“…in a climate of aging infrastructure and limited resources.”

These words, at the tail end of an invitation to speak about design challenges facing cities today, reminded me that I haven’t written much about my recent work in Jesolo, Italy (Venice’s neighboring city), which explores new ways of working with limited urban resources, and is part of a larger series of resourceful design strategies for cities I’m developing.

Jesolo, Italy

The language of limitation has been shaping our  dialogue for several years. This is not a bad thing. While there is certain and saddening pain felt by many at the financial end of this “age of austerity” we are told we now live within, there are also positive outcomes to be found. Resourcefulness has returned to our collective consciousness. We are seeing tremendous growth in sharing schemes, recycling, upcycling, design/space/system hacking and DIY and tactical urbanism – shortcomings resulting from either inadequate resources or attention paid are being addressed by creative initiatives to make do with less, inspired at times by ideological preference and at other times by personal necessity.

At the municipal level, cities are experiencing the shame shortcomings felt elsewhere. Yet most cities do not respond in the same agile and resourceful ways that individuals do when faced with the challenge of limitation. Often, this is simply an issue of size. Agility doesn’t scale well. But when the components of the urban machine are broken down, agile and resourceful strategies can be applied within the mechanics to nurture creativity within constraints. This was the approach I took in Jesolo.

As part of EUPA, an EU initiative to explore cultural regeneration and designer and artistic collaborations across multiple cities, the city of Jesolo wanted to enhance some of its public areas to improve the daily experience of its citizens and its sizable summer resident population. The platform was there, the will and enthusiasm were strong, but the funds and resources were light.

The beginning of the journey – Jesolo city material storage yard

Jesolo asked me to come in to create a strategy and creative direction with these components, and fiscal constraints, in mind. The result was a project which uses the existing functional stock of the city, from lamp posts to traffic lights, as the source material for new public designs. The resulting works, to be installed in 2013, are not only Made In Jesolo, but, as the project title says, “Made Of Jesolo”.

Made of Jesolo
At the edge of almost every city a vast storage space can be found, brimming with urban materials, objects and assorted ephemera from its streets; some new, some to be repaired, some in limbo awaiting disposal. These materials are the building blocks of the city – the working stock of city crews, prescribed for the most fundamental works, and services in the city. The starting point for Jesolo began by appreciating the potential of these materials beyond their traditional function. I asked the city to take a new view of their existing stock, beginning with my two favorite words: what if these basic urban materials were repurposed as source material for teams of architects, artists and designers to use as the base material for their own creations in the city?

Working with a team of students from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, and a selection of Italian and international artists and designers, the premise was put to the test. Three project teams were given the coordinates of public areas that needed redevelopment and enhancement, and a catalogued image list of the existing stock materials stored by the city for their use.

Below is a sample of work resulting from creative use of the raw materials in storage, and mid-stage renderings of their suggested reuse:

Before: Removed street lights
After: PLAY.A Lamps, an interactive display for public gaming with smart phones by Radha Mistry, Diego Sepulveda-Herrera, Varvara Guljajeva
Before: traffic lights awaiting disposal
After: PLAY.A Lights by Radha Mistry, Diego Sepulveda-Herrera, Varvara Guljajeva
Before: Recovered lamp posts and lighting poles
After: Pipe City, a musical, misting area by Cristina Favretto, Alexander Augustus, Seung Young Lee, Manuel Di Rita, Isabella Mara
Before: Discarded awnings, beach umbrellas
After: Ombra Sopra, public seating installation by Lizon Tijus, Margherita Poggiali, Leticia Lozano, Laura Mergoni

Beyond the fiscal and environmental benefits of reusing and repurposing existing urban materials, there is a pragmatic efficiency to tapping into the city’s material system to delivery design projects. The material stock already exists in the city’s warehouses and periphery storage lots, catalogued and entered into a system of easy retrieval and use, allowing greater efficiency, agility and economy in material sourcing than most projects.

The project also makes use of a tremendous asset held by cities that is often underutilized – the skill sets of the municipal work crews. Municipal employees and city work crews posses a vast amount of skill and knowledge of working with these materials, from supplier relationships to physical use and engineering. Often, these skills are called upon only to execute the most functional application of the materials.

In Jesolo, the designers and artists were instructed to create specifications and installation instructions that could be carried out by the existing city work crews to harness their extensive material knowledge and skills into creative application of the materials in the city. A key moment of urban resourcefulness comes when all urban assets – from materials to material skills – are utilized in the delivery of projects.

New relationships born from resourceful strategies do not only benefit the physicality and economics of the project itself however. An additional goal of the project is to shift the public’s awareness and appreciation of the potential that exists in the functional street elements that surround them each day.

The ubiquity of our surrounding urban components used in their basic state has rendered them almost invisible in our daily lives. To come across exceptional uses of these materials in the city begins to shift our dialogue with the physical ephemera of the city. If the potential for paving stones, lights, posts and fences are realized in exceptional ways in one location, then these same elements everywhere in the city are empowered to possess the possibility of their potential in the eyes of the residents. There is nothing more powerful than an idea, and if we can begin to shift the functional aspects of the city into containers of ideas of possibilities – moments that ask people not to think in terms of what is, but instead, “what if…” – the collective creative potential of the city increases accordingly.

The Jesolo project strategy is just one of many ways in which we can tap into the tremendous pools of material resources and skills that exist in cities in new ways. By employing agile and resourceful approaches to what already exists in our urban environments, alternate uses of the existing urban allows tremendous creativity within times of constraint.

Project Credits

EU-PA is a creative experiment in culture-led urban regeneration that is taking place in four European cities with four partnering organizations: Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, London, England; KIBLA, Maribor; Slovenia; CIANT, Prague, Czech Republic; and The Municipality of Jesolo, Jesolo, Italy. Jesolo-specific credits are:

  • Project Concept and Creative Director:  Scott Burnham
  • Design and artistic interventions: Radha Mistry, Diego Sepulveda-Herrera, Varvara Guljajeva, Cristina Favretto, Alexander Augustus, Seung Young Lee, Manuel Di Rita, Isabella Mara, Lizon Tijus, Margherita Poggiali, Leticia Lozano, Laura Mergoni
  • Production: City of Jesolo, Italy
  • Production management: Marco Demitri
  • Project critics: Tricia Austin, Andrej Bolesla, Mirjana Rukavina, Dejan Pestotnik

Work on Made of Jesolo continues, with installation slated for summer 2013.

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