Dokk1 in Denmark, The Rozet in the Netherlands, Wissentrum in Austria and DAStietz in Germany are examples of European urban learning centers.

Urban Learning in Europe – a journey to co-living and learning spaces

Reportage. What do human beings hope from their urban environments? One answer is non-commercial spaces allowing them to engage in meaningful social interactions and new experiences. But building educational centres in needy neighbourhoods also have a peculiar side effect: gentrification.

Richard Stang Photo Richard Stang

17.12.2019

In times of digitalisation, it seems that digital rules supreme, but analogue human nature increasingly wants to see its needs addressed.

This is evident, for example, in the fact that new houses for education, culture, communication and shared social activities have been mushrooming in cities across Europe. Physical space is reclaiming it status as a space of experience, while digital space has proven to be largely uninhabitable and mostly unresponsive to the human body.

A journey across Europe shines a spotlight on what human beings need: they look for non-commercial spaces allowing them to engage in meaningful social interactions and new experiences. This has led to the emergence of urban learning sites that (may) initiate incidental learning instead of lecturing visitors.

Denmark: an open learning space on one of the city’s most prestigious sites

One of the most recent examples of such a place can be found in Aarhus, Denmark. The Dokk1 is arguably one of the most exciting manifestations across Europe of how a city takes care of its citizens.

Situated on the waterfront – where other cities nowadays prefer to build luxury apartments – this imposing heptagonal structure is home to open spaces of learning, culture, communication and social interactions.

Upon entering the building, visitors are welcomed at citizen services counters, where they have access to all municipal bureaucratic services. But this is merely one point of entry from which citizens who otherwise have limited access to such venues may begin to explore this space of education and culture.

They find a library, study spaces, workstations, makerspaces, a room for children to play and romp around, computer games, a café and spectacular views across the water.

Kids can choose from a wide range of playgrounds, and as an acoustic statement, the big bell on the upper floor is struck each time a child is born in Aarhus.

The seminar rooms with their state-of-the-art equipment are available for use by groups of citizens.

Commercial use is ruled out, even though the Dokk1 is swamped with requests from private companies. The focus here is on people, not on institutions. Urban space is expanded by a space of experience and inspiration open to all citizens. This is how education-oriented urban development works.

The Dokk1 in Aarhus is an architecturally interesting building that is located in waterfront.

Great Britain: enabling educationally disadvantaged communities to access education

The same is true of the five Idea Stores in London, a success story that began as early as 2000.

At that time, the borough of Tower Hamlets was beset by many problems: low levels of education, poverty and poor health among the population. Community leaders looked for ways to address these problems and began with an intensive, multi-year study of people’s needs. Based on the results, they created a new type of institution providing low-threshold education and information services in response to local needs.

The Idea Stores mainly enabled educationally disadvantaged communities to access education and information opportunities and helped improve education and health outcomes among residents in general.

But a walk along the five stores also reveals the other side of the coin.

On the one hand, Idea Store Canary Wharf in the banking district is used by local employees; on the other hand, establishing such educational and cultural centres may also fuel gentrification, a process of changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents.

In the area around Idea Store Bow, for example, simple pubs are transformed into espresso bars, and rows of houses are torn down, to be replaced by expensive apartments. The communities for which the Idea Stores were originally intended are being displaced, and the whole area is going chic.

The Idea Store on Chrisp Street in London is located on an are that is affected by fast gentrification.

Netherlands: education having a “special” impact on urban development

The fact that efforts to revitalise socially deprived districts by setting up a new educational and cultural centre may fuel gentrification is also evident if one continues the journey to visit Arnhem in the Netherlands.

Opened in 2013 in a socially problematic part of the inner city, the Rozet houses the city library, the adult education centre (Volksuniversiteit), the city museum, a book store, a dance and music school, artist studios and exhibition spaces, as well as café and a restaurant.

On about 12,000 square meters on six floors, the Rozet, conceived as a centre for culture, knowledge and education, provides a stage for urban activities, contributes to social and sustainable urban development, and serves as a multifaceted place of learning with opportunities for all kinds of interested learners.

It is open to all citizens and provides low-threshold access. In addition, there are rooms available for use by civic initiatives.

But as in London, the surrounding streets have seen the emergence of a “young” culture of artists, small coffee roasters and trendy cafés that attract affluent hipsters. Simple houses are demolished and replaced with luxury apartments.

In this way, education has a “special” impact on urban development.

Located in Aarnhem, the Rozet is an urban learning centre of 12,000 square meters on six floors.

Germany: an old department store turned into a urban learning centre

The next stop on the journey is Germany, where the city of Chemnitz saw the inauguration of DAStietz in 2004.

Formerly an old department store, the building now houses a library, an adult education centre, a natural history museum and Neue Sächsische Galerie, a museum of contemporary art.

Once you arrive at the “Tietz”, there is a welcoming arcade featuring shops and cafés inviting visitors in.

The best way to experience the unique spatial structure of this building is to explore one floor after another. The spacious design, epitomized by the central courtyard, invites visitors to let their thoughts wander. This is a place where education and culture are free to unfold. The institutions – distributed across the individual floors – serve as key points for perception and inspiration.

However, structuring the building by floors also has a somewhat divisive effect. One begins to wonder what it would be like if the whole building was designed in a way for the rooms of the adult education centre and the library and museum spaces to mix—an arrangement that would facilitate an ongoing change in perspectives.

In the German city of Chemnitz, a visitor can find a learning center called DAStietz that is located in a building that once was a department store.

Austria: education, culture and information services under a single roof

The last stop on the journey is Austria. In Linz, the Wissensturm, or knowledge tower, was built in an effort to upgrade the gritty area around the city’s main train station.

Unlike in the other cities, construction plans for the building were finished before the decision was made to turn it into an educational and cultural centre.

Inaugurated in 2007, the Wissensturm houses – physically and in part organisationally – the city’s adult education centre, the city library, a media centre and public services for citizens.

Boasting 15 floors and a total floor space of more than 15,000 square meters, the Wissensturm provides a spatial structure that allows for offering education, culture and information services under a single roof.

But after some exploration, the building and its structure turn out not to be the ideal set-up for citizen-oriented education and information services. The institutions are physically separate from one another, only connected by the Wissensturm Learning Center (LeWis), which provides a broad infrastructure for self-organized learning.

Considering the large number of visitors, however, it seems that citizens don’t care.

The Wissentrum in Austria has boasting 15 floors and a total floor space of more than 15,000 square meters.

Learning in the future: out of classrooms to the urban

After so many stops on this trip, one begins to imagine how an urban space of education and culture might look like.

There would no longer be single institutions but community-driven spaces for citizens (co-living-and-learning spaces) that serve as meeting points and spaces for learning, inspiration and performance.

Newly structured spaces of inspiration would unfold, and learning would not only occur in the classroom but also incidentally while strolling through spaces of education and culture.

The city itself might be reconceived as one educational space.

Translated from German to English by Carsten Bösel.

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