Our project is an attempt to rethink the space of residential neighbourhood by the team of Minsk Urban Platform together with local residents via participative design. The project has been divided into three main parts: study, design and partial implementation.

Our project is an attempt to rethink the space of residential neighbourhood by the team of Minsk Urban Platform together with local residents via participative design. The project has been divided into three main parts: study, design and partial implementation.

The key challenges and conflicts revealed by the study are:

  • courtyard space is perceived by local residents as “dull and grey”;
  • greenery is neglected;
  • there is no children playground suited for any age;
  • there is no common public space for teenagers and elderly people;
  • unauthorised parking in the green zone increases risk in the courtyard space;
  • teenagers and elderly people are in conflict due to lack of sitting places;
  • dog-owners and other residents are in conflict;
  • car-owners and pedestrians are involved in complex conflict of interests: pedestrians empathise with car-owners and take up inconvenience caused by cars because they cannot imagine possible solutions for parking problem. Many residents are neighbours of car-owners and want to save their good relations. However, car-owners in their turn do not empathise with pedestrians and are not eager to look for alternative solutions for parking of their cars since they are quite happy with ad-hoc parking in the green zone right next to their entrance;
  • – there are no facilities for sports, biking, skating and jogging for young people.

Project

These findings have underlined the draft design for the courtyard space. Priorities and needs of all residents should have been taken into account. Three key principles were used in the design:

  • inclusive space;
  • pedestrian / car-free zone;
  • step-wise implementation.

Inclusive space

Each and every resident can find a room for their activities in the courtyard. In the city many people share limited space, it is therefore crucial that in the courtyard which is to serve for accessible outdoor recreation any resident could find a place, be it a two-year-old with a scooter, a ten-year-old with a bicycle or an elderly person who wants to sit. That’s why in our design following the findings from our study we created places for the most diverse social groups: playground for children of age 1-4; playground for children of age 4-12; recreation zone (a priori for teenagers), sports & workout zone for children and young people. For male elderly people who are chess & cards amateurs two separate places with tables are provided at each entrance. Benches at the entrances are also put for elderly people following their wish to stay nearby the entrance as articulated during the study.

Pedestrian / car-free zone

Residential neighbourhoods being a living space for the majority of people in the city are not pedestrian-friendly. Pedestrian and car flows are mixed up resulting in increase of traffic accidents risk. Projects aims included inter alia creation of a pedestrian zone, separation of pedestrian and car flows, elimination of unauthorised parking. The availability of entrances on the both sides of the building on 30 Malinina Str. allows creating car-free pedestrian zone by closing one of the driveways. There is no way to close the driveway by the building on 34 Malinina Str., since there is an entrance only on one side; besides, the driveway serves for the kindergarten.

Step-wise implementation

The project envisions car-free pedestrian space. To stop parking their cars in front of the entrance all of a sudden could be quite challenging for residents, since it diverges considerably from their habits. Therefore we decided to reduce gradually a number of available parking spaces in front of the entrances offering instead to keep their cars near the buildings, but not in front of the entrances. To upgrade the courtyard in one stroke could also be challenging in terms of resources. It is more feasible to implement the project in stages.

Realization

Residents were offered several options of partial implementation: children playground, sandbox, logs, tennis table, bench and swings for adults. After discussions it was agreed to install children playground, sandbox, bench and swings for adults. As intended prefabricated structures had been delivered to the courtyard where residents assembled them under supervision of a manufacturer`s engineer. We invited residents to participate on purpose – to ensure ownership of the newly installed pieces and initiate horizontal social control over the courtyard space.

The project had been implemented on the two weekends at the end of September 2017. Local residents actively participated in construction works and final party organised to celebrate its completion. Many residents confessed that they had no idea how many children live in their courtyard.

Challenges

During the implementation we faced different challenges.

One of them is distrust. People in our society given their experience are used to be wary and distrust of everything new. Trust among residents is crucial for fruitful participative design process. At the beginning of the project most of the residents were cautious about it since we had been offering to transform their courtyard inviting them to participate in design process and not asking money for that. The trust in our team and in the project had appeared only after partial implementation. Many projects at first face with distrust from local communities, and building trust inside the community is one of the important outcomes of participative planning.

One more challenge towards the dialog during the participation project is lack of knowledge about the city. Residents are commonly not aware of the fact that the available space in the city is limited while claims to use it are multiple. It results in series of conflicts among people who have different needs and interests regarding the use of urban space. At the same time the participative design process, where moderators facilitate articulation of all existing needs for the use of urban space, triggers and nurtures the ability to listen to each other and reach a compromise. Nurturing this kind of skills is a long-term aim of many such projects. Our team has just embarked on this unbeaten track, so there are still many things to learn with experience.

One more challenge we are facing in our projects is disengaged indifferent attitude of residents towards everything outside their private apartment: “All that is left behind my door is not mine but shared, so anybody but not me should be concerned with it”. Such attitude is deeply rooted into Soviet past where everything belonged to public domain. Current paternalistic state policy in Belarus encourages social dependency. This leads to lack of ownership and responsibility felt by people towards their courtyards. To engage people into transformation of their courtyard space is thus a means to nurture a feeling of responsibility and sense of ownership inside local communities. A person who takes care about their courtyard or small part of it will grow engagement with the place and will stand against vandalism. Good case in point is retired elderly people who spend their time outside the entrances. Being “the eyes on the street” they observe what’s going on and prevent acts of vandalism.

For sure the project had its good moments too. Before the implementation had started it was not clear whether residents would appear to assemble structures or not, but they appeared. There were not only adults but teenagers and elderly people as well. All of them proved themselves to be kind and responsive persons. It is a common perception that our society is dominated by individuals indifferent to their environment. Serabranka neighbourhood is considered particularly deprived in this respect. However our project has shown that there are many more concerned people: if we bring them together, many positive changes could happen in the house, courtyard and street. One more positive example from our project: one and a half month later latch-hooks of the swings wore out. Local residents bought new latch-hooks and repaired the swings. We consider this collective action as one of the key indicators of success of the project.

Participatory projects not only reveal current issues of the society, they also provide reach materials for reflection on how to bring about changes into urban environment through collective efforts of diverse groups of people. Urban culture in Belarus is yet to develop such kind of skills and capacities like building trust among the people engaged in local transformations, awareness of the importance of negotiation and compromise, understanding of personal responsibility and concern for things that are going on outside one’s door. We can find many success stories of participatory transformations and empowered local communities in neighbouring countries. Ahead lies learning from others’ experience, reflecting on our own mistakes and new projects.