By Aleksandra Tatarczuk
Cultural animator, project manager, founder of Dwie Ole collective (dwieole.pl)
Participation triangle is a cooperation method used during the Oliwa ożywa project in Gdańsk (Poland). In 2013 the inhabitants of Orkana Street in Stara Oliwa district had become engaged into the transformation of obsolete greenery belt into a neighbourhood garden. By using collective energy, it was possible to create a place for neighbourhood meetups, multiflowered garden and a playground for kids. A similar idea was recreated again in 2014, with another space in the Oliwa district (on Podhalańska Street), where neighbours decided to become involved in a similar initiative. The project was coordinated by cultural animator Aleksandra Tatarczuk. In the following year she was supported by Aleksandra Mrozowska – together they worked as the collective Dwie Ole.
This Project had been conducted, on a request received during the PARKOWANIE festival, an event, which during the last decade, had successively introduced themes that revealed the potential of urban space for city inhabitants. It was initiated and organized by a non-governmental organization foundation called A Kuku Sztuka which launched a vast array of various projects, aimed to demonstrate to people how to utilise the municipal environment to their advantage including their closest environment, neighbourhood, and the results of those reciprocal relations. The idea for the project Oliwa ożywa was created as part of the bigger initiative, during PARKOWANIE festival in 2013 – “Wastelands”. Where various invited artists and animators referred, either in the literal or imaginative sense, to the very notion of wastelands and the range of possible meanings inscribed into it. Through its entirely participatory formula they worked on projects related to upcycling, reuse or redesigning space. Oliwa ożywa have taken a literal approach to the topic – a period of just 6 months was sufficient for inhabitants to totally transform a fallow into a neighbourhood meetup garden and transform these abandoned public spaces into “community places” under the guidance of the animators.
Oliwa ożywa project was conducted in Gdańsk – a polish city with a particularly troubled history. In 1939, at the first days of World War II, the city was annexed by Nazi Germany – the local Polish, Jewish and Kashubian minorities were often persecuted or murdered. The city was then populated by Germans which had been expelled from their motherland, right after the war had finished. Gdańsk had been rebuilt from war damage in a different way from the historical original and populated by immigrant population – more than two thirds of the 150,000 inhabitants arrived from Central Poland, about 15 to 18 percent from Polish-speaking areas east of the Curzon Line that were annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II. Once the war was over, communism had become a newly established order in Poland. The communist regimes’ appeal to public space was much more important than the comfort provided by the private areas. Public spaces had become the main areas of control, where citizens were supposed to behave, in accordance with the policy of the Main Party. Communist authorities paid a lot of attention to the order and aesthetics of public spaces, taking away the responsibility from citizens. Consequently, public space has not been treated as the main matter of concern for an average group of citizens. However, one cannot judge the Polish lack of commitment to public spaces only through communism. The lack of interest in public space was also caused by a very strong anti-urban model and weak bourgeois influence in Polish culture. Participation in the transformation of public space needs to be constantly promoted and maintained.
The course of the project Oliwa Ożywa
During the initial stage of the project the animator, Aleksandra Tatarczuk, conducted a research for stakeholders of the Oliwa district. Curator of the PARKOWANIE festiwal, Emilia Orzechowska (also an inhabitant of Oliwa) introduced her to the local authorities representant Tomek Strug, who was a councillor of a district council. Together (representants of city, cultural institution and animator) they had talked about the idea of the project – transforming the wasteland into a place for the community with collective participation. Tomek Strug had offered his help in arranging a district consultation, that intended to be promoted through his communication channels. On the designated day, a meeting was held in the headquarters of the district council. About 10 people who were living in the Oliwa district had participated in the meeting. During the initial phase of the meeting, people complained about few fallows in the district, as well as the incommunicability of city authorities, police and city guards. Most complains were related to wasteland on the crossroad of two streets: Orkana and Grottgera Street. This area had been known for its use as an illegal parking and dump for years. Inhabitants were talking about reporting the situation to the city authorities but with no tangible effects. When all representants of society had raised their point of view about fallows, the animator said that we could focus only on one point, but we would be able to transform it. This could be done together – with a small budget and goodwill of authorities. People agreed on one location and set the date for the start of the action.
People were not sure about the success of the initiative but they had agreed on the terms and picked the relevant date. The second meeting was organized in situ – on the wasteland in Orkana/Grottgera Street. Prior to the meeting, the animator had encouraged the participants to invite their friends and neighbours to also attend the meeting of the organisation. The animator said, that that she would bake a cake and they also were invited to bring something along. Thus, about 20 people appeared at the organizational meeting with lemonade, pancakes and with rake and shovel. Some of them were really enthusiastic about this particular idea, whereas others were a little sceptic. Not everybody decided to take part in the project, but a minimum of 10 people were working on each meeting. Participants agreed on the schedule – they decided that they would be meeting at least once a week or more often. They came up with the agenda of the work and they joined the initiative. The animator was the project leader but not the leader of the group. There were three people that had become informal leaders – with an animator often working as a mediator between them. All decisions were taken democratically – sometimes with the facilitation of the animator. The important thing was, that every action in the process was legal. Tomek Strug, who was involved in the project and helped to obtain all the necessary consents – starting from involving a city cleaning company, to removing several containers of rubbish picked up during cleaning the fallow to getting permission for planting bushes and placing an information board. Transforming this area from illegal dumb to a community place was a very important issue. During the unofficial meetings the participants were not only physically “gardening, but also eating, talking and creating bonds. The funding was granted for a 4-month project, and after that period we had finished the transformation and opened the garden with a festival day with a picnic where all participants and their neighbours brought food, tables and chairs, to dine together. After that, participants decided to do more and renovate the transformation building which was situated near the garden.
The Oliwa ożywa was conducted in the placemaking methodology. Back in that time, it wasn’t a fully conscious operation – the animator was taking actions based on his experience and intuition. He felt that improving the quality of the communal space in the neighbourhood could result in greater interaction between people and foster healthier, more social, and economically viable communities. The public garden, created during the project, had turned out to be a “bond creator” for the members of the local society. The process had made them feel a strong stake in their communities and commitment to making things better. The Oliwa ożywa is as an example of a placemaking project that capitalized the local community’s assets who have used their inspiration and potential to create good public spaces.
Prior to the project, people who lived around these two streets faced the problem of public spaces not being suitable for their usage. They were complaining about the inefficiency of the authorities but they did not know that the solution was at their fingertips and that they could take the matters into their own hands. The initial attitude of the project participants was typically Polish. Most of the citizens felt excluded from the decision process due to “symbolic politics”. Active participation in public life is not common for most of Poles. Only 33% of them are involved in any decision-making process concerning their surroundings. Less than 10% participated in a public consultation. In reality, only 2,5% of society develops solutions for the public space in an active way. During the Oliwa ożywa, the project animator involved the community to join their forces to create a common initiative. They were not just invited to the consultation but were involved in the whole process of transformation in making the space more functional.
The reasons for success
We can distinguish the following reasons that influenced the success of this project.
- The initiative came from outside.
The community living in Grottgera and Orkana street have been dealing with a non-acceptable use of the wasteland for years. They forced authorities to deal with it, but they didn’t feel that they could change it by themselves. Even though the problematic wasteland was threatened, for years the inhabitants did not find enough motivation to deal with it by themselves. The initiative came from the outside – the animator in cooperation with the cultural institution had communicated to the authorities with inhabitants to transform a wasteland into a public garden. The animator had become a link – between them, where she acted a moderator of transformation, during which public spaces evolved into “community places”.
- The problematic space was not distant.
The animator was searching for a space which was not that far away from the potential participants. “The problem” – an illegal parking and dump was in the close surrounding of society. Most of the people saw the fallow from their window or they were passing through it every day. Due to this reason, it was not difficult to ask them to join in the action – most of them just needed to leave their house.
- The participation triangle.
The cooperation between authorities and the community did not work well before the project. In Poland, we face a very low level of trust in others. Less than 20% of Poles believe that they can trust other people. More than 80% think that “one can never be too careful”. The lack of efficiency of the authorities in many matters contributes to this opinion. To earn the trust of the community and engage them into the process a participation triangle consisting of the local community, authority and animator was created. Both groups were represented by their leaders and the animator was unrelated to any of the local stakeholders. The goal of the project could not be achieved if the community and authorities did not cooperate with each other. The role of the animator was to make this collaboration easier. She was also the initiator of the project and in fact, she had invited the local authorities and members of the community to be part of it. Thanks to that action, both groups had become partners. The animator was acting as a liaison between them. She legitimized the council in the eyes of the inhabitants and thanks to her attitude, the trust of the authorities had been regained. The animator cooperated with the council, and thanks to her actions the project had gained all necessary permissions, so consequently the authorities had no reason to interfere.
- Gaining trust
The participation triangle would not have worked well if the animator had not been a trustworthy person. She needed to gain the community trust through her attitude and actions. Her intentions, resources and commitment were clear to both the community and the authority straight from the beginning. She gave the information about the source and founding of the initiative (the PARKOWANIE festival). She was joining their effort for the transformation of the wasteland. The animator was present during all stages of the project and became a leader of the project (but not a leader of the community). From designing the garden to digging the ground, the animator took part in all kinds of activities. During the project she introduced another animator to the group – Aleksandra Mrozowska (colleague from Dwie Ole collective) and from that moment they both were involved in the works. “Two working girls” as hard as any other participant have made impression on the community and finally they started to be treated as righteous members of society.
- Form supports function
The animators brought the idea and created a work plan, but all decisions were made democratically and sometimes, they were changed during the process circle. The vision of “liquidation of the fallow” evolved into the creation of vital public destinations with flowers, bench, small table and sandpit. People were trying to create a “safe,” “fun,” “charming,” and “welcoming” place. Neighbourhood meetups and a multiflowered garden was just an effect of their desires.
- Starting with small things
The project did not have a big budget or a lot of supporters. People started with simple, short-term actions such as cleaning the ground, planting flowers to test the idea and encouraging people to show that their ideas matter. With the next steps the project gathered more enthusiasm and therefore more assets.
- Setting up a deadline
Even when the aim of the project was to involve the inhabitants of Oliwa into participating in this project, the animator had to set up the date when the work should be finished. The project had their agenda and a final day – the opening of the festival. Participants had organized the picnic on the opening day, and they had presented the effect of joint work to the viewers of the PARKOWANIE festival.
- You are never finished
Ironically, according to point nr. 7 – that is true. The work of an animator does not finish after the end of the project. About 80% of the success of any public space can be attributed to its management. This is because the use of good places changes daily, weekly and seasonally, which makes management critical. The role of the animator is to encourage society to maintain their commitment and cultivate newly created bonds. Even after the end of founding, the animators were in touch with society and new small projects such as barbecues, picnics and meeting were done in the next years. This issue is a subject for another analyst, but this is always a problem for animators – how to be in touch with communities after the end of the project, when his financial stability depends on new ones.
The Oliwa ożywa project was continued during the next two years. In 2014 the animators (Aleksandra Tatarczuk and Aleksandra Mrozowska as Dwie Ole collective) were working with inhabitants of the house on Podhalańska 4 Street. Due to the actual topic of the festival “Home” they decided to work with a community who lives in one place. They have proceeded with a research for wasteland near houses and blocks of flats in the Oliwa district. They have found three locations and they have conducted a standard survey regarding the residents’ interest in participating in the project. Two leaders of the community in Podhalańska 4 Street have responded to the survey and after arrangements they proceeded a placemaking project in a similar manner as the previous year. Once the project had ended, the participants claimed that “Before the project we were neighbours. We have greeted in the corridor, but we didn’t know anything about us. Now we are a community.” In 2015 due to the lack of funding it was impossible to carry out the project in the same manner. A safari walk for sociologists, animators and educators was organized. The walk was conducted by Tatarczuk and Mrozowska with help of participants from both editions of the project.
In every project there are parts which could have been done better – same situation occurred during the Oliwa używa project. The main problem of the project was a principle described in placemaking method as “They’ll always say it can’t be done”. Every community has naysayers. Even though animators have identified leaders in the community who shared their vision, there were people who were not involved or even reacted in a hostile manner towards the project. In Grottgera and Orkana Street there was a member of society who did not support the project. The conflict between him and society escalated by calling the police during the joint painting of the transformer plant and calling this action “vandalism”. Luckily, the project had support of the local council and all permissions for painting, so the incident ended with no harm to participants. The naysayer was an architect and maybe he felt embittered that his knowledge and experience had not been utilised during the project. It’s only a speculation, but for sure, bringing such conflict passed between the inhabitants, missed the point of project. The naysayers also appeared on Podhalańska Street. One family did not accept the transformation of the wasteland (they didn’t like the form created by participants) and they persistently threw away elements of small architecture, brought there by the participants of the project. Probably their disagreement arose from a different aesthetic taste. Such project should be centered around the needs of all members of the community.
The Oliwa ożywa project proved that even in difficult Polish circumstances it is possible to engage inhabitants into the transformation of an obsolete greenery belt into a neighbourhood garden. The creation of a participation triangle had opened a possibility for a partnership in which the community could easily collaborate with local authorities. By using the facilitation of a social animator, it was possible to create a link between them. The previous attitude of inhabitants, full of hostility and lack of trust, transformed diametrically. Thanks to the placemaking method, people felt a strong stake in their communities and a commitment to making things better. The project capitalized the local community’s assets and potential. It is also important to consider different views on participants. Disagreement can lead to a conflict in the community. Creating bonds between members of a community is always a priority.
Questions for further discussion
- Do we really need an animator? Why is the cultural/social animator so important in a participation project?
- How we can we encourage the whole community to become actively involved in the transformation of a space? Alternatively, would it be possible to create an acceptable vision for all members of society?
- Can the authorities step into the shoes of animators? Could the authorities be able to run such participation project by themselves?
- What can we do once the project finishes? How can we maintain the sustainability of the network after the project ends?
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Aleksandra’s Tatarczuk is an art historian, cultural manager, cultural animator and urban gardener. Founder of Dwie Ole – a collective realizing projects about cultural heritage and cultural education; co-founder of the Trochękultury.pl – a website which promotes local contemporary art instead of reproduction from markets; she conducted dozen of social and educational projects; founder of two functioning urban gardens in Gdańsk (Poland); author of educational publications about cultural heritage and social change; initiator of the Cud nad Martwą Wisłą festival (and curator in 2013-2015). In her projects, she uses art and urban gardening as a tool for mediation, as well as the methodology of social change and design thinking.
Header image: Photo taken by PARKOWANIE festival.
Author’s picture photo credit: Magdalene Golda.