Co-urbanism workshops materials
Jekaterina Lavrinec

In this paper, I’m going to discuss some participatory tools, which are instrumental in arranging public discussions and promoting citizens participation in decision-making, which concerns public spaces. These tools were developed and implemented by the Vilnius-based urban games and research laboratory «Laimikis.lt» in the period of 2009-2015, while working on cultural reanimation of the «lost» public spaces in this city. By providing the users of public spaces with the possibility to articulate and express publicly their needs and visions, these tools bring visibility to the heterogeneous group of users of public space. In this paper I will focus on the complex case of Lukiškių square in Vilnius, which has become a mirror of the changes in public discourse in Lithuania in last 25 years.

Abandoned squares and a need for new scenarios of use

One of the types of „deactivated“ (or „lost“) public spaces in Vilnius are the squares, which used to be places of manifestation of the Soviet ideology. After the Soviet monuments were removed 25 years ago and the investments into the leisure infrastructure were reduced or cut, these places dilapidated and were left by their users (the interesting fact is, that among the most active users of the ideological spaces in the Soviets were all kinds of informal social groups, who took part in spreading urban legends and anecdotes concerning the monuments or personalities of the ideological leaders). In addition, the public spaces with non-ideological past have been abandoned as well, after the fountains were turned off, and the flowerbeds, benches and sidewalks were poorly renewed or not renewed at all. As a result, most of these spaces became places for transition, and the lack of comfortable stops for the pedestrians dramatically decreased the walkability in the city. However, some of the abandoned squares preserved a recreational potential and could have been used by citizens.

Lukiškių square (ex-Lenin square) found itself among „deactivated“ post-ideological public spaces despite its green fields and trees, which reduce the noise of the streets and form safe space. The flows of passers-by, the location by the main city axis (Gedimino ave.), an equal choice between sun and shadows during the day till the late evening might have turned this square into popular place for citizens recreation (despite poorly renewed benches, the number of which was reduced). The main thing this space lacked was an alternative scenario of use, which would bring people to the square. To return this space back to the citizens, we sought for a simple solution, which could be implemented and run by citizens themselves without any special organization.

Burbuliatorius: soap bubble event (2009-2015)

In June 2009 we set «Burbuliatorius», a soap bubble event, which brought people of all ages to Lukiškių square (and to public spaces in up to 27 cities and villages worldwide simultaneously), just to make soap bubbles together. Every Monday during summertime we invite everyone to bring bottles of soap bubbles, out-of-door games, acoustic instruments and to arrange picnics. In addition, we spread a free receipt of the huge soap bubbles, which anyone can use. This year Burbuliatorius nr. 57 has taken place on the square already. In the beginning of each season, which starts in late May, thousands of citizens of all ages (the dominating groups are parents with small children and youngsters) gather on the square. During the season the number of participants varies and might reach just 50-200 people per event, while in the end of the season it grows again. The natural duration of the event is about 1.5 hours.

After launching this initiative, we observed the shift in the use of the square; people started using the space freely, using fields for the picnics, performances, book reading. Sitting and lying on the grass was not a typical way of using the fields back in 2009, but after a couple of soap bubble events it became normal. The participants of the event «adopted» the abandoned square. The informal event became a meeting place for citizens of various ages, and seeking to preserve a non-commercial and non-political spirit of this event, we had to register «Burbuliatorius» as a brand. We see «Burbuliatorius» as an alternative to the dominating commercial scenarios of leisure in the cities. We also recognize public spaces as a place of meeting of different social, ethnic and religious groups, presented in cities. Only by creating and developing open scenarios (and avoiding the reduction of the squares’ functions to the representation of ideological mono-ethnic narrative, which recently does take place in Lithuania), these spaces might become a guarantee for the productive dialogue and mutual understanding between these groups in the city.

The initiative spread worldwide, and starting from the very first season, more than 17 cities, including cities in UK, Scandinavia, Germany, and later Spain and Canada, have joined the soap bubble event. The number of participating cities, and more recently, villages, increased in next seasons. Each time we proposed the groups of enthusiasts (the «ambassadors» of the event), who were eager to set the initiative in their city, to choose abandoned public spaces with good recreational potential and which are easy to reach. It allowed us to monitor the redevelopment of public spaces in Lithuanian cities and to typologize “trendy” mistakes, which decrease the usability of the recently renovated squares.

Street blogging sessions and talks (2012-2013)

When it comes to the renovation of public spaces, information boards with the architectural visualisations are one of the typical forms of official communication with citizens, used by the municipalities in Lithuanian cities. Nowadays, this form is supplemented by posting the messages on the official municipalities’ sites. Not taking into the consideration, that in many cases the information on public hearings does not reach citizens in time, these forms of communication are problematic at least in two aspects, which I put in the form of questions: 1) How do citizens read and understand architectural visualisations? 2) Why aren’t the users of public spaces provided with the opportunity to discuss the visions of the public space? And why aren’t the users of public spaces involved into discussing their needs before the conditions for the architectural contests are formulated and announced?

Lukiškių sq. is well-known for a number of architectural contests, which have been announced for the last 25 years. A stand covered with plastic was installed and run by City Development Department (Vilnius municipality) to expose the recent results of architectural competitions. However, most of the citizens are not able to read architectural plans and visualisations, and as our interviews with the passers-by (2012 May-September) demonstrated, most of the citizens, who pass by the stand periodically, were unaware of the recent contests and the results of them. This type of miscommunication between urban developers and users reveals an urgent need in the user-oriented visual language (which is being developed by tactical urbanists around the world, but is not adopted by urban strategists yet). The other problem with the mentioned type of communication is that it reserves the role of passive observers for the active users of space, the needs and ideas of whom could be instrumental while formulating the conditions of the architectural contests.

Seeking to provide citizens with the information point and the platform for discussions, in summer 2012 we have installed one of our mobile installations, Street Blog, just by the municipality stand. Street Blog is a mobile platform, which provides citizens with the basic tools for the discussions in public spaces. It is based on the ironic concept of Web_0, by which we mean a playful re-interpretation of Web 2.0 communication platforms (oriented toward user-generated content) in the form of traditional offline media, such as analogue imitations of blogs, flickr, facebook, youtube, made of wood and cardboard. Steet Blog is not only a place where passers-by can leave messages contributing into the discussions on the proposed topics, it also functions as a meeting point. During the summer seasons the volunteers run this info-point, explaining the results of the recent architectural contests and proposing citizens to share their visions of the square. It was a place where a series of interviews with the users of the square were made and discussions took place in summer 2012 and 2013.

We have found, that there is a group of citizens of various ages, who attend this square periodically without special occasion, just for recreational purposes. This is a typical group of active users of public spaces in Lithuania: parents with children (the residents of the city center), grandparents with grandchildren (not necessarily the residents of the city center), young people from different parts of the city, and middle-aged employees from the offices nearby. Some of these people started attending square after taking part in Burbuliatorius. Our interviews and messages, posted at the Street blog showed, that the main need of this heterogeneous group of the users of space is to adjust a potential of the square for all kind of recreational scenarios, including kids playgrounds, cozy chill zone, fountains and available drinking water, running tracks and other sport equipment. Most of the users of the square stressed the importance of the greenery, especially green fields as a possibility to develop different kind of activities.

There were two more groups, whom we involved into a series of interviews and Street blogging sessions (the criteria of the involvement was a spatial one, we talked to those whom we met at and by the square through the period of Street blogging sessions). One is a group of people, who do not attend this square periodically, but see it as a place for the new ideological monument («the waiters»), and the other is a group of passers-by, who use the square periodically for transit purposes. The latter would like to stay at the square for a longer time, and they note the lack of comfortable benches, a need for flowerbeds and bushes and a fountain as the main components of the attractive square.

According to the «waiters», the main function of the square must be representational, and it should represent the past sufferings of the nation and fight for the freedom. The only historical fact, which opens the square for this narrative is the execution of the leaders of the January Uprising in 1863 at the square, which used to be a market place (to commemorate this fact, an oak-tree cross was installed in one of the parts of the square a decade ago). As a rule, this group of potential users of the square can hardly answer to the question, what citizens are supposed to do on the official representational square with the monument, as there is a certain kind of intentional ignoring the needs of other citizens group. Also, the representatives of this group have difficulties explaining how they are going to use this public space on the daily basis, as the idea of dominating representational function brings them to the thesis that the square will be used on «special occasions» (official celebrations). However, some of the representatives of this group are open to discussion of the possible forms of historical memory and non-traditional forms of monument.

Micro-protest: the tiny voices of the invisible citizens (2013)

The last architecture competition for the square was announced in 2011, alongside with the contest for the Freedom monument for the square, which is supposed to be a dominating landmark according to the conditions of the contest. The planned sculpture was and still is presented in public discourse as a symbol of heroic mono-ethnic national narrative (despite the fact that the January uprising in 1863, which underlies the idea of turning Lukiškių square into «the most important square in Lithuania», has brought together insurgents from Polish, Belarusian and Lithuanian families).

The contest for the monument was announced by the Ministry of Culture, the official representative of which stated publicly, that “citizens are not competent to decide, which monument should be set in public space”, “as a society in Vilnius is not homogenous” [alkas.lt, 2013]. This statement was made alongside with some inappropriate public comments by the head of the Union of Lithuanian Freedom Fighters (who lobby the idea of national monument at the square), J. Burokas, according to whom, the monument is a place where Polish president should be brought to greet (or, rather, «to kneel before») the Lithuanian fighter for Freedom (in Lithuanian: «atvažiuos Lenkijos prezidentas ir nusilenks Lietuvos kariui, kuris bus šitame paminkle atvaizduotas»), as «Poland once took Vilnius region, and we still tolerate that» (Lithuanian: «Lenkija užgrobė Vilniaus kraštą, ir šiuo metu mes nuolaidžiaujame šitam dalykui») [15 min, 2013]. Both architectural and sculptural competitions were arranged systematically avoiding to involve Vilnius citizens into a decision making process concerning the public space in the center of the city.

In the situation of the systematic exclusion of citizens from the public debates it is not enough to articulate the alternative viewpoints publicly, what we did by publishing articles in the local press and taking part in series of interviews on national media channels [delfi.lt, 2013; žinių radijas 2013, LRT Ryto garsai, 2013]. Participatory practices might become a part of local tradition of treating public spaces on different levels only by cultivating various forms of citizens’ participation.

In June 2013 we initiated an open micro-protest action on Lukiškių square, inviting the users of the square to express their position toward the monument publicly, but in the way that reflects and mocks the fact of the invisibility of citizens in public discourse. We used tiny placards with proposals and comments concerning the monument of Freedom. Participants were encouraged to create their own placards and were free to use alternative forms of protest. Participants took part in the event anonymously, as only the start and place for the micro-protest were announced. In just a couple of days, one of the fields of the square turned into an exposition of all kinds of micro-placards and small items illustrating the possible scenarios for the square (e.g. toy bulldozers and micro-swings), and in several weeks the area of the Micro-protest at the square has expanded. «Stop monumenting», «Freedom does not need any monuments, Freedom is a monument», «A monument can be colossal, yet invisible», «Just another ideological monument. In 23 years of Independence you could think of something fresh», «We just want a green field here», «Freedom from the monument of Freedom!» [documentation: laimikis.lt, facebook event: Micro-protest, 15min, Первый балтийский канал].

The Micro-protest has been developed till the end of the summer season. From time to time tiny placards were cleaned away by the cleaning personnel of the square, but overall, they demonstrated understanding. Citizens demonstrated their creativity in developing new placards alongside with the willingness to express theirs position, mass media showed the awareness of the alternative positions of concerning the future of the square, while the officials of Ministry of culture and the Union of freedom fighters of Lithuania did not comment either on their previous statements or the discussions that had taken place in mass media.

Co-urbanism: open square workshop (2015)

By launching a series of Co-urbanism events in Vilnius in 2015, in cooperation with our Belarusian partners, who set a series of Co-urbanism events in Minsk, we sought to develop a model of effective communication and cooperation between citizens groups, city stakeholders, municipality and other governmental units. A networking between various levels of space-making, both strategic and tactical, is an ultimate condition for establishing participatory practices as a part of official public discourse on public spaces.

In Lithuania, where even the notion of “urbanism” is still used mostly as synonymous to “urban planning”, excluding the social issues from the discussion of urban processes, a dialogue between architects and urban planners with tactical urbanists and active citizens is missing. The competencies of interdisciplinary groups, which work with urban communities, are recognized as a sufficient part of space making process neither by urban professionals, nor by urban strategists. Despite the fact that public hearings are a part of legitimization of architectural projects, as a rule, citizens are not encouraged to take part in the development of architectural visions of public spaces. Only a few local groups of architects do use participatory methods occasionally in the framework of programs that promote citizens’ participation.

By launching the “Co-urbanism” initiative in Vilnius, we sought to bring together active citizens, tactical urbanists, architects, sociologists, and representatives of Vilnius municipality alongside with several ministries to initiate a dialogue on the participatory practices. In the framework of “Co-urbanism” initiative, which included public discussions, brainstorm sessions, public lectures, and series of HubCamp presentations, which aimed to map the field of participatory practices and develop a model of effective cooperation between the “space-makers” of various levels, we arranged “Open square workshop” on Lukiškių square. The workshop was arranged in cooperation with the architects Aušra and Viktoras Kormilcevai, Tadas Jonauskis, Ieva Saldauskaitė and Rolandas Palekas, a winner of the last architectural competition. It took place in June during one of the “Burbuliatorius” (soap bubbles) events, for to involve active users of the space into the workshop’s activities. The aim of the workshop was twofold:
• to develop a vision of Lukiškių sq. in cooperation with the active users of the square and the architects.
• to develop a participatory tool, based on the open discussions with the users of the public space, applicable for the professional development of architectural projects.

The users of the square were proposed to visualize their visions of the square, using the model of the square with the architects assisting them. We also encouraged the participants to share and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the current square using the Street Blog, which was arranged in the same space. The workshop became a valuable precedent of cooperation between the architects and the users of space of all age groups. After the workshop, the winning author of the last architectural competition R. Palekas proposed to arrange another workshop with different groups of stakeholders.

To summarize the materials of the workshop, the value of the square is connected by the users with its recreational potential: trees and fields correspond to the need for reachable green spaces in the city center and are seen as essential elements of the square. Some of the users alongside with the participating architects emphasize the importance of the park or garden in this place instead of the square, both for recreational and symbolic-historical reasons. The need for children playgrounds remains urgent. The need for sport equipment, at least for running tracks, is growing in the context of intensive urbanization processes. The need for fountains and available drinking water remains urgent for several years, and already has become a painful topic for Vilnius. Bushes and flowerbeds, together with diversity of sitting places are among usual preferences. The representational function of the square remained on the margins of the models, developed by the users of this space. Some of the participants agree to leave the flag with Vytis (which was installed on the square in 2014 to signify the place of the future Freedom monument), but question the necessity of paving the fields and turning the square into the place for official occasions. As one of the participants pointed, “the best way to represent Freedom are vibrant public spaces and playing children in the center of the city”.

Afterword

There is a shift in official discourse concerning public spaces in Vilnius. In 2009 we dealt with the “forgotten” post-ideological spaces, open to all kinds of scenarios. Now we find that in the official discourse public spaces have turned into arena for political representations (e.g. the number of unofficial public places in Vilnius, where Vytis or NATO flags are erected, is growing), while there is no public debate about the meaning of the spatial gestures of power. The critical discourse on public spaces in Lithuania is still in the process of formation. Creative actions in public spaces, which have already opened “abandoned” spaces for wide audiences, need to be combined with public debates, in which different interests groups should be presented. We do afraid, that current tendency of projecting ideological narrative to the public spaces starts “locking” these spaces from the variety of everyday scenarios of use.

By initiating the activities discussed above we provide our answer to the question of whom the squares and other public spaces belong to. By using the notion of “the users of the square” or “the users of the public space”, we underline the principal diversity of the users of public spaces. That’s why we see the recent tendency of establishing mono-ethnic narrative in public spaces as a disturbing symptom. We hope that the inclusion of the users of space in preparing the architectural competitions for public spaces will become a part of architectural practice here in Lithuania. This task requires further cooperation between active citizens, urban professionals and strategists. It also requires the implementation of non-formal educational programs both for the citizens, to raise their architectural literacy and ability to take part in public debates, and for the professionals of different fields, to raise their awareness of the importance of participatory approaches in urban development.

Sources:
Architektas Rolandas Palekas: „Tarp Lukiškių aikštės paminklo projektų yra vertų įgyvendinti“ // 15 min.lt, 2013 07 13
http://www.15min.lt/naujiena/aktualu/lietuva/architektas-rolandas-palekas-tarp-lukiskiu-aikstes-paminklo-projektu-yra-vertu-igyvendinti-56-344831#ixzz2WJ5v7QqJ (last check: 2015 07 10).
Kultūros ministerija surengs Lukiškių aikštės paminklo projektų aptarimą // Alkas.lt, 2013 06 09
http://alkas.lt/2013/06/10/kulturos-ministerija-surengs-lukiskiu-aikstes-paminklo-projektu-aptarima/ (last check: 2015 07 10).
Lavrinec J., Narkūnas J. Lukišių aikštė: ar bus išgirsti piliečių balsai? // Delfi.lt, 2013 07 19
http://www.delfi.lt/news/ringas/lit/lukiskiu-aikste-ar-bus-isgirsti-pilieciu-balsai.d?id=61955097 (last check: 2015 07 10).
Documentation of the actions:
Co-urbanism 2015: Lukiškių a. dirbtuvės // youtube channel: LaimikisLT, 2015 06 30
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX4sIffQw-Y (last check: 2015 07 10).
Lukiškių aikštė: valstybės iškilmėms ar miestiečių pramogoms? // Žinių radijas, 2013 08 02
http://www.ziniuradijas.lt/epizodas/2013/08/02/lukiskiu-aikste-valstybes-iskilmems-ar-miestieciu-pramogoms/20952
Lukiškių sq.: We loose public spaces / Mes prarandame viešąsias erdves: mikro-protestas // Laimikis.lt, 2013 06 26
http://laimikis.lt/we-loose-public-spaces/ (last check: 2015 07 10)
Micro-protest nr. 1 // Facebook event, start time: 2013 06 16 — end time: 2013 08 31
https://www.facebook.com/events/161792844003686/ (last check: 2015 07 10)
Mikro-protestas Lukiškių aikštėje: aikštę — piliečiams, o ne paminklams! // 15 min.lt, 2013 06 28
http://www.15min.lt/naujiena/laisvalaikis/ivykiai/mikro-protestas-lukiskiu-aiksteje-aikste-pilieciams-o-ne-paminklams-291-349112
(last check: 2015 07 10).
Sprendimas dėl Lukiškių aikštės yra kompromisinis // LRT, Ryto garsai, 2013 07 16
http://www.lrt.lt/naujienos/kalba_vilnius/32/21676/m._pakalnis_sprendimas_del_lukiskiu_aikstes_yra_kompromisinis (last check: 2015 07 10).
Чем украсят площадь Лукишкес // Литовские новости Балтийский канал, 2013 06 17
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=-xdJzNvYT9M&fb_source=message#t=879s (last check: 2015 07 10).