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DPU SummerLAB: Common Grounds, Mostar

By ucyow3c, on 29 September 2015

pencil-icon Written by Hannah Sender, Projects and Communications Officer at UCL Institute for Global Prosperity

The UCL Development Planning Unit’s SummerLAB aims to bring together a group of people from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to work on a single project over a week, confronting major challenges facing contemporary urban life in four different settings. This is no simple task. Having recently returned from the Mostar-based SummerLAB – Common Grounds – I can attest to the numerous struggles and successes of some 20 participants faced with the challenge of creating a common ground in the still divided city of Mostar.

Although several of our group were former DPU students, the SummerLAB also had in its cohort a theatre producer, an established architect and a forestry student.

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (credit: Renata Summa)

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (credit: Renata Summa)

With so many voices to be heard, each expounding their approach to questions of space and social division, the Mostar workshop had the potential to synergise these voices, or to end up as many individual strategies, stories and experiences as there were participants.

Having arrived in Mostar, organisers Giulia Carabelli, Camila Cociña and Diana Salazar challenged the SummerLAB participants to map the city in whatever way they saw fit.

Some filled both sides of an A3 sheet with reports about the city, noting its monuments to soldiers (divided along ethno-national lines), skeletons of former public buildings with remaining walls pock-marked by machine-gun fire and street art documenting frustrations with contemporary life and gesturing towards hopeful futures or nearly-forgotten pasts.

It became apparent that the division that we had been told about – organised along the Boulevard Nacionalne Revolucije and neatly summarised as East/West – wasn’t so clear for the non-Bosnian speaker.

Our partner and translator Mela Žuljević explained: when you are taught to read the symbols of the divisions, you see them. To an outsider – or a group of outsiders – one might only see relics of a complex and, frankly, confusing war.

Having navigated the city, our group quickly decamped to the mountain resort of Ruište. Ruište has a tiny permanent population and encompasses a renovated hikers’ lodgings, a hotel, a number of small cafes and restaurants, and a ski lift.

The village used to function as a local tourism site and ski-resort. Since the war, a number of small grassroots and general interest groups have made use of Ruište as a base from which to run expeditions and festivals. Our partner organisation, Youth Club Prosvjeta, is one of such groups.

Within that organization, a small team run an eco-activism festival in Ruište called Zemfest. In the past few years, Zemfest has offered workshops on community gardening, arts skills and medicinal herbs grown in the area. It has also invited musicians and DJs to perform over a week-long festival in the mountains.

Our collective task was to reimagine this mountain resort as a common ground – a new cultural spot in which interethnic and intercultural collaboration could happen away from the inscribed locales of the city, and be sustained. We were to take initiative from Zemfest, which had – in its own way – achieved this collaboration in specific moments over the past few years.

The group divided to work on three strategies: Ruište’s potential as a cultural hub, a natural reserve and a tourist destination. Over the following days, the groups explored Ruište along these lines in order to develop strategies that could be exhibited in a gallery show at the end of the week.

During that time, we had the honour of meeting key local organisations, including the Hikers Association, actors from Youth Club Prosvjeta, a representative from Local Democratic Action (LDA) and a representative from Architecture Dialogue Art (ADA).

We were also invited to spend a morning at Mostar’s Planning Department (of which there are two), where the group was shown the zoning plan for Ruište.

Thus, within a week, the group had had the opportunity to learn about the recent changes in, and planned developments for, Mostar and its mountains from the perspective of local grassroots organisations, intermediaries like LDA, and city planners.

The varied insights enabled our group to perceive gaps between the actors and helped us to negotiate the complex relationships that seem to be at the root of the reported apathy towards community-led democratic change in Mostar.

In spite of clear overlaps between the three strategies, the groups had managed to develop distinct approaches to the task of creating Ruište as a common ground. The nature group had focused on a pedagogical approach to reimagining the resort, focusing on education as a tool for developing sustainable behaviours.

They played a key role in setting the scene for the whole exhibition by creating a multi-sensory experience within the four walls of the gallery – effectively bringing Ruište to the city through soundscapes, photography and taste.

The tourism group had pursued the recurring theme of memory, thereby building on the fond ones of pre-war visitors to Ruište. Their exhibition of old photographs touched a chord with some visitors, who recognised some of the photographs’ subjects.

Reimagining the resort as a future common ground was not, to this group, simply a progressive exercise: it necessitated a glance into the past, as well as imaginative ideas projecting the future.

The culture group, of which I was a member, developed a strategy towards a community-owned space, or commons, where the exhibition would function as a catalyst for developing a network of local initiatives.

We developed a platform – Zajedničko Ruište’ – an online space where local organisations can share details of workshops and events as members of a wider Ruište-focused network, and where individuals are able to offer skills to the wider public, or to request that someone share a particular skill with them.

The Mostar SummerLAB participants were, across all three strategies, asking visitors to feed into the ideas and themes that we were presenting, bringing the community-led ethos of the DPU to the workshop.

We will, in time, assimilate the input of the exhibition visitors and write up a paper alongside other SummerLAB workshops. To find out more, visit the DPU SummerLAB website where the publication will be available to download.

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