First activities and results of the UPPER project at Latina

UPPER project
UPPER project
UPPER project aims at transforming misused and abandoned urban green areas into Productive Parks (PP) devoted to research, technological development and self-production of innovative Nature Based Solutions (NBS) to tackle environmental, socio-economic and governance challenges.
This article describes the real opportunity offered by the project to learn and exchange ideas and thoughts among the municipality of Latina, its inhabitants and private actors, in experimenting Nature Based Solutions (NBS) for the development and growth of the city.
Despite COVID-19 pandemic, during the first year of activity, the UPPER project already produced relevant results. This article aims at summarizing the key ones that have been achieved with the active cooperation of all the partners as well as of local stakeholders and citizens.
It will also be discussed how these results are relevant for the project objectives and impact.
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The project foresees to deploy and test innovative self-produced NBS such as: plants for phytoremediation of water and soil, indigenous trees to combat heat island effect and air pollution, filtering and reinforcing plants for soft engineering interventions on canal banks and coastal dunes.

The targeted productive and demonstration sites are located in different districts, characterized by specific challenges, like the concentration of Roma community, unregulated urbanization, absence of public and accessible green spaces, flash floods risks, air pollution and heat island effect.

The Productive Parks are co-designed and will be co-managed by project partners with local citizens and stakeholders, including local associations, schools and university, while a People-Public-Private management scheme will be designed for their future maintenance and sustainability.

Social enterprises and start-ups will also be created to ensure market exploitation, further development and up-scaling of the Productive Parks.

The city is also facing rising temperatures as a consequence of climate change, leading to extreme weather events, such as heat waves that exacerbate the heat island effect in the most urbanized districts, where the perceived temperature raised 49 degrees Celsius in 2018.

The project aims also at solving the issues of shortage of public economic resources, lack of coordination among the different stakeholders and governance levels and dispersion of technical knowledge and specialized skills hamper the city’s capacity to address ecosystems' recovery and long-term maintenance of the green and blue infrastructures.

UPPER project will go beyond urban food production, that have already been tested in other cities (i.e. the UIA Open Agri project in Milan), by using vacant and underutilized land to self-producing NBS related technologies and services as a resource for social inclusion, jobs and skills development, social cohesion and local sustainable development

The proposed solutions would innovate the way in which NBS can be used to produce social benefits such as the inclusion of marginalized groups, mental health care and social cohesion. So far, these issues have been mainly addressed only through urban agriculture and community gardening.

Citizens are called to be protagonists in the planning and management of the urban green areas concerned. Residents and neighborhood committees, schools, associations, social and sports centres, as well as social and commercial enterprises have to take part in co-planning, participatory evaluation activities, and management of public parks

This is why co-design laboratories have been scheduled during the project and the first two took place during the year.

The local activities of the UPPER project began in December 2019, when the first co-design laboratory took place with the inhabitants of Latina .

This laboratory aimed at increasing citizen participation and environmental awareness but it also contributed to foster the sense of belonging and ownership of urban green spaces as a common good.

The activities started with a questionnaire that was distributed to trace the identity of the participants. Then a self-mapping of the participants was organized through a sequence of questions to share ideas and proposals to be included in the activities and therefore in the final version of the application form.
Participants were asked 3 main questions:

  1. What activities to do in the UPPER parks? (Nature-based activities and services)
  2. What environmental challenges do we want to address? (Solutions for environmental problems)
  3. How would you like to transform the areas of UPPER? (Characteristics of the spaces)

The activities took place in parallel in 3 tables, with a final common discussion.

Following the discussion, the activities to be carried out in the parks have been divided into 4 areas:

  • An area of ​​silence, a place for meditation and relaxation, through the inclusion of sensory paths;
  • An entertainment area, with cinemas, theatrical performances, concerts; for the participants to be users but also to have the opportunity to exercise self-expression;
  • A space for play and movement, which takes into consideration not only children, but also adults (e.g. chess, gymnastic courses);
  • A dining area (shared gardens, collaborative laboratories for food education).

As regards the major environmental challenges that the city of Latina has to manage and on which the project can concretely make a difference, desertification and flooding were highlighted, caused by the lack of water absorption in the ground, due to overbuilding and to land consumption.
As solutions, phytodepuration systems, "rain garden" systems, soil depressions covered with green on the sides of the roads have emerged, to manage and control the large quantities of rainwater from roadways and waterproof areas because they are cemented. The green corridors have also been identified as systems for the enhancement of the precious biodiversity of the place.

Citizens and students actively participated in the workshops. They provided ideas and thoughts that were used to define in detail the activities envisaged by the project to be included in the work plan.

The theme of social interaction and how spaces can facilitate or hinder relationships was central in the discussion. Participants highlighted the need to transform parks into places to meet and get to know each other.

The value of memory was also discussed, to give value to past and present identity, through the production of cultural maps to build specific relations with city spaces.

Another topic of discussion was related to safety, order and cleanliness. According to some of the participants, the plurality of uses and the difficulty of imagining a community management, puts at risk the capacity of these spaces to be safe places. The proposed solution was a "shared responsibility", an active collaboration of the community, based on the construction of "trust". 

Even though there are some examples of projects that turn landscape management into an opportunity for boosting local economy (e.g. UIA UFIL project in Cuenca), UPPER project is not limited to the development of future green enterprises and business models, but turns the city itself into a marketplace for NBS.

“The areas included in the Upper project – explained Cristina Leggio, Councilor for International City, Youth Policies, Participation and Smart City - were chosen because they were symbolic places of enhancement and development, able to create communities and promote transformation of local areas. The parks were included in the Upper project for their social aggregator function and as areas dedicated to experimenting social services, educational, sports and recreational activities based on contact with nature"

To reach also these social objectives mentioned by Ms. Leggio, a second co-design laboratory was organized in one of the project Productive Parks.

After the good results of the first laboratory, the activities of the project continued with the support of all the partners. Before the COVID pandemic started to limit meetings in presence, a second co-design laboratory led by partner Tesserae Urban Social Research, took place on February 21, focused on the future Production Park of the market area, in Roccagorga street.

This laboratory was intended to demonstrate that the Productive Parks can be co-designed and co-managed by project partners with the active involvement of local citizens and stakeholders. This is one of the main solutions and strengths of the project.

The activity took place in three phases: the first of which was outdoors, directly in the spaces to be transformed by the PP2 Production Park in the market area.

The first activity consisted of a guided exploration of the spaces involved in the project: the numerous participants were provided with a map of the area on which to indicate the "positive" or "to maintain" (+ sign) and the "negative" “To be improved / enhanced” (- sign). The goal was to critically observe the context, and imagine the transformed spaces, try to identify the functions and possibilities that the areas analysed can reserve with their characteristics.

The second phase of the workshop allowed a return of all the observations, impressions and ideas that emerged during the exploration: the participants were able to interact consciously on the elements present in the area, on the critical issues and on the unexpressed potential.

As a result, the following observations can be summarised:

  • the neighborhood of Latina shows potential to activate the area;
  • the proximity to two school buildings allows to experiment an integrated approach and create new collaborations (i.e. outdoor teaching activities using NBS in the renovated park areas, new activities and services to be implemented in the park designed by students, etc);
  • the proximity to the weekly market is an element to be enhanced: it will be possible to organize purchasing groups and to place an info point at the market that advertises the project and brings people to visit the new park. It would also possible to identify in the area a space for a small market of seeds / plants / park productions;
  • the use in the car park (UPPER experimentation area) of shading trees, essences of the Mediterranean scrub, native shrub plants such as alaterni, laurels, mastic is suggested to improve the livability of the space.

These are the main examples of the participants’ observations that were collected on a single large map as a final synthesis product of the second co-design laboratory, which was sent to the municipality for the realization of the feasibility study of the area.

This co-design laboratory is an example on how the proposed solution reflects an integrated approach to address simultaneously the different dimensions of the urban sustainable development. The actions proposed by the participants went beyond the simple regeneration of the areas, including solutions for social and economic challenges like unemployment, inactivity and social inclusion of marginalized groups.

The first two co-laboratories are to be considered as a crucial piece of the living lab that is being built in the city of Latina.

After the first co-design laboratories, the project needed an analysis to map the offer of skills, competences and resources coming from local stakeholders through a specific research action. A social value mapping was scheduled to explore a series of qualitative variables such as: type of competences owned by local stakeholders; main areas of intervention; types of citizens needs represented; resources owned (relations, spaces, networks, equipment).

Second co-laboratory

 

The Social Value Mapping was carried out in the first months of 2020 by the project partner Labirinto social cooperative.

This represents also the starting point for the project socio-educational programme and entertainment activities based on the contact with nature. 

This activity aims at bringing out the resources present in the socio-educational services, non-profit organizations and groups of citizens in the area who are part of it as volunteers or members.

From a methodological point of view, the social value has been broken down into 2 dimensions: “resources”, tangible and intangible, which include skills, abilities, knowledge, tools / technologies, spaces, professionalism; the dimension of “relations”, or the cooperation links between the actors, that can be weak / strong or formal / informal.

For each social actor, the type of sector of intervention and the type of interest and potential contribution within the UPPER project was also detected. Thus, through semi-structured meetings and interviews, 22 value-carrying social actors were mapped.

The social value detected was finally analysed from the point of view of the potential short-term impacts on the health and well-being of the recipients of the Production Park 2 (residents of the neighbourhood, students of the surrounding schools, participants in socio-educational initiatives).

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From the analysis of the mapping it emerged that:

  • The number and density of potential relationships that can be generated by the project is greater than the current relationships. This indicates the margin of action of the UPPER project in producing greater cooperation between the social actors of the territory and therefore, an increase in the overall social value.
  • Due to their current capital of knowledge, relationships and skills, some nodes of the map can potentially become hubs of the network, since they can forge collaborations with numerous other stakeholders.
  • A large part of the social value is concentrated on dimensions such as leisure, education, assistance and health, which involve the possession of specialized technical skills and well-defined reference targets. This highlights the need for action to support and facilitate cooperative and participatory processes between social actors such as the one proposed by UPPER. On the other hand, the great availability of technical / specialist skills and the ability to reach niche or specific targets represents a great resource in terms of planning for the planning of socio-educational and nature-based entertainment activities envisaged by the UPPER project.

The results of the analysis of the social value are intended for the construction of an offer of socio-educational and entertainment services, based on nature that can take into account not only the needs and criticalities identified in the target population, but also the resources and skills available to stakeholders. Thanks to the mapping and analysis of social value, the planning of services based on nature can contribute to the social innovation of the territory, creating new cooperative interactions between the actors, contamination between the thematic areas of intervention, filling the gaps of resources and promoting the integration of skills, disciplines and social reference groups.

The Social Value Mapping allowed to point out how UPPER will also innovate the way in which NBS can be used to produce social benefits such as the inclusion of marginalized groups, mental health care and social cohesion.

One of the goals of the project is to bring citizens closer to the local administration in an efficient way, through a conscious use of technology too. To this aim, the activities of the partner Ce.RSITe.S, the Latina branch of La Sapienza University, are designed to allow citizens to become familiar with a series of technological products, which in the absence of UIA funding, it would probably not have been possible to acquire, at least not in the short term.

Not only social and collaborative activities have already been finalized so far. Scientific and research activities are key for UPPER project and are managed by the local public university representing a strength of the project.

From June, non-invasive and non-destructive analyses were carried out in order to acquire, for the 10 selected areas targeted by UPPER project, the basic information of the most representative plants communities of the area, to be taken as a reference to evaluate the effect of subsequent interventions.

These activities are part of the environmental analysis, which concerns both the abiotic aspects such as soil and water, and the biotic ones, the flora and fauna. The ecological connections are also analysed, especially through the hydrographic network and with attention to those connected with the Lepini Mountains and the coast.

The methodology applied spectroscopic investigations based on the survey of the chemical-physical characteristics of the leaf surfaces of tree individuals.

An innovative method was used, the Near Infrared Spectroscopy (or NIRS). It is based on measuring the interaction between the reflected or transmitted electromagnetic radiation and the molecular structure of the surface of the sample under investigation: the leaf or the soil. An example of the outputs is shows in the following picture.

The analyses were carried out in the field by the partner Ce.RSITe.S, , using a portable JDSU MicroNIR ™ spectrometer capable of acquiring reflectance spectra in the range of the electromagnetic spectrum ranging from 950 to 1650 nm.

NBS (Nature Based Solutions) can have a strong impact on the city, creating positive externalities also from an economic and social point of views. Therefore, the socio-economic and the settlement systems will be also analysed, in order to provide an overview of the modifications of the anthropized context, that can change the perception of the urban landscape and the life of the city itself.

The analyses will be repeated during and after the realization of the works using NBS, to monitor their development and evaluate their effectiveness, results and impacts.

The municipality needs the skills, resources and results that come with the university in order to improve and develop its operations. The cooperation with Ce.RSITe.S is key for a successful project implementation. Close cooperation with the local university is vital from an employment and growth perspective and to develop a broader business and labour market for greater economic sustainability, increased range of choices as well as contributing towards greater development dynamics.

Although the delays occurred also because of COVID pandemic, the activities already carried out by the project demonstrated that it was able to create a living and co-managed lab involving citizens and stakeholders in the project design and implementation.

A multidisciplinary and multilevel approach to the issue of sustainable city land use is particularly represented by the solution, which includes the perspectives of the research and environmental institutions, the local communities, the social sector and the business sector in the city’s metabolism.

UPPER is an example on how, in a developed context, the integration of government and private companies is a driving factor to create positive conditions for local development, while the university supports the creation of structural knowledge for innovation in the NBS context.

In particular, the first two co-design laboratories demonstrate the establishment of a sense of local ownership and the ability to contribute to liveable neighbourhoods and reduces societal disparities by building points of access for science discovery and participation.

The shared responsibility brought by the co-management approach, pushes to change the mental and psychological approach towards the establishment of a collaborative relationship between the municipality and citizens. So far, the Upper project proves to be more than the sum of its different parts, that can become the prototype of a new way of managing local problems and be replicated in other EU countries.

However, urban greenery, safeguarding biodiversity, hindering climate change are difficult and sensitive tasks, they must be carried out properly and with professional planning. In the next two years we will verify if Latina will be able to restore the relationship between nature and territory to remediate imbalances which made some urban areas unhealthy places.

Following the project activities it will also be possible to observe how policy makers in Latina will use of the lessons learned for new local policies for accessibility and equal opportunities, while encouraging citizens and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions and preserve parks and critical environmental areas.

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