Design for community

“It started with storytelling, all the characters from Alexander the Great to Ataturk.” Recounts Zehra Akdemir Veryeri, an architect with a focus on participatory design. “Most of the children living in the historic city centre are migrants who don’t know the roots of the place.”

In Izmir’s Design Atelier, Zehra worked with the local children through dialogue and games to redesign their playground. “We used recycled objects like old tyres and built a climbing frame. There used to be a problem with vandalism in the park, but now that the community has taken ownership in the design, that doesn’t happen anymore.”

Changing landscape

“There’s a tension in Turkish society, it can be polarised, and the Design Atelier is trying to build a dialogue with every group regardless of their background, ethnicity, nationality.” So what is the Design Atelier, and why is it necessary? Over the last 50 years Izmir’s cosmopolitan historic centre has gradually faded. Ancient sites have been abandoned and high-income families have moved out.

When piecemeal conservation projects failed to bring about the desired revitalisation of the 248-hectare site, the city to take a different rout, enlisting the participation of communities alongside city departments, creative actors, universities and public and private institutions.

People in power

The design atelier is located in a conspicuous home in a historic building. Where different community projects are taken on by multi-disciplinary team of designers, sociologists, architects and psychologists working together with local residents. It is up to the core team to establish close, trusting relationships with small, often introverted, communities and empower them to explore, improve and feel ownership of their neighbourhoods.

“We’re trying to take little steps which can create bigger changes, to build a dialogue between different groups about what we have in common, and to build awareness of, and a feeling of power over, the local environment.” Zehra says.

Çağlayan Deniz Kaplan, coordinator of the Design Atelier explains that this process had its challenges. “At the start it was difficult, there were cultural tensions and language problems because local communities mainly speak Kurdish and Arabic.” Now, through cooperation with local NGOs, they are able to run activities in three languages. “We don’t have too many problems now.”

The process

It also take time to build trust, as people are not used to the participatory process. The design teams and residents work closely from day one, not just on bringing projects to fruition, but also on determining what the projects and objectives will be. The process starts with local workshops where citizens are introduced to the notion that they can help shape solutions for rehabilitation of their area.

They also complete a social and environmental questionnaire to determine the demands and values of their neighbourhood. Residents’ opinions and suggestions inform the development of design proposals, which are then discussed in meetings between the community group, design practitioners and local government.

Reaching everyone

Some groups are initially sceptical about working together with the city, or can be difficult for the city to reach out to. Starting off with projects involving children, like Zehra’s project in the local park, is a great way to get parents from hard-to-reach communities involved. The atelier now presents a friendly face which locals are happy to interact with, meaning that the city can establish better contact with them than would be possible working from their central offices.

“We wanted to be with them the whole time, to really be their neighbours.” Çağlayan said. “The area is mostly populated by migrants, and we don’t want to change the social community living there, but we want to enrich their environment and create harmony among different cultural groups.”

Sharing skills

Through the Design Atelier, lots of new amenities have come to the area, including an open-air cinema in a public square. But it isn’t just about physical infrastructure like parks and cinemas. The atelier also organises activities where inhabitants can share knowledge and skills. This presents the opportunity to learn and grow, but it also empowers individuals by giving them the opportunity to teach others.

The bonds that come out of this go as far as the creation of new businesses. “Local craftspeople started to meet with designers to make their work more appealing to tourists. The area is famed for wood and copper products, and now the craftspeople are working together to sell traditional wares to tourists.” The craftspeople also use the atelier to teach traditional craft skills to newer residents.

Cooking up community

In another case, a number of local women decided that they wanted to form a cookery cooperative and sell the food they made to tourists and locals. They communicated this ambition to the atelier, and the city responded by offering them classes in food hygiene and leadership, and the language skills they needed to get their now thriving business, The Pagos Women’s Cooperative, off the ground.

Çağlayan says that after four years of running, you can really see a change in the neighbourhood. “We all come together and get to know each other. As a result people are less introverted in the area, now they come down to the street and start to welcome visitors. A few years ago, people were afraid to come to this area. Now it is an attractive and enjoyable place to live in.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer