by Jerry ElengicalMar 31, 2023
Are public spaces a mirror into the soul of the city?
From the organic formation of a node into a public space aiding to its functionality and then gradually transforming into an identity for a city, we are moving to a pattern where we design an urban public space to be the landmark of the city and then insert a new function into it. While socio-economic changes in society mostly contributed to this change, the concepts of globalisation made it more prominent. In the concepts of Aldo Rossi and Kevin Lynch, public spaces were more than just an urban artefact. Of many significant characteristics, two major factors that made public spaces important to a city's existence were adaptive nature and community participation, the two things that seem to be lacking in most of the planned urban public spaces of today's cities. The adaptive nature of public spaces enabled them to grow over time with the changing needs, and community participation ensured people’s responsibility toward the space with a sense of shared ownership. However, when we look at planned urban development, guided by global needs, public spaces are designed for a predetermined function, a selected user group, and people become consumers of the space rather than stakeholders. The discourses of these changes have been more relevant than ever in the current times in response to the growing urban developments across the globe. Nevertheless, in the city of Riga in Latvia, the local community came together and converted a brownfield site into a green public space. One of the five finalists for the 2022 edition of the European Prize for Urban Public Space, a biennial initiative of the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB), the Urban community garden Sporta Pils Dārzi, translated as the 'Garden of Sporta Pils', is an example of how community participation can revive an abandoned plot into an open green area.
Since 2008, when the plans for the construction of a residential block fell through due to the financial crisis, the site owned by a private company remained unused and abandoned. Almost 13 years later, in light of the pandemic, the site was envisioned to take up a new function. Founder and Project Director of Sporta Pils Dārzi, Renāte Lagzdiņa, came across the lack of spacious open areas in the urban neighbourhood during the lockdown and initiated the idea of a community garden in the vacant plot of Sporta Pils. Developing that thought, in the fall of 2020, the nearby residents and local community came together to clean up the site. Encouraging the citizens of Riga to take an active part in the city's development and improvement, the site was then developed into an urban garden. In the brownfield, where the complex of Sporta Pils once stood, is a recreation public space with allotted areas for gathering and gardening. Consisting of a system of seedling distributions and interstitial spaces that will be occupied during events and encounters, the project reflects a new system of urban space. One that integrates productive, cultural and social logic, and incorporates emerging natural elements as part of the community design.
With 150 garden spaces located at the street level, the demand for plots in the Gardens of Sporta Pils now exceeds the needs of the public. The mobile gardening boxes are of different sizes and heights so that they are easily accessible for everyone including people with disabilities, children and seniors. In the central part of the site are wildflower meadows and recreational zones or picnics, events and community activities. Along with the garden and gathering spaces, the public space design also aids in the exchange of culture and art. Darja Meļņikova's artwork Palette Kiosks and an installation by Amanda Ziemele adorn the green backdrop of Sporta Pils Dārzi. In the spring of 2021, the territory was opened to the public, both to our first gardeners as well as guests. Along with voicing the need for public spaces in urban areas, the project also brings forward the potential of community intervention in reviving abandoned plots. Within the landscape design by Ilze Rukšāne, one witnessed the coming together of community gardens and urban public spaces. "The main focus and point of reference when working on the project has always been the human, which is one of the most important elements of any landscape. Gardens are made by and for the human to provide a space, where anyone feels loved and cared for," shares Rukšāne.
Talking about the project, Lagzdiņa shares, "The success of the project completely depends on the level of involvement we receive from the community members. To be together and develop something with strangers doesn't always come naturally, especially to Latvians, who generally consider themselves grumpy introverts. Thus, it was important to demonstrate that we have the power and the right to participate in the planning of our city, and it works best if we do it together. The values and principles of the project that we have been following from the first day and that have been guiding us through the process are - openness, self-initiative and collaboration, sustainability, aesthetic environment, and contemporary approach to the city planning."
In the dense development of urban areas that starve for a piece of green space, the Garden of Sporta Pils is an example of what can come out of a vacant plot. From a thought to an initiative to a proposal, and finally an active space that lives and breathes from community-driven activities, the project extends an experimental yet efficient way of community-participatory urban developments. In a world where every city moves toward urban developments and proposals that glorify contemporary urban designs and global interventions, projects like these extend to a different conversation. While urban public spaces and community gardens aren’t comparable because of their scale, stakeholders and life span, certain parameters can be adapted in both to establish an active public space for growing cities.