Reframing military fortress as a community hub
Our work in Kaunas Fort no. 8 has been nominated to the New European Bauhaus Prize in four categories:
- Regenerated urban and rural spaces
- Mobilisation of culture, arts and communities
- Reinvented places to meet and share
- Preserved and transformed cultural heritage
Project leader: Evelina Šimkutė.
Text by team members Rūta Lukošiūnaitė, Ugnė Balčiūnaitė and Evelina Šimkutė.
Resilient Fortress of Communities
Reframing military fortress as a community hub
Heritage management institution, local arts initiative, urban gardening community and passionate heritage volunteers working together for 5 years to change the abandoned First World War heritage site to a resilient community hub in harmony with nature and history.
Largely based on voluntary effort and with limited funds, this has been a long, open co-creation process which has led to a unique place for arts and culture, biodiversity and community urban gardening with sustainability at heart.
‘Resilient Fortress of Communities’ is a 5 year reinvention effort within the city of Kaunas to develop Fortress No.8 based on the principles of sustainability seeking synergy among community, nature and history. Fortress No.8 is part of the city wide, circular network of fortifications where artificial reliefs and underground structures are dominant. This reinvention is focused around the Fortress No.8 which was built in 1889-1890. Already during construction this Fortress was an experimental project and now it holds deep historical insights and cultural memory. More than 10 years ago enthusiasts embarked on the journey to preserve historical and cultural heritage that fortresses represent and formed an Association ‘Kaunas Fortress’. Since 2016 these efforts evolved into the pursuit to open Fortress No.8 for co-creation. The collaboration between volunteers, public institution ‘Kaunas Fortress Park’ and the creative platform ‘Šilainiai Project’ gave rise to many experimental events, exhibitions and experiences, in other words, evolving cultural programming. Fortress No.8 acts as a ground for conversation, where diverse input from various actors and social groups are welcome. In order to welcome the diversity of the objectives we focused a lot on security and accessibility of the site, storytelling and historical memory, as well as working with the nature that in a way took over the management of the fort for some time. Throughout the history fort acted as a defence system, home for displaced people, food storage, historical treasure, food provider and now it is slowly becoming a community hub in one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in Kaunas, that lacks quality, accessible public spaces and cultural activities. By reframing the fort as a community hub we brought culture and science closer to people, provided time and space for the crossing of diverse cultures, thoughts and experiences contributing to overall sustainability of the city.
KEY OBJECTIVES OF YOUR PROJECT IN TERMS OF SUSTAINABILITY AND HOW THESE HAVE BEEN MET
Sustainability in this community hub permeates all its aspects. Through the focus on a specific place we expanded the functionality of the site contributing to effective land use within the city territory. We provide a space for historic storytelling, exploring and relating to place identity, intergenerational communication, and human-nature connectedness. We contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts by bringing many functions closer to people, developing new life skills, exploring soil remediation methods that help sequester carbon and reduce pollution. Through this work we are setting an example of what sustainability can look like on a neighbourhood level.
In terms of environmental sustainability we worked to ensure a healthy, safe and thriving biosphere in the fort. During the last 5 years, the project site went through a number of pollution reduction activities. These involved managing the invasive and dangerous to humans plant species, collection and proper disposal of accumulated waste, and collaboration with scientists in order to lead informed development of the fort.
In terms of social sustainability we initiated and facilitated transdisciplinary collaborations. Our created space is oriented for maximum inclusivity in terms of age, gender, income, abilities and capabilities. Through continuous presence on site we are fostering feelings of belonging, community and encourage communication. Through diversity of cultural activities we provide space for creators, scientists and society to interact and work together.
In terms of economic sustainability we experimented with circularity and urban gardening to increase resilience beyond economic benefits. We embraced sharing economy principles where our participants through their time and skills contribute to developments on site. All our activities were oriented to maximum economic accessibility, which meant providing most of our activities for free for all, even with limited project funds.
KEY OBJECTIVES OF YOUR PROJECT IN TERMS OF AESTHETICS AND QUALITY OF EXPERIENCE BEYOND FUNCTIONALITY AND HOW THESE HAVE BEEN MET
Here we would like to frame the fundamental objectives of our activities as three values that permeate our work: community, nature and history. Some of the most memorable experiences that we created combined nature and history of the place and provided space and time for experiencing these in a communal way.
We ensured space for multiple social groups, actors and activities to give rise to the collective aesthetics of the place. We believe this to be an important aspect of collaborative placemaking, where there are no “head architects or designers”. The aesthetics of the Fortress No.8 emerged from the values of sustainability and inclusivity, which meant that through a diverse set of activities and inclusive nature of the project an authentic to community aesthetic is created. It provides new seeds for discussions and raises questions that we actively debate again through our activities.
One of the main objectives since the beginning of all activities was to overcome historical aesthetics of abandonment and neglect of the fortress. This meant many practical actions mentioned in sustainability and inclusivity questions, as well as, focus on quality of experience in terms of navigating the continuum between clarity, cleanliness, order and creative expression, adaptability and flexibility. All of this contributes to one of the main objectives of our activities – to create conditions for the community and the place itself to dictate and create its aesthetics that fosters empathy, mind-body regeneration and creativity.
Through cultural programming we created many possibilities for exposure to diverse thoughts and cultures that challenge and broaden the identity and aesthetics of the place. Multiple events, exhibitions and experiences gave rise to the aesthetics we see today and the cultural programming, provided a kaleidoscope, through which everyone participating got the opportunity to see the place in a new light.
KEY OBJECTIVES OF THE PROJECT IN TERMS OF INCLUSION AND HOW THESE HAVE BEEN MET
It is important to communicate the preexisting ground for the current development of the Fortress No.8. There were many grassroot initiatives, different social groups and institutions using the fortress separately, that led to emergent need for inclusion and collectivity. ‘Resilient Fortress of Communities’ does not end with the boundaries defined by the heritage location but overflow into the Šilainiai neighbourhood and Kaunas city itself.
Through diverse cultural programming we provided a space for a complex net of co-creators to empathise and work together.
We initiated and facilitated transdisciplinary collaborations to bring science and insights that help better understand the fort itself. Together with a community of co-creators we gather data of the location, create information sources that are accessible and understandable for all generations.
Our created space is oriented for maximum inclusivity in terms of age, gender, income, abilities and capabilities. We are improving the physical access to the location, creating gathering and educational spaces, evaluating soil and water conditions, offering free activities and continuously providing useful information via local communication channels to maintain the direct engagement.
Initiatives are shaped to nourish the ownership of creative process and encourage contributions. Through continuous presence on site we are fostering feelings of belonging, community and encourage communication. This process is changing citizens’ relation to the location and supports the habit of caretaking and accountability.
Through a cultural change the microdistrict inhabitants are invited to use the location as a recreational site, continue using it as a food source, and recognise and celebrate the authenticity of the neighbourhood. Activation of the community through arts and collective caretaking creates bridges between individuals, generations and various organisations involved.
RESULTS/IMPACTS ACHIEVED BY THE PROJECT
- Reinvented places to meet and share
There are four main initiatives that are a part of placemaking that leads to reshaping the place to meet and share. ‘Šilainiai Project’ initiates art and cultural events. ‘Šilainiai Gardens’ is mainly focusing on community gardening experience while ‘Kaunas Fortress Park’ takes care of physical location and its overall development and is an institution directly reporting to the municipality. Association ‘Kaunas Fortress’ volunteers ensure historical education and heritage protection. Due to the variety of co-creators this becomes a complex , multilayered place for strengthening the community and its resilience.
The positive exchange is happening through reimagining the identity of the military heritage while it is becoming not only a ghost of the past but an open, creative social platform for various generations to gather. To the people living around or close to the fortress, this place has become a refuge from the densely populated neighbourhood, as well as a place to recover their own sense of identity and connection to nature.
Kaunas Fortress No. 8 is a large green area with fortified landscape and unique underground structures. Despite a close-to-none project budget this is now a unique place for various events, educational programmes, community initiatives, free time activities, workspace for artists and community co-creation workshops hosted by activists, scientists, artists and locals themselves. Art residencies, cultural events are free of charge and accessible to everyone promoting inclusivity, sustainability and resilience.
Due to the ongoing engagement with citizens the location has been changing rapidly with a constant involvement of the community. Waste reduction, collective clean up work, co-creation of the place, increased accountability of the place, a changed attitude to waste management, reuse of material for art installations, rain water collectors – are some of the activities that contribute to the transition to a circular economy.
- Preserved and transformed cultural heritage
For a long time Fortress No.8 was considered an abandoned military heritage site that was neglected and was increasingly becoming more dangerous and problematic to the community. Since it seemed to be ‘no one’s land’ anarchy, pollution and even crime took over the identity of the place in the minds of neighbourhood inhabitants. When it comes to reconversion of heritage infrastructure it is very common for the process to get stuck in the planning stage as the debates related to what extent the heritage has to be restored to its original state seems to never find a universally acceptable answer. While specialists and professionals keep debating the topic and look for large amounts of funding with the common goal of establishing museums that bring a certain type of aesthetics, communities are often excluded from the process. Fortress No. 8 was not an exception and the worsening condition of its abandoned state has immensely affected the local community. To highlight the importance of co-creation with the community we created multiple social benefits and values through unique yearly cultural programming and annually recurring cyclic experiences that inherently were adaptable and flexible. We ensured the shortest distance between vision and action through continuous engagement in co-creation instead of waiting or developing a detailed master plan that could take years or decades. With such a cyclic model we also are able to reevaluate our environmental impact on a regular basis and this approach also reduces our carbon footprint in comparison to other heritage preservation and transformation examples in Lithuania. We also ensure many other environmental benefits beyond low carbon footprint such as:
- preserving and enhancing vegetation to reduce heat island effect, capture carbon, and increase biodiversity.
- soil and water quality assurance through waste clean up and pollution prevention.
- local plant based food production that reduces various greenhouse gas emissions.
- Regenerated urban and rural spaces
For a long time Fortress No.8 was an abandoned military heritage site that was neglected and was increasingly becoming more dangerous and problematic to the community. Since it seemed to be ‘no one’s land’ anarchy, pollution and even crime took over the identity of the place in the minds of neighbourhood inhabitants. The paradoxical identity of the place being associated with pain, trauma and war, since the late 80’s started to provide a space for the inhabitants of newly built Šilainiai district to grow their food and stay connected to the soil. People who ‘do not fit in’ with their activities in other public spaces found refuge in Fortress No.8. These examples can be seen as emblematic of the many challenges that territorial regeneration faces within large cities. Working within such a complex setting requires increased attention to the process of collaboration. The success of the project ‘Resilient Fortress of Communities’ rested on the mediation of the diverse objectives of communities, heritage professionals, local authorities, artists and scientists. At the moment we can claim that communal ownership of the fortress has been established and we overcame the identity and aesthetics of abandonment. Ensuring various levels of collaborative participation that spanned from visiting to working on site shaped a new well functioning public space open for everyone. Through the diversity of activities, events and ways of experiencing the place we have reduced all forms of segregation in terms of age, gender, income, abilities and capabilities. We provided a unique place and experiential opportunities in a densely populated soviet built neighbourhood that were not found anywhere else within it. Transdisciplinary or cross-sectorial collaboration has been established as an integral part of the project.
- Mobilisation of culture, arts and communities
Microdistricts are facing a gentrification problem that is apparent in many cities in Europe. Cultural activities mostly concentrate in downtowns, old towns and city centers while Šilainiai can be described as a “sleeping” neighbourhood. Ever since Šilainiai district was built no cultural infrastructure was implemented for the community, an intergenerational gap was growing and the area lacked leisure activities. “Resilient Fortress of Community” created inclusive cultural spaces in Fortress No. 8 and around for the inhabitants that have been slowly separated by socio-economical reasons from the city’s cultural life.
Artists’ residencies that invited international artists to reside with families from the community in the same apartment buildings were a bridge for crossing cultural boundaries, and creating exposure to diverse thoughts and cultures. Moreover, cultural performances and gatherings not only strengthened already existing culture such as community celebrations but also introduced inhabitants to less familiar contemporary art and culture.
The project encouraged residing artists to exit the individual creation process and host co-creation workshops, where waste materials have been turned into art and objects that benefit the community and the recreational areas. During these workshops participants learned new creative techniques of art and design.
Fortress No. 8 became a site for both climate and cultural activism. The collectivity of the neighbourhood was expressed through collaboration with artists, conversations, and the growing ownership of the space. Neighbours were involved, engaged and became the artists themselves. The identity of Šilainiai was expressed through local storytellers, artists, and community poets. The co-creators of the community hub continue to provide activities that educate, while weaving a historical relation to the place. Excursions and heritage caretaking builds a strong connection to the location as well as the nation’s history.
THE WAY CITIZENS BENEFITING FROM OR AFFECTED BY THE PROJECT AND CIVIL SOCIETY HAVE BEEN INVOLVED IN THE PROJECT AND WHAT HAS BEEN THE IMPACT OF THIS INVOLVEMENT ON THE PROJECT
The co-creation plays a key role in the evolution of the community hub. The initial activation of the fortress started by the citizen grassroots initiatives and is run and supported by various social groups co-creating the collective futures of the place. This process is happening on various levels through mediation and facilitation of conversations with citizens and institutions involved in the stewardship of the location. There are no superior designers or planners of the place thus it secures an authentic development process that is considerate to issues such as affordability, generation gap and inclusivity.
Through the inclusion and co-creation with citizens the remarkable location with a recreational potential was reinterpreted. This gave an opportunity for communities to view Fortress No.8 identity beyond its military heritage.
The project created opportunities for scientific research and activism. This way scientists and experts were able to share their findings about the location and how these results affect neighbours directly. The topics of biodiversity, soil and water quality became more apparent and the citizens started taking initiative to be considerate to the nature that hosts them. Cultural programming opened a discussion on cultural impact on microdistrict, contributing to healing of the historical trauma, socio-economic inequality and other pressing issues.
Through the continuous presence on site such as communal gardening and cyclic cultural programming, citizens gained access to culture, new knowledge and skills. Benefits for citizens include wider knowledge about food, plants, nature, human footprint, planning and problem solving skills, increased awareness and creativity. Presence of scientists and creators on site sparked citizen curiosity and wish to learn about their living environment that led to environmental awareness. Furthermore, Communal gardens continue to provide citizens with economical, environmental, social and health benefits
INNOVATIVE CHARACTER OF THE PROJECT
Using the WW1 heritage as a community place is not a common practice in Lithuania. This area is also environmentally sensitive and protected by Natura 2000 for maintaining biodiversity. Besides that it also requires a lot of intersectoral and cross-disciplinary work that we have engaged in.
Many heritage areas become highly focused on the aesthetic aspect and the inclusion becomes secondary. The conversation usually ends by authorities or higher in a hierarchy institution deciding the destiny of the place. Sometimes external experts are hired to do the analysis and renovate the locations rarely involving the citizens in the creation process.
Here we see a different approach brings the best long lasting results. In contrast to urbanization practices that apply certain models of aesthetics, here the community becomes the main data gatherer for the solutions to be made. This way gentrification of places when they are being made homogenous and adapted to a certain type of user is irrelevant and the already existing diversity in the area is being protected rather than later to be introduced from a new.
Bottom-up driven process might not be the quickest solution, however it builds different habits of the community and encourages a strong sense of ownership and accountability. This project is particularly innovative in its approach that does not suggest one vision for the place but rather creates a platform of co-creators to continuously share the conversation without a superior agenda, thus maintaining the context sensitivity.
An approach that is aiming to focus on the authenticity of already existing communities, their practices, interests and ways of communicating is building communities’ resilience and encouraging the ability to see the importance of collective decision making in the city planning. This approach also has a potential to grow the connection with city governance and re-build the trust between the government and communities.
HOW THE PROJECT LED TO RESULTS OR LEARNINGS WHICH COULD BE TRANSFERRED TO OTHER INTERESTED PARTIES
Learning 1: With continuous mediation and facilitation, heritage and nature protection areas can become community hubs and contribute to overcoming the mental nature-society divide that is deemed necessary to pursue sustainability. Our project challenged and transformed the view of how heritage and nature protection areas should be managed. The most important part enabling this transformation was mediation and facilitation. Before we established the conversation, the fort was a sort of ‘battle’ field of different interests trying to monopolise the territory. Long, careful, adaptive and continuous mediation and facilitation is key to delivering inclusive projects.
Learning 2: Flexible participatory co-creation establishes ownership and responsibility for the place. Co-creation has been a cornerstone element in this project. This requires active seeking for collaborators and ‘mixing’ them in various combinations to test what works and what the place needs. We had many specialists, artists, scientists, public servants and locals co-creating and interacting as equals where we created an environment where everyone’s contributions are welcome. This intentional welcoming disperses the ownership of the project to all participating.
Learning 3: Decentralisation of decision making power, culture, arts, science, knowledge and social benefits in cities has to be a long and persistent pursuit that requires contextual sensitivity on a neighbourhood and even site level rather than the whole city as a uniform unit. The more we delved into the context of our site and got to know active people practicing their interests the more we noticed the unique potential this specific place holds. The existing situation itself informed all our activities and collaborations as it continuously provides us with a to do list. Once we have the new item on the list we embark on the journey to find who could work with it on site in this way bringing everything that the place needs straight to it.
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