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Urban Lab Torino: making sense of urban processes

Urban Lab Torino is an independent association that tells the story of the large-scale transformation of Turin and its metropolitan area. Working closely with the Turin Municipality, the Lab spreads knowledge and promotes debate about the city that has been transformed so much in the last decades following a massive de-industrialisation process. Its building right in the centre of the city offers an inclusive discussion space for citizens, experts and economic operators to find information, meet and discuss urban projects and issues affecting them. It also functions as a visitor centre with multimedia installations and an exhibition space about Turin’s urban transformation. The Urban Lab is currently in the middle of a momentous project: spreading and collecting information and opinions through participative engagement around the city’s new masterplan, the first in 25 years. We sat down with regional development manager Chiara Lucchini, to learn more about the activities around the new master plan, how the Lab can sustain its independence, and what makes Urban Lab Torino different from other urban centres in Europe.

What is the origin of Urban Lab Torino? How did the idea for an urban centre come about?

Urban Lab Torino, which is now 18 years old, was established as a project of the city’s Strategic Plan which was introduced at the end of the 1990s. That plan had many ingredients, but there was one important line that said that the city would need an Information Centre for informing residents and visitors about the urban transformation processes and possibilities in the city. To understand the birth of the Urban Lab we need to understand the context of the city at that time. From the mid-1990s, the city was facing massive changes due to the post-industrial transition. There was a strong need to show and explain the urban transformation process mainly from the physical point of view because people started finding construction sites everywhere.

During the Winter Olympic Games in 2006, a pavilion was set up in a central square with an exhibition concerning the urban transformation process in the city. And that was, in a way, a prototype of the Urban Lab. We were set up in 2005-2006 and became an independent organisation in 2010 with a statute and bodies governing us. We were established as a second-level association according to Italian and European law, which is an association between organisations, not people. The two organisations were City of Torino and Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo, which is one of the two big foundations of the city. To this day, they are our two partners that finance us. They cover more than two-thirds of our budget, the rest comes from European programmes, specific consultancy work and sponsorships on dedicated projects. Therefore we are not a city department, not a sector of the administrative machine. We are formally separate, even if we work with the city administration every day.

Exhbition space inside Urban Lab Torino. Photo (cc) Eutropian
What was your mission and how has it changed and crystalised over time?

When we started, we were very much focusing on urban planning and these last years we have been expanding our scope a bit, leaning into urban policies. We still take the physical city as our starting point, but we do also talk about policies. We are probably going to further evolve our goals and mission in the next years strengthening our lines of action related to urban data. Our goal is to spread information about the urban transformation process in Torino: to help citizens and organisations to make sense of these processes, to understand why the city changes in the way it does. The role of the Urban Lab is to allow people to come up with their own position over a process, over a project, over the things that are taking place in the city.

Mapping is a large part of what the Lab does. What are the roles of these maps?

 The storytelling of urban phenomena through data, infographics and cartographic representations is one of the Urban Lab’s main tasks, aimed at exploring the city transformation from different perspectives. Metropolitan Geographies focuses on six thematic areas: people, services, cultures, mobility, environment, economies. It is designed for those who intend to consult open data and cartographic representations for public communication, story-telling, information, promotion of the local ecosystem, as well as for the support to urban analyses and planning activities. Abitare a Torino/Living in Torino identifies and analyses spaces, resources and local services such as childcare and elderly care, health care, mobility infrastructures and cultural centres. Such a map can support housing policies. 111 architectures is a map of contemporary architecture in Turin showing how architecture and urban space have been changing in the city since the mid-1980s, changing the visual of the city.

Who is your audience?

Since moving into this building which is our home, we have been organising public events, conferences, workshops, working sessions at this venue, reaching a very broad audience with our events. One part of our audience consists of citizens who want to know about the city and about the specific topic we cover at our events. Otherwise we tend to work more with different kind of groups, organizations, communities or individuals depending on the activity (i.e., schools and pupils for education and engagement programmes; public servants and other city officials on specific policies and initiatives; common citizens for guided tours and dissemination activities, etc.).

The new building of the Urban Lab Torino is in the centre of the city, opposite Turin’s City Council. Photo (cc) Eutropian

When we work in partnerships that are related to European projects, we focus on a specific area, piece of land, or neighbourhood. We work with associations, facilitating specific activities connected to specific topics (i.e. climate change, mobility, temporary uses, etc.). We work a lot with schools also, helping the city with specific activities to increase their engagement. We also have one-to-one meetings at our venue for specific services we offer. For example, the city has an amazing collection of aerial views from the city that have been taken since the 1930s. We established an agreement with the municipal office that owns these pictures, and now residents can come here and see them, they just need to book an appointment.

Turin’s new masterplan is in the making as we speak and the city administration asked the urban Lab to be involved with communicating about the plan. What is your role?

The deputy mayor for urban planning wanted to take advantage of this moment producing the new masterplan. The city’s last masterplan was produced in the mid-1990s. Creating a new masterplan always marks a moment in which the city thinks, and puts its visions and strategy in a document. This is also a moment in which there is an opening to local residents, stakeholders, when people can have a say because as the processes go on, many things cannot be changed later.

We are the facilitators of these listening, engaging and informing activities around the new masterplan. We have three kinds of activities. In October we had an information point open to the public for three full days, gathering questions and sharing basic information. In the same three days, we had a public assembly for each of the eight districts. At these assemblies, the Deputy Mayor for Urban Planning explained his vision and strategy. The eight districts in Torino have their own political apparatus, so the presidents also participated at the public meetings. In October we also invited a group of approximately 40 local organisations from each district, approximately 300 local organisations in the entire city, who were engaged in a structured, participatory workshop, led by our facilitators in order to go deep into the issues.

In October 2023 we also launched an online questionnaire. This went live at the same time as our information campaign. There were two main purposes of the questionnaire: one, to inform people about the masterplan, its purpose and what we are doing about it. The second point was to receive feedback from them. We identified negative narratives about the city, and we asked what the reasons they think are behind these negative perceptions. On the other hand, there are strong points of the city, and there are successful projects that occur amongst the massive changes that have been taking place in the city in the last decades. So we asked the participants to list the strong points and to identify the areas in the city where change has produced something positive in their eyes. We were asking them also to evaluate these negative and positive changes through a point system. The topics cover a wide range of issues such as proximity services, infrastructures and relationships with the metropolitan area.

How long does this engagement process around the masterplan last?

The activities around the new masterplan continue into the next year, these first events were just the beginning. The city is actually receiving a large amount of funding with the recovery fund. Torino Cambia is a website that Urban Lab Torino curates: it collects and details the interventions that will change Turin with the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, and national and European Union funds. You can read about the actions the municipality is bringing about with this European money. Public communication on this is extremely important in the coming period.

What is your relationship with the city and how do you ensure your independence?

Our president applies for the position within a public selection process and is chosen by the Mayor that proposes it to the approval of the Directive Council and the Assembly. Both the city and the foundation have a   within the organisation, and a representative in the assembly. The Directive Council is the body that discusses our programme of activities and yearly budget: once the programme and the budget are approved by the council can be presented to the Assembly and be implemented

Every year we present  our programme of activities including the budget we have and aim to distribute for the following year. Sometimes we receive some extra activities. For example, the council asked us last year to support the masterplan with public engagement activities so we received extra money for this activity. We work together with the city in a very collaborative way. We are free to use our imagination and to come up with visions and activities. Two years ago we decided that our public programme would be related to nature and the city. That was purely our decision.

Similar centres in other Italian cities might pop up because maybe there is an enlightened mayor that wants to have one. When the political power changes, those organisations tend to die. So having (at least) a little independence is very important from this point of view, because if you are dependent on political power apparatuses, then when the political wind changes, you find yourself in a weak position. In our case we have always been negotiating our position with every new coalition.

Public event outside Urban Lab Torino discussing the new General Regulatory Plan, a tool for determining the directions of future urban transformations. Photo (c) Urban Lab Torino

We are not getting directly involved with the politics of the city, mayors come and go, deputy mayors come and go. Our mission is to produce knowledge about the city processes, facilitate the production of knowledge so that people are more informed, therefore they are in a stronger position to have a say and take part to the urban political process if they want.

According to Italian law, the bank foundations have to invest a part of the revenue they obtain into the territory where they are based. In our case they are, in a way, granting our existence as a neutral organisation. During our June festival for the city’s masterplan, one of the things that emerged by talking to people was that they felt comfortable being in discussions with the deputies of the city because we were facilitating that conversation and the conversation was not taking place directly in the municipality. For them it was liberating that the event took place in a space that has been designed for this. They felt confident that they can also be critical. Urban Lab Torino becomes stronger every time we succeed in enlarging the involvement of those who do not agree or might have a different view about city policies or processes, and this is an important aspect of citizen engagement for the city that we are able to provide.

Which European urban centres inspire you?

 There are some organisations that have been around  a long time like the Pavillon de l’Arsenal in Paris, or the Danish Architecture Center in Copenhagen. Both have the budgets, spaces, and number of employees that are not comparable to Urban Lab Torino, as they are much bigger organisations. Both are organisations that promote contemporary architecture, and architectural centres inspire us very much. The NLA a nice architectural centre in London that has an unbelievable maquette of the city. But it is very much focused on architectural practice which is something we concentrated on in the beginning but then we expanded this focus.

Mapping of parks, outdoor and indoor sports facilities in Torino. Photo (c) Urban Lab Torino
In what ways are you different from other urban centres?

To some extent we are involved with topics that architecture organisations focus on, but we have a slightly different approach because we work more in close contact with the urban planners and urban designers, rather than with architects. We have the urban practitioners’, and not only architects’ perspective on things.

Urban Lab was Lead Partner of the European project EUCANET – European Agencies Network, a project that ran for two years. Can you tell us more about the network and its future?

There isn’t an actual network as such for urban centres, however there is an international association of architectural centres. We recognised the need of having a space for discussion, the need of learning from each other and that is how EUCANET came about. EUCANET was the European Agencies Network for citizenship, inclusion, involvement and empowerment of communities through the urban transformation process.

It was financed by the Europe for Citizens program and aimed at creating an European network of urban centres, shared neighbourhood houses, local development agencies to support a greater civic engagement in urban debate and decision-making processes. To better understand how public debate might generate a discussion arena to bring out different demands, interests, values, perspectives and ideas about the socio-economic development of our urban systems.

EUCANET’s objective was to start a European network of city agencies with the aim of exchanging knowledge. While strictly speaking we were not a city agency, it was a concept that was easily understood by others in Europe. We had organisations like us in the network, as well as municipalities that had similar activities. It was a small network but a very new concept. We were leading, and I had the pleasure to coordinate the network. We secured funding for the duration of the project and it was difficult to find funding opportunities or frameworks for the continuation at the time.

My dream would be to establish a network on the national level, something that is pushing us or stimulating our work, like an URBACT network, with a very operational purpose. It would be beneficial having a nationwide network that would offer the possibility for people from here to go and attend the activities in Bologna let’s say, or for people in Bologna to go to Bari and attend working activities there. It would be about offering our knowledge but also receiving, learning about the different contexts, the different ways of approaching things. It is difficult to have a network because we are also different, that’s true. But the fact that we are different would allow us to learn much more from each other. Of course when every organisation is overwhelmed with keeping their own deadlines, such a networking activity can be difficult to maintain on top of their workload.

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