In February we started our research campaign about Trakiya, Plovdiv. Trakiya will be the main location of ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK 2016 as well as the place through which we aim to analyze the meaning of the topic of “citizen participation in the creation of the urban environment”.

The research is being led by Nina Toleva, an architect and a PhD candidate at the “History and Theory of Architecture” department of the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy (UACEG) in Sofia. In her dissertation she stands behind the theory of cities being similar to living organism and analyzes the roots of Modern and post-modern architecture and utopias from an organic point of view, while focusing on two ways of organising such districts: top-down and bottom-up.

Nina believes that Trakiya is a great example of the clash between top-down and bottom-up ways of organisation. The Urban Plan of Trakiya has undergone great change after the inhabitants moved in. The neighbourhood changed from a place where people only slept to a lively and self-sufficient district. The results of the research that Nina leads will form the base of ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK 2016’s main exhibition.

Three months after the beginning of the research and while we are finishing the process of collecting data, we decided to shed light on the process behind this research as well as on some interesting facts about Trakiya. The questions are asked by Ljubo Georgiev, ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK’s director, and the answers are given by Nina Toleva.

What aspects of the urban environment are included in the research?
Trakiya is a great example of the transit between top-down city planning to self-inflicted order. As one of the biggest plattenbau districts in Plovdiv Trakiya has great impact on the city. We strive to analyze Trakiya as if it were a live organism, a symbiosis between cityscape and inhabitants. We want to accomplish a thorough research not only of the urban systems, but of society and its diversity in the district. In order to achieve this we have summarized the different elements, which we believe form life in Trakiya,  into nine urban systems – housing, green spaces, sports and recreation, utilities, transport, economy, culture and education, social services, legal participation and media & online platforms. Elements of these systems are for example: renovations, lawns and leftover spaces, besedkas, cow paths between blocks, culture, community centres, health-care, orientation, interaction between local administration and citizens, citizen participation and initiatives, social services, small business, waste and more. Actually the most interesting thing is the way these systems overlap and how all of this functions as a whole.

What is the use of such a wide-spread research?
When we talk about such issues and take into account how big the scale is (Trakiya has over 60.000 inhabitants) it seems that the more rational idea is to keep the task simple. But in reality when we work with complex urban areas in order to acquire reliable information and to extract the correct analysis from it, we need to analyze every possible system, and the unexpected results and phenomena of the interactions between the different elements. Such complex interdisciplinary researches are not conducted in Bulgaria but are of great importance to the process of planning. They should be conducted by interdisciplinary teams of engineering, humanitarian and natural sciences. This process helps us evaluate the role and the importance of each and every one of us in the urban environment we inhabit.

Who is taking part in the research?
This research has evolved and it has taken on a life of its own. We began with a small team of experts and volunteers, but we managed to involve school and university students, and a broad field of professionals. Each element was researched by a mini-team of people, and all the participants have researched more than one element. At one point data became so much that tables of tasks were not useful anymore and I had to integrate new systematic models to coordinate the work of all the participants. An interesting fact is that not only people from Trakiya and Plovdiv took interest in the research, but we also have volunteers from different parts of Bulgaria and Europe as well (Austria, England, Spain, Italy, The Netherlands and other). On the other hand, our youngest volunteer is a student from the Mathematics High School in Plovdiv who hopes to become an architect one day! We work alongside with students from the Plovdiv University, Varna Free University, UACEG, with the Applied Research and Communications Fund, the local administration, various NGOs and embassies. Most of them have never even set foot in Trakiya, which to me it means that they are not sentimentally but professionally involved in this research.

Is there any intriguing data accumulated already with the research?
The data we have acquired is diverse and interesting. A huge part of the land in Trakiya is owned by the municipality and that is why many of the free plots in between the blocks are not intensely built on as in other similar districts around Bulgaria. After 1989 the most distinctive changes are those in the economic microclimate. A lot of new small business locations appeared, some of the apartments were renovated into grocery shops, clothes and shoes stores, beauty salons, cafes. Trakia began its own life and it can offer nowadays everything one needs – cinemas, bars, cafes, bistros and restaurants, public libraries, playgrounds and open-air gyms, sports clubs, churches (most of them dating from the 90’s).

>We found a peculiar phenomenon while analyzing Trakiya’s streets with Space Syntax (a software that analyzes urban environments), that was made by Gergana Marks, also an architect. She found out that the intensity and connectivity of the transport system in Trakiya can be compared with those of Plovdiv’s Old Town. She has conducted such research about the pedestrian routes and the spaces between the blocks as well. On the other hand we came to the information about a couple of  prehistoric settlements and burial mounds, which points to the fact that Trakiya has been inhabited since the Neolithic period. Another interesting thing we have encountered is the “myths and legends” concerning objects in Trakiya. This is just a small part of everything we have come to learn about the district.

How will this research be used further?
This research is the base of the exhibition, which will take place during the festival, as well as a published book. What adds even more to its value is the new interactive map of Trakiya, that contains all the elements from all the systems and is being produced now. On one hand we also have the ambition to help the Municipality and the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works to make more informed decisions concerning the changes in Trakiya’s environment and for them to take into account the needs and wants of its inhabitants. What is important in developing those strategies is to have a working mechanism which works within the specific context of the place we make the decisions for. On the other hand, we strive to empower the citizens of Trakiya, to show them their own power and the way that they have  changed the place they live in. Once we have all the results of this research we will be able to tell the citizens “You have accomplished all this by yourselves. Go on, it’s worth it!”.

Is there any information that you still have not acquired and that people can help with?
The research is still going on and we accept volunteers for fieldwork, photo mapping and  locating objects (bus stops, small business, small parks, etc.) as well as home-based and online work if they do not have the means to visit the district. We can use help with the research of online bulletins, news, strategies and ideas for the development of Trakiya. The good news is that everyone can take part in the process, regardless of their professional qualification and computer knowledge because the work is so diverse that it allows everyone to partake in it.