end of the conference there was a spirit of togetherness and a sense of belonging“. (Wessel)

„Especially thanks to the fact that you decide to organize the conference in Split and that you have reinforced the tenants’ association from the old city centre that will hopefully learn how to set up through the cooperation with Šibenik.“ (Diana)
„It was inspirational, there was really a lot of information on all panels… the atmosphere, the people, the accessibility of all participants reminded me of transnational meetings in EU projects, there is much to learn, from the right people, to the right place. All the topics were interesting and it is a real shame that we could not “split” and participate in every panel and workshop.“ (Goranka)

What will be the following activities after the conference?

The topic of integrated urban development will surely continue to be a part of activities done by the Croatian Association of Cities and National URBACT Point for Croatia. This will be an important issue to highlight during the preparatory tasks for the next programming period 2021-2027, announced enlargement of the number of ITI cities in Croatia and general requirements for sustainable urban development. In regard to the placemaking in Croatia, the conference had supported the existing initiatives and allowed a new ideas to be initiated whose results will be visible in the upcoming months and years. The established links and cooperation among present organisations and individuals will be encouraged in the future while the organisation of the next conference will be considered for 2021.

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