Urban regeneration through cultural heritage: three cities’ stories

Cecile Houpert

By Cecile Houpert, on December 12th, 2019

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Cécile Houpert, Project Officer at EUROCITIES, takes a look at three cities taking part in the EU funded ROCK project.

What have Bologna (IT), Lisbon (PT) and Skopje (MK) got in common? Apart from being major European metropolises and hotbeds of culture and heritage, the three cities are part of the EU funded ROCK project (Regeneration and Optimisation of Cultural heritage in creative and Knowledge cities). As part of this project, they are pioneering a new approach to bridge the gap between conservation, preservation of cultural heritage and contemporary urban issues, such as sustainability, accessibility, and new forms of collaboration.

Working together to shape the future heritage city

Bologna is testing this new method of work to transform the university area (located at the heart of the historic centre) in a sustainable and creative district. The city and the university together are leading several experiments in the heart of the historic centre, to work on the negative perception of students among the ‘Bolognese’ citizens and tap into the creative potential of students: “it is important to keep in mind the potentiality of the students’ population when starting a project like this”, said Martina Massari from the University of Bologna during a workshop organised as part of the EUROCITIES culture forum last October.

In September 2019, one of the experiments provided Piazza Rossini with a temporary installation, designed and built with students who transformed part of the area usually used for parking into a green space, proposing an unexpected perception of the area and restoring the trace of the ancient churchyard of the San Giacomo Maggiore Church. The temporary experiment was successfully embraced by the citizens, leading to the decision from the municipality to turn it into a permanent solution for the pedestrianisation of the space.

ROCK combines technological, organisational and social innovations to move from a linear to a more circular urban model. It means that urban cultural heritage is maintained, reinforced and progressively enhanced with the addition of new components that develop the old ones, while attracting new resources and partnerships. In other words, ROCK taps into the hidden possibilities of cultural heritage.

Cultural heritage to build trust and increase social cohesion in neighbourhoods

Hidden possibilities can be found in areas where you would not expect cultural heritage to be. Through ROCK, Lisbon is focusing on the social transformation of the remote neighbourhood of Marvila, which has a strong identity linked to its industrial and rural heritage. The objective is to re-brand the area using the specific traditions and societal behaviours that have emerged from this heritage. Challenges in the neighbourhood include social and geographical barriers and a fast gentrification process with a risk to increase this divide. One activity organised as part of the ROCK Lisbon Living Lab is done is cooperation with the association Rés do Chão to rehabilitate and reoccupy abandoned ground floors, converting them into pop-up and community-led stores. Results of the initiative have shown a requalification of the built structure, an empowerment of the community which is invited to take care of the space, an increased sense of proximity and security and a strengthening of the local economy. “The experience has been so positive we will open new shops in 2020” confirmed Maria Dias, ROCK project manager in Lisbon.

Making vanished heritage visible again

ROCK intends to revitalise public heritage spaces and rehabilitate urban areas in its three replicator cities to show that cultural heritage can be a driving force to bring a new creative energy to urban spaces. Skopje is the third ROCK replicator city and is looking at virtual transformation to make the past visible again via spatial and digital experiences.

The Skopje Jewish Quarter project is mapping the existence of the Jewish Macedonian community in the urban history of Skopje. Using archives and data from the Holocaust Memorial Centre for the Jews of Macedonia in Skopje, it will create a virtual model of the now disappeared Jewish neighbourhood. The model will enable users to explore the lives and personal narratives of former residents.

Innovating cities: cultural heritage in action


Through ROCK cultural, historical city centres are becoming laboratories to test new models of urban regeneration, sustainable development and economic growth.

Cultural heritage is a powerful engine of transformation, but it can be even more powerful when used in a transversal, integrated and balanced way. The 10 ROCK cities of Athens (EL), Bologna, Cluj-Napoca (RO), Eindhoven (NL), Lisbon, Liverpool (UK), Lyon (FR), Skopje, Turin (IT) and Vilnius (LT) work on how to convert their historical districts into intelligent ones. And, by intelligent they mean resilient, sustainable, creative and knowledge districts.

EUROCITIES, the network of major cities in Europe, is a partner in the EU funded ROCK project, responsible for exchange of knowledge and peer-learning activities with the 10 ROCK cities. ROCK final conference will take place in Bologna in May 2020, when more experiences and stories from cities will be shared.

More on Culture & Heritage on the URBACT Website.

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