Story 6: Physical and digital

 

 

DreamHamar and me:
a professional and ethnographic experience

by andrés walliser

Last November I was asked to write a brief article for Hamar Arbeiderblad about my experience so far in this challenging and fascinating project. I was about to go to Hamar to conduct some workshops on the social dimension of Stortorget´s renewal. Now, a few weeks after, it is time to put together the professional and personal experience that I have had during the whole process. This experience was threefold for me: an online workshop based on network design methods developed by Ecosistema Urbano; the actual on-site workshops with stakeholders in Hamar; and finally, my experience as a social scientist and a curious person about the city of Hamar and some of the people who participated in the project as practitioners, experts or citizens who were willing to think – rather, to dream – about a new place in Stortorget.

I started learning about the process during a rather innovative experience – a Dreamhamar online workshop titled “Public Space and People”, which incorporated a methodology developed by Ecosistema Urbano called Urban Social Design. I must say I am still sceptical about a certain trend in architecture and planning schools in which projects that are allocated to students “happen” in remote places – the more “exotic” the better. But this was a different case. This was a workshop to contribute with ideas and proposals to a real project that was taking place in real time in a city in Norway. There was substantial preparation for the workshop in terms of information, graphic information and data, but still the challenge was big. People from different countries and backgrounds worked together in a network for a month. Participants were from Venezuela, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Serbia, Poland and Norway. Initially it might seem that the outcomes of such an interaction could not be accurate, or that there was a substantial risk of providing irrelevant or unrealistic inputs.

Often, when you are working on space you need to feel it from ground level, see who uses it, how they use it, and get a sense of the feelings that the space suggests to the planner. I believe in this approach, but I also have to convey that the quality of the material provided and the intelligent discussions that we had in the online workshop lead to such deep insights into Stortorget square that I don´t think even a standard on-the-site planning process could have achieved. The added value of the process was twofold: firstly, the process of network design know-how achieved by the participants and the actual proposals were of extremely high quality and focused on different approaches to the problem: providing a regional or supra-local analysis of the square, participation, and the actual uses and program for the square, among other issues. Secondly, we had the chance and the privilege of supporting our network design process with the inputs of some local stakeholders.

Geir Cock and Mocci Ryan have been very involved in the project and have collaborated with us more than enthusiastically. Geir is an architect that works for the city of Hamar and has a good knowledge of the planning and governance variables that were relevant for our virtual workshop. Mocci is a well-known vocalist and community leader who is committed to her city and has a substantive footprint in it because of her children´s multicultural festival. She was of great help for understanding the people of Hamar, and through this, the role that the square has been playing for several generations of residents. With their comments, which often responded to questions or debates that arose during our virtual seminars, the final proposals were outstandingly in tune to what the stakeholders, especially the citizens, came up with in the on-site workshops a couple of weeks later.

We had a debate at Ecosistema Urbano around whether the participants in the on-line workshop would be stakeholders in the Dreamhamar project too. From a very broad perspective, they certainly might be, as actors interested in the outcomes of the project and its process, but if we want to be precise I would rather prefer to consider them, and myself as the instructor, as experts or technical advisors. I think from this position the contribution to the project is more tangible and real.

“Our stories differ, but they share a strong emotional dimension, an emotional presence”

a Hamar citizen to Andrés during one of the Dreamhamar workshops

The second stage of my experience took me to Hamar itself. I had a lot of inputs on the city and the square, but as I mentioned above, the actual physical experience of it put me in my place. I had a somewhat contradictory feeling: on the one side everything was different from what I had imagined. The dimensions, the light, the perspective with its steeped angle dominating the bazaar building with its anachronical charm, and the lake, grey and dark, as a material reflection of the leaden clouds in the sky. Still, all of the proposals from the virtual seminar participants made sense: from those who targeted a broad scope, placing the square in a regional logic and those who were tempted to design ice furniture for the winter.

In Hamar I had to conduct a workshop and a lecture on the social dimension of the project. Mocci Ryen was my counterpart and would address another workshop as a local expert. I had been working on it, intimidated by my lack of knowledge of the space and the people. Mocci and I prepared the Social Dimension Week together. Skype proved to be an amazing tool for a social scientist: I could have a very talented local stakeholder, who became a colleague after a few minutes of exchange, explaining things to me about the city and its people. After a few sessions of on-line work together we had decided on the format and contents of each of the workshops, based on the idea of how important Stortorget was for the people and how identity and personal stories played a role in defining the image and meanings of the square as a place for people living in Hamar or in the territory around it. To everyone´s surprise, all the sessions were full of people. The sample of stakeholders was of the kind that every sociologist dreams of: a wide variety of people representing most sectors of society by age and gender, perhaps a bit underrepresented in terms of social classes. The use of English as a working language might explain it. We had women with ages ranging between 20 and 80. Men were slightly underrepresented in the 35-40´s cohort. There were also some participants coming from other countries, both from the EU and elsewhere.

The on-site workshop, also titled “Public Space and People”, sought to elaborate a discourse among the participants on their relationship with the square in the past, in the present and in the future. Participants were divided into five – as much as possible -homogeneous working groups: young women, young men and women, middle-aged women (we ended up with a range from mid-twenties to seventies) and middle-aged to senior men. The idea was to allow the participants to elaborate – within their groups – their own narrative of their experiences in the square as a place: how had it changed and how it stayed the same, and of course, how they would dream of using the square in the near future.

The outcomes were very valuable for our work, especially through the use of maps to visualize and indicate different references. The session took place over three hours and ended with a feedback plenary in which the spokespeople from each of the different groups described the group work and offered some proposals that were to be discussed in a collective debate. The atmosphere was very positive and even enthusiastic among some participants. Others also gave us a lesson in civic culture, declaring their scepticism but also their willingness to listen and be heard. As one of the participants put it:

“Our stories differ, but they share a strong emotional dimension, an emotional presence. We also realized that emotions grow through history, and where the personal/private stories connect, grow into and become part of the collective history”.

We felt a strong desire to make both history and stories present for more people – and available for all. We felt that such a presence could be captured and given growth through collection and representation of stories. The second session was a lecture, but somehow it became more of a mini-workshop, with a very enriching debate at the end in which participants did not seem to want to stop despite the fact that it was 9 o´clock at night.

My personal and professional experience as a social scientist can be summarized from what I have already mentioned and a few more impressions based on the traits of civic and political culture among the people of Hamar. These are quick notions taken from a brief but intense experience, and from a few conversations and interviews with different stakeholders. I could say that I was using Nigel Barley´s “fieldwork gear” concept. I will share some of my impressions about the people in Hamar and my perception of the participative process at Stortorget.

Doing a workshop about things that are important for participants is always a good chance of seeing a small sample of a wider social group in action. Often, general cultural and social patterns are depicted. Some of them have to do with the way they behave in public, the way they present and argue and how conflict and consensus are managed.

The workshops were quite intense in terms of group work. Participants were willing to participate, even if they disagreed with some aspects of the project. Participants were very assertive in their opinions, but also quite open to listening to other positions and trying to understand them. Respect and tolerance were probably the dominant characteristics in the sessions. It also has to be mentioned that some participants showed up thinking that the workshops were going to be public hearings and they were ready to read their own texts. After finding out that it was a participative workshop, they decided not to stay.

Conclusions

These dynamics show some of the features about participation that we have discussed above. For participation to happen you need will; you need people and institutions wanting to participate. Sometimes there is just one of those parts. If the initiative comes from the institutions we are talking about a top-down process. If the process is the result of a claim from the civil society – i.e. grassroots, neighbourhood organizations, minorities, etc – then it is a bottom-up process.

Dreamhamar is a top-down process. In these cases the process can be opened up to include other stakeholders or not, or it might launch just because “it has to”. In other words, participation shows up in most local authorities´ agendas but it is not always followed up with real commitment to having non-institutional stakeholders influencing policymaking. Sometimes it is feared, and the top-down processes become some trivial exercise of making people think that they can really have an influence. Other times, non-institutional stakeholders are not really interested and do not take part. This has to do with the way the participative process is visualized: both by the authorities and by civil society.

From my own experience, Dreamhamar is a very ambitious and complex participative process. Participation, through network design, is the tool to develop an urban intervention which would be very important for the city in the next few years in two ways: how people living in Hamar regard and use their city´s most important public space and how others living in the surroundings, as well as visitors and tourists, will perceive it. My impressions are probably biased by another of the features that I have mentioned before: legitimacy, or to put it in other words: who takes part. The “Public Space and People” workshops took place after weeks of work by Ecosistema Urbano in Hamar. The stakeholders had been contacted, and people´s attention had been aroused with some simple but highly visible interventions in the square like painting the parking lot in bright colours, “planting” an old car with local plants or creating a kind of playground with tree stumps.

The previous work of Belinda Tato and the members of Ecosistema Urbano, both in Madrid and in Hamar, and the strong commitment of the City of Hamar, simply opened doors and minds to the project. The participants were quite enthusiastic and constructive and my feeling is that they took with them from the seminar a lot of acquired knowledge both from the Ecosistema Urbano team, and from, most importantly, the other participants. The people taking part in the seminars wanted to be there and to contribute to the project, and came from the local institutions, the university and the citizenry. Ecosistema Urbano´s work has been very appealing to a lot of stakeholders: innovation, participation, new technologies and a strong and easy contact with planners has been regarded as a real and promising opportunity to take part and influence what the new Stortorget will look like and what it will mean for the city. Still, the strong relation of Norwegians with public institutions required stronger communication from the City of Hamar with its citizens, perhaps through more standard or classic means. There seemed to be a split between those citizens that “bought” the project and were willing to take part and make their ideas heard, and others that heard some bells about a big budget that was being spent on painting a parking lot, obstructing the city and its visitors from a convenient parking facility.

For me, it was a kind of luxury to have the chance to develop a workshop with the wide sample that I mentioned before in terms of age and gender, but also with the social and technical composition that I found: politicians, house wives, architects, landscapers, communication students, artists, teachers, retired citizens, art historians, businesspeople, managers, etc. They all consider themselves as equals and peers, or at least that was the image they portrayed in the sessions. Members of the council in opposition with the party in office enthusiastically assisted me with any question or issue, helping me to fine-tune the contents of the workshop, calibrating people´s needs with their attitudes and their identity traits. Seeing all these people working together, empathizing about their experiences and expectations, gave me a good hint of how the process could end. Hopefully Stortorget will be transformed into a new public space that people can appropriate and turn into their own place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *