Article of the UIA Knowledge base
Edit 20 June 2019

Beauty in Poor Places - a blog on two Jobs & Skills projects

MARES de Madrid facility
“Why shouldn’t poor neighbourhoods have beautiful things?” Mauro-Gil Fournier asked me this a few weeks ago in Madrid. We were standing in a gleaming smartly equipped shop-front facility in the main street of Villaverde, one of the city’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. This is one of the four MARES facilities planned as part of their Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) project. Mauro is part of an eclectic talented team making it all happen.

MARES explores innovative ways to support the social and solidarity economy in these neighbourhoods. The approach has included creative ways to map the talent assets of the local community, and each MARES has a sectoral focus. In Villaverde the theme is food. 

I was struck by the in your face newness of it all. Shiny stainless steel equipment and an open kitchen make it look more, well, like a hipster café than a skills and enterprise facility for food. Set in the sad, faded local high street, it stands out so much, that locals press their noses against the window in wonder. 

So, my question was: “How do you build links with the local community? Isn’t this too intimidating?

That’s when Mauro made his reply. And he’s right of course. We’re just so used to facilities like this being ugly, function and forced to blend in with their environment. Design compromises. We’re also hyper-suspicious of anything that smacks of potential gentrification. Transforming a neighbourhood without losing its soul is a familiar theme to all of us visiting MARES from the Rotterdam UIA project, Bridge, which is engaged in its own transformation journey in the South of the city. 

The aspect of the MARES approach made me think of  Medellin, Colombia. There, the city authority commissioned renowned architects to design and build iconic libraries in the city’s poorest barrios. As well as sending a powerful message about the transformative power of reading and education, city leaders made an equally powerful statement about having beautiful buildings in poor neighbourhoods. 

I left the MARES visit with plenty to think about. But I also left with a reinforced belief in the importance of design, beauty and functionality in all things – especially in those places where it is often sadly lacking, but where it can be inspiring. 

Author: Eddy Adams, UIA expert for BRIDGE project


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