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Jekaterina Lavrinec

Interviewed by Agnė Sadauskaitė

Photographed by Julija Rūkas

Translated by Eimantas Budrys

You’ve been working on placemaking projects for a while now in Lithuania. Could you single out specifics of these projects in Lithuania and abroad?

The principle of placemaking is the same everywhere: it is a friendly formation of the urban environment, with the participation of local people, lending an ear to local needs. In order to create a comfortable and attractive environment for people, simple, everyday-life tools are used, but in a non-standard way. For example, in order to turn an unpleasant alley to a tidy and attractive place, residents themselves can make plentiful landscaping using decorative elements: install plenty of hanging teapots with flowers or vegetables. We had such a case in Brighton County, London, when the residents themselves proposed and implemented this decision. Also, in order to turn the unused municipality’s plot of land into a public space, together with the inhabitants of the city we installed furniture that meets the needs of the locals. With the help of simple tools, relations with the place of the passers are transformed, the behavior of the visitors is influenced. Major changes can be reached with minimal resources. Abroad, placemaking gradually becomes a method, whose effectiveness has already been recognized by various institutions and integrated into programs for the development of neighborhoods, the promotion of communion, and non-formal education. For example, a couple of years ago, in Warsaw, the municipality formed small interdisciplinary groups (most often containing an anthropologist or a sociologist, an architect and a designer) to engage in the rehabilitation of neighborhoods, involving residents in the process of improving yards near living areas. The work of these small groups is intended to find the methods and solutions that the municipality will then propose to residents of other neighborhoods. In Lithuania, placemaking measures are developed and applied by several active groups (non-governmental organizations), but they lack cooperation with municipalities. That is why placemaking in Lithuania still exists in the form of individual local initiatives, although it could become a consistently applied method of rehabilitation of districts.

Why is placemaking important to modern cities? Is the placemaking equally significant to the cities that went through a lot of development stages and how it differs?

Placemaking initiatives seek to bring back urban spaces to the human scale, which is often forgotten by urban developers. Rapidly growing cities become uncomfortable for the human body: it is difficult for us to overcome monotonous distances for car traffic by walking, we lose the comfort of movement conditions and human contact, the quality and intensity of such events are falling. Placemaking responds to these challenges (for example, by installing parklets in place of one or two parking spaces and gradually expanding these places). Often the target of placemaking is the transit space, where conditions for human contact, new emotional experience, and body comfort are created. On the other hand, placemaking initiatives are relevant for residents of blocks of flats and individual houses, as long as there is a need to form a common space and to strengthen social ties. It’s also a great way to test new scenarios for public spaces: for example, after the dismantling of Soviet ideological monuments, squares of Lithuanian cities have long been open for creative experiments of the inhabitants. Therefore, placemaking can be effective in a variety of economic, social and political contexts. Its nucleus is a human relationship with the closest environment and people-to-people relationships. In big cities, placemaking initiatives are solving one more difficult problem – solitude, especially elderly loneliness (in terms of the Lithuanian context). By organizing comfortable places open to everybody, we are creating the opportunity for city residents to come and spend time with other people, establish social contacts and maintain it in the future, and, at the same time, create new relationships of trust and mutual assistance.

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When looking at the city of Vilnius, could you single out which directions or initiatives originating from the locals have contributed most to the development of the city and left the biggest enduring value? What type of value does it have for the cities?

In Vilnius, several directions of placemaking can be singled out: creating centers of attraction in the sleeping districts, forming new community spaces that meet the needs of different age groups. Probably the most stunning case is Beepart in Pilaitė district, which has formed an alternative cultural attraction center. Another direction is the transformation of transit spaces into the public space, where the communal space begins to form. For this, I will choose Dragon meadows in Šnipiškės as an example, where, for several years now, our Laboratory (Laimikis.lt), initiating cultural community activities and installing modular urban furniture in an empty field (state land), managed to form an important public space for the community, which even got its informal name – Dragon meadow. Both of these initiatives are sustainable – they exist for a while now. Open public spaces are primarily needed to strengthen social contact, fostering a common identity (identity of the city, identity of the district, identity of the people living in it). Another direction is the revitalization of squares in the city center through artistic interventions and creative activities. An example may be the project “Burbuliatorius”, which has been gathering together the inhabitants of Lithuanian cities and Lithuanians living abroad to the public space for the last eight years, every second Monday of summer. Such gatherings are a social “boiler”, in which new contacts are booming, new ideas are emerging. Therefore, vibrant public space is a condition for a happy life in the city. Another example is the annual “priARTink” creative intervention week, during which VGTU students of creative industries install gaming objects in public spaces in Vilnius, trying to reveal and expand the potential of these places. But, in fact, the current phase of the life of Vilnius public spaces, when squares, squares and parks are massively renewed without a sufficient time to study the needs of different groups, is saddening. The massive installation of monuments, which now struck Vilnius, demonstrates that understanding of the functions of public spaces is rather narrow. Public spaces are primarily a place of social contact, not a place for the installation of monuments. Therefore, in order to create a viable public space, one has to ask: what do people do here and how different groups of people work here? When creating public spaces, we should firstly consider the activities that are carried out in the area and only after that, we can consider what objects do we want to adorn these places.

Could you single out alternative forms of city communication? What are their benefits?

A good question, which is currently being raised by many cities who can boast of their cultural heritage, but do not know how to make the most out of it. Creative heritage communication provides for active participation of people in the process of cognition. Therefore, various activities, creative workshops, alternative guides, and games are a great format to bring both the inhabitants of the city and the guest of the city to the cognitive and cultivating process. Our Laboratory specializes in urban game development. Working with the historical, wooden Šnipiškės district, we realized that the historic district is rapidly disappearing, so we created and urban game “Urbingo”, which encourages looking at everyday details to discover the uniqueness of the area. We strived to create conditions for residents and visitors to easily archive a rapidly changing area and see the change in the form of a game. Since the „Urbingo“ game, that was developed and patented by our Laboratory is currently being introduced in Liverpool (to popularize the global heritage site), Alba Julia (the Romanian city celebrating the century of unification of the country in 2018) and Minsk, we see that heritage communication topic is currently worth talking and working about. Only by creating attractive forms of cognition in our city, we can create conditions for awareness of our history and more sensitive urban development.

Why is it important to create individual identity for separate districts? How do they shape the common identity of the city?

The significant importance of district identity can be based on many perspectives – cultural, social, and economic. Having a pride in your area, recognizing its unique features and the value of it, is important for the people themselves. After all, we appreciate an emotional connection with the place where we live. When residents know the history of their districts, they recognize their uniqueness, which allows them to deliberately develop urban areas while fostering their unique character. The emergence of alternative cultural traction places allows inhabitants of other districts to expand their leisure time map, as well as broaden the possibilities for social contacts between inhabitants of different districts. This, in its turn, is a positive condition for the activities of the people themselves, for business. For example, in your area you can start a creative workshop or open a more interesting store, cafe, contributing to the uniqueness of the area. A city, where the cultural life is booming not only in the center, but also in other districts, is viable. In order to revitalize the districts, it is necessary to begin to develop a series of activities involving the inhabitants themselves and contributing to the uniqueness of their area. Alternative city guides, tours around the city guided by the locals, cognitive city games are the formats that help to highlight the distinctive features of city districts. It is worthy to include people from different age groups in this process. For example, a couple of months ago, together with narratives.lt and the Justinas Vienožinskis branch in Naujoji Vilnia, as well as Juzef Ignacius Kraševskys Gymnasium pupils, we created alternative city guides for this district. Interviews with local people, notes about the history of the region, the creation of thematic routes reveal new aspects of this historic district, only vaguely familiar to many Vilnius inhabitants. By giving residents and visitors of different age areas the opportunity to purify the peculiarities of their area, they contribute to the unique image of the district.

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Dr. Jekaterina Lavrinec is a city researcher and practitioner of public space rehab, applying participatory art forms as a method of exploring and developing urban spaces. Together with the architect Julius Narkunas in 2007 she founded the Laimikis.lt city games and research platform, which is implementing urban space revitalization initiatives in the Baltic Sea Region and other European cities. Since 2015, she has been co-sponsoring the “Co-urbanism” international forum for urban practitioners and cultural innovators, which brings together practitioners working on placemaking in the Baltic Sea Region. In 2016, together with Swedish and Polish cultural organizations, she founded the Baltic Audience Links network, for placemaking practitioners and artists targeting local communities. In her artistic and research projects, Jekaterina focuses on issues of urban environmental experience, collective behavior and co-operation in urban areas. More information about implemented projects: https://www.behance.net/Laimikis

Paskelbta: December 31, 2017

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