Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Self-governing urban open spaces

The creativity of an urban open space - Pixlapiren

by Mateja Mihinjac

During my work travels over the past years, I have found – often by accident – many interesting places with an alternative local subculture. These places always intrigued me to learn more about how they emerged and who manages them to keep them alive and flourishing.


I recently discovered one such place by the pier in Helsingborg, Sweden. Pixlapiren is a meeting place intended for everyone to visit and explore, and for local residents, organisations and groups to create. People have opportunities to meet, initiate and share ideas and form place identities to strengthen local democracy and challenge segregation problems. 

Learning to garden in Pixlapiren

They can also obtain a pixel (a development space measuring 10 x 10 metres) to create and display their creative outputs. Other activities occurring at this place include street art festivals, community gardening, skateboarding, beach volley, swimming, water skiing, various festivals and workshops. 

Pixlapiren is an example of urban commons, a form of self-governance that was originally established by the local government as part of the urban renewal project with the purpose of exploring new forms of co-development. The space is now self-governed by users, NGOs and non-government actors that manage and steer the resources while the municipality acts as a facilitator. In the process, governance changed from open co-governance to self-governance. 


The second example of a self-governing space, the Metelkova City Autonomous Cultural Centre, is in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

“Metelkova” is an autonomous social and cultural centre that since the early 1990s occupies the space of the old military headquarters. It started as informal commons with the tension between squatters occupying the space and the municipality. At one point, it was even declared illegal. 

Art installation in Metelkova, Slovenia

The space remains contentious due to non-compliance with the building codes and urban planning regulations. However, due to its extensive contribution to cultural activity in the city and its attractiveness for tourists, the municipality is now also linked to the site through its institutional actors. It capitalises on recognition of this space as a tourist attraction as well as a national cultural heritage status that was awarded to Metelkova in 2005. 

Today, Metelkova is a self-governed and self-managed community that receives European cultural funds. It has become a home to many artists and creatives, a place of art exhibitions, art installations, festivals, concerts, performances and clubs. LGBT associations and NGOs now also hold offices in the space. While independent, connections with many institutions and organisations, and its cultural and tourist prominence have solidified its position in the city.

Metelkova also hosts Hostel Celica, with renovated rooms from former prison cells


The literature on urban open spaces teaches us about the prominence of these spaces as a “vital element of the urban matrix”. From SafeGrowth we also know how important they are for the social sustainability and the cultural character of the neighbourhood.

Pixlapiren and Metelkova add an important social, cultural and tourist character to their respective cities and are based on collective movement and self-governance. 

Seaside seating on recycled materials in Pixelapiren

While the journeys of these two places started somewhat differently (the first one was initiated by the city government while the second started as an illegal occupation), the evolution of such spaces in the years ahead teaches us about the importance of government/non-government/civic society partnerships. The success of these spaces also speaks to the importance of the community that manages the space and assumes self-governance. 

Urban commons strengthen local democracy and they offer a great opportunity for local governments to involve people in local decision making. That is an excellent way to prevent tensions that might arise from unwanted activity in those spaces. Urban commons like these provide local governments with a way to leverage social sustainability and cultural character into neighbourhoods of the future.