Blogging from Bogota about post-conflict design, innovation and planning

Witnesses to a divided society

“I had to come back from Canada when my father and uncle were murdered and there was no one to help on the family farm.”

“My mother was killed and her body thrown down a well.”

“My father has been kidnapped several times.”

You cannot spend a week in Bogota without hearing personal stories like these. Matter of fact statements routinely dropped into conversations which started with simple questions like ‘How is your English so good?’

And what a week the last one was to spend in Colombia. It began with the narrow ‘No’ decision in the peace deal referendum. By midweek we had the Nobel Peace prize award for Colombian President Santos and it ended with frantic scrambling to ensure the cease-fire holds beyond the end of October.

We were there for the SIX Summer School, exploring social innovation in polarized societies. Although the peace supporters were the most visible, with white flags and Paz posters all around, it was clear that like the rest of the country, the capital was a divided city.

A shared heritage

Sadly, Colombia’s conflict-driven divisions are not unique. Nor are the country’s cities the only ones to struggle with the consequences of inter-communal violence. And it would be a mistake to assume that none of Europe’s cities share this experience. Ibon Zugasti from the Mondragon Corporation reminded us of this, referring to both the Basque Country and Northern Ireland as examples.

Building cohesive local movements which bridge communities was identified as a key peace-building component in both of these places. Another was the importance of redefining the narrative – working on the ground to shift perceptions of what has happened and, more importantly, what the future can hold. Otherwise, citizens in post-conflict places remain trapped in the past. That can be a dangerous place to be. Reflecting on this, Colombian peace activist Leonel Narvaez Gomez echoed the words of Desmond Tutu: “Without forgiveness there is no future – only the past.”

Hard wiring post-conflict cities for peaceful coexistence

Historically, cities have been spaces for different communities to coexist. A worrying trend in post conflict places is towards homogenization, particularly where ethnic cleansing (a horrible term) has been a feature of the conflict. Sadly, Europe also has recent experience of this. Planners and architects involved in the renovation of post-war conurbations have an influential role to play in how cities are reconfigured once the fighting stops. How this is done represents a significant challenge.

Another SIX contributor, Marwa Al-Sabouni, has given a great deal of thought to this. As an architect and mother of two young children, she is routinely asked why she remained in the Syrian city of Homs. She will tell you that she stayed because this is her home, and from there she is making an important contribution to the debate on how the city should rebuild. She sees this as an opportunity; a chance to reinvent the physical space shaped by its pre-war past.

Speaking via Skype from Homs, she explained what this means in practice. On the one hand, she sees it involving much work with communities, using informal networks to build trust, promote dialogue and create platforms for codesign. On the other, it will mean addressing the physical challenges and opportunities that exist within all cities. Amongst the latter is the chance to reopen an underground river that has been submerged for many years. As well as potential environmental benefits, this could also become a focal point for community interaction; a fresh meeting point in a congested city, much as the rediscovered Cheonggyecheon river functions in Seoul, capital of another innovative society accustomed to conflict.

Resilience and humour

Marwa’s work is truly inspirational. She also displays characteristics that I have noticed in other post-conflict places I know: resilience, courage and humour. All three were in evidence in Bogota. In a city famous for having a Mayor who used clowns as traffic cops to curb macho driving habits, we listened to Talya Weinberg describing her use of clowning and humour to connect with communities. We also had a surreal afternoon with the fun-loving 100 in 1 day project, founded in the Colombian capital and now operating in over 30 cities across the world.

The 100 in a Day concept is about sparking innovation and community activism through, as the name suggests, supporting 100 grass-roots activities in one day. We were lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Diego Cuadros and his colleagues engaging in three co-designed activities. The first involved setting up a fake confessional booth in the city’s main square. Curious passing citizens were invited to ‘confess’ their sins against the city and were then given a paper penance from the person inside the booth behind the grill. These were good deeds to be done in the city. We also filled pavement holes with coloured wool (why not!) which gathered a decent crowd of intrigued locals, triggering a debate about the state of the city’s road and pavements and what had to be done.

The final act was rather more reflective. It involved each of us handing a flower to one of the members of the peace camp that is now in the square in front of the presidential palace with a commitment to remain there until the peace deal is complete. From a random suggestion (“Lets get flowers” “Who shall we give them to?” ”What about the peace campers”) this flipped into a powerful gesture of international solidarity that attracted a crowd and prompted media interest in Bogota. This piece of spontaneous street theatre captured 100 in a Day’s ingenuity and sensitivity and reminded me of the power of playfulness in getting serious messages across.

Lets hope that message spreads, and that Bogota’s peace campers will soon be able to go home.

This blog was first published on the URBACT website, click here to see the original.