The city is for me

The spaces, objects and places around us impact our emotions and in turn our emotions reflect back out into our environment.

That’s one of the reasons Charles Landry, the celebrated urbanist, points out in his book ‘psychology and the city’ that we need to consider very carefully the design of our urban landscapes and the places we inhabit.

In an old flour mill in Zaragoza, a group of young people attending a workshop were recently introduced to this concept. How does a cities’ urban plan and the places we live in affect our behaviour and what does this mean for the way we move around and interact?

Elsewhere in the same old flour mill, a group of teenagers is attending a hip hop workshop and coming up with songs on the importance of respecting women, others are painting a mural.

Not far away, a group of senior citizens is learning Flamenco and a mixed audience is watching a classic film accompanied by a live orchestra.

Welcome to Zaragoza’s Harinera cultural centre.

Something worth fighting for

Faced with its potential conversion into flats, the local neighbourhood association petitioned the council to refurbish an old industrial building that had lain abandoned since 2001, as one of the last examples of the heritage of their industrial past.

Although the old flour mill soon traded hands from private to public ownership, nothing was done with it until 2016, following the successful lobbying efforts once again of citizens, and a suggestion put forward by the city’s cultural officers that would ensure a sound management model for its longer term use.

The resultant idea – the modern cultural centre, Harinera – “is all about community” says Diego Garulo Oses, a cultural officer for the city of Zaragoza who is also a coordinator for the city’s work within the project.

Located in a working-class neighbourhood in the southeast of the city, it is bringing culture to an area where the previous cultural offer was very low, leading to a decentralisation of cultural life in the city.

Ana Castrillo, one of the teachers at the centre’s social circus school, says “it’s important to say that Harinera is an open project, where anyone can consume, but also produce and decide about his own culture.”

In this sense Harinera aims to give a voice to the community, especially in having a say on any cultural decision-making, and seeks to ensure that access to culture is a universal right for everyone.

Culture is for everyone

One of the centre’s raison d’être is to ensure groups at risk of social exclusion, such as the elderly and refugees, have the opportunity to access culture – including by offering some activities free of admission and otherwise keeping prices low. As a community focused outfit, any person or collective is encouraged to submit project ideas, request space in the building or ask for financial help to develop a project.

According to Garulo Oses, the success of the centre reflects “how people with or without a previous relationship with culture are joining the collective, learning about cultural management and becoming empowered. And about how a public institution, a council, can find the way to make participation come true.”

In fact, Harinera reflects something broader in terms of how cultural policy is increasingly being enacted – as a much more participatory process – which is one of the reasons the project recently picked up the top prize for ‘participation’ at the EUROCITIES Awards 2019.

Its first-of-its-kind management model is based on shared governance between the city council, the neighbourhood association and other cultural players, which altogether total around 50 people who form the centre’s Assembly.

The centre currently offers 11 permanent spaces for projects, and following further renovation of the building, three new event spaces are expected to open in 2020.

The places around me

With over 200 activities each year that are enjoyed by over 20,000 people from all over the city, the centre has wide impact.

Initially only a pilot initiative, it is already seen as a viable model that has been adopted by two other cities in Spain, with others outside of Spain also showing interest. It was also recently ranked as the 51st most valued cultural institution in Spain.

However, for those running the project the most valuable feedback is knowing that each person’s experience is as positive as possible and that they are fully able to enjoy their right to culture – which is why the Assembly created an anonymous ‘emotional survey’, asking the people who take part in Harinera about the quality of their time spent there.

And, thanks to this, we know:

  • 100% of the people who participated in the survey said they had a good time and they think it was worth going to.
  • 97% learnt something new and also laughed!
  • 93% admitted that going to Harinera made their day better.

Turns out…the places around us really can make a difference!

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer