Common space co-building means a cooperative process of creating something together by neighbors based on certain elements of community spaces and infrastructure. With the development of urban society and the economy, private space such as housing has been greatly improved in urban areas. Public space or common space with unclear stakeholders and blurred responsibility boundaries, however, has been often neglected in urban life. While the public sector bears the main responsibility for maintenance of public infrastructure and recreation facilities, providing spaces that are inviting and inspiring can often be of low priority and underfunded. For example, in England, sports and recreational facilities have experienced substantial cuts during austerity policies (Ramchandani, Shibli, and Kung, 2018). In this regard, common space co-building is an important tool, not only for improving physical environment but also enhancing social cohesion in the community.
Therefore, these types of interventions should not be regarded as purely cosmetic. Rather, they can also contribute to fostering a stronger sense of belonging and engagement in a community. In this manner, relatively short term, small projects may help to foster further engagement by connecting people. As people are increasingly mobile and may not have the same bond to their neighbourhood, bringing about new ways for people to connect is becoming increasingly important. Sometimes, what is needed to bring people together is simply a public chess table or vegetable garden. This may in turn spur more initiatives as neighbours can work on identifying each other’s and the community’s needs, whether that is a local environmental initiative, a dance group, or community-based childcare. In short, a project of common space co-building may start a positive spiral for the local community.
It may also start a positive trend in terms of taking care of one’s surroundings. When people contribute to the design and building of their local environment, they will be more invested in taking care of it in the future. Therefore, such projects foster commitment to the place that spans far beyond the actual project.
In short, while upgrading infrastructure, bringing colour, plants, and playgrounds may entail important benefits in itself, a key part of community co-building lies in the cooperative aspect of creating something together.
Key Words: physical environment, cooperation, knowledge exchange, community identity, shared resources, low-threshold activities
Common space co-building is in many ways the building of socially integrative cities at the neighbourhood level. That is, strengthening social cohesion through collaborative efforts to upgrade public facilities, which in turn can foster a sense of place and community identity. Inclusiveness and participation are key aspects of the tool; in terms of decision making, organization of activities, and access to the spaces.
The tool of common space co-building has been widely tested in China’s contemporary community building practices and proved to be quite successful. As shown in the case of wall art in Xisanqi, Beijing, multiple parties were invited to join the activity from the initial event planning to the final place-making practice, which prompted a consensus among different groups. Moreover, the wall outside the primary school was selected as the site of common space, which made this event more open and attractive.
Co-building of common space provides neighbours a chance to meet, discuss and explore the potential function of public space together. It’s not just a matter of design; rather, it’s a process of local knowledge construction, individual experience sharing and mutual trust building. Therefore, some of the most important impacts could not be evaluated only by the spatial outcome, but by what are experienced and enjoyed by the residents and to what extent residents gain a sense of belonging throughout the process. With the improvement of common space, the co-building process also evokes residents’ sense of community ownership, fosters a distinct community identity, and thus unites the community.
However, while benefits such as trust, belonging, and identity are inherently difficult to measure, there are also more measurable potential benefits relating to economy, health, and education. In several incidents, community art projects have contributed to economic revitalization. Increased economic activity can be generated by an increased number of visitors, which also opens up for more customers as cafés, restaurants, and shops (Grodach, 2010). In the case of Stockport (see below), the local initiators wish to make it more attractive to go shopping in the city centre, compared to shopping malls.
A more integrated and active community also has several other positive aspects. For one, there can be public health benefits, such as decreased loneliness and increased physical activity. As the example bellow from China shows, upgrading of common spaces can encourage people to spend more time outside socializing with others. It can also foster relations and engagement across generations. Both China and Europa have rapidly aging populations, and loneliness among the elderly is an increasing problem. A more close-knit community may be one of many ways of combating such issues.
Common space co-building can also have educational benefits, such as spurring interest in art, learning about edible plants, and learning how to use new tools. In every community, there are numerous skills and ideas which can be discovered and shared. In the end, increased wellbeing in a place is likely to encourage people to stay longer in one area, creating more stable and resilient communities.
Common space provides a potential public place for residents’ daily activities such as community gathering, children’s play and elderly’s exercise. The co-building process of common space may easily take place when residents pass by and be advanced step by step during their everyday life routine, such as on the way to work or back home. The cost of common space co-building could be relatively low because everyone contributes efforts and share furniture. Therefore, when designing community projects, limits, and weaknesses such as the ones discussed above, may be compensated for through deep local anchorage and knowledge. For example, in an area with a high percentage of elderly, projects should be designed in a fashion that invites their participation. Importantly, there is no one size fits all. By the very definition, common space co-building, must take as a starting point human resources, culture, and resources at the given place – which is also a key strength.
In its ability to get people together, common space co-building bears with it a potential to connect people across backgrounds, ages, and differently-abled bodies. Fostering connections between groups that might otherwise would not be familiar with one another – despite being neighbours – will often nurture a culture of learning, tolerance, and understanding. This can range from a more peaceful co-existence to closer ties and sharing of languages, food, and knowledge.
Fostering a culture of sharing through community projects may also contribute to positive environmental impacts. This can be as simple as the fact that knowing your neighbours might make it easier to arrange borrowing a land mower instead of buying a new one. While this may happen at a spontaneous one-to-one level, it can also be organized through shared facilities such as workspaces, laundry rooms, waste, and recycling facilities. Such facilities can, in turn, be built in a cooperative manner. Community garden projects can even function as carbon capture, as well as flooding decrease (Okvat and Zautra, 2012).
Importantly, common space co-building should centre around low threshold activities. Such activities can therefore be organized on a quite spontaneous level. In this regard, social media can function as a useful tool for organization. For example, weeding or harvesting in a community garden can be organized on few days’ notice. At the same time, one should make sure to accommodate people who do not use social media.
First, this approach fits common space with relatively high accessibility and the potential to receive broad attention. The type of common space could be very diverse. It might be a staircase, a foyer, a square, a parking lot, or even a wall. Second, common space co-building is often initiated by a catalyst entity, which could be a resident, a volunteer, an expert, a grassroot organization, or the government. After being launched, it also needs a mechanism to attract neighbours to engage in the process. Whether the process is automated or organized, its progress relies on the communication between neighbours and consensus reached through interaction.
To further build on this aspect, such projects are dependent on volunteering, while sometimes initiated or organized by paid project leader or an NGO. In many ways, this dependency is a double-edged sword. Many of the key benefits is directly connected to volunteering, but it also makes them more vulnerable. This may not only be related to the willingness to contribute but also depend on the time or energy to spare. In areas where many have physically draining occupations or work multiple jobs, asking people to volunteer is more problematic. To avoid such projects being simply a middle-class pass-time, but truly serve as a social integration mechanism, the tasks and goals at hand must be well suited to the residents. If not, risk might appear, for example, some groups gain increased definitional power, while other groups simultaneously alienate others.
As a continuation of this, common space co-building shares a weakness with many urban upgrading projects, namely the risk of gentrification. Gentrification is a process where former working-class or lower-income neighbourhoods are increasingly inhabited by wealthier segments of the population, which contributes to increasing housing prices and eventually pushing the original population out of the area. While gentrification processes are often related to bigger upgrading processes, community-based projects may also be a source of increasing housing prices (for a discussion on Berlin see Holm, 2013).
Further, common space co-building should not be understood as a solution to all problems at local level, for example, taking care of public infrastructure. Therefore, it should not be regarded to take responsibility away from local authorities to take care of public spaces. In other words, it is key that such projects should be regarded as an addition, rather than a supplement to social policy and public maintenance.
Community Art in Stockport, Greater Manchester, United Kingdom
Stockport is a town located in Greater Manchester, United Kingdom (map), with a population of over 130,000. Once a thriving industrial town, Stockport is now suffering from large economic disparities within the city and widespread poverty in some areas (Stockport JSNA, 2016). In addition, Stockport has been struck with the problem of “high-street crisis”, and over the past years, the old town has been emptying out leaving empty storefronts (Passingham, 2019). To brighten up the old town, Jane Crowther and Vicky Carr started the initiative “Open Spaces” (Passingham, 2019). The project is a non-profit and self-funded scheme, where they work with local artists and the city council to bring colour back to the streets (Figure 1). This is made possible by the relatively large number of local artists, as the town has a long history of creativity and is home to an art school (Passingham, 2019, Stockport Independent, 2019). Crowther described the project as “regenerating, in the simplest way possible, and area that desperately needs a brightening up” (Bird, 2018). While the initiators are hoping business will pick up in the area, the project is also aimed at giving people more reasons to visit and stay in the town centre (Passingham, 2019). So far, all the spaces decorated are owned by the city council, but they are also working on trying to get access to privately owned buildings in the future. Further, as the town holds many historical buildings, painting is only done on parts of the shops that are temporary or can be removed. The first phase of the project has therefore evolved around the decoration of public space. Yet, in the second phase, two city council owned spaces will be made into creative work areas to be used by newly established artists (Stockport Independent, 2019). A third phase is also planned, aimed at establishing a social creative scene (Stockport Independent, 2019) (Figure 2).
Wall Art in Xisanqi, Beijing, China
Co-drawing the wall outside Fengdanshiyan primary school in Xisanqi subdistrict is a typical case of common space co-building in China. Xisanqi is a sub-district of Haidian district in Beijing (map), with a population of 130,000. It is mainly composed of high-density residential areas and lack of public space and vitality, which is a very common challenge in many subdistricts in urban China.
In order to revitalize the community, the government of Haidian district, chief planners of Xisanqi sub-district, and teachers from Fengdanshiyan primary school initiated this co-drawing activity. After several rounds of design from the primary school students, a final design was chosen with the motif of local plants in four seasons. This activity also received great support from the Painter Association of Tsinghua University, which is a non-profit organization initiated by Tsinghua University students aiming at improving children’s living space by wall painting and space renovation.
On the day of painting, more than 100 students joined the collaborative efforts of drawing the 116-meter wall (Figure 3). This activity not only added a beautified streetscape to the community, but also attracted residents to enjoy the co-drawing process (Figure 4). This co-drawing activity is only one project of the Children’s Art Community Plan in Xisanqi subdistrict. More child-friendly and attractive street spaces will be created through this co-building approach in the future (see also Civilization Office of Haidian District 2019; Haidian Branch of Beijing Municipal Commission of Planning and Natural Resources 2019).
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Yulin CHEN (THSA), Thea Marie Valler (NTNU)