PEDIO_AGORA – reviving Varvakeios Square: A laboratory for participatory decision-making processes in public space regeneration

                                                              

PEDIO_AGORA – reviving Varvakeios Square: A laboratory for participatory decision-making processes in public space regeneration

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Solution proposed by: 
PLACE IDENTITY CLUSTERS, THE SWITCH (Design Agency), MUNICIPALITY OF ATHENS (SYN-ATHINA PLATFORM), ACTORS OF URBAN CHANGE NETWORK (ROBERT BOSCH FOUNDATION AND MITOST
In a Nutshell: 
Within the PEDIO_AGORA project, a prototype process of participatory planning is developed, based on civic participation, stakeholder engagement and cross-sector partnerships. The process involved the organization of workshops, through which citizens jointly make decisions creating a shared understanding of the challenges of the square and developing proposals concerning its regeneration
Where and When: 
The project started in January 2014 and lasted until June 2015. It was implemented at the Varvakeios Square, an abandoned public space at the heart of the city, which symbolises the complexity of contemporary urban challenges that Athens faces, such as social exclusion, drug use and degradation of urban environment.
Challenges: 
In Greece, institutional barriers discourage citizens from participating into decision-making processes regarding the future of their urban environment. Several urban planning mistakes and inefficient strategies have generated mistrust towards municipal urban practices, and in addition to economic recession, many neighbourhoods in the city centre have been led into decline. The challenge of the project is therefore twofold: a) to develop, document and disseminate a prototype of participatory processes for cross-sector collaboration in urban regeneration and b) to build a community of advocates and develop concrete proposals for the regeneration of Varvakeios Square that can be implemented by public authorities.
Innovation: 
The institutional barriers to citizen participation, the diversity of the stakeholders and communities with conflicting agendas, as well as the heavy working schedules of the citizens can make participation seem elusive. The focus of the project has been to examine the urban regeneration processes by local authorities and to re-structure it in a way that citizens with diverse backgrounds could participate and be heard. Therefore, innovative and easy to follow participation and collaboration methods, such as World Café, Open Space Technology and Collective Mind Map were selected and introduced through workshops in all phases of the urban planning process.
Concept: 
The initial idea for the regeneration of the square was to install a local “meet market” across the meat market, in order to revive the area. Upon realising the institutional barriers to civic engagement, the focus was laid on process design and advocacy. The project developed both a step-by-step manual of know-how about participatory urban regeneration projects and a creative framework of bottom-up proposals for the revival of Varvakeios Square. The manual was designed for those who are involved or interested in urban design issues. Those who are engaged to urban environment and seek to apply tested methods on each social, economic and political challenge that can be seen in Greek cities. It also concerns those who are rallying around partnerships, the exchange of knowledge, mutual learning and open data that will emerge from creative and critical assessment of the current situation of each project. The project is realised on the basis of five principles that helped the coordination team stick to the process and expected goals: citizen participation, cross-sector collaboration, openness, peer-to-peer relationships and mutual learning
Description: 
The process of the project is based on four phases, each of which involved workshops with local stakeholders. The phases included mapping current situation and local dynamics, a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), collective envisioning, and proposal design. In the first phase, the analysis of Varvakeios Square area took place in partnership with experts from the National Technical University of Athens. It also involved 20 practitioners from the public, private and non-profit sectors who produced a collective mind map about the challenges and opportunities for participatory urban design in Greece. In the diagnosis phase, a workshop using the world café method, with the participation of a representative sample of more than 40 stakeholders, produced a SWOT diagram with the important positive and negative characteristics that an upcoming regeneration of the square should address. Its results were confirmed through a questionnaire survey of an additional 50 residents from the area. In addition, stakeholder mapping, in which semi-structured interviews were conducted with 50 more stakeholders, provided a wealth of information and opinions on the issue. The range of inputs were presented to the participants of the following workshop that represented the envisioning phase. Working groups used these data and developed shared visions which they documented on structured canvases using the open space technology method. For the final phase, the results and canvases were presented to the public in an open event, where local key stakeholders, including planners, activists and city officials were invited. The event also featured a participatory urban dinner and seed-bombs planting with locals, consolidating the sense of community. The project’s process and results were also presented in five public events and conferences and disseminated in the relevant municipal departments with the view both to be implemented by the municipality and to inspire other teams to act
Impacts: 
The project enabled an unprecedented level of community building around a concrete cause and engaged diverse stakeholders. It yielded knowledge and information about local needs, and practical issues about participatory methods that were delivered to the municipality for use in regeneration plans and decision making procedures. A series of meetings with technical officials and EU programmes specialists from the municipality pursued more concrete future actions to capitalise on the outcomes. Moreover, the creative material produced has been inspiring other teams and individuals who have expressed interest to apply the process in similar projects in diverse contexts, sparking a multiplier effect

Photo Gallery

International Academy Meeting on Citizen Participation (Athens) credits: @Panos Georgiou,
Varvakeios Square, credits: @Marianna Patelida,
Citizen Engagement by the team at Varvakeios meat market, credits: @George Giannoulakos,
Citizens’ Workshop, credits: @George Giannoulakos,
Seed-bombing by citizens on closing event, credits: @Marianna Patelida