The Danube Design Lab empowers disadvantaged students from vocational schools to create new, sustainable public spaces along the Danube river in Ruse (Bulgaria). This provides opportunities for these often disenfranchised young people to be more included socially and develop professional networks. Each pop up architectural creation - made with recyclable materials such as wood, metal, fabric and mulch - allows residents to mingle, enjoy art together and reconnect with a part of the riverside that was long neglected.
It refers to a physical transformation of the built environment (hard investment)
As a representative of an organisation
Name of the organisation(s): The Collective Foundation Type of organisation: Non-profit organisation First name of representative: Martin Last name of representative: Yankov Gender: Male Nationality: Bulgaria If relevant, please select your other nationality: Bulgaria Function: founder of the Collective foundation Address (country of permanent residence for individuals or address of the organisation)<br/>Street and number: Lyulin 7, building 724, entrance B, fl. 1, apt. 3 Town: Sofia Postal code: 1324 Country: Bulgaria Direct Tel:+359 87 877 9477 E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org Website:https://kolektiv.bg/
In Ruse, deindustrialisation has left the Danube river detached from the city, while career and social opportunities for youth have diminished. The Danube Design Lab empowers socially excluded youth to change their environment. With help from mentors and in dialogue with officials, vocational school students design public space that opens the riverfront for people. They have the opportunity to learn through experience how to find allies to realise their creative vision, and they become social entrepreneurs who activate urban and civic development.
Limited social and job prospects cause youth alienation and migration: in 2010-2016, nearly 10% of people aged 15-25 left Ruse. Trade school students, in particular, are even more excluded from public life and professional development, and they distrust local institutions. The system of vocational schools no longer adequately corresponds to the labour market. Despite their skills these students face obstacles in their career paths; they need more mentorship and they lack civic competences. On the other hand the symbol of Ruse - the Danube river - is largely disconnected from the city, even though it has the potential to once again become a source for social and cultural activities, tourism, and connection to nature.
The Danube Design Lab employs placemaking as a creative mechanism to integrate vocational students and their skills both into the urban and the social fabric of their city. Аs a result of the project, Ruse Municipality included the creation of active public space for sports, art, social activities, and tourism on the riverbank as a goal in its Plan for Integrated Development of the Municipality 2021-2027. The municipality plans to apply for European funds to help realise this goal. The Danube Design Lab has also united a wide network of local stakeholders, activists, artists, businesses, and NGOs, creating an active community for urban and civic development around the initiative.
The Danube Design Lab initiative stands for sustainable development in Ruse by creating new shared spaces on the Danube that are accessible, inclusive, and environmentally friendly. This is achieved by working closely with local communities, especially students from vocational schools, to build the new public centres together.
In terms of sustainability, the project strives to create new gathering points on the riverbank that are low-impact on the environment and that promote active, healthy lifestyles. The chosen locations aim to reconnect people with nature and the Danube River in particular. The intervention serves as a platform to observe wildlife on the river and forests on the opposite shore in Romania, familiarising locals with the ecosystem. The design solution incorporates elements such as greenery, timber structures, and shading. The structures are built in a way that can be repurposed in the future, reducing the need for constant new construction. The materials - wood, metal, fabric and mulch - can be easely recycled, and were reused from one year to the next. This modular, light-weight, and highly impactful model for local placemaking can serve as an example for other communities. It shows how, with a low environmental footprint and a small budget, changes can be made that transform a place and create an engaged community around it.
The model employed by Danube Design Lab shows how a starter pack with the same basic materials can be used to create different pop up architectural interventions, which substantially minimises waste.
The project is also sustainable in another sense: it enables underserved youth to express their vision for the city by giving them the tools to change their environment. It bridges the growing gap between civil society and institutions. This framework creates the conditions for lasting, sustainable change. It has already motivated local authorities to put focus on the initiative and scale it in the larger urban context.
A key goal of the initiative is to emphasise the natural beauty of the Danube and to reconnect the city with this major ecosystem at its heart. The aesthetic qualities of the landscape and their integration into the design differentiate Danube Design Lab from other urban placemaking projects. Waterfronts, whose use for industry and transportation is declining, still remain underutilised as a civic, natural, and cultural resource in cities, especially in Eastern Europe. This project shows the potential of such spaces to be developed with a high aesthetic and experiential quality, benefiting local residents. Danube Design Lab is a gathering space where people can experience the arts, and at the same time a platform allowing them to spend time close to nature in the middle of the city.
Other key objectives of the Danube Design Lab in terms of aesthetics and experience are to create high-quality shared spaces that promote cultural benefits for residents. To achieve these objectives, the initiative prioritises the wants of the community in the design and development of urban solutions. Vocational school students’ needs for an active space for gathering, conversation, self-expression and artistic experimentation were addressed in the space we created together. The outcome was a new positive identity for Ruse as a place connected to its heritage – the Danube – yet open to youth culture and new ideas. Local artists from the music, visual arts, and community theatre scenes performed in events programme open to all. A festive atmosphere was created, as well as a new sense that culture did not only belong in the city’s more traditional institutions, but also in the open, where it is accessible and part of a shared experience.
Our approach demonstrates how a mixed-use space can bring cultural benefits to new audiences. The functions combining active and reflective use, nature and culture, sport and art draw in diverse social groups and open up the cultural experience to all.
The Danube Design Lab creates mechanisms for inclusion on two levels: the design process, and the functions of the new public space.
On the design side, the Danube Design Lab presents a model for inclusive, collaborative urbanism, in which youth at risk of social exclusion become agents of change in their city. Through a series of hands-on workshops, they reflect on the changes they would like to see in their environment. With help from mentors from the architecture and design fields, youth turn their ideas into full-fledged designs. Students from different vocational schools, with a variety of skills, work together on multidisciplinary teams to build scale models of their proposals. The mayor and other public officials, as well as civic society and arts leaders visit the Design Lab and engage in conversation with the students about their ideas, providing feedback. The Lab shows citizens’ potential to create solutions for their city and to work with authorities and stakeholders in a collaborative process. This bottom-up, hands-on approach to urbanism as a process of dialogue can serve as a positive example for other cities. It shows that creating public space that is interactive, creative, and even fun, with the potential to engage many social groups.
In terms of the new place’s function and programme, the main objective
was to create a shared public space that is accessible and affordable for all members of the community. First, we made sure that the physical interventions on the riverbank were suitable for people with mobility issues or disabilities, so anyone could physically participate. Second, the place’s events programme provided a variety of experiences that were entirely free and open to everyone. The programme was designed to be as varied as possible, with events targeting different groups.
The project was able to achieve its key objective of creating a shared public space close to nature that is truly owned and used by the people of Ruse.
Danube Design Lab involves citizens in the decision making and development of shared spaces along the Danube riverfront, so that the resulting interventions are inclusive, accessible and sustainable. The main mechanism of public involvement is the direct participation in design workshops. Grassroots ideas are realised as a way to demonstrate that young people can not only have a voice in, but actually lead urban change, and that the people with the best ideas about improving a space are its users. Representatives of local government and civil society offer input. In 2021 and 2022, multidisciplinary teams of students, together with their mentors from the fields of architecture and design, and with feedback from officials and civic society leaders, developed complete designs of a public space’s layout and use. These designs were implemented as placemaking interventions and led to highly popular public spaces. Civil society, including local arts, sports, and environmental groups, were involved in co-creating the programme for the space to respond to the needs of their constituents. The impact on the initiative was that, with participation from these local stakeholders, it moved from a proposal to successful implementation. Young people and other groups in the city had a space they felt belonging in that responded to their needs. This approach of bottom-up urbanism was accepted as a valid method, including by the local municipality, which was a partner in the initiative; and by EU institutions. The Danube Design Lab’s successes led to an event in Ruse under the joint patronage of the seats of the European Parliament in Bulgaria and Romania, in which youth from Ruse and Bucharest, participated in a joint workshop to devise solutions for the whole Danube riverfront. The results were presented in Ruse at a public discussion. Our bottom-up method thus became a good practice example at the European level and is leading to positive publicity and scaling for the initiative.
At the local level, we worked closely with students from vocational schools. In two consecutive years so far, 25 teenagers from 6 schools were involved in the design process through workshops where they developed proposals for how they would like to change their city. We then collaborated with Ruse Municipality to obtain the necessary permits. The local authorities also assisted with implementation by providing goods and services such as electricity, vegetation, water, and trash collection. Community volunteers helped construct the placemaking projects. Additionally, local civic, sports, and arts organisations co-created the events programme so that it would serve a variety of visitors.
At the national level, the project is part of the wider initiative Rivers of the City, which is active in 3 cities and promotes collaborative urbanism. Local citizens and stakeholders from the public, private, and civic sector are involved in all cities.
At the international level, we collaborated with the European Union, specifically the liaison offices of the EU Parliament in Bulgaria and Romania, to gather students and civil society actors from Ruse and Bucharest to also participate in a collaborative workshop and create more proposals for the waterfront’s development. Finally, the project has now become a foundational experience for the initiative New European Bauhaus on the Danube, of which our organisation is a core partner. The New European Bauhaus on the Danube is in the final stages of approval to enter the New European Bauhaus Lab. Its proposed activities, developed with our partners in Germany and Slovenia, include similar on-site placemaking interventions in the whole region to make collaborative urbanism more widely practised to and create beautiful, inclusive spaces along Europe’s longest river, celebrating nature and culture.
Danube Design Lab brought together a diverse group of disciplines. The initiative was designed so that professionals from the fields of architecture, design, and urbanism would work alongside students of craft disciplines, including textile, construction, woodworking, and even shipbuilding. Policy professionals and civil society leaders offered feedback. Then, at the implementation stage, members of local arts and sports organisations, as well as environmental groups shaped and executed the events programme at the newly opened space. All of these various knowledge fields were brought together using the mechanism of placemaking: a method combining hands-on urbanism with community development to create a functional and inclusive environment.
Students worked together in multidisciplinary teams with an assigned mentor to create design proposals and scale models. Their craft competences were key to the project, and they learned how they can apply their skills to tackle larger-scale urban issues. This collaborative process with students at the centre and architects, policymakers, and civil society as support engendered proposals for original, mixed-use public space that reflected the needs of young people, while it was welcoming to other groups too. This led to a tangible improvement in the urban environment appreciated by thousands of people. An added value for all participants was experiencing a new process of urban design and learning that local people can be the authors of great ideas for their cities. This innovative approach was empowering for students, and it received wide publicity on the national and also EU level.
The multidisciplinary approach including local youth, policymakers, experts, and civic society groups ensured that all aspects of the project were integrated in a cohesive way. The diverse perspectives and expertise allowed for a more flexible approach to problem-solving, which resulted in a more dynamic and engaging space for the community.
The initiative is innovative in three key ways. First, it connects the fields of vocational education and urban development. Students from underserved schools gain new skills in urban design, teamwork, advocacy, and stakeholder engagement that make them into potential social entrepreneurs. Valuable placemaking projects are created that enhance social life and wellbeing in the city, while these disadvantaged youth develop practical skills and competences. The process provides training and mentorship to students from underprivileged backgrounds, helping them develop the skills they need to succeed professionally, but also using their existing talents and ambitions for the common good.
The focus on the river is also a distinctive and innovative aspect of the project. The combination of its natural beauty and the local society’s specific needs lead to highly contextual decisions in the design process. The design brings people close to nature and creates conditions for sustained contemplation; it also opens access to the natural riverbank. The Danube acts as a catalyst for change, as the project’s interventions open up the potential to transform the entire riverbank for nature, culture, and leisure, reconnecting the city with the river.Targeted interventions are used as a strategy for long-term change.
Finally, The project brings innovation by directly involving various stakeholders in designing and activating the public space. Multi-level actors, from the mayor to students, take part in a horizontal process of collaboration and dialogue. This approach ensures sustainable growth and promotes future investment and public engagement in the initiative. This approach ensures that the product is not only a visually appealing public space but also an important step in the direction of sustainable urban development, preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the Danube riverfront, and promoting social and economic inclusion for disadvantaged youth.
The initiative is designed to be highly transferable to other places, groups of beneficiaries, and contexts. The following elements are especially conducive to replication:
The methodology: The initiative employs a collaborative, hands-on design process that involves citizens in the decision-making and implementation of urban interventions. This methodology was proven to be effective in generating creative solutions and buy-in from citizens, and has received wide recognition and publicity, including on the EU level.
The technology: The initiative makes use of simple and low-cost technologies, such as temporary urban installations, that can be easily replicated in other places. Construction can be carried out in large part by volunteers. The structures are modular, adaptable, and reusable. They can be directly transported to another place, or reused locally to execute a different design. They also have a very low footprint on the environment.
The process: The initiative utilises an iterative process that includes experimentation and testing of ideas before they are fully implemented. This process allows for adjustments to be made based on feedback and real-world results, making it highly adaptable to different contexts.
The products: The initiative results in tangible urban interventions that can be replicated in other places – mixed-use public spaces and community placemaking projects.
The insights: The initiative generates valuable lessons that can be shared and applied in other contexts, such as the importance of inclusivity and stakeholder engagement in the design and implementation of urban interventions, and, specifically, the potential of hands-on design workshops as a tool for involving citizens in local decision-making.
Danube Design Lab is an effective model for community-led urban design and placemaking that can be replicated in other places and contexts, with adjustments made as necessary.
The Danube Design Lab initiative employs a community-driven approach that prioritises loca’s needs in the design and development of public spaces. Thе methodology consist of several key steps:
Community engagement: The initiative begins by engaging with local residents and stakeholders, with a focus on vocational school students, to understand their needs and preferences and engage them in the project early on. This can include conducting surveys, focus groups, interviews and other collaborative activities to gather input from the citizens about their opinions, issues and needs. A tailored communications campaign is launched that reflects the results.
Design and planning: this phase serves as a basis for the design workshops. Urban designers, architects, construction professionals, and other experts work together to conduct on-site and policy research and devise a framework for development of public spaces on the riverbank. They create a design brief for the workshops.
Implementation: Vocational school students, tutored by professional architects, put their skills into practice. They reflect on the riverbank’s limitations and possibilities, and create design solutions to transform it. The placemaking interventions are then constructed using lightweight structures, together with the students and community volunteers.
Monitoring and evaluation: Throughout the previous stages our team monitors and evaluates the progress. This includes tracking the public spaces’ development and the impact of the project on the community. This stage is crucial for the further development of the concept and the scaling of the initiative.
Reflection and adaptation: Based on the monitoring and evaluation results, our methodology reflects and adapts as needed to ensure that the project is responsive to the needs of the community.
This approach ensures that the interventions give the right solutions for the problems and potentials of the context.
The initiative addresses multiple global challenges at once, including the need for more sustainable cities, social exclusion and limited opportunities for disadvantaged youth, especially in regions away from capital cities, the distrust and disconnect between citizens and government, and declining social cohesion.
Danube Design Lab provides a tangible vision for more sustainable shared spaces that are constructed in an ecologically sound manner and that integrate nature into the urban environment. It provides a model in which nature and culture coexist and citizens participate in the creation and care of both. Shade and greenery during the summer create shared outdoor space that eliminates the need for air conditioning. Local quality of life is improved with a very low cost on the environment.
The project also opens up opportunities for engagement, leadership, and developing a practical skill set for youth. Uneven development on the EU, national, and local level means that lower-class youth in this small, remote and depopulating city have much more limited opportunities than their peers. Alienation and social inclusion are addressed by providing youth an opportunity to use their skills to create the conditions they want and need.
Social fragmentation is addressed by opening up a truly accessible, public area where citizens can celebrate a shared experience and take part in improving their environment. This fosters the sense of inclusion and belonging needed to address many other global issues.
Finally, the distrust of institutions and decline of democracy find a response in a collaborative, hands-on design process in which officials and citizens take part together. This process goes beyond debate and brings the parties together around a shared goal. Youth have an opportunity to realise their ideas. Surveys after the workshops showed that students’ opinion of local government improved.
Danube Design Lab responded to an unmet need for local young people to be together in a place that feels their own. More than 15 000 visited the location in the summer of 2022. On the first evening, the opening event gathered around twice the number of people that showed up for the opening of the festival's first edition in 2021, demonstrating growing interest.
The place got recognition as a key part of Ruse’s alternative arts scene with more than 70 cultural events for one season. It made visible the strong local desire for active, especially youth-focused spaces.The Deputy Mayor agreed that this initiative was beneficial to youth and responded to their needs, and that it could even help retain young people in the city – as one of the core problems Ruse is facing is youth outmigration. So far, the result is that the project was highly successful, with positive feedback from a much larger number of young people than our direct participants, as well as from the municipality. At the same time, the long-term partnerships with vocational schools ensure we continue our proven practice of combining vocational skills with urban changemaking.
The goal for 2023 is to continue improve the process so that even more people take part not only in the creation of the space, but also in its programming and management. We believe this iterative approach has a lot of potential and should be practised more widely. In the coming years, we plan to continue the main elements of the project, while we develop longer-term strategies for the space’s management, and advocate for transformation of Ruse’s whole riverbank as public space.
At the same time, we are working on scaling the project beyond the local level. In 2023 we are focused on growing the Danube Design Lab’s international dimension as part of the New European Bauhaus on the Danube. This international initiative is aiming to bring the lessons learned in Ruse to many more communities across the whole Danube region.
The project provides a hands-on programme for vocational school students, whose skills are highly practical but disconnected from the contemporary profession of urbanism and competencies on sustainability, to update their knowledge and apply their skill set for the common good. The students learn to use their design and craft skills to address local sustainability challenges, and to practise the different components of inclusive and green urbanism, from eco-friendly design and preserving ecosystems, to stakeholder engagement and advocacy. By completing a whole project from idea to execution, participants are prepared to act as social entrepreneurs who can implement local sustainability solutions.