"As a City Maker I am really trying to facilitate the conversation and raise the awareness about why it is important to have conversations and collaborations about city building. In the end, I hope that everyone benefits, creating a win-win situation."
Martin Barry will participate in the New Europe City Makers Summit on May 27-30 2016. Find out more about the programme and register below.
I chatted with Martin Barry from reSITE after he attended the New Europe City Makers Pre-Summit on the 4th and 5th of February at Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam. He provided some insights into the challenges he faces as a City Maker in Prague, gave some advice for other City Makers and shared the concrete take-aways that he gained during the Pre-Summit. Martin Barry is originally from New York City, but now resides in Prague where he founded and runs reSITE, a multi-faceted non-profit organization that raises awareness at the top and bottom regarding the importance of collaboration and discussion in city building. He firmly believes that while “urban planning may not be cool, we want to make it cool because everyone has a stake in urban design.”
What makes you a City Maker?
City making is a complex game. Where I come from in the United States, in New York particularly, I was working on really large-scale urban projects. Those projects required a great deal of collaboration, which made them sustainable. The design community, including urban planners, architects, and landscape architects, needs to work closely with investors. In turn, investors need to work closely with politicians and politicians need to work closely and speak the same language or at least have a platform for citizens. In the Czech Republic, that conversation does not exist. In a lot of cities it does not exist. There is not a lot of collaboration between the four groups; architects, politicians, investors and citizens. Often times the conversations go one-way and they are siloed.
In the Czech Republic, we wanted to create a platform to improve the environment and create a space for these conversations and collaborations to happen because we think that a truly sustainable project only happens when the conversation is facilitated properly and professionally and that there is a clear process for everyone to be involved. As a City Maker, I am really trying to facilitate that discourse and raise the awareness about why it is important to have those conversations and collaborations. In the end, I hope that everyone benefits, creating a win-win situation. That is what we are trying to do here in Prague and elsewhere, as reSITE starts to grow.
Can you tell me more about reSITE?
We were founded to be a collaborative platform to exchange ideas to make cities more liveable, more competitive, and more resilient. We are focusing on ideas for public space, public architecture, and sustainable or alternative mobility. We come at this from a design perspective – using design thinking – as I said previously, we are interested in creating a collaboration between the disparate parties and those that we think should be interested in these topics. We do it primarily through two things currently: through a conference and a festival. The conference and the festival started in 2012, and now we are organizing a lot more events throughout the year. On the 16th and 17th of June, we will have our 5th annual conference and festival. This year the topic is “cities in migration,” focusing on the urban spatial challenges and opportunities of migration. Then we have a series of mostly closed door workshops focusing on specific issues to Prague. We also do a series of public events and public discussions, either in public space or publicly accessible space for free because we think that these conversations can’t just happen at the top, behind closed doors, they need to be broader, public conversations about City Making.
This year is an exciting year for us because we are in a transition year. We are building an online platform to extend our community globally. We have been invited to organize events around the world. We are beginning to cooperate with the government in Abu Dhabi and other cities as well. So we are taking this conversation on the road. The other thing that we do is that we are starting to talk about providing advisory services as well, so we are expanding beyond an events based platform.
What role do you think reSITE should play in the city?
The role for us is to start the conversation of why it is necessary to focus on City building and how it can impact the people that vote in elections and live in the city.
From our perspective, there is so little awareness about why it is important to have a sustainable city and why it’s important to have high quality public space, high quality public architecture, and efficient public transportation. Cities have to start seeing themselves as competing with each other because it is so easy to move in our generation that everyone wants something different and better than the city that they came from. And, I don’t see this “competition” as an inherently free market cycle of the neo-liberal economy. It is a natural process. Cities have always attracted citizens for the sheer fact that they provide housing, jobs and relationship and intellectual growth opportunities. People move to cities to improve their lives; to fall in love, to find diversity. In an increasingly mobile society, younger generations are moving to where those opportunities are greatest. City leaders don’t quite understand this, especially in this part of the world. They don’t understand the importance of providing a really high quality benefit for their residents and for new residents by providing great public services and great public spaces.
For us, it is really about raising awareness with city leaders, both on the investment side and the political side. On the other hand, we see ourselves as being catalysts for social and spatial change. We definitely see ourselves as social innovators in that respect in that we are trying to find new ways for people to be excited about participating in city making and the process of building their own city. That is why we do a lot of public events and try to make them fun and cool because lets face it, urban planning is not cool, but it should be because ultimately we believe – like many others in this space, that everyone is an urban designer. Everyone who goes to school, lays in the park and works in the city cares about urban design wether they understand the language of urban design or not.
Everyone is an urban designer, they just don’t know it.
Like David Kelley at IDEO believes about creativity, or many urbanists believe about urbanism, we believe that everyone has architectural and urban design potential because they are talking about the city constantly. Especially when they complain. They are thinking about urban design issues, they just don’t know it. So we want people to understand design language and provide formats for them to look at their environments in a different light. It is about changing perceptions. We are trying to work on both the top and bottom. Initially I think we worked better from the bottom but eventually we have improved our focus on decision makers. Now, we are trying to merge the two. We are not a neighborhood-based initiative; we are trying to inspire the city-at-large. We see ourselves as a global catalyst or of a more macro-catalyst to get people working on their districts.
How does reSITE get funding?
We have an NGO, in the Czech Republic – it’s technically called a Civil Society – and we also have a limited liability company, which is called City Crew. The NGO gets it funding primarily through three channels. We get about 60-70% from private sources, meaning corporate CSR money and individual philanthropists. We get about 20-25% from grants, either grants within the EU, but mostly from the Czech Republic. Last, we get about 10-15% through conference or event revenue. The aim of the company is to eventually find alternative revenue sources, which includes things like the advisory services, doing things that the NGO really wouldn’t be efficient at.
Talking about funding, I know that you attended some expert sessions at the City Makers Pre-Summit that addressed funding issues and was wondering if you had any follow up thoughts.
I am continually frustrated by the challenges we face in regards to funding. Making physical impact, particularly relevant to city building and the physical environment is incredibly difficult and takes a really long time, decades to make permanent changes. To fund that kind of activity is incredibly frustrating because the philanthropy market is not as well developed as it is in the Netherlands, and that also includes the corporate social responsibility (CSR) market. There are just not a lot of companies that are willing to give to organizations doing things like reSITE because they are used to traditional impact like youth sports or disabilities or education. For us, doing something different about city building, there is not a lot of funding out there.
What I asked about during the session was about social impact bonds for building physical space, as those currently don’t exist. In the US, we have a municipal bonds structure and deferred tax revenues to build physical space. There is not really a mechanism to do it in Europe yet. Because we would love to build public space, we are advocating for that, it is just hard to get the government and the municipalities to do it because they don’t see the value that western governments have seen in this field. If we could find a mechanism to fund our soft impact activities as well as physical projects in public space, I think that would be a huge step forward.
We have actually talked to a social impact bank here about the bonds that ABN is offering in the Netherlands and we are going to invite Ruben Koekoek from ABN to Prague to talk to people and the social impact community here. We think that they are ready to launch a similar project through one of the banks here and we are also trying to talk them into launching a project that we could use to fund our soft and hard impact.
Did that happen partially as a result of the Pre-Summit or did you have that in mind before?
The specific knowledge I brought from the Pre-Summit was the social impact bond that sort of inspired me to think about how we could create an alternative project with a bank to fund our activities, which are a bit harder to prove and with the end goal of building.
It was serendipitous because I was talking to the new division of the largest bank here which is a social impact division. They don’t yet have a bond, they just have a social impact loan that they are offering, which isn’t event that advantageous as it’s around 4% interest. I brought it to their attention that ABN was offering this social impact bond and they are interested in learning more about it – so that came out of the conversation in Amsterdam.
Do you have any advice for other city makers?
When you are becoming a City Maker you need to focus on five and ten year goals, not necessarily short term impacts.
You should make those short-term wins or impacts, but focus on the long-term impacts and understand why you want to have those impacts. Because it is really hard work particularly in the countries that we operate in because the conversation is just starting here. That means that the funding is harder, the reception to those ideas is going to be more difficult, and there is more unstable political leadership. We need to work really hard to make sure that people really get it and commit to it.
It really takes 3 or 4 years to get recognised. No matter how much you are in the media or making an impact or who you know, it takes roughly about four years for the people to start calling you and asking you to help them. Before that it’s the other way around, you are always asking them to help you
Collaboration, our whole platform is about collaboration.
Often times – all City Makers – think that we are doing something new, that is just because we haven’t really talked to people around the world or around Europe about our solutions. Because it is more likely than not, which is a good thing, that they have been done before and that there may be certain ways in which we can collaborate and pull ideas from each other to make our work more efficient.
You can speak with Martin Barry in person during the New Europe City Makers Summit which will occur from the 27th until the 30th of May at Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam.