by Mateja Mihinjac
A couple of weeks ago I wrote on self-governing urban open spaces as venues that support creativity, freedom of expression and informal social programming. The two examples from that blog teach us about the importance of government/non-government/civic society partnerships in order to preserve such venues and integrate them into the urban fabric.
Yet not all informal spaces have such fortune.
ROG AUTONOMOUS FACTORY
In 2006 a group of students illegally occupied the Rog factory complex, once a home of a popular Slovenian bicycle factory. The building, owned by the City Council and protected as a monument of national heritage, had been vacant for several years, which led to degradation of the area. In their collective statement about opening Rog to the public in 2006 the occupiers issued the following statement:
"Until the City of Ljubljana finds a solution for the 7000 square meters of unused space in Rog, that very space can – instead of staying merely forsaken and unexploited – host ateliers, music, video or graphic studios, theatre and dance halls, meeting rooms for different associations, playgrounds, social activities etc. We want to open a public space for entirely non-profitable and independent activities, and through this initiative contribute to the quality of art, culture, social health, thought and life in Ljubljana."
After the occupation, the complex operated as an alternative cultural centre and a self-managed social centre for 15 years. It hosted music performances, held a skate park and a football pitch, a medical clinic for asylum seekers, and housed artist ateliers. Despite the negative reputation associated with squatting and occasional undesirable conduct, the centre became an important place for celebrating diversity, inclusivity, and creativity in Ljubljana.
There were several attempts to evict the centre and in January 2021 the City Council delivered its promises, a move that Rog occupants termed “social cleansing of the city”. During the eviction, the authorities had to forcefully remove some of the occupants who fought to protect the centre from its fate. Shortly following the eviction the city started demolishing the site with a promise to rebuild it into a new modern cultural centre that will house 500 creative workers. The former occupants of the centre remain unconvinced of this trade-off and believe that the city has lost an important informal social place.
ALTERNATIVE DEVELOPMENT MODEL
The Rog Autonomous Factory was not intended to be a permanent space. It aimed to fill the cultural void and prevent the degradation of a vacant heritage space. In other cities, authors suggest that the temporary use of space can function as a catalyst for long-term sustainable development. However, for this to be realised, there needs to be a consensus between the users of the space and the municipality.
In their article on regenerating urban spaces, Cotic and Lah proposed an alternative model where informal and formal stakeholders find a consensus about the functioning of space. This alternative model envisions the co-governance of groups representing all the various interests in public spaces.
Could the municipality have approached the issue of the Rog Autonomous Factory more effectively?
A LOST OPPORTUNITY
The municipality showed little interest in discussing the matter with the occupants or making an effort to come to a consensus about the use of the space.
In our SafeGrowth work, we put special emphasis on partnerships and collaboration between formal and informal organisations. For an effective neighbourhood liveability strategy, local governments play a crucial role at the table. But they must come to the table.
In SafeGrowth we employ the search conference method to do this, a process we described in places such as New Orleans. The first application of the search conference in this type of work appears in the book, Crime Problems - Community Solutions, describing a 1988 search conference in Canada.
Such collaborative methods not only benefit the local community, but also provide a platform for building mutual trust, discussing issues, and finding workable solutions. They also lead to better liveability, wellbeing and life satisfaction outcomes for the residents.
The Rog centre is a lost opportunity for the municipality. The municipality might have adopted an alternative development model of urban planning in which everyone involved could identify the best way to preserve the social and cultural heritage of the centre.
Perhaps we can look forward to an alternative future where both sides could win?