Loneliness is a ‘crowded place’ in today’s societies. The profound changes of the recent decades and the pandemic outbreak have led to its escalation, resulting in a decline of the sense of community and acceleration of (hidden) social isolation in urban areas. As Verona’s 3rd district is not immune to such global trends, the S.T.E.P.S. project is investigating the combination of influencing factors leading to loneliness, in order to provide innovative and sustainable solutions to improve the present situation. In this context, the public space architecture plays a particular role, which can either serve as a venue for more social interactions or as an inhibitor by means of creating physical and/or emotional barriers.
Focusing on social attractors
In the past months, S.T.E.P.S. project conducted a mapping exercise in the 3rd district with the aim to identify the neighborhoods’ suspended spaces, whose life cycle has ended in abandonment and degradation. Conceived as “empty spaces”, the identified areas have turned into social isolators for the local communities, affecting also the perceived personal security. This territorial exploration by the architects served for a in-depth reflection on how to restore the original function of “social attractor” to such space and convert them into connecting routes for more sociality. In particular, it put forward a list of spaces and concrete interventions that can have an impact on loneliness. While some public spaces need redevelopment interventions to become more attractive, others are in need of some attention in order to enhance their community and social potential, or even get better connected within a wider pathway.
The establishment of new routes dedicated to pedestrians and riders, coupled with the upgrading of the existing ones, are expected to enhance autonomous urban microcirculation and reinforce community and own sense of security. The creation of this ‘network of connections’ between the different areas and district’s neighborhoods will allow for a more integrated social landscape along with the opportunity to introduce new services, mending therefore the social connective tissue.
From challenges to opportunities
Following the mapping exercise, the project engaged in workshops/laboratories with the local population, aiming to collect perceptions on the current situation of the neighbourhoods and how to transform them into social connecting spaces. The process served to identify obstacles that have led to a widespread sense of loneliness, and how to overcome them in order to reinforce the community.
“You have to start from a physical place, a concrete space, to collect people's ideas on how to make use of, in order to create a community and get the sparks spreading around,” declared a participant, father of two.
The consultations recognized that the context we are living in, due to the pandemic, has encouraged citizens to experience more their neighbourhoods, getting to know and establish relations with the neighbours next door. This has led to spontaneous social situations between adults that should be preserved in the longer run. However, the pandemic has also led to social isolation and digital devices’ dependency among the younger generations. For instance, the youth laboratories noted the scarse opportunities the district offers for their active and physical engagement in cultural, sporting and social activities. They elaborated a list of attractive places that with some redevelopment interventions can turn into social attractors for the younger generations, such as the municipality sporting facilities, parish- and school-led spaces, new reading rooms/libraries in certain neighbourhood, etc. Moreover, their sustainable mobility mapping exercise identified several dangerous interruptions of the existing cycle paths and absence of cycling connections between different neighbourhoods.
In general terms, all participants agreed that physical spaces available for community gatherings and recreational opportunities, along with small shops and proximity services serve as anchors where citizens can meet up frequently, contributing to the process of building of a collective identity and sense of belonging to the neighbourhood. Such spaces should allow for self-organization and management, contributing so to greater local ownership and care for the common good. Not less important is also the preservation of historical/sybolic spaces linked to the identity of the neighbourhood, which can turn into community meeting points.
Overall, these mapping exercises laied the foundations for the design of S.T.E.P.S.’ interventions. Besides the informal services offered by the STEPSpoints, the project is currently supporting local civic actors’ engagement through small-scale actions on urban regeneration and social animation. In early 2022, a modular community infrastructure will be positioned around the district to further encourage public participatory design consultations, bringing the project closer to citizens’ needs.