The Social Life of Yuzhnoe Medvedkovo
Yuzhnoe Medvedkovo residents, holding signs which read: I could be your grandfather / sister / dog.
We conducted preliminary research by cycling, wandering the area, and talking to people. As the first workshop in the series, it was testing ground for our research process and intervention methodology - a combination of mapping, collecting informal surveys and mailbox letters. As one of the more distant and overlooked districts in Moscow, its likely that even as a Muscovite you have never been here. So, let's begin with a brief introduction.
Yuzhnoe (or South) Medvedkovo is located in the North of Moscow. It has 83,000 residents (according to an outdated statistic), and is surrounded by dense forest and parks that run along the river Yauza.
There are no theaters or museums in the district itself (although there are several close by), but there is plenty of green space. Moscow's first and largest indoor skate-park used to be located here, but has unfortunately been closed down.
Not unlike many of Moscow's outlying districts, there are nearby metro stations (including Babushkinskaya, known for its residential public art project), but within the district people move around by tram, bus and car.
We zeroed in on the park, one of the most popular sites amongst people in the district, as the site to install one of our mailboxes. Here we found people barbequing, sunbathing, picnicking, drinking beers, hanging out in the playgrounds or even alone among the trees.
Cycling around inside the park, we came upon an amphitheater, part of an old music school, as the perfect spot for a community event or discussion.
It quickly became clear that while it was a lovely and well maintained space (likely for recently having come under criticism from the government for poor yard maintenance and cleanliness) there were divides within the community.
People told us that they had no where to go and hangout or gather collectively as a community. So we installed the second mailbox opposite the street from a cinema theater which had been closed for renovations for the last ten years.
There seemed to be a lot of tension within the community: locals vs. immigrants, young people vs. older people, alcoholics or motorcyclists vs. everyone else. Different groups seemed distanced from the other with few spaces or events to bring them together. We put our observations into a research brief which we shared online.
One of the most interesting findings was a dirty, eutrophicized pond we found in the otherwise well maintained park. After tracing a map of the shape of the district in fabric, we found that this fell along the boundary of the district and was a gray area of control or ownership, overlooked and neglected by residents and the authorities.
But overall, there seemed to be a communication and social gap in the community - where people had and used some wonderful public spaces, but needed some intervention to participate more not only with their surroundings but also to interact with one another.
Having identified communication and a lack of social interaction as key issues, we wondered - how could public spaces be used to create a sense of community, connectivity and give people a space where they could collect, mix and gather without being separated from one another. How could more activities be supported in different spaces in the district? Our insights were supported by letters we received in our mailboxes.
We received some serious mail from an activist resident . A requests for a McDonalds, or an affordable social space.
The letters were a good reminder to target the realities not only of summer in the park / district, but also of winter - facilities for skiing, better lighting, cinemas, would all help foster a sense of social activity and community.
The Mobile City took it from there. Michiel de Lange and Marc Tuters worked with participants to conduct deeper ethnographic research, categorize their findings and prioritize observed issues. Some insights from Marc:
"Michiel had this concept of "ownership" that he'd developed and wanted to try out in this workshop that required enrolling the active participation of the residents of at the site, South Medvedkovo. After visiting and analyzing the site, we had a couple days left to develop the prototypes."
Workshop participants came up with a series of interventions which they tested throughout the week and ultimately presented during a community event in the amphitheater. Read more about the process on the cooperative urbanism blog.
"One of the more fully realized designs was a public signage system for which we used used cheap, but sturdy materials to create a kind of programmable analog interface for various activities, sports, barbecuing, chilling on a bench."
"There were also a couple of system designs represented in mock-up, such as for example an outdoor furniture system, and perhaps the most reasonable of all an outdoor film-screening programmed by local residents and taking place in a semi-abandoned bandstand/amphitheater, which was already amongst the most thriving public spaces in the area."
"At the termination of the workshop, all of these projects and several more were presented to an audience of local residents on stage in the amphitheater."
"A representative of the local Uprava informed us of a special budget to fund such projects, and implied that these prototypes would likely receive funding were it pursued. We left all the material in the capable hands of the people at Strelka, so, hopefully something will come of it. For me it was simply a pleasure to work with some young designers to help facilitate some interesting site-specific prototypes in a very short period of time."
Thinking about the idea of ownership raised question of the right to public space in the neighborhood and the challenges of creating activity based, mixed used public spaces.
A basic and obvious challenge to build trust and longer lasting relationships in the community. What we had observed and understood as improvements for the community (and specifically the park).
Designing for ownership therefore works to create a feeling of connectivity and ownership among people in the neighborhood to want to continue some of the initiatives. In the same way improvement needs to be democratized, ownership and communication needs to be community based.
One of the most successful aspects of the workshop was the manner in which ideas were designed and shared with the community - allowing them to take it forward if they felt it was relevant. And the strong problem solving and ethnographic research approach. Not just putting infrastructure and not assuming we knew or fully understood their situation.
Also great was the interactivity and DIY promoted for instance through the signage system, for people to indicate their different activities.
The experience of working with authorities was also interesting. We were reminded through this workshop that sometimes its more complicated to ask for permission and work with the government, and that often the best way is to just go ahead and do things yourself. Unsanctioned activities is something we at Partizaning are very familiar with, but this was a good re-affirmation.
Engaging communities to be active in their districts can either be based on something highly interactive, enough to draw people out of their need for privacy; or it needs to be based on trust built over a longer period of time. The link and disconnects between participation and interaction is more clear, and through this workshop and the final event the importance of interactivity in public space was really highlighted.
These workshops were an experiment, but the ideas, interaction and participation that emerged from this first workshop gave us confidence of what we were trying to do. Perhaps the greatest affirmation of what we did came through not in the form of visible, outdoor community involvement, but in the form of expression. Communication was established using the public mailbox system as a basis for research and participation, and some of the requests and insights provided an excellent basis to at least begin to understand the district.Wanna know more?
Visit the COOP Blog.
All photographs courtesy of The Mobile City and workshop participants.