Urbanism Interview: Jesús Antonio Martínez Zárate / Casa Schützenplatz


Jesús Antonio Martínez Zárate in Schützenplatz (Photo credit: Simon Top)

Author: Nushrat Jahan
Interviewer: Rowa Elzain,
Interviewee: Jesús Antonio Martínez Zárate
Date: 04/12/2019 
Location: Stuttgart



This interview aims to explore the history, tools and methodologies undertaken by architect and urban planner, Jesús Z. in developing a neighbourhood square in Kernerverviertel, Stuttgart.





Could you please give us a brief background about the project? and why is it called Case Schützenplatz?
The city (Stuttgart) had already plans for an initial redesign of the Schützenplatz square since 2013, but due to various reasons, it hasn’t progress until now, 2020. The first public draft for the redesign of the square was publicly released in 2015. I wasn’t involved at that time, but a small group of neighbours got together and responded to the initial design. There was a network already established due to the mega project – Stuttgart 21, that gave them the chance to react quickly.

The first draft was a roundabout with a monument in the centre and vehicles circulating around it. The neighbours submitted a counter proposal where they opted for a pedestrian plaza in the center and the street circulation around it, as a half-roundabout.  The city conducted together with the neighbours a public hearing on the two proposals to decide how to proceed. With around 70% of the public voting in favour, the proposal using half of the square won. The city then reworked the winning proposal and it was published as an official proposal in mid- 2016.


I joined the process in June 2016, first with a parklet – the blue house. From then on, I’ve been implementing with the neighbours small projects, or as we called them ‘experiments in the public space’ to recover with each one a bit more square, but also to create new social infrastructure for the community, for example we after add an ‘urban garden’, a stage, brought some trees, a neighbours boards to share info and flyers, a bike-rack and some others. In a lapse of 3 years, we have recover around 200m2 of square. Part of my initial experiment was to create some sort of reaction in the neighbourhood by not giving them too much information and measuring their reactions.


Transformation of the square over time (photo credit - Casa Schuetzenplazt e.V.)

In regards to the name of the project: ‘Casa’ means ‘house’ in Spanish. The idea was to create public infrastructure with the community in the process to build a lasting feeling of attachment to the place and to the process. With that attachment, I was hoping to create also a responsibility to maintain a self-administrated Infrastructure that otherwise would not be maintained by the city. the same kind of attachment that you build to your own home: you take care of it, you clean it every once in a while, you invite friends over, you celebrate your birthday in it, you refurbish it every now and then, etc.When you see the logo, it’s a house divided into two -one filled space and one blank space. I wanted to also make reference to the two types of infrastructure needed to create an active and lively public space: First, the physical infrastructure as ground base for development like protected areas for pedestrians with seating, greenery, and shadow possibilities, access to water, internet, etc, usually provided by the city administration. And the social infrastructure that neighbours will bring once they feel attached to their local public space: events, gatherings, projects, meet-ups. With CASA Schützenplatz we end up providing both.

Did you have to contact any officials before this? And how did you get involved in the project?
I joined a university’s project called the Real-world Laboratory for Sustainable Mobility Culture in mid 2016. Under this ‘Laboratory’ one approach was to conduct physical interventions on the streets, the one I choose was Schützenplatz. This meant the University was already in communication with the local administration, developed some sort of guidelines, and organized the corresponding permissions. Such guidelines, were set for me in terms of the amount of space that I was able to use, height restrictions, bit of a choice of materials, the entry and exit points, covered areas etc. I started the contact with the authorities after the university project was done, to start a transition from University-led project to a neighbours initiative.

The current three year project is meant to stay as long as the official refurbishment starts. That is, it has worked as a catalyst for the neighbours to let’s say – keep a foot on the square, The original date for starting the work was scheduled for September 2016, after several delays, we have no official date, so this process could take at least another year (2020).

Part of the university project included a three month period where I observed and monitored the activities and reactions of the neighbours in the square. I carried this out through an active and passive method. The active method included organizing some events in the form of get-together, meetings or beer evenings. The passive method was gathering data such as the number of people crossing the square in any direction, the number of cars available, the parking condition, interactions around the square, and services and infrastructure. By the end of the experiment, in September 2016, I was able to turn it into my thesis project. This allowed me to continue my research and we decided it would be interesting to start the transition process which will allow the residents to take over the project. Back then we didn’t have a clear view of what the final aim of the takeover was.

The residents were interested because they found it instrumental to keep the communication they started three months before, they said – we can meet there, we can use it so we want to keep it. Thanks to this first set of mind of the neighbours we’ve been trying to expand and test, we call this our experiment field. So the first (experiment) was the parklet which provided some safe and protected area for the residents. In the second extension we created an urban garden. We also worked with other organizations and offices to establish a platform for public space communication.

As I said, the square refurbishment has been delayed multiple times. So we use this presence on the square to argue with the city: -As long as we aren’t provided with a square, we will use the square in our own temporary way. 


residents in conversation at the square (photo credit - Simon Top)

How has the project evolved? How are the funds managed?
Around 2017, we decided along with the residents, to register ourselves as ‘Verein’ (registered association). Although I was still part of the University research team, I was also part of the founding members association. The university sort of urged the residents to register officially to complete the handover of the project. This was done primarily because you need a legal body to take over the responsibilities of any built structure in a public space. Previously, this was the university, but as we were transitioning and the project was scheduled to end, we wanted to hand over the responsibilities to the residents so the parklet could stay.

In addition, the organization gives you the opportunity to receive donations and apply for various funding. When we did the second phase – the urban garden, we received half of the funding from the university and for the rest we applied for public funding through the Ministry of Greening and Gardening. This is generally how we get funding: We scout for them and apply. We build our case depending on the type of funding that is available.

Is there any official member assigned for this task? is there a designated president of the organization?
Officially, we are required to have three people to fill the positions of president, second representative and treasurer respectively. So we have three assigned members for official purposes, but the decisions are made collectively. I am currently filling one of these positions and also actively take part in these discussions. We usually write such applications collectively amongst the active members.


Who were the different contributors/ organizations involved? Can you name them and what do you collaborate about? and who were the steady collaborators?
One main steady collaborator is the district council (Bezirksbeirat). They have some political decision-making power which helps with the administrative part. Apart from that we are steady partners with few other Verein / organizations, for example ‘Hobbyhimmel’ were we build our furniture, or ‘VIJ (Verein für Internationale Jugendarbeit)’ were we held our meetings in winter time. We are in constant contact with them, invite them to our events. Similarly we visit their events and in this way we strengthen this community network.

For the specific projects we look to collaborate with organizations that also have in focus the re-design of public space. For example we have collaborated with Basurama (Madrid) and Reciclaje.pe (Perú) to build the biggest extension in the square so far with 200sqm.  With Studio Johey (Frankfurt) we built some ‘Smart pin-board’ around the square to communicate with the residents.


We have applied for funding to the ‘Change Labs’ program from the University (of Stuttgart), trough a summer-school we got funds from the ILPOE (Institute for Landscape and Ecology, here with the University, the Ministry of Greening, Ministry of Culture, Bezirksbeirat Mitte, the Burgerstiftung (Citizens foundation), the program Allianz für Beteiligung (Foundation for participation).

Reflecting on the project so far, could you please mentioned some tools and methodologies used? Can they be implemented in a similar project elsewhere?

The tools can be categorised as – active and passive approach. The passive part of the research helped us generate hard data, numbers and percentages which were of great value and helped us build strong arguments when dealing with the (city) Administration. The active approach of interacting with the residents (of the square) by for instance – organizing events, arranging regular meet-ups for the residents helped us and the overall project to survive. Official decisions are made perhaps once or twice a year. Had the residents only met twice a year, it would be very difficult to keep a momentum for the project. Hence the regular social gatherings, regardless of no design agenda helps the project. Everyone catches up and eventually the conversation about how the square is progressing and what can be done to complete it, it’s kept alive.

I would also add that the physical interventions – the parklet, urban garden and the extension with the trees, were also very helpful. We caught the attention of the City (administration) as a professional and formal association in favor of the community and the public realm.

Would these methodologies work in a different context?

Yes, I think a similar base of approach should work. Physical intervention helps you identify people who will support you and people you have to deal with to get more support. These active interactions or this role of a social bond keeps the discussion alive, creates a network and strengthens a community feeling around. The hard data, in my experience is the most crucial tool to bring your case to the administrations. You have to steer clear of emotions. You cannot convince the authorities by saying that –because the residents are happier, we need a square-, rather you have to draw attention by stating that the traffic in the square slowed down after out intervention because the number of users have increased, there are more interactions as residents now spend 40% more time on the square so on and so forth.

In this particular case, there are pros and cons. The pros are that a part of the community is actively looking to refurbish the square. Cons is that they do not actually need the square per say. The community is middle to upper class residents and they have the necessary infrastructure in place. The actual need for a public space as a point to socialization is absent. You can say that has not allowed the amount of participants to increase.


Reflecting over the past three years, would you have done anything differently? Or anything particular that you are glad you did?
I would have communicated more with the residents. The first part of the project (parklet) was installing a ready-made structure into the square and observed the basic reactions around it. I kept that approach going for the first year and a half. There were no posters or flyers about the project. But now, we have an identity, which would also answer your previous question (of the tools). We designed the logo, name and this quickly turned us into a landmark. So, communication could have been improved in the early stages of the project.  One thing we have successfully managed is to have steady events. So every third Sunday of the month, at 11.00am, the neighbours gather for the CASA Schützenplatz-Brunch, regardless of the weather, we meet every Sunday. You cannot predict some things, like there could be some holiday or a long weekend which has happened but it’s a fixed date. This creates a strong base for communication.

So you are an architect and urban planner. I'm interested to know how you think you developed personally and professionally throughout this three year process? 

we are becoming more mediators rather than designers, we are helping fill the communication gaps between citizen’s needs and administration’s technical decisions. We are the ones that can translate between this two languages, which personally I’m very fond of. Historically speaking, designers would cater to the wealthy. Then neo liberalism happened and architects became the servants of the rich. Hence the role of the mediator has helped me realize just how difficult it is to do good design when you really listen to community needs.

I have also realized that it is impossible for bigger projects to have real value. On this scale (Schützenplatz), it’s hard for us to grasp all the variables in order to do a good design which means it must be close to impossible for a bigger project. Now I’m more inclined to work in such a level of design, especially public spaces. The way things are progressing, space is turning into a scarce commodity. There’s currently too many unused public space around us, so it’s a potential space that could be used to create social bonds in communities. Personally, I've refined my social skills which are connected with this professional view. As a mediator you must learn how to convey, listen, and understand other people's needs through different eyes, cultures, and age groups. You also must successfully convey to the same diverse group what your vision is.



graffiti at the square (photocredit - casa Schuetzenplazt e.V.)

Further information on  the project mentioned in the interview can be found on the following links -

Casa Schuetzenplatz - https://schuetzenplatz.net/
Basurama - https://basurama.org/ 
Reciclaje.pe - http://reciclaje.pe/#page
VIJ – Club International - https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Youth-Organization/Club-International-Stuttgart-VIJ-eV-1570702693145866/
Hobbyhimmel - https://hobbyhimmel.de/
Studio JoHey! - http://studio-johey.de/
Real world Laboratory for sustainable mobility culture - http://www.r-n-m.net/

 

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