The American organization Project for Public Spaces, working in both nations, is recognized for its contributions to restoring civic engagement

It’s Friday in the main square of the Serbian town of Novi Sad, and the air is perfumed by the earthy scent of fresh produce. Vendors from the surrounding countryside are selling organic fruits and vegetables here at a new weekly farmers market. An outsider might mistake the presence of the market, which has been in operation for less than a month, as a return to “life as usual” in this city on the Danube River devastated by NATO bombing in the Kosovo War of 1999. In truth, it represents an entirely new approach to revitalizing public life in Serbia, an approach championed by the American non-profit Project for Public Spaces (PPS).

PPS, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2005, has been creating and sustaining places that build communities since 1975. It has provided technical assistance, training, education, and advocacy to over 1,200 communities in 12 countries with its multi-faceted placemaking approach, which directly involves local stakeholders in shaping the places they use every day.

What’s significant about the project in Novi Sad is not so much the idea of the market, but the way the idea was conceived. PPS, together with the Czech Environmental Partnership Foundation (CEPF) and the Green Network of Vojvodina, spearheaded the creation of the market by holding a workshop this May, where residents of Novi Sad and the surrounding countryside proposed ways to bolster the local economy and strengthen ties between urban and rural communities. The workshop provided the experience of participatory democracy on an intimate scale–and with tangible results.

The market emerged from the meeting as a means not only for farmers in the region to sell their products, but also to increase city dwellers’ connection with the dwindling rural population. The idea was embraced so enthusiastically by participants that the market was open for business by June 25, only four weeks after the initial meeting. Twenty five farmers were on hand the first week, selling organic produce, baked goods, and traditional crafts.

At nearly the same time that the market in Novi Sad was getting underway, PPS was honored by the Croatian government for its work in the city of Rijeka. The award, which recognized PPS and its Croatian partners for outstanding cooperation between local government and NGOs, spotlighted the growing influence of PPS’s work in Eastern European cities and towns. In 2003, after a decade of work in the Czech Republic to revive and preserve historic towns, PPS was invited to Rijeka by the Urban Institute to help launch “Mali Uce Velike” (also known as [MU:V], or “Kids Teach Grown-Ups”). The program was created as a means to involve youth in the civic process, a vital necessity in a region where violent conflict has spawned deep apathy among young people.

“We were told how ‘disenfranchised’ the kids in Rijeka were — most of whom have grown up during a decade of war and the collapse of Yugoslavia,” said PPS Vice President Steve Davies. “We saw how engaged they can become when they are given the responsibility to make a better place.”

Through [MU:V], PPS helped youth in Rijeka identify key public spaces in their community and offer ideas for improving them. The program began when local officials announced a public competition for the best ideas from young people to revitalize public spaces in the city. Ten teams of young people responded, and the teams were then trained how to evaluate and improve public spaces by young adult mentors, who had been trained themselves by PPS staff.

Each team entered a proposal in the competition, and two winning proposals were selected to receive funding:

  • NGO Klub mladih Hrvatske (Croatian Youth Club), who will create a new indoor space for socializing and creative workshops (including cartoon iluustration, set design, and acting).
  • OS Bradja, who will redesign a public park adjacent to an elementary school, with support from neighboring residents who have long complained about the park’s condition.

[MU:V] is already in full swing again for 2004, and PPS and the Urban Institute are currently discussing the opportunity to expand their efforts to other communities in Croatia and Serbia. Future projects could include cross-border greenways created with the participation of organizations from both countries.

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