One of the oldest and biggest NGO in Bucharest is the Association for Urban Transition (ATU) which engages with urban development and policy, urban culture and heritage, mobility and public space, collective housing and combating social exclusion for 17 years. We met with one of the founding member, architect Vera Marin, and her two colleagues who are involved in the URBOTECA project – urban researcher Gruia Badescu and anthropologist Alexandra Ștef.
Nowadays, ATU has more than 70 active members from various professional backgrounds – architecture, urban planning, social studies, law, urban economics etc. ATU was established in 2001 which makes it one of the oldest NGO, even older than the Romanian Order of Architects. The founding members felt the need for a think tank focusing on urban management and participatory planning, as there was no such NGO in the 1990s in Romania. They aim to negotiate between different stakeholders in urban development – public authorities, civil society and private developers. With their projects, they want to empower the civil society and encourage people to participate in discussion with other stakeholders with more economic and decision-making power. Since 2008, ATU is recognised as an independent research centre by the Ministry of Education and contributes to the methodologies development and consultancy for the city. In its educational projects, it cooperates with universities and their students.
In 2014, the ATU team developed an innovation/education lab – or an open planning office, as they call it – URBOTECA, which uses service design, gamification and behavioural economics to foster engagement. It is an urban living lab that seeks to define how participatory planning should look like. They have redesigned a van and thus created a mobile pavilion with which they travel around the city and organise workshops – in the places where development is planned or which lacks something. With the van and its facilities (stage, exhibition panels, flip charts, printers, projectors, seats etc.), they create different settings for an ever-evolving negotiation environment for various stakeholders. Its design is inspired by modern food truck culture – and should act as temporary vibrant public space which stimulates interaction, creativity and curiosity for participants. They aim to disseminate information on urban planning and design and help citizens to understand public programmes, projects and the local planning regulations – e.g. the General Urban Plan (PUG, for the city) or the Zonal Urban Plan (PUZ, for a neighbourhood). For that, they use data visualisation methods and strive to make all their educational materials visually attractive and understandable. They also launched a map which shows different current processes in the city based on open data from the municipality and explains basic urban terminology.
URBOTECA also became part of the Urban Education Live network, a platform which seeks to identify innovative methods for collaboration between academic or associated professionals and local communities.
ATU members told us they have a similar experience as we have already heard from other initiatives – the municipality has no agenda or vision concerning the urban development or public space, e.g. the investment department arranges the renovations of public space chaotically and without any design projects or architecture competitions. It does not react to the needs or potentials but depends on the money available, voting period or bribing. Often the public administration “works against the people”; therefore the initiatives subvert the public sector and try to fight for the public good. ATU members admitted the situation improved a lot after Romania joined the European Union in 2007, in 2009–2011 the “angry” architects managed to persuade the municipality and prepared an Integrated Urban Development Plan for the City Centre in which they demand good quality urban design and ensure enough public space, but it would be more difficult to regulate the quality of public space. Also, after the last parliamentary elections in 2016, the conditions worsened, and many active people lost hope.
Marin, Vera & Calciu, Daniela (2018). Urban Pedagogy in Bucharest: URBOTECA by ATU. In Revistei Arhitectura, 2018(2–3)