Creating Partnerships on Teleki Square

Mariann Majorné Venn

By Mariann Majorné Venn, on October 16th, 2014

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With approaching municipal elections in October 2014, inaugurating celebrations of different public spaces are a daily occurrence. However, one deserves special attention. In Budapest’s 8th district, within the framework of a social rehabilitation programme going on for nearly 10 years, the city’s best practice of community planning took place, for the renewal of the disreputable Teleki Square.

The English term “slum” can most easily explained to people from Budapest by saying “you know, what’s in the 8th district.” This part of the city is actually not far from the centre but by the 80s you could find there everything you can expect from a slum area: high crime rates, prostitution, population change, deteriorating quality of public spaces, sinking real estate prices.

In 2005 the district started a city rehabilitation program financed by the European Union, which introduced an integrated and participatory approach. An outstanding result of the first phase of the programme wass the renewal of Mátyás Square and the development of a community centre next to the square. From 2008, in the second phase some adjacent streets were renewed, social and crime prevention programs have been launched, and on an experimental basis, an apartment house renovation program began. The current phase started in 2013 continuing most of the programme elements.

The rehabilitation of the green area of Teleki Square – lying furthest from the centre – was scheduled for this 3rd phase. The park had its heyday in the 60s and 70s, when many people used its chess tables, benches and resting places. By 2013, however, the park had become an uncontrolled, deprived area frequented mainly by homeless people and drug dealers.

The tender for rehabilitation, issued by the local government, was won by the Újirány Landscape Architecture Group who had previously worked on the design of one of the most popular recreation areas of Budapest, Millenáris Park, and initiated several projects of community arts and actions. Although the mandate was the realization of a community planning process, the requirements on the side of the municipality were limited to five public forums. The planning team however undertook the challenge of a real community planning process, and does not seem to regret this decision. “The whole planning process was one great common experience.” – says one of the planners in a short film documenting the design process, pointing out that members of the local community were considered not only as users, but also as fellow designers.

Gaining Trust

Involving the inhabitants of the surrounding apartment houses started with spreading flyers and posters. In the first meeting participants found difficult to evaluate how much trust they should have in the professionals addressing them, but they quickly sensed that the intentions went beyond ordinary public forum. The planners and facilitators of the process reinforced this belief by presenting foreign examples of participatory planning, and managed to persuade the residents to actually have a say concerning the project. “The third time I came down, it was simply because I felt good. (…) By now I would be suffocating if I couldn’t tell what I think.” – said one of the participants.

Multiplying Vectors of Communication and Involvement

After workshops held at the community house, the group usually visited the spot to continue visioning. Various other events and common activities on the site were also part of the process. The ideas and desires for the space which had been raised in the first meeting were written on tarbs and hung on the trees for others to read. In the process the team always placed great emphasis on the presentation and visualization of ideas and results. Of course, modern forms of communication were not left out, and the planning process got its own Facebook page, named “What should Teleki Square look like?”

During the work with local residents, ideas were gathered, the park’s outline was formed, and a local community took shape. It was an important step at this stage to determine which ideas or desires fit into the available financial frames, and what compromises (such as using cheaper materials) were needed to keep certain ideas in the plan. “Therein lies the power of collaboration that already we have been able to explain to each other” – says one of the participants.

A Community is Born

By this time “cooperation” had already been the key word in the planning process. In the summer of 2013 residents involved in the planning process formed and registered the “Partners for Teleki Square Association”. The legal form of an NGO, in addition to providing good framework for various common events, gave a sense of ownership to its members. The local community hopes that ideas dropped from the plan due to financial constraints can later be implemented back by means of future applications or other resources. These may include for instance a stage and some more expensive playground elements. The work of the Association and the responsibility they take is recognized by the municipality. A contract is in preparation to give a legal framework for the Association’s park maintenance and development activities. Another plan is that the local government will make a common space available for the Association, which can give space to additional community programs and meetings.

The attitude of the residents during the community planning process and the responsibilities they took as described above are quite unique in Budapest. The local community not only took part in an open space development process funded by the European Union and ordered by the local government, but it has also taken control of the best use and further improvements of the square, and in an area where previously alienation and hopelessness were the dominant attitudes. The words of a participant from the short film reflect this clearly: “Everyone is afraid of participatory planning because a public forum is a messy stuff. (…) But I think that this is very different, and I think even the local authority will take courage, especially seeing the success. (…) And also residents can see that they may substantially affect the developments. Yes. Let’s do this everywhere!”

Teleki Square was constructed in the summer of 2014 according to the master plan. On the morning of the 10th of September the mayor of the 8th district inaugurated the park, and later in the afternoon there was a park opening celebration with the local community. The residents who were involved in the planning spent the week after the opening with enthusiastic blogging, sharing their first experiences on the use of the park with the planners and each other.

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