‘Svolou’s Neighborhood Initiative’ is an ongoing and active urban movement based in the second largest city of Greece, Thessaloniki, since 2013. George Chatzinakos is researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, member of the Institute of Place Management and utterly sensitized about his hometown, Thessaloniki. Being a member of this movement, George took part in the first discussions among a group of other people that all together conceived this urban intervention, called “Spring’s Dinner” as an experiment of the initiative. They came up with the concept of turning their neighborhood into a livelier district through a series of community activities and local participation. The case of Barcelona with the famous “Fiestas de Gracia” influenced him and after a challenging discussion with his father, they started researching and designing the initiative in Svolou Street. “Spring’s Dinner” was the first one of the consecutive urban dinners that took off in June 2014.
The goal behind this urban experiment is a combination of brightening up this central street and bringing citizens together to get to know each other. Through this experiment, the ‘Svolou Neighborhood Initiative’ aims to enhance and bring about the sense of democratic participation, self-organization and sense of belonging. Additionally, the sense of being part of a local urban movement suggests an extra key point for a successful outcome. By holding activities together with active groups in the city like artists, students as well as the Evangelic church they use the creative capital of their neighborhood. Their interpretation is that everybody is welcome to use their creativity, so this movement is open to the local institutions that would like to add something to the Initiative. Therefore, they launched a yearly collective urban dinner. Since the first dinner, citizens from all different perspectives, teams and districts started adding many more actions. From concerts and cultural activities, to engaging schools and local groups of youngsters, this ‘Spring Dinner’ aims to strengthen the social glue of the neighborhood and enhance diversity, freedom of expression and collaboration.
Diversity is just one among the many aspects of this experiment. Refugees, youngsters, elderly people, as well as citizens from other neighborhoods, come along to this celebration of unity. Children are given the opportunity to draw and express themselves through artistic pathways in the local urban space. They drew for three times the windows of the shops located in the main street of the neighborhood that has now become a childrens’ open gallery.
“The whole preparation in order to set everything up took 6 months for the first dinner”.
George explained how difficult it was, especially at the beginning, to get approval and permissions from the municipality. Thus, it was difficult to gain trust by the neighbors and the local shopkeepers. Apart from many bureaucratic problems, this initiative encountered the difficulty to differentiate itself from the political stigma and convince citizens that there are no political profits. Heading with the motto “We want to become a neighborhood again” they started planning the actions.
“We want to nurture the sense of participation. Everyone can contribute anything they want to offer. Our collaboration with schools facilitates children to perceiving their neighborhood from artistic perspectives.”- George Chatzinakos
The whole financial sustainability for this project is completely based on crowdfunding. To make it simpler, every shopkeeper on the street would buy a sticker for 10euro and the income in total would be used to buy all the stuff needed. This sticker is co-designed by the initiators after questionnaires handed out to the shopkeepers in order to gather their opinion about needs and wants. As a symbolic practice, those stickers represent a collective ideology for all those citizens that envision their city to be more inclusive, diverse and welcoming. Posters, balloons and banners are used to prepare the ambience and set the mood for this urban experiment. Artists, on the other hand, contribute their part voluntarily, without any economic profit. Such symbolic practices are used as tools to highlighting a new era of self-organization and democratic collaboration for the commons.
For the past 2 years, ‘Svolou Neighborhood Initiative’ is a movement far away from engaging the local government. It owes its success to means of collaboration, vision and subsidiarity without involving governmental structures at all.
“Spring Dinner has now has gained an activist character due to the lack of a regulatory framework that allows the appropriation of public space by citizens in order to perform cultural events and artistic interventions”.-George Chatzinakos
Member of the movement, George, explains that the experiment is now based only on citizen and neighborhood collaborative practices while the municipality is not at all involved. George Chatzinakos is monitoring the development of this urban experiment by applying epistemological tools towards the acquisition of knowledge working together with a community of neighbors.
In 2016, the initiative had a great success by registering over 5000 participants. This year, on June 22, citizens from all over the city will have another chance to come along. In the public spaces of Svolou Street, local residents will be drawing attention to cultural and creative activities. They will equip themselves with solidarity as well as individual and collective responsibility for spaces they share every day.
As George discussed, Thessaloniki is the home of 100.000 students. He wishes to bring into the discussions young people who want to perform applicable ideas that will respond to the collective desires of the neighborhood. In such a way it will become a collective canvas of free creative expression.
Thessaloniki has showed that in the middle of a widespread more-than-financial crisis, movements such as the ‘Svolou Neighborhood Initiative’ have the potential to pursue citizen scale actions. This urban ‘Spring Dinner’ reaches out people from a very wide range in terms of age and origins. Other than an urban gathering amongst neighbors, this dinner is also a citizen approach to the commons through artistic, educational and participatory activities.