Heerenstraat Festival is a place of encounter to celebrate the living heritage of Paramaribo’s city center. The first edition of the Festival took place between September 30th and October 6th 2019 on the streets of Paramaribo’s city center, a World Heritage Site (WHS). The IDB in coordination with the Ministry of Education and Culture of Suriname partnered with The Back Lot foundation (TBL) to organize the film, gastronomy and arts festival. Today, it is unthinkable having crowds of people coming together on the streets. However, outdoor spaces like streets, plazas and parks are the safest spaces to physically distance while socially interacting with each other. Covid-19 presents the opportunity to convert the outdoor festival, which is more than just an annual event for entertainment, into a regular stream of people coming to the city center enjoying their living historic and cultural landscape and buying-local on a daily basis.
We can draw the following lessons from the Heerenstraat Festival, which was designed as a pilot project, that are important to consider for the future valuation and enjoyment of the historic city centers:
- ‘Curatorial’ process of the contents for diversity, local culture and regional values. During the year prior to the festival, we discussed with TBL the regional contents of the film selection and the diversity of activities that would bring people back to the city center and World Heritage Site. The Festival brought regional movies, mostly in Spanish, to the cinema screens and master classes. Therefore, the festival was a space where Suriname, presumed the most unknown place in South America, brought together their neighboring countries’ roots to exchange experiences and learn from each other. Similarly, the selection of vendors, activities and performers was a dialogue for a diverse cultural representation. The budget allocation to express our curatorial process and priorities was a challenge. However, we managed that less than 10% of the agenda represented the most popular expressions, providing a stage for different undervalued traditional expressions or niche markets. Finally, the balance between activities and ages was a planned process, 72% of the people surveyed at the Festival mentioned there were activities for people of all ages.
- Embedded in a broader vision for the place and ongoing operations. Since 2017 the Government of Suriname is implementing the Paramaribo Urban Rehabilitation Program (PURP) to revitalize the historic city center. Mobility improvements, waterfront redevelopment, and public heritage buildings rehabilitation are key components of this Program. However, the participation of the private sector is fundamental to bring the historic center back to life. At the same time, the IDB Lab (private sector) is working with TBL to provide a new youth education and jobs creation program in the creative sector. This Festival is coordinated with the vision shared by the private and public sector projects and provides relevant inputs to these ongoing projects on the perceptions and barriers for the city center’s economic and cultural activation. It illustrates the area’s potential for local (re)development.
- Clear messages for communication. We determined that just one simple message was enough “bring the city center back to life”. The dissemination process, including the press conference, used these lines, as well as the messages on stage and the conversations while conducting the surveys during the Festival. Moreover, 75% of the surveyed participants in the activities were residents of the Paramaribo central area, and 50% of them were between 18 and 29 years old. Youth is the most challenging targeted group in participatory activities and was actively present here. This represented a success as mainly locals were present. However, this is also a challenge to address in future events as the city center should be an encounter spot for people of all ages, as well as the provision of information about the Festival to the citizens of Paramaribo in advance, which was our lowest point in the surveys.
- Clear evaluation objectives for replication and scaling up. On early stages we designed this pilot project with some specific objectives that could be easily measured with tools such as perception surveys, crowd counts, interviews and public life analysis etc. The objectives in this particular case were: to attract people to the city center; economic and cultural activation of the central area (by economic activation we understand the sales activities involving profits for its operators, and by cultural activation activities related to music, visual arts, cinema, theater etc.); to build culture and heritage based capacity through education programs for young people; to promote the value of the WHS; and to contribute to the PURP and IDB Lab project design and implementation.
- Choose the right timing. Some brave (private sector) groups are the pioneers moving into Paramaribo’s historic city center, this demonstration is more effective than just preaching and planning for people to move back to the WHS. Early 2019, after years of planning, the first pioneers, entrepreneurs setting up incubators, co-working spaces, pop-up stores and a filming school, returned to the city center and were there during the Festival to show everybody that this is not just a dream. It would have been very different if we proclaimed the ‘return to the city center’ without anyone having recently experienced the challenges and opportunities of this place.
- Public-private partnerships demonstration. The Festival experience has been a common space and good practice for public-private collaboration in the country and within the IDB Group. The different public institutions involved helped with the permits, planning and even participated on a common press conference to invite people to the Festival. This press conference was a good practice, where both public and private sectors came together to bring what they do best to provide the best results. It would not have been possible if any of the two were not involved.
Public and private key stakeholders launching the festival period together. © Ruth Lanting, 2019
- Management model for sustainability. The IDB financially supported part of the first edition of the Festival, always emphasizing that next editions would have to be increasingly self-sustaining. The main purpose was helping the local stakeholders during the process of coordinated place management schemes. Therefore, we conducted several workshops after the festival to codesign simple action plans and future visions and strategies to promote collective efforts by individual stakeholders to act within the intervention area.
- Understanding public life for public spaces design. Street observation, so well promoted by Jacobs and Gehl, speaks about life on the streets and publics spaces, but also reflects life and activities in the buildings surrounding it, showing a clear transformation from abandoned or underutilized areas to areas starting to receive activities and new life. We conducted street observation measurements in May and October 2019, before the festival and any physical improvements, which are the baseline to a potential increasing pedestrian activity in the area and a possible future change in the local urban mobility system. We will follow up periodically with the public life observation measurements to monitor the results of the festival and subsequent interventions in the area, and changes in the public behavior and people living in the area.
© Isidora Larraín, 2019
- Educating, experiencing and then caring. The filming master classes and the of stories behind each heritage building in the intervention area were key ingredients of this pilot project. Heritage valuing processes are built on a virtuous circle of understanding, experiencing, and then caring. The more people is aware of the connections between people and buildings, linking history with their own lives and families, the more we count on ambassadors and potential public defendants of the World Heritage Site which can spill over to more investments in this area. Over 50% of the participants considered that the Festival portrayed the culture of the city accurately. However, 60% of the participants declared they did not learn anything new about the WHS during the Festival. Most participants were not familiar with the recently developed app that presented between others the heritage building narratives. For next editions of the Festival other or additional information dissemination, and communication methods should be considered. For example, analogical methods such as signs on the facades.
© Stephanie Van Doorn, 2010
- Learning from the multidisciplinary and creative approach. The Festival and the final version of the place management plan did not have the same shape as originally planned. Working together with filmmakers, facility managers, journalists, economists, architects, planners, business owners, among others, provided us different perspectives that together built a pilot project under an iterative process of evaluation and adjustments. The core message was always the same, but while more contributors joined the team, new opportunities came up. Like the incorporation of sports for youth involvement at the Festival, or the urgent need of a solution for homeless people in the area. Nonetheless, some ideas that made total sense failed during the implementation phase – many variables are out of control such as the weather- and instant creative solutions were key to ‘keep the ball rolling’.
This urban experiment (considering the first edition of the festival and ongoing programs) is designed and reviewed to scale up and replicate place improvement schemes in Suriname and across the region. As you just read it is not just an event, but part of a collective urban activation process where we bring together the best of the local software (people, skills and traditions) and hardware (heritage buildings and streets). With covid-19 the collective efforts are more important than ever, to reinvent business strategies, provide safe conditions for people, and build back a better tomorrow.
Look here at many other projects in urban revitalization to understand the diversity of urban challenges and solutions the Cities Lab is facing.
Guest Author: Ruth Lanting