An urban development lab in the most colourful district of Graz

Project description

The assignment

The Grazer ‘Griesviertel’ is a district where many urban challenges come together. Buzz words, to name but a few:  inequality, integration, traffic congestion, gambling, petty crime and youth unemployment, and red-light bars. It’s also a district that its inhabitants describe as safe, colourful, interesting, different and lively.

Gries is a neglected district with a rich history of failed urban regeneration attempts. THE key problem has been the heavily trafficked web of roads, that negatively impacts on the quality of life and possibilities for development. To date, there has been insufficient political will, creativity and availability of resources for any meaningful structural solutions.

Yet, in 2016, we were approached by the Stadtbau-Direktion lfrom the municipal government to help them learn more about the people, cultures and social actors in Gries and their ideas for the future of the district.

This was the start of ´Verweile Doch und Mach es Schön´, a three year lab to learning, connect and co-create possibilities for a higher quality of public life.

Our approach  

We learned that previous urban development efforts had been marked by an ´all or nothing strategy´. The mantra: announce the development of a massive urban development programme, gather input from local stakeholders, publish a big plan to solve everything and then get stuck in lacking political will and resource constraint to announce that perhaps in three years…then archive the plans until everybody has forgotten and a new cycle of ambitious promises begins. No wonder, we encountered participation fatigue everywhere we went. No wonder that the many small social initiatives in the neighbourhood preferred to stick to their own knitting without much hope of anything structural happening soon.

We choose a different approach and started with identifying solvable problems that would have a direct impact on the quality of life in the district –  ´Low hanging fruit´, such as dysfunctional traffic lights, badly lit streets and impossible hurdles for cyclists. We opened a temporary office called ´Glückshafen Gries´ in the neighbourhood where citizens could drop in, to review the city´s plans for Gries and add feedback or new ideas,

We devised several formats to bring together deliberately mixed groups of participants, civil servants, thematic experts, entrepreneurs and ‘ordinary citizens’, to analyse and contemplate solutions. We developed playful participation methods that animate collaboration, learning and creative problem solving.  In our social safari’s for example, we turned the concept of participation ‘on its head’. During a pressured time-slot of 24 hours, Participants engaged in a guided process to go out, learn from local residents and to co-create and test possible solutions. When looking at, say, the quality of a park, we would take the view of the elderly dog-walker just as serious as those of the alleged soft-drugs dealer. We started with their perspectives before turning to more institutionalized players in the system such as the local police, social workers and park maintenance services. We got these people to talk to each other at the spots there the problems are most visible far away from town-hall meeting rooms and conference venues. And we didn’t stop there. Where possible we turned solutions into instant experiments and prototypes. You think this street benefits from more local benches – let’s score some wood and build them tomorrow, together.  You believe that there is a lot of demand for a local farmers market, like the one you had here in the 60s, let’s host 4 pop-up markets in the next few months to test what works.


Results and lessons learned

When we closed the project in early 2019, the results we could look back on merit modesty and critical reflection

  • We succeeded in enabling Graz´ urban planners and their political masters, to get a better understanding of the cultural and social DNA in this district, including a more appreciative view of the cultural diversity and civic energy that can be found in all walks of life throughout the district. The lab enhanced the visibility of many local actors that can be included in future development efforts.


  • The creative formats mostly served a useful antidote against the participation fatigue in the district. Through organized walks, test-markets, safari´s and our open office, we were able to gather many ideas that could often be translated into shorter-term of longer-term solutions. Where possible, the various departments in the city followed up swiftly, for example with the redesign of the rosselmuhlpark, a new cycle-path in the Griesgasse or more space for Cuntra´s gastgarten at the center of the square. Our tests with local markets have been taken over by others.


  • It´s also fair to conclude that for a number of bigger solutions, we encountered lacking political will: The chaotic assembly of busstops around the square could easily be reorganized to free up space for pedestrians, plants and trees. Our pragmatic solution to turn the Griesgasse into a largely car-free zone did not find enough political will to be pushed through. Like many previous efforts before ours, the city government gives preference to the development of other city districts, even if this implies even more traffic for Gries in years to come.


  • Our work may have contributed to stronger visibility and connections between some of the key local actors and initiatives working on different aspects of urban development including (informal) education, youth empowerment, social entrepreneurship and sustainability.


  • The methods we used have added to the instrumentarium that social actors and urban planners can use to stimulate participation and use ´crowd-sourced´ knowledge for urban development. Moreover, our work demonstrated that in order to solve urban challenges, we need to look beyond bottom up and top down, beyond the traditional divide between ´state´, ´market´ and ´civil society´. In our project, stakeholders from all walks of life took an opportunity to learn from each other and explore common interests in service of a better quality of life.


  • We shared our experiences internationally by collaborating with RCE at the University of Graz in the Urbx and Smarter Labs projects to document our leanring and reflect on similar experiences in the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden Belgium and the UK