Reflection / CityToolbox
MO Hartera: Activating a Community
How do you find and engage communities to support you in the realisation of your plans? Short answer: listen closely and don’t have too many. The Hartera team and I reflect on the importance of communication, flexibility and local identity, and look ahead how the project can pave the road for a lasting improvement of a long-neglected quarter.
At the edges of the city of Rijeka the MO Hartera project is entering its final phase. Preparations for various larger and smaller events that will round off the collaborations between a diverse range of actors who – only months ago – would have likely not imagined themselves to be contributors to the revival of an entire neighbourhood are under way. Climbers, skaters, ravers, gardeners – everyone seems to have found their niche in the project and added something to it. A question that has been looming over the project ever since is becoming unavoidable in these final weeks: how can the changes introduced in Hartera be sustained beyond October, 2020? Besides hopes for more attention and financial support from the City of Rijeka, the team appears to have put many of its eggs in the community-basket. It counts on a consciousness instilled in the participants that tangible improvements to their environment are possible with a little effort and can be made lasting with a little more. How, though, has the MO Hartera team managed to activate a community and engage it in such a way that it feels confident in, basically, entrusting it with the continuation of its project efforts?
First Things First: Getting in Touch
“We were just looking for a place to cook jam together”, Nina recounts the humble beginnings of the project, “but ended up with the most demanding [urban planning] issue in the city”. After having been the home to a music festival for some years, the premises of the former paper mill Hartera had been abandoned for a while. Grand plans by the city to overhaul the complex had never come through and a mixture of skaters, ravers and people from the fringes of society had found it to be suitable for their purposes. It is fair to say, then, as the MO Hartera team points out, that there was hardly any conventional neighbourhood community to be found that could have been seamlessly integrated into the project. They had to adapt to who and what they found on site and, additionally, try to motivate people to come along and join in the effort.
The goal of the project was simple: Revive the quarter around the Hartera industrial site – including the Vodovo and Ruziceva streets - and, ideally, turn Hartera itself into a socio-cultural centre in the long run. How exactly this goal would manifest was pretty much up to those willing to participate in the project: the team sought an approach that would allow the participants from the community to have a significant say in many decisions. In order to gain any traction within local communities, Nina drew on her expertise in film location management. The first thing, she explains, is that you need to find and approach people in their natural environment where they feel comfortable and have a tangible reason to talk to them in the first place. If you intend to convince people to join your project, it should be open and flexible to the needs and interests of those people as well – no one likes to be told about change being imposed upon their surroundings without an opportunity to influence it. By simply engaging in these exploratory conversations, topics and problems people may be dealing with can emerge organically. Showing them an opportunity to affect change in accordance with their vision and to their benefit can go a long way in convincing locals to commit to a project without them feeling dragged into it. Instead, you show understanding for their problems and give them the agency to tackle them.
While this advice might seem somewhat simple and, for some, even self-evident, it requires a high degree of careful, empathetic communication as well as flexibility in planning. Groups such as the skaters and ravers were already using the space the MO Hartera team sought to transform and, as some of the few making productive use of it, were great partners to win over for their cause. In conversations, the groups found ways to pool their resources and develop visions for the space that would benefit their particular interests but also move the needle on the revival of the quarter as a whole.
The team provided cement and tools to the skaters who used it to sculpt elements to practice their skating on that simultaneously serve as benches, making the area seem less run down and inviting. Until recently, raves would require the transport of all kinds of equipment to the location as the ruins of Hartera were equipped with no utilities. The electricity infrastructure and portable toilets that the Hartera team had installed on the premises could now be used for parties in exchange for a small fee. As a result, raves required a lot less organising and transporting equipment and the MO Hartera team had an additional small yet regular flow of income towards their perpetually strained budget. Finding such groups on site to collaborate with is certainly a blessing and they should be regarded as actors integral to the success of your project – surely, if those few already making use of the space will not support your efforts, who will? The importance of making good use of the resources you are provided with is key and growing the project organically with your partners not only builds a solid base but also increases the chances of attracting new participants.
Demystifying the Production
2020 is not only the year of the MO Hartera project but it is also - and for most of Rijeka’s inhabitants more notably – the year in which it is the European Capital of Culture (ECoC). “The city is run on spectacle”, Marin points out, and the programme for the ECC is no different with its grand shows and visitors relegated to the status of “consumers of a cultural product”. The lack of participation and ownership of the project by participants that results from such an approach had already been identified as problematic with recent ECoCs, Marin explains, but was implemented in Rijeka nonetheless. With the MO Hartera project, however, there is no spectacle, no “grand show”. Instead, the team seeks to give its participants a sense of purpose and being needed not merely to consume a product, but to be the producers themselves. They sought to entirely demystify the production and make its organisation as horizontal as possible. People were essentially told that “It is not nice here, it is muddy”, Nina demonstrates their simple messaging, “come help us make it nice”. (She also admits that they did clean up a little before inviting volunteers and that this strategy was certainly part of their script). This simplicity and invitation to shape (parts of) a place according to their needs and wishes resonated with people in Rijeka.
Many individuals and groups came from the city to see for themselves what was happening at the old paper mill and how they might fit into the frame. Climbers and hikers were never explicitly invited to the sight but showed up because they had heard that things were happening at Hartera. While the team would never have expected these groups to have an interest in Hartera, they were more than happy to accommodate them and help find routes to climb and hike. A bunch of young graffiti artists also found their way to the edge of the city and graced the walls lining the streets leading up to Hartera with their colourful pieces – much to the joy of the team who cites both these incidences as surprising and outstandingly positive. The street art, Nina points out, “has changed the entire character of the street”. Such participation and intervention in a project by other groups and individuals is not plannable and requires the team to be flexible and open to all sorts of contributions at all time. Being open to all parties and trying to accommodate their needs and wishes within your framework can contribute to generating an atmosphere of mutual respect and, overall, good energy that can go a long way in carrying a project. “Why is it”, Marin asks somewhat rhetorically, “that people are so happy to engage with us and do not feel used? What is the difference to other ECC events?”.
I believe parts of this question have already been answered, but one crucial element that still needs examining is the role that participation can play as a source of identity. The former paper mill Hartera is not only an old issue for the city to (not) contend with – it is also simply old. A landmark that has been around since the times of industrialisation, everyone around Rijeka knows it and everyone has their own associations. May it be the labour-pride of days past, weekly raves or simply an exciting place to explore – “it is a somewhat mystical place that anchors Rijeka’s identity”, Marin claims. It is, therefore, the perfect place for different groups and individuals to attach themselves to and project their own visions onto. Joining these preconditions of a place so rich in history and associations with the opportunity for participants to own and not merely consume a project provides a fertile ground for people to closely associate with it, invest their time and, likely, produce positive outcomes. This joining is basically the task the Hartera team considers themselves to be there to manage: bringing people together, and providing a framework and infrastructure to channel ideas and resources productively.
Engaging the different groups and individuals to participate in the MO Hartera project was probably the most vital task to accomplish in order for it to succeed. All this effort would have been in vain, though, if the project was not appropriately organised but would have sooner or later descended into unmanageable chaos. Setting up an effective infrastructure for communication and allocating resources to where they are needed is key in keeping the flow of the project going. In order to maintain a necessary degree of order, the Hartera team set up an office akin to a municipal urban office (Mjesni Odbor = Local Council), held regular meetings with citizens called “Ćakula”, and simply relentlessly adopted and tested new channels of communication.
I have touched upon the city’s affinity for grandeur and highly visible prestige projects – the new bus terminal, hotels, the ECoC 2020, you name it. Such posturing begs the question: what is the city trying to masquerade? In Rijeka’s case, it is the inability to provide basic services to its community. The area on the edge of the city where Hartera is located does not receive a lot of attention and care from its municipality. “No one ever comes here to clean up” a local points out – as if that was not already obvious. Such neglect and failure to provide essential services makes it, of course, easy for projects such as MO Hartera to find a foothold in a community where positive change is simultaneously not expected yet very possible. This disposition is, however, inherently sad as it illustrates the retreat of public institutions from the regulation and upholding of civil life we observe not only in Rijeka, but internationally on all levels of government, may it be locally, regionally or nationally.
Into this void, the MO Hartera team has introduced a quarter’s office and the “´Ćakula” which in their format resemble the municipal office of the urban department and town hall meetings, respectively. Clearly, the project is assuming responsibilities that should usually rest with the city (a circumstance its officials appear to be quite content with). Unsurprisingly, this organisational structure has received a positive reception by many locals. They now have two frameworks within which they can voice their issues, concerns or wishes and discuss solutions to them. Perhaps more importantly, over the past months they have learned that they are, indeed, being listened to and that through these channels actual change is possible. This can create a positive feedback loop through which trust is successively built up making the office and “Ćakulas” communally accepted institutions. Having such somewhat physical and tangible manifestations of your organisational structure can be extremely helpful for people to get in touch with the organisers and each other.
Not all communication, however, is best conducted through such comparatively rigid channels. A lot of the more immediate and detailed communication is conducted through digital means. The diversity of the participants requires a flexibility in channels used. “Some prefer WhatsApp, some Facebook, some Viber, and others you have to talk to face to face”, Nina lists the different preferences, “we test constantly”. While these inconsistencies in the modes of communication might appear somewhat tiring and inefficient, they also appear to be necessary in order to reach the various audiences. Further – and this might be even more important – they also demonstrate a willingness to adapt to whatever works best for the other participants.
Within just a few months, the MO Hartera team has managed to build up a network of organised groups and institutions that substitute the services the community has been missing from its municipality. As I have stated earlier, the aim of the MO Hartera project is to revive the neighbourhood beyond the duration of the project and have the effort grow into a cultural centre in the old paper mill. According to Nina, “it would be a failure”, if, in six months, most of the progress made in 2020 had been reversed and forgotten. The precise future of the project past October is still up in the air and constitutes the central focus of many of the events still to come. How will the community fare after those that led to its inception step aside? In what capacity will the introduced institutions continue to exist? And – perhaps most crucially – will the city finally step up and lend its support to the efforts?
Making the Impact Last
The MO Hartera team is self-aware enough to notice their integral role in the current constellation of things around Hartera but does not seem entirely at ease with it. They “do not want to be at the centre and on top of everything”. Instead, they want to “empower communities”. Thus far, however, this empowerment was made possible first and foremost through the efforts put forward by the team and which put them at nearly all nodal points of the project. It appears as though everyone agrees that staying involved in Hartera is a given – only how and to what degree seems uncertain.
In a few years, Hartera will have developed into a proper socio-cultural centre and a nearby house acquired and turned into permanent offices – such are the long term goals as Nina lays them out. She is pretty confident, she claims, that these plans can come to fruition. After doing all the legwork to get things off the ground over the past months, a central role going forward could lie with the municipality. Despite all its shortcomings, it still gave the green light for the project and has the ability to support it financially or with infrastructure if it so pleases – what might be a tiny fraction in the city’s budget can go a long way for Hartera, Nina explains. In a few weeks, officials of the city are scheduled to meet with the team and get shown around the premises, a possibly pivotal meeting for securing future funds. When asked whether the team fears that the municipality – seeing the success the project has had – instead of simply funding it could appropriate the project for its own purposes, Marian chuckles: “No, they do not have the resources”. At least, it seems, the project is safe from being co-opted for any grand plans.
Getting a project such as MO Hartera started is really all about getting the community on your side. Having them see the benefit in partnering up with you and fostering a relationship of trust and reciprocity is certainly key. Listening, being accommodating and flexible, and proving people with a platform and infrastructure to improve their lives are the ingredients that make a well-rounded community project soup. Bottom up approaches are great but sometimes, all this effort can only take you so far. Getting the “Top” part of the community involved early on can increase the chances for support once it may be needed. No one knows whether the municipality will lend its support to the aims of the project financially or in the form of basic infrastructure but, if anything, it would be a sign of appreciation for the effort put in by every individual involved. On top, it could prove that it can see value not only in grand spectacle but also in the smaller projects that all too often fall through the cracks. The future of Hartera does, however, not solely rest with the mercy of the municipality. For now, it can draw on its many communal resources and plan for a possible future without the city’s support – after all, it has come this far without it. Bringing together the community in such productive ways and raising their political consciousness for what is possible is most likely the greatest success the project has achieved thus far. In any case, the MO Hartera team has done a remarkable job not only reviving a quarter with the united and sustained effort of the local community but it has also braced the project as well as it could for a continuation of the success-story in the future.