Use of “Art” Interventions for Participatory Planning in Urban Environments
by Deborah Zervas, Associate ASLA, Martin Krings, and Giacomo Losio

In the summer of 2009, I attended a two-week-long urban design workshop in Wilhelmsburg, Germany, a river island neighborhood of Hamburg. Sponsored by Hafencity University, the goal of the workshop was to design a plan for Wilhelmsburg that would improve livability and develop the public realm. Students of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, and planning from Russia, Italy, Germany, and the U.S. worked and stayed in Wilhemsburg during the workshop.

The specific aims of the workshop were to work with/engage the community, try promising findings on site, assess contemporary practices in the fields of planning and urban design, and examine planning and urban design curricula in this light. To achieve these objectives and the larger community design goals, it was essential to realize a high level of international and intercultural cooperation.

This study team identified one key concern: the lack of an integrated community on the island. People originally from Germany, Turkey, Russia, Portugal, Spain, and Ghana self-segregate residentially and socially in Wilhelmsburg, and are collectively separate from the city of Hamburg in important spatial and social dimensions.

Our biggest hurdles as planners were to determine how to promote conversation about Wilhelmsburg's future both with and among the diverse groups, and how better to connect the island to the greater city. These were no small tasks.

While we identified diversity as the predominant characteristic of the island in all of its aspects—quality and use of space, culture, and scale—we determined that this was both a strength and challenge. New, creative solutions are frequently a product of such a mix, even when dialogue is problematic.

To address the diversity conundrum, we devised many small hypothetical actions that could add function to one-use spaces in the community. Our goal with these actions was to increase the mix of users and promote interaction and dialogue that would spark further, larger actions and interactions within and beyond Wilhelmsburg. We called our proposed actions "funken" (sparks), and named the consequent transformational chains of actions and interactions "funkenflut" (flood of sparks). From this hypothetical action master plan, we designated several small "funken" for the initial experiment in Wilhelmsburg that were appropriate in scale, time, and means for the workshop.

We looked for public spaces that people necessarily used in common. Our chosen sites were a neighborhood laundry, a universally used bus line, and a men's gym. We also identified five areas of universal human concern and interest: music, community, nature, health, and goods, and designed experiments related to them. These included music on the bus, gym in the park, a “barter box" (receptacle for exchange of goods), and a sidewalk cafe.

With one important distinction, our method was akin to art intervention—the use of art outside the art world to change an existing condition. Initially, we kept our purpose hidden, but quickly realized that sharing the purpose with the community was itself an important (planning) interaction that better created capacity for change. So, our final, and most successful, experiment at the laundry was open and transparent.

To create a new public space at the laundry, we brought with us everything necessary for a sidewalk cafe, and set the items up inside the facility and then outside its entrance on Georg-Wilhelm-Strasse. The research team sat at a table, drank coffee, and was available to interact with employees, patrons, and passers-by. At the café, many people spoke with us and expressed their interest and support for street-side casual gathering places, including individuals walking by, the barber next door, and the formerly hostile laundry manager who changed his tune when he saw the positive community response. This indicated to us that informal public gathering spaces were in short supply and welcome, and that adding function to existing places was an effective, appropriate design response.

Also significant for our purposes were two “upscale” actions outside the experimental space that were sparked by this one small funk. First, local resident Ghanaian immigrants accepted an invitation to attend a neighborhood party happening that Friday, and to bring their drums for a jam session with the hired band—with great results. Second, a HafenCity University faculty member who was very familiar with the district reported that on the very next day, a table and chairs were outside another business establishment across the street from the laundry. She had never noticed them there before.

While the results of experimentally activating these specific spaces and sparking dialogue may have been few and small scale, they are not inconsequential. Importantly, they point to the efficacy of real time interventions as a legitimate on-site data gathering instrument for planning decisions. The questions that should be answered with this technique are: What does the community want and need?  How will the community members respond?  Is there community consensus?  Can it be developed?  Can spaces be transformed? 

We hope to report on and encourage other such experiments in the future. One possibility is continued work in Germany. Chancellor Andrea Merkel recently addressed the cultural separateness of Turkish immigrants, including second and third generation Turkish-German residents, from other Germans. This compares to the condition we noticed in Wilhemsberg. Applying funks at a larger scale may be an appropriate and effective response to the Turkish/German situation, with music as the medium. Because musicians are frequently the first explorers of other cultures, ambassadors of their own, and creators of new, hybrid forms, they are a logical choice to spark dialogue across cultures. There are examples worldwide of new musical forms presaging larger cultural integration. American jazz is one, but in Germany, it could be the well-liked Shantel's Disco Partizani pop music—a Russian/German disco pop blend. The introduction of musical events, on the scale of festivals or soccer games, may jumpstart the cross-cultural integration of Turkish people into the greater German society.

Deborah Zervas, Associate ASLA, graduated in May 2010 with an MLA from the University of Massachusetts, and is re-starting her residential design firm, WxYZ Design. She can be reached at:

Martin Kring is a graduate student at HafenCity University in Hamburg, studying planning and urban design. He is presently working on his thesis.  He can be reached at:

Giacomo Losio is a planning and urban design graduate student in Milan, Italy. He may be reached at:

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