"In some other European cities there are a lot of great public places. I like to go to cafes, read, cycle and take public transport. When I moved to Cyprus, I had to get my driver's license... I realized that parks were not very well maintained. Everybody will tell you that it is crazy to ride a bike because you risk your life. Around this idea we were thinking on a small scale how to make a positive change in Cypriot public spaces (Rene Carraz)"
Veronika Antoniou & Rene Carraz will participate in the New Europe City Makers Summit on May 27-30 2016. Find out more about the programme and register below.
Veronika and Rene introduced Urban Gorillas. They told us what a public space means in a neighborhood and how important it is for the community. They relayed the struggles that are still constraining the public uses and the difficulties they face in engaging with public institutions when it comes to working in a divided city like Nicosia. Research along with current interventions are their methods to discover inhabitants’ perceptions of urban spaces. Their initiative “Inflating the public” was a great success, but they are also working on new projects. Take a look, meet Veronika and Rene…
Who and what is Urban Gorillas?
Veronika: Urban Gorillas is an interdisciplinary team. The team is interested in city matters. As a relatively new NGO we came together in 2013 with the mission: to perform creative and community actions through the active participation of the inhabitants. We are dealing with the regeneration of public spaces and other matters related to sustainable living in the city.
Rene: Veronika and me lived in different countries. When we came back to Cyprus we were shocked by the state of public spaces.
Veronika: For instance, when you compare it with mobility, there are no trams or trains here and a family of two has three cars. This automatically shows that cities, here, are not made for people and can not be experienced as in some other cities.
Rene: That was the first idea. In some other cities there a lot of great public places. I like to go to cafes, read, cycle and take public transport. When I moved to Cyprus, I had to get my driver’s license… I realized that parks were not very well maintained. Everybody will tell you that is crazy to ride a bike because you risk your life. Around this idea we were thinking on a small scale how to make a positive change in Cypriot public spaces. The board of Urban Gorillas now consist of 5 people with different backgrounds, each of us specialized in different areas (Urban planning, architecture, research, NGO management, marketing and social media).
Inflating the public was one of the biggest initiatives by Urban Gorillas. What other initiatives have you performed since you started the NGO?
We took a bus from the trash and we transformed it into a kitchen.
Veronika: we took a bus from the trash and we transformed it into a kitchen. It was placed in different public spaces in Nicosia and Limassol. We upcycled the bus and called it “The green bus” because we planted the whole bus with all kinds of herbs, trees and flowers inside and out. We also built a sitting space inside the bus because shared places to sit are not really available in public spaces in Nicosia. Urban Gorillas installed “The green bus” in a childrens’ park where it stayed there for three weeks before we transferred it to another city for one week. Like in all our projects, we are trying to promote the work of local artists through our interventions. In the green bus, we used the work of a Cypriot printmaker, Evgenia Vasiloudi and painted the bus using the stencils of her drawings.
Rene: It was not just about transforming the bus. It was also about getting people involved. Some people participated in recycling the cooking oil in the bus with another NGO. Through our artistic interventions we try to raise awareness generally about recycling so we also try to promote the cause of this organization that aims to recycle cooking oil.
Inflating the public initiative.
Veronika: This project was the first one funded by a large European organizations, EEA/Norway grants. We received this grant just after we registered as an organization. Inflating the public was an initiative to create a series of interventions in public spaces in Cyprus, using local impact techniques to regenerate public space and bring together people in public to present their own activities. Urban Gorillas in collaboration with Architecture Research Center (University of Nicosia) and Marco Canevacci have collaboratively created three inflatable structures which were used as the main tools to revitalize the selected public spaces. The idea was to provide a platform for artists, collectives and other NGOs to express themselves in public. There was an open call to do this. Anyone could make a request to present an activity to activate public space. We were actually amazed by the large response that we got from the public because people are usually much more reserved in Nicosia. They don’t normally go out in public spaces to do activities. Those activities are usually performed in private spaces. A lot of different groups participated: Theatre groups, dance groups, sport activities as skateboarding. We also have a lot of screenings with immigrants, children and music workshops.
Were you collaborating with other groups for this initiative?
Rene: There were different stages. During the first stage, the state of public spaces in Cyprus was part of our research. We ran a national survey. We added questions like: what do you think of public spaces. We made focus groups to see what the main problems were and what solutions could be thought of. We realized that people would like to participate but they did not know what to do. With these results we felt that we had to propose something. So the second stage was to propose solutions. We looked for the best ideas and we found “Inflating the public” from two experts. One in Berlin, Marco Canevacci from Plastique Fantastic and another from Rome, Daniel Mancini. We invited them to come to Cyprus to share their expertise with the public. During the second stage, we chose designers. The main idea was to create a space where we would be able to host activities, it could be quickly assembled and it should have a high impact. The idea was to change perceptions about space because we did not have financial capacities to change drastically the physical space. We managed to do a lot of things with this bubble, especially to show that is possible to do something creative and meaningful in public spaces. However, it was not easy because of necessary agreements with authorities.
Can you give a general overview of the results from the initiative?
Rene: The most important point, taken from the results of our research, is that we changed the perception of public spaces and we proved that with a large number of activities and stories. We changed the image of public space with our actions. The process was documented and is currently under review in academic journals.
Veronika: we have conducted some research with the interventions. We compare the results before and after the intervention was staged to see the differences and compare the perceptions of people who participated later in the initiative. At the ΦουσκόPolis festival, the research also took place through questionnaires. We could see that there was a big difference between what people conceived in public spaces before the event and how the perceptions changed when they were actually participating in these events in public spaces.
Rene: we conducted research about the differences between place and space. We have the physical space and we chose to go to a historical landmark where we teamed up with the Cypriot archeological department. All the places chosen were places where people had been one or two times before, spaces that are not places as they do not draw up memories. By using historical landmarks that are present in the collective memories of most Cypriots. The idea of the project was to modify the perception of the historical locations and challenge their everyday use, or rather its non-use. This allowed the chance to perform activities by creating a sense of place, creating memories and changing patterns. At that level we were quite successful.
Relationship with the municipality and other institutions
Veronika: with public authorities it was actually a bit tough because we were a new NGO. The first project was the bus. We had to ask permission to park the bus in a specific place. It was very difficult because you go there and show them this great project that would increase the value of the public space and that people would love it. In the beginning, they were not so open to these new ideas but with continuous persuasion and the support of other groups to our initiative, we find a way to get somewhere. For the bus, we had to compromise on the location. Ideally, we would have some other locations where we would have liked to place the bus but we could not get approval to use those places. So the compromise was to put it in a park where they thought it was more appropriate for the bus to be placed. It also depends. With some municipalities it easier than with others. There are some cities in which the mayor promotes citizen actions. In these cases, they are much more open, but generally it’s a very long process that entails sending official letters, making phone calls that sometimes are never returned.
The more they see our actions the more open they become to our initiatives. (Veronika Antoniou)
Another project we have been doing in the last two months is recycling trash and transforming it into urban furniture. It was a very fast project and we had to find a location for it. We did not want to be involved in the process of going to the municipality and asking permission as we have to move all the stuff from where we were building it, so we talked to the public official managing the park, working for the municipality: “No. I am the boss here, you don’t need to go the municipality. I just want people to come to the park. Please come and do something”
What other future initiatives are you working on?
Veronika: We are currently designing a project regarding refugee communities in an attempt to revitalize the public spaces in their neighborhoods. Now we would like to work directly in these deprived areas that are not a priority of the public authorities since they put all their efforts in large scale projects. In Cyprus, some areas have been “built” specifically for refugees. There are a lot of these areas since 40 percent of the population are refugees themselves and displaced people from the north and the south of the island. The project attempts to create communication between Cypriot refugees and immigrants arriving in Cyprus now. We would like to do a series of public actions for these communities to create exchanges between different groups in the population. We know there are a lot of common stories to share.