The power of co-creation in redesigning Valencia’s waterfront

In the early 2000s, La Marina de Valencia hosted editions the America’s Cup and the F1 Grand Prix Race. These events attracted investment and fueled rapid infrastructure growth, but they also left behind a staggering debt. Many of the installations put in place were afterwards abandoned with no future plan. Since 2016, La Marina’s new management team has been drafting a fresh plan to re-purpose the remaining idle installations and revitalize the underused spaces along the waterfront to turn them into vibrant public spaces – open, accessible and attractive for all.

Text by Dima Yankova and Marta P. Coll

La Marina de Valencia is among the most recognizable landmarks in the Spanish city of Valencia. It is a former commercial port, which many associate with the glory of Valencia’s booming export industry in the second half of the 20th century and nowadays see as a testimony to the city’s deep maritime roots. In the early 2000s, however, La Marina became the spotlight of international attention after hosting several editions of America’s Cup and the F1 Grand Prix Race. These ‘white elephant’ projects attracted investment and fueled rapid infrastructure growth, but they also left behind a legacy of gross prolonged economic and strategic mismanagement as well as a staggering 400 million Euro debt which continues to cast a long shadow over the future of the iconic harbor. Many of the installations put in place to accommodate and facilitate the hosting of the grand events were afterwards abandoned or left idle with no future plan for use or transformation. The institution in charge of managing this vast 1 million square meter space is called Consorcio Valencia 2007 (from now on referred to as CV07). It is a public entity, formed as an alliance between the Government of Spain, the Regional Government of Valencia and Valencia City Council. Since 2016, despite the enormous burden of the pending debt, CV07’s new management team has been drafting a fresh plan for action which focuses heavily on the power of cross-sector and public-private-people collaboration in order to revitalize the underused public spaces along the waterfront and re-purpose the remaining idle installations. This article traces the implementation of the plan in light of the recently launched La Marina Living Lab and highlights the most successful examples of good practice achieved by the new administration.

CV07’s major challenge today lies in reimagining and revitalizing the historic harbor of Valencia as a vibrant public space – open, accessible and attractive for all. The focus of this article is not so much the “what” but the “how”. When it comes to repurposing the obsolete infrastructure, the administration’s approach has been instrumental to the success of the transformation process. Since 2016, CV07 has decisively steered away from the model of individual decision-making, opting instead for open and inclusive collaboration. Guided by the conviction that re-thinking and re-designing the future use of Valencia’s harbor must be a collective exercise, CV07 has invested time and effort into building lasting and productive partnerships with public, private, academic and civic groups. Thus, the institution has been able to secure the useful input of a broad network of actors with diverse expertise. This strategic and systemic crowdsourcing of ideas through participative processes constitutes the foundation of La Marina Living Lab. In fact, the very notion of a Living Lab at La Marina de Valencia was born in collaboration with Western Sydney University and is based upon the two institutions’ shared belief that engaging various actors in defining what a valued, inclusive, dynamic public space should be, and the practical design of our common spaces can produce a truly positive and long-lasting change.

At CV07, La Marina Living Lab carries many definitions: an experimental ecosystem, an urban laboratory, an open process for urban innovation, but the organising principle is the same – collaboration – which implies co-design, co-creation, co-assessment and joint innovation. Importantly, CV07, is also committed to this being an intergenerational approach – ensuring that La Marina of today – and tomorrow- is for all people, of all ages and walks of life.

One of the first projects launched under the umbrella of La Marina Living Lab featured a partnership between CV07 and SURA – a local educational association which challenges social exclusion through empowering children and young people. The partnership gave rise to a 2-month program, entitled SUREM La Marina, which translated from Spanish means metaphorically “Dreaming of La Marina”. The program engaged 50 participants between the ages of 12 and 14, who visited the harbor weekly in order to “dream up” ideas for the potential transformation of the waterfront. Each session involved a series of activities, designed to stimulate and develop the interpersonal, analytical and artistic skills of the young participants and source their creative ideas. In one session, for example, the teenagers were asked to reflect on the value of public space. In another, they brainstormed potential interventions which could generate that value in La Marina. Throughout the program, the students were constantly challenged to reimagine the harbor in new unorthodox ways. “I imagine a Marina with murals, sculptures and artsy things”, said one participant; “I want a basketball court”, “a sports center”, “a football field” asserted some, while others had a broader message: “I would like to see a Marina for young people, because there aren’t many places for us”.

By asking the teenagers to pitch their visions for La Marina, CV07 was not only gathering fresh ideas, it was opening a route of communication with a specific sector of the population, whose input is rarely sourced and whose presence in La Marina has been poorly understood. The customized activities, prepared by the educators from SURA, were meant to shed light on the preferences, interests and desires of the young participants. Trying to decipher what really makes a certain public space attractive for teenagers can seem like an impossible task, but it is an important one. After all, young people are an invaluable asset in reshaping an obsolete space, especially one in dire need of rejuvenation and rehabilitation. The joint work of CV07 and SURA generated real value for La Marina, but it also benefitted the students who volunteered to participate in the program. “This project succeeded in sparking meaningful relationships between boys and girls, who are the same age, but come from very different backgrounds”, concludes Joana Silvestre, a secondary school teacher and coordinator of SURA.

The launching of La Marina Living Lab has also given rise to a new online application for citizen engagement. The app, called InvisibleCity was created and piloted by Western Sydney University and it runs upon the notion that memories, experiences, emotions and aspirations (in other words the invisible aspects of a city) are just as important as the visible ones when it comes to understanding and imagining our urban environment in new ways. The innovative app allows users to create location-specific emotion reports, which capture their feelings and their opinions about a particular site. Built-in features prompt users to upload images and comments in order to construct a more holistic depiction of the space and the common sentiment it evokes. Today, as a result of the partnership between CV07 and WSU, a Spanish version of InvisibleCity is made available to the visitors of La Marina. In addition, CV07 is working to add an extra feature to the online tool. Soon visitors will be able to not only see and “paint” the emotion map of La Marina but also read brief passages about the historic significance of the buildings they are strolling by. According to Western Sydney University researcher, Philippa Collin, “How we feel in a place influences our relationship to that place – whether we want to visit, work or invest in it. This also creates a relationship between our individual and collective wellbeing and the vitality of the places themselves. InvisibleCity is open and can anonymous making it possible for people to visualize in real time their own – and collective – experiences of a place. But more than that, InvisibleCity can be a powerful, inclusive tool for communities to understand, analyse and co-design places to improve wellbeing, social and economic vitality.”

Some of the very first users of InvisibleCity were the teenagers from SUREM La Marina. During one of their last weekly sessions, the young enthusiast embarked on a collective exploration of the waterfront’s key areas, leaving behind a digital trace of their feelings and impressions. As the number of emotion reports grows, so will CV07’s understanding of the intricate aspects which make public space appealing or sometimes – unattractive for visitors. A comprehensive emotion map informed by hundreds of individual reports can show patterns of common sentiment and greatly enhance the development of La Marina’s urban space.
InvisibleCity has appealed to SURA’s group of tech-savvy adolescents, but the app’s simple and easy-to-navigate interface makes it possible to reach a much more diverse cross-generational audience. At the end of the day, it is a powerful way of gathering quick, honest feedback from the public and in broader terms – a tool for open, inclusive and democratic co-creation processes.

In the digital age, taking advantage of online tools to foster citizen engagement has become a strategic imperative, but requesting feedback in a one-way stream of communication is not sufficient. This is why CV07 is taking La Marina Living Lab a step further by developing an insight community where people who have been involved in previous projects and have expressed genuine and continuous interest in collaborating with CV07 can continue to do so directly over time, both online and in real life. The insight community is the most recent of Living Lab initiatives but public interest in the idea is already growing. The insight community is a tool for generating sustained constructive dialogue between the organization and the participants. In this synergy, members of the community provide feedback, respond to propositions and generate ideas, while the administration reciprocates by sharing with them up-to-date information about the impact of the community’s contributions, about current and forthcoming interventions in the public space of La Marina and about prospective projects and opportunities to get involved. Nourishing an active insight community is critical to the idea of co-creation and co-design. It also allows the administration to probe, at the earliest possible stages, the viability of certain intervention propositions and hence – manage better its use of time, money and resources. The insight community is also likely to boost public satisfaction with the space, since people can witness first-hand the application of their contributions in the context of La Marina within a relatively short time span.

All of the initiatives launched under the Living Lab umbrella thus far have championed collaboration and the involvement of a diverse set of constituents. Some programs, like SUREM La Marina, have targeted a specific section of the ‘user’ community, while others like the InvisibleCity app and the Insight Community were designed to engage with a broader audience. Yet, all of them are based on the same core premise: that CV07 ought to approach the transformation of the Valencian waterfront not from the position of a sole decision-making body but rather as a partner in a much larger group of stakeholders, be they students, civic organizations, academic institutions, or other public and private companies.

This approach has several positive implications. First, establishing a dialogue between the administration and the community ensures that the latter stays informed at any time about present or upcoming interventions in the public space of La Marina. Second, by building a platform for local engagement, CV07 is tapping into the creative potential of Valencians from all sectors and ensuring the seamless and diversified inflow of new propositions and ideas. Third, involving the citizens as stakeholders in the transformation of the waterfront restores their sense of belonging and their emotional connection to the site. The white elephant projects of the early 2000s left many of the locals disillusioned with the new image of La Marina as a place reserved almost exclusively for lavish international events. Reopening the conversation with locals is an opportunity to re-knit this broken relationship and ensure that people experience the historic waterfront as their own and look after it with pride and care. Finally, active collaboration promotes transparency and strengthens the level of trust between the public and the administration, which manages La Marina de Valencia. Ultimately, the decision of CV07 to approach the revitalization of Valencia’s historic harbor as a living laboratory based on collective creation and ideation processes has made the entire endeavor more open, more inclusive and certainly more democratic.

The next major Living Lab event is already scheduled for November 15, 16 and 17 and it promises to be yet another successful exercise in creative co-design and co-creation. This time the attention is shifting toward the role of La Marina’s public space in fostering innovation. For more information about the event and how to apply, click here.