Decades of economic decline in Maribor, Slovenia have taken a toll on the city’s public spaces. By the early 2010’s, large areas of the historic center were in disrepair. Public life had largely moved to suburban shopping malls. City authorities had been unable to offer a compelling vision for the future of the inner city.
And yet, old city Maribor is full of small streets and medieval courtyards — offering the kind of intimacy and respite that people seek out in cities. Team Maribor’s aim was to revive several abandoned semi-public spaces with creative interventions — giving an opportunity to artists to produce performances in several of Maribor’s medieval courtyards in collaboration with the local community — and showing the potential of these spaces for revitalized public life in the urban center.
Maribor’s Actors team began to engage in conversations with local residents, owners and tenants of small shops, galleries and craftsman and artists. Focusing their attention on three courtyards, the group co-produced community clean-up days, and debates and workshops with residents to envision possible activities that could take place in the space.
Courtyard theater performances during a street festival provided the starting point for the project. In the courtyards along Koroska street, shopkeepers stayed open late and neighbors watched from upper balconies while young people came on dates and visitors wandered in, attracted by the murmur of conversation and footsteps to find costumed actors putting on a show. After the success of the theater events, the team introduced concerts and exhibitions. People across the city began to take note of the new activity in the city center.
As the Living City courtyards initiative connected with more patrons, it triggered an open debate in Maribor and the beginnings of collaboration on a wider development strategy.
Students from the local university joined in, contributing concepts for reviving Maribor’s public spaces. Urban hackathons, temporary demonstration projects and a growing wiki document fostered and captured a range of ideas for how the courtyards could continue to be reimagined as multipurpose arenas for exchange, performance, education and production.
After a year of direct action in the courtyards, the team started searching for solutions for revitalization of the area on a wider scale. The outcome of the Maribor project will be a strategy for the revitalization of the entire old city center district, based on broad public input.
The “bottom-up approach” is something that is widely used in the vocabulary of the municipality but so far rarely really implemented. The Actors project in Maribor introduced the process for participatory development starting with a single catalytic project and scaled it to the city level.
An important impact of the project so far has been that the local tenants, who are mostly elderly and marginalized citizens, have become aware of the importance and potential of the old city center to others in the community. They know they have support for their efforts to improve the living conditions of their district.
The person-to-person approach used by the project team to engage with tenants is a long-term process. The team plans to continue to use its potential for community-driven revitalization in Maribor.