Participate, co-create, have a say! Who owns the city?

St. Pölten decided to strike a new path many years ago and transform from a regional centre dominated by industry to the hub of a central region, possibly even the heart of an entire state, with a colourful mixture of education, art and business institutions. In the process, it has left behind old habits, structures and perceptions. At the moment this process is gathering pace, and not just because of our bid to become the European Capital of Culture, although the recently launched process provides a framework for these developments and makes them more visible.

In order to do justice to the wide range of people and opinions in the city, this platform and the St. Pölten 2024 office hit the road to find people whose voices have not been heard yet, or not heard enough. At KulturFORUM #1 we saw that there are quite a few of them: even though the invitation reached virtually every household, the audience did not reflect our city’s diversity. In our view, this project can only be successful if our citizens view our shared path in a positive light and become convincing ambassadors of the process.

As a citizens’ platform we shall spend the coming weeks and months using various formats to seek out those who have so far kept a low profile in the process. They include children and young people, the elderly, migrants, job seekers and people with disabilities, but also artists, creatives, activists, religious communities and many more. We will invite these people and encourage them to make use of their right to participate and share their individual, varying opinions. The conversations will be focussed on the following questions: How can people participate and become visible? What are the places and actors driving this process? What are the barriers, what is lacking?

We have collaborated with a variety of protagonists and recorded the general mood on a variety of topics. You will find a rough outline below.1 

As mentioned earlier, some citizens rarely leave their neighbourhoods for reasons of location, sociocultural composition or other special challenges. We cannot accept that the voices of people who rarely visit Rathausplatz square receive less attention. That is why we are committed to seeking contact on location, presenting the project and finding out why these people are difficult to reach. These are the first steps in an absolutely essential project: working with the neighbourhoods, setting up local contact points (neighbourhood centres) and making sure these people get an official hearing.

St. Pölten is facing a number of urban development challenges: urban sprawl on the outskirts and the resulting question of mobility; and how to link rural regions with public transport, which (apart from the Westbahn railway line) requires major improvements even in larger cities such as Krems.

The region can help St. Pölten become its centre, but its scope of action does depend on a central factor: to what extent are people in the region granted visibility and a platform to get to know each other, exchange information and, in the long term, form the shared identity that is currently lacking. Our bid to become the European Capital of Culture gives us the opportunity to lay the foundations for this shared Capital of Culture region “in the heart of Europe”.

Another challenge is that commerce and industry usually settle on the urban fringe, which causes serious strain on the centre and results in the notorious vacancy rates that are hard to tackle. The town centres of villages that have been incorporated in the city, such as Wagram, Spratzern and Harland, lost the battle against shopping malls a long time ago, while the city centre is still waging that battle. St. Pölten currently seems to be tackling the problem by tearing down the affected buildings, though the ground floor zone, which used to house shops and businesses, is often ignored in new builds[MO1] , and doing everything it can to lure consumers back to the city. This has damaged the balance between commercial zones and non-commercial areas. Car parking and outdoor cafe and restaurant seating on public land are still given far too much priority at the expense of wellbeing and quality of life in the city centre. Most people do not want to be treated as consumers all the time; sometimes they just want to visit and use their city without constraint. For a good example of an excellent community, visit Domplatz square on a Saturday morning.

These open spaces, which are also the subject of this year’s Venice Biennale, are an incredibly important catalyst for our society. We must not allow this opportunity for exchange and debate to be sacrificed under the heading of convenience and profit maximisation. The same is true for empty shops and entire buildings.

Such locations have great potential for cultural uses, making sure that young artists have a base and receive the appreciation they deserve in a future European Capital of Culture. St. Pölten does have a good reputation and promising talent in several sectors. However, these people require easily accessible and affordable infrastructure such as rehearsal spaces (currently near the city dump). Such investments will have a positive effect on the city.

Collaboration with decision-makers is clearly needed. We must help dedicated citizens find spaces, whether for cultural / social programs (temporary exhibition areas / galleries / communal spaces) or for commercial purposes (pop-up stores / offices / gastronomy). In the long term, this will vitalise our streets and buildings, help property owners to find long-term tenants thanks to revaluation provided by interim users, and enable players to create programs for spaces at low cost and without major organisation effort. You can tell that the city is making an effort, but there are still plenty of places with potential.

We at the platform have been dealing with this topic for a while: in January, we convened our regular appointment in a temporary cafe above a pop-up store, and we are currently on a promising hunt for a citizens’ office in St. Pölten’s city centre. Join us on an excursion to Vienna, where we will seek out such “creative (free) spaces”, learn more about the origins of similar initiatives, and gather hints and tricks that we can use in St. Pölten to build a consumption-free space of exchange. The excursion will take place on 26 May. Please register beforehand under hallo@kulturhauptstart.at.

18 May 2018


Guest authors

civil society platform KulturhauptSTART


Find here the full statement of Jörg Bichler, Martina Eigelsreiter, Marcus Hufnagl and Lothar Rehse (in German):

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