Friday, 17 February 2017 15:55

New housing and regeneration practices for difficult times

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This Guest Blog is contributed by Iván Tosics, an internationally renowned housing and planning expert. The photo above shows new housing for refugees in Freiburg, Germany.

I have the feeling that our normal life is melting down.  Leandro Erlich, an Argentinian artist, exhibited an installation in front of the Gare du Nord in Paris. It was a House that seems to melt like ice. As some critics wrote, with Erlich uses architecture to evoke symbols of civilizations endangering human focus, and the fragility and vulnerability of world heritage. The installation employs a simple and powerful picture of a building decaying to emphasize the immediacy of climate change, and the urgency of critical choices for our future.

This art-work was inaugurated on 3 October 2015, ahead of the COP21. Although the original intentions of the artist were clearly connected to the threats caused by climate change, this installation can very well be used also as an allegory on our present feelings. Yes, many things which we believed are changing. Our world has been shaken and started to melt down. How and why could all this happen?

We have a lot to think about how our beloved democracy functions, how can seemingly democratic processes lead to completely nonsensical results? Is it social media or the mass media or the high-level manipulation of the main elements of democracy…? In these difficult times there are some practices that still give us some hope that we can turn the tide.

Working with the 99%

This is the story of young Portuguese architects (presented by Tiago Mota Saraiva at the 2015 Lisbon conference of the European Network for Housing Research). Their freshly established office got into trouble in 2008 when new contracts vanished. They understood very soon that while housing problems had not vanished, the traditional work for architects had – so they started to work with the "99%”, i.e. with those who are unable to contract an architect but would need help to get out from their hopeless situation.

In one of the projects AtelierMob started to work in the Prodac area of Lisbon, which was self-constructed in 1971 by people who migrated to the city. The area was built-up within one year on the land of the city by the people themselves, working on the houses only at the weekends. Inhabitants do not like architects as the area was never legalized and earlier there were attempts to clear the land.

AtelierMob got in contact with the Prodac North and South Neighbourhood Associations and helped them to ask for building permits of their houses. The legalization process started in 2011, the municipality decided to sell the plots to each family for 50 Euros. In the first stage 73 families agreed and legalized their housing situation in that way. During this process the architect discovered that these poor families need further assistance to improve and extend their houses for those family members who had returned to the neighbourhood, having lost their job and house elsewhere. Also some interventions were needed in the public space. All activities were based on a participatory process. A Dwellers Working Unit was established, that put the discussed changes into practice, using the building know-how of local residents and allowing them earning an extra income.

The work of the architects was acknowledged and reimbursed later as the area became part of the BIP/ZIP (Local Development Strategy for Neighborhoods or Areas of Priority Intervention) programme of Lisbon. Since 2007 the programme has been supporting local projects and municipal partnerships, and improving social and territorial cohesion in the selected neighborhoods. BIP/ZIP aims to reduce the gap between decision makers and citizens, and create extended local networks. As citizens are involved in the development of their neighborhoods, they gradually regain trust in the public decision making process and municipality services. In 2013 BIP/ZIP supported 49 projects and was awarded the seventh Best Practice in Citizen Participation award by the OIDP (International Observatory of Participatory Democracy). 

AtelierMob played crucial role in the process to improve the area, investing time and energy in community building and linking local ideas to emerging municipal procedures. This way of work needs strong commitment, since financial reimbursement is not sure until the end of the process. Prodac and also other projects of AtelierMob became well known, together with the innovative BIP/ZIP programme of Lisbon municipality. Based on these experiences AtelierMob set out ideas on the role of architecture in social organisation, speculating on architecture’s ability to initiate movements to improve the life of poor citizens.

Dealing with the refugee problem in an inclusive and sustainable way

This story was presented at the 2016 ICLEI conference by Philip Bona (Coordinator, Office of Migration and Integration, City of Freiburg, Germany).

Freiburg is a medium sized city with 220.000 inhabitants (15% of whom are foreigners, 30% having a migration background). After July 2015 approximately 4.000 refugees came to the city. In Baden-Württenberg four cities, the district centres, have been designated as receiving cities. Freiburg had to accept this role, even though there were 2.000 people on the waiting list, and now they recognize that refugees get priority over them for accomodation.

The integration of refugees is a complex challenge: accommodation, language, skills training, labour market integration have all to be handled. This challenge can only be tackled in a cooperative way, with projects supported by the city, civil society involvement and voluntary support.

Probably the hardest issue to be tackled is that of accommodation. At the beginning it is unavoidable to put refugees into large camps, mixing many nationalities, which provide less or no privacy at all. To create accommodation in smaller units is not easy due to the high number of refugees. Despite the challenges, this is the only way to go, because of humanitarian reasons and also the importance of the refugees for the labour market.

It is not easy to determine, what kind of social, political or technological infrastructure and measures are needed to support the process of community integration. A connected question concerns finance: the public support from the German State and Lander only covers the costs of temporary shelters; all other investments have to be paid from the local budget or private contributions.

Under such conditions, coordinated efforts to handle the housing situation of the refugees started from the municipality, while there was a general acceptance from the population at large (Freiburg has 176 nationalities). The aim was to develop multifunctional housing projects, based on organic wooden structures, in a protected, but not segregated way.

Working with the poorest of the poor, under hostile political environment

In Hungary over 20% of the population lives under severe material deprivation (the EU average is below 10%). The worst conditions can be found in the eastern periphery, especially in rural areas and among the Roma (over 7% of the population). The Pearl (Igazgyöngy) Foundation is a non-governmental organisation with the mission to develop the communities in this most underprivileged eastern part of Hungary, near Berettyóújfalu, close to the Romanian border. The foundation started its activities in 1999 under the leadership of Nóra L. Ritók founder-director, who is an artist and art teacher. The programme of the foundation, aiming for the integration and development of people living in extreme poverty, includes art education, talent development, family care and vocational training courses.

Originally the foundation concentrated on elementary education with the hope that the children would be able to escape the vicious circle of deep poverty. The foundation operates a basic art school in six different locations in the area, subsidised partly by the state, partly by donations, educating 670 children (70% of whom are underprivileged; 250 live in deep poverty, most coming from gipsy families). In this school artistic activities form the basis of the development of the children. Art education in very poor areas means extended pedagogical work that focuses not only on the children and the goals of art education, but also the social-educational background of the children’s families, the communities they live in. The teachers constantly work on involving the families of the children in visual art activities in order to promote cohesion in the village communities and the families, as well as to provide positive models for the children.

In recent years the foundation’s activities have broadened from providing education to social services, primarily to the families of the pupils. Moreover in some cases these extend also to other individuals in the region who do not have a family, but are just as much in need of help. These activities range from distributing aid (clothes, food, wood, building materials, transportation, etc) and, very importantly, advice and assistance for dealing with crises (e.g. collapsed roofs, illness or court cases) and for understanding how to deal with authorities and official procedures.

The foundation does not give help in connection with criminal cases and punishment – on the contrary, in case of any of these, co-operation and help is suspended. There are huge efforts to establish workplaces, with a handicraft project giving work for women, and a carpentry for men. Also a community garden has been established to grow herbs in the summer.

The foundation became a very important institution in the extremely deprived area, reaching out to many institutions; there is a different degree of co-operation with nursery schools, schools, family-support services, guardianship offices, medical network, police, mayor’s office, work centres, non-governmental organisations and churches.

The conscious and sustained activity of the foundation led to results that were previously unimaginable. Thanks to the visual arts education, the students win yearly around 500 prizes at national and international student art exhibitions.

The activity of the Pearl Foundation is replacing the missing high quality state education – in most villages of the area the underprivileged, especially the Roma kids, face segregated education. The system of free school selection allows better off families to put their children into religious or other higher level schools, which practically reject students with Roma background. Nóra L. Ritók is one of the open critics of the segregating school system. Her critical attitude reached the level of the highest political decision makers – in turn the Ministry has terminated all support to the foundation. In the recent list of institutions which get state subsidies for providing extra educational support in deprived areas many unknown (and even segregating) organizations appear – but Pearl, and some other foundations which are highly successful but critical of the educational policy of Hungary, are missing. Due to the hostile political climate the survival of Pearl depends now exclusively on private and international sponsors.

So what can we learn from these cases?

All three examples show individual/local efforts to handle difficult societal problems. All the three initiatives represent efforts by progressive actors to improve the situation of poor and disadvantaged people. Paradoxically many such innovative and socially sensible actions started as a reaction on the financial crisis. With the easing of the crisis in many countries the return of previous practices is observable, leaving less room for bottom-up ideas and efforts.

We have to learn from these – and the many other similar – actions and strengthen ourselves in our beliefs that the fight for a better world is possible. Such initiatives should give us hope and strength that something still can be done.

Of course, such individual approaches can only be considered as first step, and not enough to change the way the world is developing. We have to support these actions but we also have to make additional efforts to cross-fertilize mainstream politics, strengthening the democratic political forces that think in similar way. It's time to do things differntly Let us stop the melt-down of democracy!

Read 2779 times Last modified on Friday, 17 February 2017 17:46

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