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January 25, 2016

ReCreating the City

ReCreating the City

By Charlot Schans, Hans Karssenberg and Christian Grauvogel

The role of local governments in urban development is undergoing a drastic change. They’re still responsible for the upkeep of public space, but are no longer the natural leaders of urban change. New groups with fresh ideas and innovative potential are stepping in.

Throughout Europe we are seeing new players in urban development: Civil enterprises, or public developers, driven by passion. They hatch innovative ideas to meet modern challenges that go beyond blueprint masterplans. They create value for citizens through their spaces and their ways of re-imagining the city. The outcomes can be seen in the spheres of health and welfare, social connectedness, artistic initiatives and the economic growth of particular areas.

One initiative to have evolved from this new movement of civic developers is the re:Kreators association. Currently with 10 member organisations in cities from Copenhagen to Lisbon, the association focuses on the exchange of practices and expertise for the collaborative development of malfunctioning areas. The group came together in the belief that urban dynamics in different European cities have much in common. However, the different ways in which members develop their strategies to fit local contexts highlights important assets and competences. Through peer-to-peer learning on an international scale, members of the association are strengthening their local projects and articulating a common perspective on the European urban agenda.

One of the re:Kreators is Darwin, l’écosystème de la caserne Niel in Bordeaux. In 2009, a group of creative entrepreneurs known as the Evolution Group was able to buy a derelict building comprising a cluster of former military barracks on the Garonne riverfront in Bordeaux, covering a site of 10,000 square metres. Working with a community of stakeholders, the group transformed it into a vibrant site for 140 new businesses as well as social enterprises, a restaurant, an alternative skate park and event spaces. In addition, several guest rooms were created surrounded by an urban garden.

The Darwin Ecosystem, which has since acquired additional space in the barracks, today attracts big crowds to an area of the riverfront that was previously completely neglected. The name "Darwin" is a reference to the group’s ambition to create development following the principles of ecological transition, economic cooperation and urban creativity. Through commercial events and entrepreneurial activities, they are developing the area in the public interest, creating a location that all residents of Bordeaux can engage in. The repurposed barracks also follow sustainability principles, with energy-efficient utilities and a cistern that collects rainwater for irrigation. In the meantime, the Darwin Ecosystem has grown into a major attraction for Bordeaux.

What drives the re:Kreators is the desire to change neglected brownfields, empty offices and shops and derelict factories into places that contribute to a more loveable city. They become places that go beyond serving their own interests to places that transform an area and serve diverse public needs, reflected in mixed uses and vibrant public spaces. The element of collaboration is key: The development process engages a wide range of stakeholders and normally results in a combination of commercial and non-profit activities and housing.

In short: It matters who gets involved in making the place and how they do it. This mix of different functions and users on a relatively small scale ensures that these places meet current needs while being flexible enough to adapt to the ever-changing dynamics of urban life. The new players, emerging all over Europe, experiment with models for more organic and sustainable development.

All this requires an appropriate response from governments. Cities need all the creativity they can get from their local re:Kreators and it is in each city’s interest to become a partner in the process and to recognise, help scale up and multiply upcoming initiatives. What can cities do to foster a thriving scene for re:Kreators? First of all, local governments have to acknowledge the direct and indirect values that re:Kreators create. Second, they need to partner with re:Kreators by, for instance, giving timely permits for activities that require them; co-investing in the quality of public space; helping to generate exchange and learning between re:Kreators; and creating investment models based on social returns and indirect values.

Charlot Schans is project leader of New Europe – Cities in Transition and co-founder of re:Kreators

Hans Karssenberg is partner at stipo and co-founder of re:Kreators

Christian Grauvogel is chairman of Mörchenpark e.V.  and co-founder of re:Kreators

Join re:Kreators! The network aims to expand, set up joint investment and funding calls, and strengthen the interests of re:Kreators locally, nationally and at the European level. The founding members of re:Kreators are: Shuffle Festival (London), KÉK Contemporary Architecture Centre and Lakatlan (Budapest), the Darwin Ecosystem (Bordeaux), ZOHO and Stipo (Rotterdam), PB43 (Copenhagen), Open Jazdów (Warsaw), Stealth (Belgrade), Mörchenpark and Genossenschaft für Urbane Kreativität for Holzmarkt (Berlin), Ateliermob and Largo Residencias (Lisbon), Make a Point (Bucharest) and Pakhuis de Zwijger (Amsterdam).

To apply for membership, please send an email about your project to

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