The Spark Village Common Room: Stories and Structure
About Spark Village
Spark Village is a community built from repurposed shipping containers on the south-eastern side of the University of Amsterdam Science Park. Established at the end of 2018, it consists of 240 residents - half of which are status holders, while the other half are Dutch students and young teachers. Within the community there are six 'community builders', who help to keep the community active and aim to involve as many residents as possible in communal activities.
The common room is central to the work of the community builders, and is accessed by a key (held by the community builders). Currently, it holds furniture made locally out of high quality timber, along with a small kitchen. Upstairs is used as an office for the social housing company, as well as for meetings between the community builders and Academie van de Stad, an organisation which turns the concerns of the community into projects for students and helps the community builders with their work.
What can we do to create responsibility among a larger part of Spark Village?
We initially attempted to use a survey to collect the views of Spark Village residents, but we found this was too formal. We also faced issues with distribution and collection of the forms. Instead, we decided to focus mainly on interviews, as well as experimenting with mapping methods and observation skills we had learned and developed in class.
We visited Spark Village on various days, in both sun and rain, and even got involved with painting the outside of the common room! We spoke to residents - including community builders and key holders - as well as our project partners. We also explored both floors of the common room, observed our surroundings from the outdoor common space and walked around the outside of the blocks to get a feel for the space.
However, we found it difficult to interview status holders, as many of them speak only their native language and Dutch. An improvement on our method would be to conduct interviews with status holders using an interpreter, which would allow us to better understand and empathise with their viewpoint.
Below are some quotes from our research.
Low threshold solutions are needed, but they need to be balanced with responsibility. Regulation and coordination would make life easier. Some things are popular but it's hard to get some people involved who aren't initiative takers.
Only a third of people get involved in the community despite what it looks like during the painting. When my buddy isn't clear about the timing of an event, he doesn't communicate it.
The common room can be booked but should be open for everyone, we can't close it off. Active people can be given keys and responsibility. Trust is there, but responsibility... not so much.
The issues in Spark Village
During our research, we found that a lot of things are working well in Spark Village. Events like 'Battle of the Blocks' and language cafes are well-attended, and people often use the common room for activities such as studying or eating together.
However, we found some issues holding the community back, which chime with our challenge brief. Community builders are finding it difficult to balance maintaining a full schedule of events with their own commitments. Responsibility is not yet embedded in the whole community, making it hard to move towards a more open common room. Not everyone is involved in communal activities, while the outside space is not well used, especially in rainy conditions or under harsh sunlight.
From these issues, we developed four criteria which guided our ideas: building responsibility, low maintenance, informality and inclusivity.
During our brainstorming phase, we came up with a total of 91 ideas - far too many to pass on to our project partner! We narrowed it down to 12, which encompass a variety of potential changes in order to give our project partner flexibility - ultimately, they and the community know which ideas would work best in their situation. We presented our ideas to our project partner on an infographic, which also included some analysis of our research findings.
Responsibility workshop: to find out how others see responsibility, ease tensions and agree a way forward together based on a common definition of responsibility.
Roof garden:this would aid sustainable living by allowing residents to grow their own herbs or vegetables. This could be run by the Green Group but would be open to use by all residents.
Chickens:studies show that pets have great psychological benefits for owners - they bring happiness and foster a sense of responsibility.
Sunday brunch:the eggs from the chickens could be used in communal brunches, as well as other meals, which could bring people together over food.
Recipe exchange:this is an opportunity for all residents to share their cultural recipes from home in a casual manner. It could be facilitated through a community noticeboard.
Open upstairs:currently, the rooms upstairs are often available and would be great for accommodating study groups, after some refurnishing.
Open door policy:our future aim would be that trust is built up between residents so that the common room is open for people to come and go as they please.
Timber frame with climbers:using the spare local timber table and bench from inside, a timber frame structure can be made to define the courtyard space. Climber plants can be planted to provide a cooling effect. In the future a 'tapestry of stories' could be designed by residents to create designs for waterproof cloths that can be threaded over the timber frame to create a rainproof shelter.
Outdoor fire pit:people are attracted to warmth in winter. It would be a great initiative for communal marshmallow melting and songs.
Storytelling:everyone in Spark Village has a unique story, as there is such a variety in backgrounds here. Storytelling evenings - which could be outside by the fire or in the common room - would help people express their experiences as well as their creativity.
Bird feeders:attracting wildlife and nature to the area will help the flowers grow and bring a sensory calm of bird sounds, as well as encouraging a sense of responsibility towards the birds.
Outdoor lighting:lights a safe path at night and creates a warm ambience to the outside area, especially in winter when safety can be a concern.
Organisation of spaces:having a clear, visual organisation to objects like cutlery and crockery, such as by racking them upright in cupboards, makes it easier to check that everything is in its place.
Speed friending:this event helps people meet others quickly and spark new friendships - like speed dating, but platonic!
Rotation of community builders:currently the burden falls heavily on community builders to run events in the common room. Letting others develop responsibility with short stints as assistant builders would take the burden off the current builders, facilitating peer mentoring and the building of trust.