Hej, welcome to your space!

“We had a problem in the city: there were no youth centres or places just for us, nothing at all,” says Kamil Konieczny, a member of Lublin’s Youth Council. “Now, my friends and I love our new space and I’m so glad I helped create it. I spend a lot of time there, meeting my friends, playing video games and going to dance parties.”

Kamil believed in the concept of a new youth space designed and run by and for the city’s young people from the start. Others, like one of his best friends, weren’t so sure.

“So I asked her what her passion is and she said crocheting. So I said, ‘you could run a crochet workshop and ask the coordinator for materials.’ She’s now organised six workshops and they’re really popular. This is a great example of what a good job spaces like this can do!”

Kamil is just one of the thousands of young people in Lublin whose voices have been amplified, participation in decision-making encouraged and everyday lives improved by the city’s selection as the 2023 European Youth Capital.

To help create its programme of initiatives and activities during the year, the city undertook its largest ever research project to understand the expectations, habits, needs and preferences of young people.

One issue came up again and again.

Relaxation, respite, friends and fun

“Young people told us that they needed some space just to be and it had to be open and safe,” explains Magdalena Gnyp-Ścigocka from the city’s Social Participation Office.

As well as wanting to be able to create their own activities and have the opportunity to meet different people beyond their classmates, some young people expressed a need for a place where they could escape daily problems.

Not everybody has a home they want to go back to
— Magdalena Gnyp-Ścigocka

“Not everybody has a home they want to go back to,” says Gnyp-Ścigocka, “Sometimes it’s good for them, physically and psychologically, to have somewhere else they can go where they feel comfortable.”

In the empowering spirit of the European Youth Capital vision, instead of simply setting up and running a youth club, the city proposed a design and creation process in which all participants would be equals.

The approach has been so successful that it has seen the city make the shortlist for the Eurocities Awards, with the winner to be announced at the Brussels Urban Summit this June.

The city issued an open call to build a youth group to co-create the new space, which was to be co-funded by the city and the ‘Youth for the City, City for the Youth’ initiative financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA and Norway Grants.

“We worked with young people from the start as real partners in the process,” says Gnyp-Ścigocka. “We wanted them to feel they could have an impact on what is going on in the city and to show that we will do our best to help them realise their ideas and solve their problems.”

Everyone agreed that a space available in a central municipal building would be perfect, for both the new youth space and the headquarters of the European Youth Capital programme.

We wanted them to feel they could have an impact on what is going on in the city
— Magdalena Gnyp-Ścigocka

Ikea came on board as the project’s interior design adviser and supplier of furniture. This partnership gave the youngsters the opportunity to learn from professionals about designing spaces to be friendly, functional and flexible.

“This was not a typical project for Ikea’s designers,” says Kamil. “They showed us different options for what the space could look like and we discussed their ideas among ourselves and came to the final solution. This was a very good way because we are the users of the space.”

Lublin youth in design workshop with Ikea

The solution involved creating one large space that could easily be divided into two separate rooms as activities required, plus a kitchenette and an office.

After discussions about what to put in the space, it was equipped with sofas, shelving, chairs, tables, video and board games, table football, a television and a projector. The free availability of coffee, tea, soft drinks and snacks was non-negotiable as far as the young people were concerned!

When it came to how the space was to be managed, it was agreed that there would be five on-site coordinators employed by the city, one of whom is Gnyp-Ścigocka, who focuses on promoting Hej! activities and helping with materials and general guidance.

We have young people coming and going all the time
— Magdalena Gnyp-Ścigocka

While there is a youth board responsible for what goes on in the space, any young person can organise their own activities. One of the real positives of this approach is that the activities are very different and ever-changing.

“We have young people coming and going all the time with different interests and hobbies and great diversity too – not just Polish youngsters but also a lot of overseas students and Ukrainian refugees,” says Gnyp-Ścigocka.

New connections, hobbies and ideas

Named Hej! – a friendly ‘Hi’ – the youth space for 10 to 30 year olds was officially opened in October 2022 with a Hej! house party followed by some days of workshops and meetings to introduce young people to the space and its role as their special place for rest, play or study.

For many young people, like Kamil, Hej! has become an important part of their life.

“I often go to Hej! when I’m tired after school, to drink coffee and play a bit of table football or to do some work in small groups.”

I've made new friends too, including students from Asia and Africa
— Kamil Konieczny

“I’ve made new friends too, including students from Asia and Africa who are studying at the city’s medical university and come to Hej! to relax and also to practice speaking in English to bring the language barrier down. It’s a very good place for networking.”

It’s a very good place to do a lot more besides. Every week there are regular and new activities, promoted on the Hej! Facebook page, where youngsters can also find photographs and articles, information on how to organise an activity or get help to stage an event.

All youth welcome inside the new space

Activities at Hej! range from cooking, gardening, singing and juggling workshops to more formal meetings of Lublin’s Youth Council and international study visits.

On some days the space can be on the quiet side, with the gentle hum of friends chatting and people working, the air filled with the warm aroma of coffee and waffles or toast. On others, it’s bustling, with a creative workshop in one space and a table football tournament in another and equipment for the evening’s rock concert starting to arrive .

We encourage local psychology students to organise workshops for de-stressing exercises
— Magdalena Gnyp-Ścigocka

The city is also trying to provide for young people in other ways at Hej! 

“Young adults often need a lot of support with psychological issues,” says Gnyp-Ścigocka. “We encourage local psychology students to organise workshops for de-stressing exercises. We also partner with an experienced organisation that can help with individual interventions.” 

Evolution and cookies

Hej! has welcomed 4,000 young people since its launch and surveys make sure the coordinators and youth board keep track of their current needs and wishes.  

So popular has Hej! been that there are plans to extend its hours during the week, open at weekends for the first time and run a special programme in the long summer holidays.

Youth centre activities in Lublin

Another ambition is to be more accessible to people with special needs. A new coordinator with signing skills will make Hej! more welcoming for deaf youngsters and this is seen as just the start.

In the months Hej! has been up and running, the city has taken lessons from its participatory process and everyday management and turned them into a set of standards for youth spaces which is enabling expansion of the concept city-wide, working with non-profit organisations.

You can never say 'now we are done'
— Magdalena Gnyp-Ścigocka

The city is, however, very aware that these standards, like youth spaces themselves, must be allowed to continually evolve.

“You can never say ‘now we are done’,” says Gnyp-Ścigocka. “You have to keep looking at who is coming and noting if they are feeling good in the space and why they are coming back. Of course we do have cookies and sometimes they come just for the cookies!”

Tiphanie Mellor