Systemic Neighborhood Change by a Network of Creative Community Coaches


Art and design interventions in public spaces have the potential to bring positive effects to neighborhoods. It's increasingly popular for local governments and socio-cultural organizations to invite artists, designers, architects or hybrid mixes of the former, to bring in their vision and expertise. Streets and urban wastelands are transformed into new creative spaces with new social, playful, functional and aesthetic qualities (*1). When these projects come to life in a participatory way, such as works that use methods like co-design or co-creation, they even have the potential to transfer new visions, skills and knowledge from the production team to the involved inhabitants. These joint efforts often have a positive impact on the social environment, as they bring people together around a shared goal.

Some of these projects proved to be so successful, that it can be envisioned for governments to install such a way of working as a permanent praxis. Budgetary restraints, however, are a limiting factor. But instead of seeing these times of crisis as a reason to procrastinate on urban improvement, we can see it as an opportunity for new ways of thinking and problem solving. It's up to governments to re-invent themselves and take up new roles and responsibilities. Citizens should be activated to take up a part of the responsibility and engage in the spaces they inhabit. Already today, we can find beautiful examples of bottom-up, self-organized and maintained urban improvement (*2).

Many governments don't have a clear strategy on how to respond to these bottom-up endeavors, nor stimulate them. It's not uncommon for power struggles to emerge when inhabitants request permission for their plans. Differences in culture, language, background and agenda can get into the way of working towards a common goal. Many considerations of governments are well motivated, such as the follow up and maintenance of the proposed projects, the quality of execution and safety concerns, to name a few. Most projects need some improvement before they can be placed in a public space environment. Therefore we propose a new type of hypothetical function within local governments. A team of 'Creative Community Coaches' takes up a supportive and educative role to help inhabitants to realize their project with an appropriate level of quality. Moreover, they are actively on the lookout for opportunities for creative improvement and coach the community towards shared goals.

Creative Community Coaches (CCC) are persons with social, creative and educative skills. Armed with knowledge and expertise on tools and methods to support community self-organization, collaborative design and DIY building, they coach inhabitants to self-improve their neighborhoods in a creative way. Since they are embedded in the government, they easily consult with teams of specialists and policy-makers on legal and technical issues. To allow the development of bottom-up initiatives outside the government's main policy, they ideally operate semi-independently.

We envision CCC's as a network of practitioners, who document and share solutions for recurring urban problems: a community of practice as well as an open learning environment for inhabitants, volunteers, interns and unemployed workers. The primary focus of CCC's is not to produce, but to educate: to transfer knowledge necessary for the community to replicate and adapt the works and tackle urban issues increasingly independently. Since CCC's settle in a community for a longer period of time, they understand the issues at hand on a deep level and create strong alliances with other local organizations. This ensures follow up, maintenance, and adaption to new situations. CCC's grow a 'Creative Community Network' (CCN). Globally, best-practices, blueprints of interventions as well as and methodology are shared. Locally, physical materials and tools are shared and recycled. Such a network is cost-efficient, and allows a pragmatic approach when choosing or designing a project.

The concept of CCC aims to foster bottom-up but coached and supported self-organization of urban improvement projects. The coaches act as a supportive 'interface' between the inhabitants and the government. The idea is inspired by practices of participatory art and design projects, while taking into account the possible limitation these projects might have. It attempts to solve urban issues in a systemic way, but recognizes that solutions to problems often need local adaptions. As a concept, it’s an opportunity for future research and experiment in a real world context.

*1: For examples, see for instance: Collectif etc, Cascoland, Todo por la praxis, Assemble
*2: For examples, see for instance: El Campo de Cebada, PUM

This article will be published in Dédalo Magazine in October 2013.
It’s based on my research in the arts fields as well as conversations I had at the workshop “Dédalo RE-ACT Urban Festival” with students, artists, designers and architects.