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Cultural organizations leveraging social integration in disadvantaged neighbourhoods – a case study approach

Posted on Sep 24, 2019 by in issue #10 |

By Eleonora Psenner
Eurac Research – Institute for Regional Development


/Case Analysis

Cultural organizations leveraging social integration in disadvantaged neighbourhoods – a case study approach



In the past decades, urban and cultural policies tended to follow models, including the ones of creative economy, creative and knowledge industries, creative cities, incubation hubs, coworking spaces and multi-faceted ecosystems on different scales without, however, considering the impact caused on the local community and territory being affected by this process of change. The knowledge and innovation boost have taken overhand to support economic development while the concern on socially innovative processes often drops behind. According to current research, it is recommendable to examine the dynamics and purposes behind urban regeneration programs and creative initiatives involving the social and physical urban fabric. Are such trends effective for the specific purpose of social integration, community building and urban regeneration? What role do cultural organizations play along these lines? What are sustainable alternatives for the local community, especially when it comes to disadvantaged neighborhoods?

The following research and case study description is part of a dissertation presented with the University of Bologna, MA of Innovation and Arts and Culture, in spring 2017. It includes a qualitative empirical study, focusing on the cultural center CasaB in Bogotá, Colombia.

The impact of creative processes

Creativity not only unfolds on the individual level. On the contrary, it can be observed and triggered also among groups in organizations where knowledge and ideas are exchanged on a regular basis. Sometimes idea sharing is linked to relatively inefficient processes. Under certain conditions, however, the same idea sharing process can become productive. According to Paulus and Yang (2000), one important element is the “attention” that group members pay to the process of exchanging ideas in the group, while the second most important element is the “incubation”, that is, “the opportunity for group members to reflect on the ideas after the exchange process”( Paulus & Yang, 2000, pp.76-87). In this study, Paulus and Yang find that the process of idea exchange in groups can be an important means for enhancing creativity and innovation in organizations, when under the right conditions (ibid.) Then, the question about whether this phenomenon can be extended to and unfold within a community setting arises.

1.2 Overcoming isolation through “Third Places”

An attempt to overcome the potential side effect of isolation can be observed in the creation of places representing a sort of bridge between home and office, which are known as “third-places” within the academic literature. This concept, introduced by R. Oldenburg in 1989, refers to places hosting “regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” (Oldenburg, 1989, in Moriset, 2014, p.16). Oldenburg extends the concept to a wider scale and stresses the importance of such spaces of “free and informal interaction and socialization” when talking about the development of the urban social fabric (ibid.). Third-places include habitual sites likes cafés, restaurants, hotel and airport lounges, the hairdresser or barber shop, which were already popular before the advent of computer and the Internet. Beloved “cafés littéraires” of the early 20th century include the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, where Dadaism was brought to life, or Le Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots at Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, as well as Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona with its vibrant exchange among Catalan artists during Modernisme, just to mention a few. Generally speaking, third-places try to create “A Home Away From Home” (Moriset, 2014, p.8) and, respectively, everyone finds his or her most suitable solution within them.

1.3 Social integration within the context of analysis

As E.K. Koramaz (2013) formulates, “social integration is the harmonious and coherent processing of the structures of a social system and refers to the degree to which people are integrated to the systems of a social structure” (Koramaz, 2013, p.49). The topic of social integration is not only relevant for migration issues on a regional level, but it can also give important hints with regards to urban dynamics. In the context of metropolitan city life, social integration can contribute to the creation of new opportunities and resources. The main set of values on which the process of integration builds on comprises “equal rights and equal opportunities in society, shared values and trust among social systems, a sense of belonging to society, social relations, and social networks” (Berger-Schmitt 2002; Boehnke and Kohler 2008, in ibid, p.50). The level of collectivity, coherence and inclusivity influences the degree of social integration within a determined community or society. Social integration levels can vary a lot in response to a given distribution of welfare as well as to the organizational structure, to the social rules and to shared values which individuals take as reference in their activities. (UNRISD 1994; Bosswick and Heckmann 2006 in ibid).

Social integration has two dimensions. On the one hand, the structural dimension, which is determined by the way in which individuals are integrated in core institutions of the society. These include education, health and housing systems, the labor market and the political system (Heckmann and Schnapper 2003; Alber and Fahey 2004, in ibid). On the other hand, a spatial dimension. Different social groups integrate to a different degree into society’s macro-structures, which leads them to settle down in distinct residential areas. There, they engage in relationships which are characteristic and unique to that specific area and from which they interact to their neighborhood environment and to the rest of the city. As Koramaz (2013) argues: “…location, as a component of the urban system, is an important factor that affects the extent to which individuals access and favor from the resources and the opportunities that the social system offers” (Koramaz, 2013). The smallest component of an urban spatial system is “neighborhoods”. They play, thus, a crucial role when researching on social integration processes and their potential outcomes in terms of social interaction (Koramaz, 2013).

Methodology – Selection of the case study

Bogotá offers a wide spectrum of social realities combined into a single metropolitan setting. A set of factors contribute to make this context of analysis interesting for comparison and transferability with regards to the European context. These factors are the territory´s population growth and political and economic past, versus the increase of popularity in the creative industries and the tourism sector in recent times. The analysis is especially focused on the discourse of identity, community building and cultural integration through creative engagement, which are issues at stake in the present and future European cultural agenda (Social Summit Fair Jobs and Growth, 2018). The district of Belén is located in the heart of the historical center, “La Candelaria”, in the middle of the most touristic area of Bogotá and presents at the same time a “no go – zone” for “out-group members” and a prospering neighborhood for its “in-group members”. The case study offers an example on how creative initiatives are facilitated and developed, starting from inside the neighborhood while reaching out for support by the network of cultural and social actors within the territory.

The case study: CasaB

The district Belèn is home to modest working class people. It has always suffered from a bad image and also from its lack of community identity. The inhabitants do not access cultural events or buildings and are confronted with social inequalities. The same district is also home to the socio-cultural community center CasaB, founded as non-profit organization by Darìo Sendoya and Josè Camilon Rodriguez in 2012. Later ,also Diego Parra Jimena Gutièrrez joined in and it was at this moment that the group of young professionals decided to buy one of the Republican-style houses inside the Belèn district, together with a small adjacent garden, with the aim of supporting social cohesion through creative and educational initiatives. They started to work on small cultural projects with children of the district by following an interdisciplinary model of self-management. In little time, they managed to develop a participative space for mediation and socio-cultural activities, bringing distinct segments of the district’s community together in numerous activities and cultural events, which included, for instance, La Vespertina, a school of “expanded education”, La Cinehuerta, an urban garden used also for movie projections, and the Mediateca del Dragòn.

From the beginning, CasaB focused on how to enforce the community’s identity and cohesiveness. In 2013 its main purpose was to promote a “quality seal” to highlight and assess the origin of all products, as well as cultural and sports events, among other processes and initiatives which had taken place inside the district. The aim has since been to integrate the place’s and people’s history to the present-day image of Belèn, transforming it into a place of trust. In some way, the role that CasaB has taken on can be compared to a facilitator for gentrification processes within the historical center of the city. Indeed, it results to be an innovative model of cultural community development, supporting a positive gentrification process or – as the inhabitants like to call it – a “belentrification process”. CasaB sees itself co-responsible, together with the community of the Belèn district, for supporting the creation and development process of the district’s “life plan” and its potential impact on the rest of the city by adopting a participative approach based on the principles of sustainability and wellbeing.

The establishment of the community brand is also intended to help improve the economic conditions of community members. The most important aspect of this process is that the community needs to be involved in order to find the appropriate means and to define and share common goals. This is probably what presents the most salient contrast to usual gentrification programs, since in this case, the most vulnerable segments of the community are not cut out but involved in the revitalization of their own district. At the same time urban transformation is not artificially imposed from outside but interwoven in natural changes, triggered from inside. The community and network around CasaB believe that places and communities resilient to change, need a coherent narrative which considers the fears and sorrows, as well as the interests and passions of their people.


The case study described in this analysis shows that for a development program to be effective, it is important to consider some relevant criteria prior to taking action: the place and people’s identity, culture and memory. This is especially true in a fragmented city like Bogotà, where the local community cohesion is undergoing a lack of cultural identity. Additional factors to bear in mind also include the contrasting living conditions, social inequalities and ongoing conflicts, and it can be seen that the most sustainable results could be obtained through community-based, participative integration approaches. Culture and the arts can act as a bridge to help integrate disadvantaged communities to the rest of society, offering a neutral platform of exchange for inhabitants to express personal opinions and discuss unresolved conflicts. At the same time, they can help facilitate the imagination and projection of a better future, both on the individual and collective, community level. Given these preconditions, processes of change can be initiated by involving the local community and by focusing on the children’s active participation aspect. As widely discussed among scholars, innovation requires creative processes, which themselves entail interaction among people. Again, this is enhanced by creating appropriate spaces where ideas can unfold.

Questions for further discussion

What kind of approach does CasaB adopt to revitalize the district of Belén?

In which manner are creative processes triggered, promoted and organized in CasaB?

Could CasaB represent a form of “third-place”? If so, what are the features that match the concept introduced by Oldenburg?

Does social integration play a role in the project CasaB? If so, to what extent and in which form?

In which manner could trendy business models, as for instance creative hubs, creative clusters or creative districts promote social integration by taking into account the surrounding neighborhood and sociocultural context within the urban space?

Do cultural organizations and coworking spaces share a common vision and mission in terms of social interaction, identity building, urban revitalization and creative incubation? Please elaborate your answer.


KORAMAZ, E.K. (2013) The Spatial Context of Social Integration, Springer Science&Business.

MORISET, B. (2014) Building new places of the creative economy. The rise of coworking spaces, Utrecht University, The Netherlands, Conference Paper of the 2nd Geography of Innovation International Conference 24-25 January.

PAULUS, P.B.; YANG, H.C. (2000) Idea Generation in Groups: A Basis for Creativity in Organizations, Elsevier, 82 (1), 76-87.

Online Sources:



Eleonora Psenner is a researcher with Eurac Research – Institute for Regional Development based in Bolzano-Bozen, Italy. Her academic background includes a BA in International Communication with the University for Foreigners Perugia and two Masters of Arts – in International Event Management (University of Brighton) and Innovation and Organization of Culture and the Arts (University of Bologna). Former studies tackle the European Capital of Culture from a marketing and international law perspective, followed by research on community identity, networking systems, creative clustering, multi-level cultural policies and creative industries. Besides being a passionate dancer, she has previously worked in the cultural management sector and tourism. After switching from management to applied research in June 2017, she has been addressing her analyses and projects to the impact of culture from an interdisciplinary perspective, to the strategic development of creative industries as well as to youth empowerment and inclusion through volunteering in the cultural sector.