Urban planners often speak of an integrated urban approach, because every day they touch Upon a simple reality: the complex interrelation of different factors in the realization of even the simplest urban transformation.
This zoom-in, the second and final one of CAPACITyES (the first, a video, can be found here) highlights how difficult it can be to complete redevelopment works in a period characterized by profound uncertainties caused by externalities (economic crisis, pandemic and now also a war in Europe). These externalities are difficult to predict in the design phase and are usually perceptible through an increase in the expected costs, but this is almost never enough, planners must always dialogue with a constant very difficult to be quantified: unpredictability.
Unpredictability can not only be an increase in implementation costs, and in implementation times, but also distort the pace of the project and have political implications, or implications on the expectations of target groups and beneficiaries.
Children helping to go from a project's logic to a logic of process.
The first zoom-in focussed on a first achievement, the murals that, through the narration of the Odyssey, marked the territory to be regenerated and structured, a reference for a place-based regeneration. In a nutshell the murals made us understand the urban context of regeneration and united the other two key projects that are the subject of this second zoom in. As stated in the web article “Changing People and Places through an Act of Fantasy”, the murals become vectors for the empowerment of children within the regeneration project. Such a planning process cannot only be open to the usual actors of territorial governance, the message that this mural project sends, and the Bergamo practice too, is that true inclusion is achieved through the active involvement of citizens and specifically of the future citizens. Children learn to take responsibility in their role through participation in CAPACITyES, but also they give to the regenerative process the value of imagination, which becomes an essential component of the sustainability of the proposed projects. The murales are generated by the fantasy of the children, which create an innovative context for linking, identifying and communicating projects and events related to the local practice of urban regeneration, above all it makes them protagonist of a participatory experience within the city. The city which then becomes a playground and not the other, the unknown, which is often feared and which causes insecurity.
Alongside this mural project, a symbolic project, but with a strong communicative impact of the urban regeneration action in progress, there are other two actions, which the mural project systematizes and mends, namely:
- The redevelopment of the hospital pavilion of the Borgo Palazzo, for cohousing purposes.
- The creation of Hub4Kids in the Cascina (farmhouse) Serassi.
The first of these two projects makes it possible to trigger significant help in combating urban poverty, the redevelopment of the Borgo Palazzo hospital pavilion. The pavillon is converted into a residential building, it will be the place of the cohousing experiment in Bergamo. This cohousing experience defines an innovation for the city that can become a harbinger of other similar practices. It can trigger the local capacity necessary for managing the reuse of abandoned places in a short time for housing purposes that respond to the demand of old and new citizens suffering from multiple deprivation. Empty and abandoned structures that can satisfy the growing needs, shared by many families, especially migrants of the latest generation, they can have a roof over their heads and undertake a path of insertion both professional and cultural in the city.
The challenges triggered by external factors
There were several unexpected events to face in implementing CAPACITyES, many of which were difficult to predict in the proposal design phase. Not even the most pessimistic designer, or the most smart one, would take into account a pandemic and a war concentrated in less than three years, but this is what happened in Europe between 2019 and 2021. How is all this reflected in an urban regeneration project? Inflation and the unavailability of building materials have affected the timing of construction sites, obviously not only in Bergamo. The biggest problems concerned the redevelopment of the hospital pavilion, in fact, the delay in the delivery of the apartments led to a cascade of non-compliance with the agreements made with the target families in the CAPACITyES project. Most of these families live in precarious housing conditions and some of them are even under eviction. Among other things, the worsening of economies on an urban scale has put the already precarious budgets of these families in crisis. Despite the ongoing project, families risked finding themselves poorer, without a home, and without school for their children. In this sense, the social assistance action provided by the various networks and institutions, both public and private, operating in Bergamo was fundamental. Only by activating this important social and voluntary network, complementary in respect of the actions taken by the project partnership, it was possible to create conditions of resilience for the project and to generate alternative solutions to manage the discomfort of the target families in loved in CAPACITyES.
Managing all these unpredictability was for sure not an easy task. The municipality of Bergamo managed this critical situation by implementing an integrated approach, that is trying to systematize all the different complexities present in an urban regeneration project. At first a mediation was started with the project partners because some work programs had to be revised and adapted, then the resources available at the municipal scale were mobilized, especially in terms of social services. Keeping the families together and updating them on the difficulties they were encountering was a fundamental step, the families were informed of the changes compared to the original path and together with them the problems were addressed and the reasons that led to the delays in the delivery of the apartments where to start their cohousing experience. A series of critical actions has to be revised and adapted, it is worth recalling:
- the administrative and procedural aspects,
- the aspect of participatory planning with future residents,
- the aspect of construction and procurement of materials,
- the social and economic management aspect of the resident families who will occupy the buildings (often in precarious housing situations or even under eviction),
- the aspect of professional training and integration into the local social context, which is more difficult for families of first generation migrants.
Kids at the hearth of the planning process
CAPACITyES has, as its fundamental characteristic, the reference to the role of children in urban transformation processes, children as a source of inspiration for a more inclusive, but also more effective definition of local urban policies, as children are carriers of requests that otherwise would hardly come identified in a process conducted by adult stakeholders. This "children involvement" based approach becomes crucial especially when, as in the case of CAPACITyES, local strategies are to be put at the center of action to combat urban poverty. In fact, the process of inclusion of different cultures, but also of different social strata, is long and complex. It is much better to built inclusiveness over time, trying to achieve cohesion and mutual confrontation between those who will constitute the civic fabric of the city in the years to come.
It is no coincidence that in urban planning, especially in the last 20 years, many practices expressed through participatory paths, became official through informal reference tools, that are based on a structured dialogue with children. Their involvement was mainly structured around the issues of public space and the definition of development visions:
- ensure that children have spaces to play and express themselves that are safe, clean and open
- accessibility for all children without discrimination
- and, in fact, to ensure their active involvement in the phases of structuring a decision-making process.
Many decision makers, in the urban environment, be they public, third sector or private actors, should ask themselves the following question:
Are our cities child-friendly?
The child-friendly city allows children to be actively involved in the local community of reference, to have a clearly identifiable space in the social life of the city, to be listened to in the family context. Living in a protected environment, being away from phenomena of violence and abuse, having the opportunity to live in public spaces with tranquility and being able to play and cultivate friendships is essential for raising physically and mentally healthy children. Finally, the aspect linked to the environment should also be emphasized, more ecological cities and with greater attention to different urban pollutions, clearly facilitate the healthy growth of children and contribute to forming new citizens aware of the importance of managing the city in a sustainable way.
The regeneration project of Cascina Serassi, and its transformation into a Hub 4 Kids, goes exactly in these directions. This project is of crucial importance for Bergamo, and it can become a reference for many other European and non-European cities. The Hub, the physical structure, will be ready towards the end of December 2022, but the soft structure in support of this initiative has already worked very well during the CAPACITyES project.
The redevelopment of the Cascina Serassi also encountered the same problems encountered by the redevelopment of the Borgo Palazzo pavilion (building materials not available in the short term, higher prices for them, delays in site management times). Furthermore, being originally a country house, now incorporated into the urban fabric, further unforeseen works relating to basic infrastructure have been added. However, the delay in delivering the work in this case led to less serious consequences, in fact, the partners in charge of the hub's activities, already in the pandemic phase, had developed the ability to organize initiatives with children and adolescents by resorting to a strategy of virtual tools, but above all by developing the ability to aggregate them in alternative and proximity public spaces. With the start of the new year, this space too will be able to start functioning and become an aggregator and catalyst for the Bergamo youth world.
In conclusion, this zoom-in on the works under construction, tells us that we are almost there. The CAPACITyES project is one step away from delivering the works for those who will benefit from them (families waiting to be housed thanks to the in co-housing model, children who will have a new structure at the scale of the city at their disposal to be able to express themselves and to better grow-up together). The externalities, to which reference is made at the beginning of this article, have shown that the local dimension of a European city, even for ordinary urban regeneration works, must take into account global influences, or those outside its own local context. Combating urban poverty requires a complex approach. Many parameters given for granted and linked to ordinary experience, the calculation of costs and implementation times, are unexpectedly redefined at a time when a profound cultural, economic and diplomatic crisis closely affects the European continent. Urban policies are increasingly glocal, that is, they must understand the context and local needs, but define policy design and decision making paths that take into account supranational and even global factors. Local administrations must, as far as possible, carefully assess the risks of the project in the preparation phase. However, the reuse of abandoned buildings for residential purposes and to improve the supply of services to citizens remains a good strategic choice. The delays, and the consequent induced problems, linked to the phases of physical transformation can be compensated by network actions, both at the scale of the project partnership, but also through the activation of the basic services (social, solidarity ones) present at the urban scale: it is always better to add a second network of local actors to the project partnership, ready to support it when necessary.