Workshop in St. Petersburg

Dialog by the Water
Dialog by the Water (Stadt im Dialog: peer-to-peer learning) is an experimental project in education and applied urban science. How can the P2P approach be used in territorial development? What new and non-trivial options can it offer in comparison with traditional project management? What can be implemented with this approach in four days and how? What are the effects and outcomes? What kind of situations it can be used in? What kind of objectives is it suitable for?

We are searching for the answers through action. We go, we try, we discuss the experience and draw conclusions. During our workshop in St. Petersburg, we tested the P2P approach in practice. A minimum level of rules, a general framework, a specific ethic of communication, and… that's all. Goals, objectives and methods were worked out within groups. Meetings, discussions, research, planning, procurements and implementation took place during those crazy and fascinating 4 days and 4 nights (August, 30 — September, 5). This is what we achieved.

The embankment of the Karpovka river and Kanonersky island were suggested by the participants as workshop territories. These places became the very framework within which the approach was tested. The groups were working on such issues as the choice of instruments, the final product to be created, the audience and the goal of the project. The participation was open for everyone interested, and colleagues from St. Petersburg, Omsk and Kazan joined the key participants of our project.

It was not passive implementation or acquisition of knowledge and skills but a collaborative working process. The P2P approach shows how interesting, useful and creative everyone of us can be if the group provides the participants with opportunities without imposing specific narrow roles. People learn to be flexible and reflective, independent and creative while making decisions. They learn to choose different approaches in different situations and recruit various experts. The projects become much more unique if everyone can participate in their design.
Voices of participants
Spontaneously — under the influence of the participants' aspirations and actions — the workshop was underpinned by the Situationist approach of "production of space." This approach is about creating neither forms nor objects but situations everyone interested can take part in — primarily the citizens. The life and forms of the space are born in these situations. It is the participants that determine the future of the place, its aura and atmosphere. People inhabit the city, build it and change it through their actions, emotions and imagination.
Фильм Василия Катасонова
Location 1: Kanonersky island

Kanonersky island is a sizeable and complex territory. Its history, social life, location, ecological situation, the construction of a highway road section have created both a tangle of concerns and a potential for further development. The industrial area and the landfill, which occupy half of the island, border on wild beaches, natural landscapes and picturesque sea views. The residents of the island possess a strong local identity. They are concerned with the fate of the territory and don't want to move anywhere else. On the one hand, there is a risk that the island in the future can face alluvation, housing development or further contamination. On the other hand, it could be ideal for implementing solutions similar to the Hamburg IBA.

The group of participants was up against the following question: What could be done in 4 days so as to comprehend the current situation and give rise to changes?

/ What did we want (and why)?

One of the ideas that emerged during discussion and exploration of the territory was to create a route through the island which would highlight its uniqueness and offer alternative scenarios for its development. We were planning to find the places that were significant both for local residents and visitors, label them with signs or navigation, and thus suggest a special perspective on the island, inspire people to think of its (= their own) future. In a perfect scenario, the route signs were to be created together with the residents so as to provoke a positive "capture" of the space, to make it feel like home, changing it by our own efforts and not waiting for solutions to come from outside.

In other words, we set out to activate the whole island through a number of interventions, uniting all the projects under an overall logic by a network of routes.

All the projects assumed voluntary participation, while a necessary precondition was the involvement of local residents. The projects did not need to be associated with each other, and there was no goal to create the route at once. It was suggested that the projects are 'bits' that can form new routes and unite miscellaneous meanings. We should note that all this was meant to be a temporary experiment.
Dialog at the Water: Cruise ship passes by the Kanonersky island
Among other things, we wanted to place an emphasis on the natural landscapes of the island — the green territories (that are now turned into a landfill) and the beaches with a spectacular sea view. Near-water territories are particularly attractive for residents as well as investors that often aim to develop such areas. If coastal areas are "appropriated" by the locals and those who love the place, it will be possible to save the natural territory, using its ecosystem for wellness activities, bathing, walking, breathing fresh air, fishing and hiking. Ecological paths and landmarks (the "nodes" and "routes" of the area) can become the indicators of such appropriation of the physical space.
In virtual reality, appropriation can take the form of a website with all the information on anything interesting and significant on the island. The nature park, created both in the consciousness of people and online, will "burst" into reality, causing actual changes in the situation (e.g., adoption of proper regulations, granting statuses, and — finally — creating an actual park). Thus, the island in the minds of its residents becomes opposed to major housing developers and other self-interested actors.
/ What did we do?

On the first day of the workshop, we gathered the ideas on what to do on the island. However, late in the afternoon one of the locals said that everything we suggest was interesting, but they were concerned about other things.

Then, on the second day, we decided to talk to local residents and see what they are worried about, what they appreciate and what they really need. After that, we made a map with locations mentioned by locals (good, bad, significant, dangerous, interesting, etc.) and summarized all the positive, negative and specific features that our respondents talked about.

During the rest of the day, we brainstormed the ideas that could meet the demands of the locals. Finally, we came up with the idea of the route and developed a set of tactical interventions. The route brought together other ideas that were supported by smaller teams.

On the third day, every group was designing their project.

The implementation took place on the fourth day, though we were still in the middle of the design process.
/ How it turned out?

Basically, we created prototypes of projects and solutions. Due to the time limit, we only managed to test each idea, and some of them even had to be rejected.


We created navigation with maps for visitors and placed them on bus stops.

We also created a map of the park where now the landfill is, marking the animal and insect species that we encountered during our exploration (seagull and heron flocks, Red Book butterflies, etc.).

As a joke, we also mapped mythical creatures like unicorns, hinting at the possibility there could be other intriguing species we hadn't met (which doesn't mean they do not exist here). The island is full of enchanting and fascinating secrets.

Besides, we marked fishing spots, the historic 18th century road, beaches, viewpoints, the tree house —a source of local legends, etc.

The maps definitely provoked a reaction from the locals who discussed them in social networks. It seems that we managed to sow the idea of preserving natural areas in cities — at least among our group of urban researchers. The process of placing the maps turned into a cheerful quest with music, which slightly resembled the style of Partizaning, the international participatory urban replanning movement.

Resettled houses

Another object of our efforts were derelict buildings — the resettled houses under the Western High-Speed Diameter. Surprisingly, the locals use this potential resource in a vandalistic way. At the time when we arrived to the island, almost all windows in those houses were broken and many things were burned. Apparently, vandalism is a negative response of people to the decisions that were made without their consent and to their disadvantage. When people turn into mere passive executants of someone else's will that intrudes on their lives, the only option left is breaking windows and burning the houses which these people were forced to leave.

We turned one of these houses into an art residence for exhibitions. We cleaned one of the rooms and painted its walls. We also created an installation from dumped furniture in the yard. This represented the inside-out idea: a room without walls and walls without the room (i.e., the furniture in it). This provoked a response from the residents. Some of them walked up to us, asking what was going one. The children who probably broke the windows helped us to paint the walls. Some people were angry that there was no furniture to sit on inside the house. Anyway, the problem came to the foreground, and its exposure will possibly gain momentum.


Finally, we printed the Constitution of the Kanonersky island. This "document" had blank pages in it so that anybody could fill them with their own text, thus creating "law" through joint efforts of the locals.

All our projects have a potential for further development. We can say that we have set some basic directions. Indeed, creating a map of the island with information on its locations and specific features is a first stepping stone to self-identification, branding, enhancing the status of the island and drawing public attention to it.

As for art, empty houses can become excellent places for art residences or squats, alternative planning and development. This is a way to see disadvantages and problems as a resource for territorial development, to initiate processes that lead to changes.

We may have not had enough time to fully integrate the future authors of transformations — the local residents — into the project.
What's next?
Location 2: the embankment of the Karpovka

The Karpovka river is located in one of the central districts of St. Petersburg on the Petrograd Side. Some parts of the embankment are industrial areas, others are adorned with beautiful architectural ensembles. There is only a small area that is not embanked and has green natural riversides with access to water. This small area was closed for a long time, and few people knew about its existence. In the summer of 2017, it became open for walkthrough and cycling, forming an area unique for St. Petersburg — a car-free near-water green zone. It is this area we worked with during the workshop.

There is an upcoming project to upgrade the Karpovka embankment. What will it look like? Who is already using it and in what ways? What do citizens want to see there? What possible non-trivial development scenarios are there, and why?

/ What did we want (and why)?

We found ourselves on a "wild forest island", which is the approximate translation of the Karpovka's historic name from Finnish. This place used to be disconnected from the city pedestrian routes for a long time, since the area belonged to the powerboating community and was fenced. In the summer of 2017, the fence was dismantled, and all the boats were removed except those afloat. The citizens still do not use this peaceful natural area, but the administration of the city aims to develop it.

We decided to find out what the residents think about water and riversides. We wanted to give them an opportunity to get a feel of the potential that this area has in it, to participate in the activation of the area and see how the access to water can be used. In other words, our main goal was to draw attention to the recently opened part of the embankment. We wanted to provoke reflection about the area, active perception and acceptance of the new Karpovka embankment as well as the city water areas in general. We were looking for ways to go beyond traditional area improvement projects. We assumed that the potential of such territories in the urban context and of their users is much larger than what we usually see in area improvement projects. We wanted to fulfill this potential.
What did we do?

One means to get familiar with the city is to get lost in it, wandering without any particular goal and going wherever your feet take you. Following Walter Benjamin, social scientists call this method 'Flânerie'. There is also the psychogeographical approach that regards walking as an instrument for plunging into the urban environment.

There is an even more radical method for spontaneous exploration of urban spaces, based on psychogeography and developed by French Marxists in 1960s — the urban 'dérive'. We mixed all these approaches and applied them to the Karpovka embankment — wandering around, exploring the surroundings (the campus, the houses, the promenade), talking to boat owners and bystanders. We also decided to go on the wooden raft that was made by activists from 'The Right to Water' community.

One of the basic Situationist practices is the dérive [literally: 'drifting'], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll. — Guy Debord

On the one hand, our activity was random, spontaneous, chaotic and not guided by any plan. On the other hand, it didn't cause any rejection in us and felt natural. It was a vivid example of irrationality. At the time, we were deliberating and reflecting a lot on all the goings-on. Eventually, we invited everyone interested to a raft ride, which seemed extraordinary to many citizens.

We understood that this exciting event on the Karpovka has attracted many people. This is when we decided to turn rafting into a 'promo action' or into a situation in the spirit of Situationism.
Dialog at the Water: Igor reads his poem on the Karpovka river
We came up with the following idea: it is neither objects nor projects nor even the event but the situation itself that will make people rethink, recognize and accept the Karpovka. What formed the basis of the situation was the raft. It served as a communication venue and a challenge to use water. Connecting people and riversides, it was both an object and a metaphor. Under the influence of communication with activists — authors of creative projects in Berlin and Hamburg — we found the raft to be a water-based public space. It is a space for freedom of communication, an area of uncertainty and a territory of potential that goes beyond the regulations which are in force on land.

/ How it turned out?

Besides rafting, we also came up with other ways to draw attention to the territory and called for a process of reflection. We cleaned up the area, put trash cans, placed DIY adverts saying "The embankment is open." We also put signs saying "Here you can:" and attached marker pens to them so people could write their own ideas about activities they find to be allowed (and needed). We created a community on social media ("Friends of the Karpovka") and talked to a lot of people. We handed out paper boats to launch and berth as a symbol of access to water. We invited everyone to our raft, made tea in a samovar, prepared pancakes while listening to music, gave pancakes to everyone interested, explained to police officers that a spontaneous tea-drinking gathering on the embankment is a normal thing and doesn't require any approval or permission.

The opinions of the residents also found their place on the wall that stretches along the embankment. The artist Yuliana Morgun captured them in the form of letterings after talking to people who oftenvisit the area. The statements were predominantly themed around peace and quietness — for instance, the lettering "Live the River". Other letterings are also likely to appear on the wall — thanks to a large amount of feedback regarding impressions, activities of the residents, romantic memories of former members of the powerboat community, etc.
We made an exciting event on the river that is still remembered both by those who participated in it and those who were just passing by or have seen the post on social media. The users of the territory that we talked to told that they remembered well our dauntless rafting, our balloons, paper boats, pancakes and music.

After the event, people left warm responses about things they had seen and participated in. We gave people joy and good mood while drawing attention to the Karpovka river. Many people heard solely from us that the part of the embankment next to the powerboat community was now open and accessible for everyone. Finally, we discovered the raft that continued its mysterious existence. It appeared here and there in different parts of the river, which means some people started using it without asking permission. We changed the way some citizens thought about city and water. They will probably start to act independently in other situations, too. And this is what we were looking for in our project.
Posters for the Karpovka event
/ What's next?

We are going to promote the community "Friends of the Karpovka" so as to help people unite, spread information and gather new knowledge. At the same time, we are collaborating with the powerboating community. We have suggested creating an educational center for water sports, water safety and other issues. We are also planning to conduct a pre-project research in order to propose ideas for the area improvement project that would be based on the potential of the territory and go beyond beautification.

/ Reflection on the workshop

Short-term, practical, interdisciplinary, experimental educational formats based on the idea of knowledge exchange do not substitute classical education. However, the workshop in St. Petersburg made it clear that these formats bring something brand new and important into the existing professional practice. For instance, they allow to come up with unexpected ideas and avoid boring standardized decisions by emphasizing the uniqueness and contextuality of each case and each territory.

The workshop has shown the ways to give concrete expression to vague slogans motivating to "create public spaces." It helped to understand the exact difference between this approach and traditional "beautification."

1. Beautification is implemented through placing objects and landscape design. Its purpose is to meet the demands of those who passively consume the space, in other words, its aim is to make one's stay comfortable. Conversely, we are talking about creating situations that would allow locals to participate in the collaborative production of urban environment and transform themselves as citizens in the course of this participation. It is about making one's stay active.

2. This transformation should primarily address the development of such citizen qualities as respect and personal responsibility. These two principles are the keystones of the p2p approach in education and work. They are also fundamental for co-existence in public and urban life.

Thus, public spaces should have a specific infrastructure that contributes to the development of human qualities and citizenship. This is why designing public spaces in its form, essence and orientation has nothing to do with the notorious "beautification" with its benches, flower pods, trash cans, lawns and cafés.
Voices of participants