Our work is woven together by the search for new, alternative approaches to spatial design and management. It is based on a "bottom-up" principle that anticipates cooperation of a greater number of individuals on the community level in order to achieve a joint decision or express a joint wish.
-prostoRož project booklet
Sailors may have a girl in every port, but I have something better: an urban love interest in every country. And Ljubljana just happens to be my December pin-up girl.
Last week, I returned to the warm embrace of Ljubljana, exactly a year after visiting Slovenia's capital city for the first time and falling in love with its beautiful, car-free old town. When I recently made plans to return to the city of dragons, the first thing I did was reach out to urban spatial planning firm prostoRož, whom I had read about in an excellent Citiscope article on why Ljubljana was named 2016's European Green Capital. Almost immediately after sending an email, I received a cheery response from Zala, who has been with the firm since 2012 when she joined as a communications intern. My heart skipped a beat, I couldn't wait to hear what this progressive group of urban planning women was up to.
When I arrived cold and wet at prostoRož's doorstep, Zala invited me into her cozy office, a charming old apartment with high ceilings and herringbone parquet floors that the firm transformed into a modern, bright work space. She kindly prepared a pot of fresh coffee and let me pepper her with questions I had prepared for her, prostoRož, Ljubljana, and Slovenian planning.
prostoRož, whose name is a combination of "space" (prostor) and "flower" (rož), defines itself as "a group that deals with urban space issues, exploring the space and its meaning for residents and society." Since forming in 2004, their work has expanded from Ljubljana to all over Slovenia, and they frequently collaborate with players from other European cities like Vienna. Their first project was a series of art installations in Ljubljana's old town in 2004, four years before the downtown buildings were restored and streets were closed to cars. This project attracted a lot of interest in the neglected spaces and residents saw their community in a new way, allowing them to open up to future changes that would maximize urban spaces and bring in more people. Other prostoRož projects include transforming a public square into a beach in Danish port city Aarhus, a library of things in Ljubljana, and investing years revitalizing downtown Tabor Park by refreshing the physical space and offering summer programs. Swoon.
Zala's role at prostoRož has evolved from a semester intern to a partner, and she said that although she studied communications and sociology and not urban planning, her skills are crucial when it comes to effectively working with the community to create amazing and successful projects. "Proactive communications allow citizens to be informed; helping them understand their options is the first step in the participation process," she said. Zala and I talked about a variety of topics, like funding (they mostly collaborate with municipalities or receive national and European grants like Creative Europe) and why more men than women manage urban planning departments (women tend to be more rational, empathetic, and community-oriented, my take). Here are are few more questions and answers from our conversation over kava.
In one sentence, describe prostoRož.
prostoRož focuses on abandoned, underused, and overlooked public spaces, testing new ways to use public spaces through research and experimentation, and promotes public space as the founding principle of urban space.
How did prostoRož, a group of female urban planners, come into existence?
In 2004, a group of urban planners spontaneously came together in the form of prostoRož. The group wasn't purposefully women only; my experience in the field is that it is mostly female planners who are involved in hands-on projects like community building and spatial planning. (Currently, the firm has one male employee who's in charge of the library of things, and the prostoRož team is Alenka Korenjak, Ana Grk, Maša Cvetko, Zala Velkavrh, Nina Savič and Jošt Derlink.)
So, what projects are you working on now?
Right now, I'm involved in all projects. Tabor Park was my first project, and since then my work has expanded to event organization, project management and research. In 2016 we’ve finished a research project on public space renovation in socialist housing, Javne Površine. This is a national research project where we gathered information on the current state of public space built in Slovenia's socialist period that is now in a relatively bad shape . Because public/private ownership isn't straightforward and maintaining the aging public space is needed, we analyzed the situation from different angles, including financial, legal, and communications aspects, and created a detailed infographic. With projects like this, getting interest from the municipality and the state is our first priority so local government can communicate the issue to citizens, and citizens then better understand and participate in the renovation process.
Planning for car-free spaces is something I'm really interested in. What is prostoRož's approach to urban planning and cars?
prostoRož encourages sustainable mobility, like walking, biking, and public transit. At the same time, we have to be sensible and listen to other opinions. If citizens are asked what they want in their public spaces, they still want more parking spaces. The transition to more sustainable forms of mobility has to be compelling to the citizens, which means that bike lanes need to be safe and buses fast and frequent, for example.
Exploring the car-free theme a bit more, why don't you think more cities follow Ljubljana's example and create or expand car-free zones? Or do you think that is changing?
Politically, this can be a difficult decision to make, especially as most voters are car-owners. Also, investments in new cycling infrastructure and public transport can be expensive. In Ljubljana, almost ten years after making the old-town car-free, the majority of citizens are happy with the change and this shows a great shift in attitudes towards car-free areas. For example, in 2013 prostoRož worked to turn Ljubljana's Čufarjeva street into a safe space with limited vehicle traffic to not only protect the 2,000 children crossing the street every day but to also encourage more kids to walk or bike to school instead of being dropped off in a car by parents who didn't feel the street was safe. Čufarjeva street is not in the historic center, but still benefits from being car-free. And yes, I feel other cities around the world are expressing more interest in going car-free.
What is the most rewarding part of your job? What do you like best about it and what was your favorite project?
I love finishing a project on the street and seeing people's reactions; there is a risk in how they'll react or interpret the project, and I've seen so many positive reactions. Even a small change can convince people that public space can improve their everyday lives. My favorite project was in the Slovenian town of Idrija, where we had a limited budget and focused our resources on a part of the town that had no public spaces. 800 residents live in the area and we were happy to receive 120 suggestions (a very high percentage!). In the end, our team built street furniture out of old school chairs and the residents decided they like it so much they will keep it for next years. The municipality was so pleased with our work that they invited us back for another project. Idrija was definitely a best-case project.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle cities face today, and what is your ideal solution?
Many great ideas like sustainable city circulate, but they are too often appropriated by the big, powerful players and result in untransparent and unjust projects that exclude the possibility of inclusive urban governance. As far as communications are concerned, the expansion of the city in the digital sphere is not the solution in itself, because it can be either used to really involve more people in the decision-making process or obfuscate it even further.
So there you have it, a fabulous conversation with a fabulous Slovenian urban spatial planning firm. As I work to expand content on My Radiant City, I could not have been more pleased to have my first "conversation" with Zala of prostoRož. It was interesting to talk with a European urban planner and such a creative, forward-thinking group of city-lovers, and I came away from our visit inspired and eager to share what I'd learned. Time to go out into the world and spread the love.