Connecting bottom-up ideas to owners and funders: The RADAR Real Estate Forum in Ravenna
Ravenna chose a more organic approach to assure that bottom-up initiatives can also have a place around the negotiating table. In Ravenna, the DARE project, funded by the Urban Innovative Actions programme, has been working on connecting the top-down and bottom-up approaches of urban regeneration, by coupling initiatives that aim at reusing vacant buildings and unused land in the city’s Darsena area with property owners and financiers. In this article, UIA expert Levente Polyak explores the milestone event of this ambition, the RADAR Real Estate Forum.
The air is filled with the smell of jasmine as I approach the Darsena through one of the railway crossings that connects the old city with the former port area. It is late April, and it feels like Ravenna consists of two parallel cities. In the historical centre crowds of schoolchildren are marching towards the Dante Museum or one of the city’s Byzantine chapels. The squares where school groups stop to take a rest in-between these visits are immediately turned into playgrounds, with their loud chatter reviving the old town.
In the meanwhile, beyond the railway tracks, another kind of crowd is gathering. In front of the basilica-like structure of the Artificerie Almagià, a former sulphur warehouse located in Ravenna’s Darsena area, an odd group is forming. After convening around the building, they depart towards the Candiano Canal, businessmen and women in suits walking alongside activists, students, researchers and journalists. They stop every now and then to listen to their guide’s explanation, before continuing their stroll through the post-industrial landscape of the former port.
This is the second day of RADAR, the real estate forum organised by the DARE project. RADAR was designed to “connect the people with the ideas to the people who own the properties and those with the financial ability to support these projects,” explains Martina Manna of KCity, co-organiser of the event.
Equipped by the inspiration and perspectives offered by the presentations of the day before, participants set themselves to explore the untapped potential of the Candiano Canal. I join one of the three groups exploring the different aspects of the Darsena, following the project’s ideator, Saveria Teston. We walk along the Canal in the constantly changing weather that manifests itself with a particular force in this open, ample part of the city. Every now and then, we pass by a vacant building or land that inspired citizens to project their needs and desires into these spaces. We move past a parcel near the canal where some students designed a skate park before reaching the former shooting range which is conceived to host an orangery in the future. We leave the promenade along the canal for the district’s hinterland where large green areas and housing blocks complete the industrial cityscape. We turn to Via Pag where a group of students envisioned a set of artisan workshops, inspired by a set of pavilions lining up along the street. On the way back to the Almagià, we take a stop at the cigar-shaped buildings where a group of citizens imagined a museum of the sea.
The walk only lasts an hour but it completely absorbs its participants. Walking together across an area makes an important difference in the process of rethinking the possibilities of the Darsena. After decades of successive masterplans and generic discussions about the area, ideas for the Darsena become much more tangible when they’re connected with dedicated people as well as with specific buildings and sites. “Seeing where development will take place or projects might be implemented is definitely inspirational but is also very much needed from an investor’s point of view,” says Francesca Passeri, deputy director of the European Crowdfunding Network, confirming my feelings.
Walking along the potential development sites is also a way to initiate conversations and build connections. As participants stop in front of a building and they let their imagination soar, cold negotiations about the future of a space suddenly turn into a joint exercise of creativity. In these peripatetic discussions, walking in pairs or in small groups of three or four, interlocutors no longer carry competing visions. As they fix their eyes on the horizon in the Darsena’s extensive space, the strollers’ imaginations converge towards a shared perspective for the area.
The state park, the orangery, the artisan workshops or the museum of the sea are only a few of the many proposals for the Darsena that local residents, activists and innovators conceived as a response to the municipality’s call last Autumn. In order to accompany these proposals and help them build synergies with each other, a process consisting of several steps was designed by Multilab, a temporary association of enterprises led by KCity and composed by Nomisma, Labsus and Politecnica, from mapping existing initiatives to identifying the tactics for the Darsena.
RADAR is a cornerstone of this process. The real estate forum held in Ravenna’s Darsena on 26-27 April 2022 was conceived as an “interface between ideas, owners and potential investors, explains Saveria Teston, “a link between these worlds that are really different.” The event was designed to bring together investors and real estate advisors, representatives of the construction sector, industry and SMEs, researchers and third sector operators, innovators, property owners and representatives of the Ravenna Municipality.
Getting on board all these actors is not an easy task. Indeed, RADAR was preceded by months of organisation. “We did a big stakeholder engagement process,“ recalls Martina Manna. “We have been talking to the property owners since October last year. We know that some property owners are interested in selling, others are welcoming ideas.” In these new networks forming around the Darsena, the municipality has a central role; as Saveria Teston underlines, the municipality is “the key interlocutor all developers want to have at the table.”
RADAR was designed with three components in mind, “Imagine,” “Explore” and “Connect.” The event was opened with a set of lectures (“Imagine”) on social innovation, digital transition, climate change and the attraction of talent in a mid-size city, “with speakers from outside the project and outside Ravenna to stimulate a wider approach,” recollects Emanuela Medeghini, DARE’s project coordinator on behalf of the Ravenna Municipality. Besides introducing some key themes, keywords and concepts to the audience, the role of these lectures in launching the event was to “create a common ground to discuss together about the future, starting from the proposals with a more complex idea of the city in mind,” specifies Saveria Teston.
This common ground was brought to fruition on the second day of RADAR. After the walk with concerned project initiators, property owners and funders (”Explore”), the discussions unfolding between the strollers were brought back to the workshop tables for the third part of the event, “Connect.”
After an hour of exploration, we return to the Almagià building. The choice of the location to accommodate RADAR is conscious decision. The Artificerie Almagià in itself is a symbol of urban regeneration: it has brought creativity and culture in an area previously known for its hardships, and strengthened the links between the Darsena area and the historical centre of Ravenna.
In the building’s immense theatre hall, three large workshop tables are installed, in comfortable distance from one another, in order to guarantee that participants can concentrate on their own discussions. I join the table moderated by Francesca Passeri. She carefully gives the voice to all participants around the table, and invites everyone to reflect on the challenges of one another. Her focus is on the financial sustainability of the proposals presented by the activists, researchers and entrepreneurs around the table. “We’re trying to integrate the participation element not only in the design of the area but also in the funding of initiatives that will be implemented in the area,” she explains to me, “to make sure that the new activities are not only relevant for the citizens but also sustainable at the economic level.”
There is nothing arbitrary in the way participants sit around the different table: they are invited to specific working groups according to a well-calculated order. The groups are designed to facilitate the creation of synergies between the different project proposals and connect them with the relevant property owners and potential funders, if they hadn’t met yet during the walk and previous meetings.
“We had studied the project ideas and identified where they could have connections when intervening in the same area or facing similar problems,” recalls Emanuela Medeghini. These synergies are conceived to lead to the Darsena tactics, “integrated and coordinated sets of feasible projects which can guarantee the greatest possible effectiveness in the development of the regeneration process by jointly pursuing a shared development scenario,” continues Medeghini.
Projects that work on temporary use, will all have to deal with the legal framework and characteristics of temporary use, as described in the POC Tematico Darsena, the city's regulation for the Darsena area: short-term use contracts, regulations allowing access, safety measures adapted to short-term needs, setting up a temporary infrastructure, etc. Other projects seek large investments and therefore need to develop financing mechanisms. Some initiatives are connected through their locations, concentrating, for example, on the Candiano canal and the possibilities of the water. Others can generate synergies along the research and innovation projects, cultural and sports initiatives or inclusion activities they propose. Once these synergies are established, initiators are invited to resubmit their proposals in cooperation with others, the winning tactic to be selected via a public vote.
Following a long period without public encounters, RADAR was the first event of the "LIVE" series dedicated to help citizens explore the Darsena area. After years of isolation caused by the pandemic, it was essential for the project to bring together the future protagonists of the Darsena area. Further postponed because of the municipal elections, RADAR seems to have come in the right moment, with ideas mature enough for hands-on discussions around them, but still open enough to be able to merge together or connect with each other.
I leave Ravenna with a feeling of accomplishment and the sensation that there is a momentum that DARE can build on. Before heading to the train station, I meet with Saveria Teston to ask her about her feelings after the event. Visibly worn after the long days of organisation and relieved at the same time, she tells me about the feeling of having liberated a spirit from the bottle. “The stakes are higher now because people start thinking now that we can achieve things,” she acknowledges; “now we have the responsibility to stay close and work together with our partners to transform the ideas into real projects.”