November 27, 2018

CityToolbox Lab Athens Co-creating and bringing life to a renovated market hall

A team of urban changemakers from seven European cities goes to Athens to help local social innovators develop new formats for the newly regenerated Kypseli Municipal Market.

Kypseli, which is Greek for “beehive,” is one of the most densely populated and multicultural neighborhoods in Athens.

Once one of the city’s more noble areas, Kypseli has lost some of its former glory as a cultural, bohemian district. Many of the local residents today face unemployment, poverty and social exclusion.

Built in the 1930’s, the Kypseli Municipal Market used to be a thriving social hub on Fokionos Negri, a wide promenade which became one of Athens’ first pedestrian-only streets. Over the years, it fell into decay and was threatened by demolition in various occasions; had it not been for the persistent intervention from some of the neighborhood’s most prominent and active citizens, Kypseli Market would have likely been turned into a parking lot.

After a long and controversial process, the market was renovated by the Municipality of Athens, and Impact Hub Athens took charge of creating and implementing a strategy for the use of the space, focusing on social entrepreneurship and innovation. Many in the neighborhood were skeptical and against this new direction. As the new market’s opening day approached last October, Impact Hub’s team had been working intensely with the community to get citizens on board.

Dimitris Kokkinakis and Sophie Lamprou, Impact Hub Athens’ co-founders, had the new and challenging task of running a market hall. So they were grateful when a team of urban changemakers from all over Europe offered their help with developing new formats for the market.

CityToolbox live: Testing urban change tools in a new context

CityToolbox is a project created by six Actors of Urban Change teams from the first generation: Athens, Aveiro, Berlin, Lublin, Maribor and Zagreb. In 2015, they launched an online learning platform where young people taking action for positive change in their cities can discover tried-and-true tools which they can apply to their own context, as well as share their tools with others around the world. The idea behind the platform is simple: “change it yourself” — anyone should be able to transform their city.

Since then, the platform has expanded to include tools from São Paulo to Kolkata. But the team noticed something was missing. “Having a platform is not enough. We have to bring it to life,” said Miodrag Kuc from ZK/U in Berlin.

In order to bring it to life, Miodrag, together with 7 other team members, started planning the first CTB Lab: an intensive, 3-day workshop where the CityToolbox team and a local team work together to apply a particular tool to their local context.  They started looking for places in need of this hands-on co-creation approach. CityToolbox’s team in Athens was familiar with the plans for the Kypseli Market and saw the potential in their collaboration — but also warned that it presented quite a challenge.

“There used to be squatters living there that got kicked out,” Miodrag said. “There was a conflict, everybody who was trying to do something was getting blocked. So it was quite loaded, quite political.”

The team didn’t shy away from the potential conflict, consulting with people outside the teams to get a more objective perspective. After several calls with the Impact Hub Athens team, both sides decided the collaboration would be a good fit.

For Sophie Lamprou, Impact Hub Athens co-founder, the CTB Lab is an opportunity to kickstart new formats that can help them reach their goals in the market. “It will help us complete our programming,” she said. “We’ve already been running some community activities with regularity. But these are tested, ready-made concepts we could apply already. We can implement it faster.”

Sophie Lamprou, Impact Hub Athens’ co-founder, speaking at the first edition of CINE-Mageiremata. Photo: Panos Georgiou

“We want to learn from actual practitioners. They can tell us the little things that can make a huge difference in the project,” Sophie added.

During the CTB Lab, the teams worked together to identify some of the challenges the Athens team were facing and to match their needs with CTB’s areas of expertise.  “We’ll be learning from you and bringing you something back instead of bringing you some pre-prepared solution.”

Already early on during the lab, it became clear that one of the areas they wanted to focus on was community development. “It’s about making the invisible social layers visible,” Miodrag said.

The challenge: Creating a truly inclusive market

Impact Hub Athens’ vision is to revive the Kypseli Market and transform it into a hub for social, entrepreneurial and cultural activities for and with the local community. They want to cater to their actual needs while at the same time offering a testing ground for innovation in the neighborhood. Ultimately, they hope to create a sustainable, inclusive model for the market’s long-term operation, which can then be applied to other areas, buildings and initiatives within the city.

The market is already home to eight social enterprises, including a computer repair and recycle shop, a shop featuring regional products from small producers, a social florist that employs people with disabilities, and a second-hand shop. A series of cultural and educational activities have already started taking place within the building, including coding and programming classes for teens, music lessons for children, as well as several pop-up events: a farmer’s market once a week, and pop-up food markets every month.

Impact Hub’s Elena Lamprou has been working in Kypseli for 2 years. She calls her job there “Grassroots PR”. “I knock on people’s doors, I talk to old ladies, to the haters, to everyone,” she said. “We didn’t know a lot about the neighborhood before. We wanted to know what they are missing in the neighborhood. What they like, where they go, how much money they want to give for which activities.”

Elena said they initially ran into a lot of resistance. “It’s a difficult group because the market is a landmark. Everyone has an opinion. A lot of people were involved in saving the building from demolition, so some of them feel they own the place and they get to say what happens here.”

Another challenge the Impact Hub team faces is developing inclusive formats that bring people from different social and cultural backgrounds together. “The communities from different nationalities really like us because we help them,” Elena said. “We empower them by co-organizing their celebrations, because they don’t have the capacity to invite others outside their own community.”

Elena also doesn’t want the neighbors thinking that the market is turning into a space only meant for the hip, intellectual elite. “There is culture in the neighborhood, but it’s too contemporary,” she said. “People don’t get it, they don’t like it. The market is not the space for this.”

“We want to start organizing cross-generational games,” Elena continued. “We want to keep it a place where people don’t feel like they don’t belong here because it’s too avant-garde or high brow. Watching sports, playing games and drinking beer here is a good idea.”

Speisekino: Food and film to connect and engage

The first tool the Impact Hub chose to develop through the CTB Lab comes from Berlin and it’s called “Speisekino”, which literally means “food cinema” in German. The concept is as simple as it sounds: guests are invited to share a movie and a meal in an “urban living room’’ setting. In Berlin, the curatorship of the food/film program is given to a different local organization each time, so they can also raise awareness for their causes.

The audience during the first edition of CINE-Mageiremata on Oct. 5th at the recently inaugurated market. Photo: Panos Georgiou

“The concept is very promising,” Sophie said. “People are interested in going to movies, they love outdoor cinema. We can show movies that create discussions, that offer new visions to discuss.”

The first edition of the local version of Speisekino, “CINE-Mageiremata,” happened during the CTB Lab. The teams saw it as an experiment, to get a feel for the space and the community. And even though it wasn’t perfect — they ran out of food quickly, and most people were not interested in the movies, which were not in Greek — the huge turnout showed that the format has potential. “It’s all trial and error,” Sophie said. “We want to do more targeted marketing, invite people we know would be interested in the topic of the movie. We can call other local organizations to curate the content as well.”

Gütermarkt: Rethinking market halls as hybrid spaces

The second tool, Gütermarkt, is a hybrid market, also first introduced at ZK/U in Berlin. The market mixes second-hand and handmade products, services such as tailoring and haircuts, and repair stations for bikes, electronics, shoes and more. “The market is just a frame, but the focus is not in selling products,” Mio said. “It’s a community festival.”

The Impact Hub team sees a clear demand for this type of format in the Kypseli neighborhood.  Elena told the group of a local hairdresser who approached her. “She said, ‘I heard that you were running the place, so I wanted to offer you and your team free haircuts.’  So I asked whether she wants to use the market as a promotion to showcase her work and product.”

A vendor of fresh smoothies works in one of Kypseli Market’s shops. Photo: Panos Georgiou

During the lab, the teams started developing a plan for the market, partnering up by area of expertise: communications, logistics, content, and financial structure.

“The challenge of rethinking what a market is today is not a unique problem,” Matthias Einhoff from Berlin’s ZK/U said. “It’s a universal problem. It’s a challenge that is being faced all over Europe and beyond. How do we make them relevant again? By sharing experiences we can start to see what works. So this exchange has a lot of potential.”

Learning from Kypseli: From sterile to full of life

On the first day of the CTB Lab was the official inauguration of the new Kypseli Market, with the Mayor of Athens and hundreds of citizens attending the event.

“Being here for the opening was amazing timing,” said Kaja Pogacar from the CTB team in Maribor. “Before, the building was very sterile, and in just three days it changed completely. The space fulfills different needs, it’s open and inclusive of a broader population.”

At the end of the lab, the CTB team reflected on the process, saying they would take a lot of it back to their own projects.

“We learned something from them,” Miodrag said. “We came here to consult, but saw things done well. We saw much more time invested in the human approach, in personal talks.”

“We’re not consultants,” he continued. “We’re against that because knowledge transfer is very colonial. For us it’s not a best-practice but a worst-practice logic. So they can learn from the mistakes we’ve already made. But they know a lot of things much better than we do. They’re very professional already. With us here, they felt they’re not alone doing this. So they don’t have to start everything by themselves.”

For Sophie, the three days provided a lot of food for thought, and ideas for new tools they could implement in the market, such as a gamification tool together with Paulina Paga, from CTB’s Lublin team. “These are very smart people that can validate questions we might have in running this market,” Sophie said. “Partnering, thinking, designing. I have this question, you explore it together. It’s a treasure box.”