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Enhancing public space through mobility management: an interview with MOBILITY ACTION award winner Metropolia GZM’s urban designers

27 September 2023

With its creative transformation of a local university car-park into a pedestrian-friendly green space, Metropolia GZM snatched the first-ever MOBILITYACTION award title this past spring. The installation, built at the University of Silesia in Katowice (Poland), has converted part of the campus’ car-dominated surroundings into a public space for students, academics and community members to enjoy. The project engaged professionals from the public transport, cycling, social development, sustainable mobility and urban policy sectors, to craft a prototype that would decrease traffic and increase the space’s usability for students. We sat down with Pawel Jaworski and Aleksandra Hantkiewicz-Lejman, the urban designers behind the award-winning MOBILITYACTION, to discuss their experience building the installation and what they learned.

Why did the University of Silesia and the City decide to build this installation? We heard that there was a question from students asking “where can we eat sandwiches?” Was this the idea that sparked this project?

Pawel: Well, I think that there are two important reasons; the first one relates to the European City of Science. Next year, Katowice will receive this title and so examples of cooperation between the University of Silesia and the local government that are trying to transform public spaces in the inner-city area are very important. The second argument for this reconstruction is user experience, and for us it's crucial. The university has been trying to redesign this place as a campus for years and they have prepared several projects, but nothing has happened in reality. The students told us that they have basic problems with using this space. Perhaps it sounds funny, but the lack of space for meeting and eating together is a real issue. All departments have a break at the same time, which is around 1:00 PM. During this break, all the young people go out and try to find a place for themselves. If they fail to find one, they occupy benches in front of housing blocks. This shouldn't happen, it's a campus, and the concept of a campus is to provide all functionalities of an academic district on-site. When we were conducting the first interviews last year, everyone was telling us about those sandwiches and about this break. We were laughing at the beginning, but we realized pretty quickly that we should try to solve this problem.

Aleksandra: Students come here to have their lectures, laboratories, activities and then go somewhere else to work, go home, or simply go into the city. Now remote working is much more popular all over the world, so people are more flexible regarding everyday habits. This space unfortunately did not have the identity or character of something dedicated to students and academic life, so people were not spending quality time here. Students would only take care of the necessary stuff here and would then go somewhere else, somewhere nicer. The third thing was that, and it's still visible, this space is basically a big parking lot.

Pawel: Yeah! It’s one of the biggest parking lots in the inner-city. You can park here for free - because it’s not a public road and in Poland only public roads can be part of paid parking zones. It’s a real issue that gives rise to an urban and mobility problem.

Aleksandra: The problem is that when you are a pedestrian in this public space on campus, you have to watch out because you can be hit by a car very easily. It was really an issue for us and that’s why we decided to make a change here on this small section.

What was your experience with reducing the number of parking spots? Was it difficult to convince people that this space should be used for something besides parking?

Pawel: Yeah! Katowice is quite car oriented. We have a highway in the city centre, and many students often use cars because they cannot get here using public transport. What’s unique about this university is that a lot of attending students don’t live in Katowice, but rather in the surrounding areas and cities. They arrive by train, by car, by bus and so on, but mostly by car because it is still the cheapest form of transportation.

Aleksandra: It's kind of funny because arriving here by car for roughly three days a week, as many students do, is still cheaper than the public transportation.

What have you noticed from people that were initially opposed to the transformation? How do people perceive this space?

Aleksandra: It was completed last November. Usually, people say they prefer it to [what was there] before because they have more greenery and places to sit, stay for a meeting or just wait for classes. [Some say] they would have built it with different materials with some changes. Regardless, I think that in this budget and in this time, it's a very good and genuine design. It was oriented like a minimum viable product (MVP). From the very beginning of this process, we were saying that it's only temporary and it's only for tests, so please don't expect that it will be state of the art.

Pawel: It’s all a part of the process. When considering complex changes, we cannot concentrate on the small details right now, especially since we have a limited amount of money. The university, along with its partners, is still searching for larger EU funding for the target transformation. Once they secure a bigger budget, they will be able to make significant improvements. But at this stage, it's only an MVP.

What are the next steps in this process? How long will the prototype be there? If you receive more funding, what will happen?

Pawel: It started as a temporary change, but we noticed that it works well. Therefore, it will remain in place until the target transformation, although we’re uncertain when that will happen due to unclear funding possibilities. The university staff have submitted applications for various grant contests, aiming to secure funding for the next phase of the design work. I believe it will take years to prepare it properly, given the complexity of the area.

What were the main successes of this project? Do you wish to see similar projects implemented in the future?

Aleksandra: We had two real successes: the first success is that people are using it often, which was what we were dreaming of. The next success is that people engaged in university issues said they are encouraged with our work and the MOBILITYACTION Award. They want to make these types of prototypes in more locations around this campus. If we have managed to teach them how to do it without our support, then it would be a big success.

Pawel: We work across different countries. I do my design work in Poland and conduct most of my research in Germany. It's been great to observe the experiments and temporary solutions in Berlin over the years, and I hope we can implement similar processes at the municipal level. Currently, we are trying to improve our prototyping model, recognising that there are numerous obstacles to overcome.

Perhaps the most significant success is that this small area has evolved from a mere parking lot into a semi-permanent greenfield. While the architectural shape can still be improved, the new function is undeniable and unquestionable. Just last summer, we were sketching out new traffic schemes and designing furniture. Today, after several months have passed, nobody wants to entertain the idea of reverting to the initial state, removing the installation, and returning it to a parking space. This, in my opinion, is the most rewarding outcome of our efforts.

Managing this project was a huge challenge, perhaps the greatest of our professional lives. We believe that now is the time to approach officials for a more substantial change. We've taken the first step, and we're ready for the second and third ones.

To learn more about MOBILITYACTIONS and how to register, click here.