Stimulating solidary in neighbourhoods of apartment blocks to foster urban rehabilitation: examples from Hungary

Mariann Majorné Venn

By Mariann Majorné Venn, on November 7th, 2016

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Social urban rehabilitation projects, these days co-financed by the EU, reach their goals through combined intervention in physical and social/communal aspects of the area – in theory, at least. On the other hand, common experience is that while the rehabilitation of built environment is going smoothly, the joint efforts on human or social development are rather erratic, and the results are often questionable. In Újpalota, the large apartment block area of Budapest’s 15th district, the coordination of such interventions was put in the hands of the Association of Community Developers, a nationwide network and promoter of community developers since 1989. The last 25 years the Association has been propagating the importance of people taking place in the changes of their living environment, as well as the necessity of certain facilitation and encouragement.

 

The case of Újpalota urban regeneration project

The construction of Újpalota, one of the large housing projects of the social era, was launched in 1969. Tibor Tenke, its acclaimed chief designer tried to avoid mistakes of other similar projects in Budapest. For the sake of avoiding monotony for instance, he planned crossing streets in order to form smaller neighbourhood units. The planners also envisioned the formation of various commercial and service units so that the area would have become more than a merely residential part of the city. According to the design, a whole new urban centre was to be built here; this, though, was only realised partially: an emblematic service centre was built, but the cultural, communal institutions are missing even today.

The first residents moved in 1971 and by 1975 15.400 flats became the home of approximately 60.000 people. However the dream of the designers never came true: due to the distance from jobs and the downtown of Budapest, Újpalota remained a single function residential area where alienation typical for such localities is noticeable. In 1996 one of the large shopping malls opened close to the housing area, but it hasn’t proved to be suitable to fulfil urban centre functions. Today the quarter is characterised by decreasing and aging population.

HU blog nov 2016 URBACT photo 4The European Union co-financed a social urban regeneration project, which started in the spring of 2013, lasted until the middle of 2015. Within its framework renovations were carried out on several apartment houses, on a social housing unit called “room renters’ house”, on a school as well as on the original half-finished service centre. Also some public and green spaces were renewed and a safety camera network was installed. In addition to the physical regeneration, the project – with the help of the Association of Community Developers – put emphasis on implementing soft elements that can mobilize communities as well as create social and communal changes.

 

Stimulating neighbourhood relations

HU blog nov 2016 URBACT photo 3It is typical for big apartment houses that even dwellers of the same staircase do not know each other, and thus the network of supportive personal relationships is very week. Therefore the spine of the community developers’ programme was to create functional neighbourhood units in order to strengthen social networks. For this purpose they organised “neighbourhood celebrations” with the condition that the programme must be designed by the locals.

Besides making acquaintances and realising the importance of social networks, the aim of these celebrations was to find actual issues that are important for the community so that locals are willing to cooperate and work on it. Many activities took place during the 2 years project period, such as gardening around the house entrances, creating communication channels (e.g. mailing lists) for dwellers of the same staircase or house, or advocacy regarding certain problems (for instance the annoyingly loud tram rail tracks).

The project also revitalised a former community space under the name Zsókavár Information Office. It was initiated in order to better communicate the programme to the locals and to assist the work of the neighbourhood communities or individuals. It soon grew over the original goals and became a real community space and a scene of youth activities.

 

Involving the inhabitants

During the process of neighbourhood celebrations “key actors” were very soon acknowledged. They were people always willing to stand behind the actions. The project provided a training course for them with the title of “How to organise community in the neighbourhood?” in order to enable them for even more effective community work. At the end of the course participants expressed their will to stay together, so they eventually formed the Újpalota Neighbourhood Association – open for others to join – to facilitate local community issues.

Community developers meant to link the hard and soft elements of urban regeneration with participatory planning: to involve locals into the design of public spaces. During the community planning process lots of demands and interests emerged, some of them causing conflicts, but, according to the experts, this all contributed to a stronger local community, as well as to smarter use of the available space.

HU blog nov 2016 URBACT photo 5During the two years of the project 3 community gardens were created on the site. “A community garden is 90% community and 10% garden” – the developers claim. More than 80 people received parcels in the gardens that were also supported by the municipality. There is an intense communication even among the different garden communities, which is enhanced by the 21 garden clubs and meetings that so far took place.

 

A Theatre Project to voice out the experiences of the community

“Community theatre is a group of artists that invites the locals to form opinion about their issues, and helps to use the theatrical play as a tool for expressing” – says Vince Zrínyi Gál, leader of KOMA Theatre. The troupe was officially involved in the urban regeneration project. For their drama entitled “Blocking” they invited local youngsters to share their life experiences in the housing district, to make a theatre play of it and to stage it. It was staged into two apartments in one of the houses, one of the 3rd floor and one on the 7th floor – furnished and designed authentically – and the audience actually had to use the elevator and the stairs to get from one scene to the other. This unique play tells stories about the lives of youngsters in Újpalota, and it also gained recognition in the theatrical spheres of Hungary.

Furthermore, as part of the project, KOMA Theatre started a community video project. “Our goal is to map everyday life of the community and social issues of the locals in an exciting way. In our project we use three viewpoints: the youngsters, people over 60 and finally parents with small kids were given cameras to record what they want to place in the focus of attention.”

 

Input and similarities with the URBACT Re-Block Project.

re-blockCommunity developers involved in the project hope that the experiences delivered during the 2-years programme will be useful for other cities in coping with challenges of apartment block areas. In the Avas District of Miskolc, Dialoge Association works along this line, also in cooperation with the Association of Community Developers, so their experiences are becoming part of the know-how.

 

A similar effort was made in the Re-Block URBACT project in another district and another high rise apartment block area of Budapest. There the project’s main partner was the local community house. In contrast to many culture houses in the country, their mission has been less to organise cultural events, than to provide space and opportunities for locals to meet – as its director stated in the project closing video interview.

Such events can strengthen the neighbourhood community. Throughout the project period a sort of community planning process took place in the form of different meetings and events with an emphasis on personal meetings with and among local people. A similar element of the Re-Block project was that the renewal of public spaces went hand in hand with social development.

 

Conclusions

As a result of the work done in apartment block areas in the last two decades it became clearly visible that the main hiatus of such urban areas are poor social capital and the lack of interactions among dwellers of high rise buildings. As many experiences have proved, the renewal of public spaces alone is not enough to bring significant changes. Social and community development experts need to find ways to generate interactions among the citizens and to come to goals that can be achieved through cooperation.

Thanks to these initiatives, hopefully within a few years city managers and urban development experts will be able to find and apply valuable elements without problem for designing the soft part of urban regeneration projects.

 

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