ArtLab 2014: Round Table on Community Engagement

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As Lecce, Italy competes to be Capital of Culture 2019, CITIES presents in Lecce at ArtLab 2014, together with Pakhuis de Zwijger’s Egbert Fransen, to share and advise a new vision of contemporary ‘cultural management’.

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Lecce, Italy
Lecce is in the pipeline. Known as the “Florence of the south”, Lecce is competing with five other Italian cities to become the Capital of Culture in 2019. The first week of October 2014, the winner will be announced. Experiencing the city’s cultural ferment just days before the decision, which will be made by the European Commission, was engrossing and fascinating. But the real fascination sprouted from Lecce’s specific urban infrastructures and social life. In fact, Lecce is composed of two adjacent, but completely separated urban areas. The historical center is a barbecue of roman and baroque architectures built before, during and after the Roman Empire, with the typical light stone called “Pietra Leccese”, while the urban agglomeration around the ancient walls is punctuated by heavy and elegant fascist architecture standing along the radial street system among messy, spontaneous, unplanned and poorly maintained streets, populated by migrants, elderly, students and stay-at-home moms: the charm of southern Italian cities is there at the eye’s disposal.

We had the blessing to receive an “open-air” lesson by Juri Battaglini, the urban planner in charge of repurposing the centrally segregated Leuca neighborhood. Leuca is a poor residential neighborhood, with almost no activity at the ground level; here the priorities are traffic management, greenery and arrangement of cats and dogs roaring free. Juri and colleagues from “Laboratorio Urbano Aperto” (LUA) are active in the neighborhood, working with the community and associations since 2009. Their commitment has been compensated by European Union funds, which helped the community implement several projects, activities, communal spaces and programmes. Moreover, Juri is working within the local community to create a new neighborhood center in an old Gas Station, right after the southern door to the “walled old city”. Skilled migrants are invited to use the space as a workshop to repair old computers and sell them back to the community at affordable prices. Also, an improvised, multi-cultural music group will have the possibility to rehearse in the center. The most visible community project by LUA is a pedestrian bridge that helped increase safety of travel to school for children, its primary users. Other projects are more artistic, requiring programming, and in general, operationalization after the “opening” phase. One issue in the Leuca Neighborhood seems to be that an educated citizenship is not dominant, leading to difficulty in maintaining the developmental momentum necessary for claiming the crown for Capital of culture 2019.

Thanks to the generous support of the Dutch Consulate, CITIES organized a round table at ArtLab 2014, together with Egbert Fransen from the Amsterdam Cultural Center Pakhuis de Zwijger. Our contribution to ArtLab was based on two parts. Initially, we presented CITIES’ working method, showing how to apply the notion of a “food cycle” in urban related urban development processes. Bridging food focused development with the main findings of CITIES’ We Own The City project, we discussed the process of involving the community with Italian professionals, highlighting differences and similarities among contexts. Afterwards, Egbert explained, by using the example of the Pakhuis de Zwijger, how to use network development actions to support and engage with a local community, becoming a platform between top-down and bottom-up actors.

Over all, the notion of “cultural management” in the Italian professional understanding appears closely connected with the notion of “exploitation of historical cultural artifacts”, which usually work as an attractive force for tourists. Together with Egbert, we are steering the conversation towards a more contemporary understanding of “culture”, which is rooted in the territorial values and human capacities of an area (being rural or urban). Mapping and recognizing local values that belong to a more recent time presents a stepping-stone in territorial emancipation. Overarching conclusions present an advisable trajectory for Lecce’s territorial redevelopment, centralizing on practically applying notions of re-industrialization and sustainability, while approaching production thinking in every step of the process and generating innovation through new technologies.

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