Engagement of Youth/Students in the European Capital of Culture 2016 and Its Follow-up

Kamila Kamińska-Sztark
Rector’s Proxy for CSR, University of Wroclaw

Dr. Kamila Kamińska-Sztark—Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Pedagogy, Founder of the Association of Critical Education (President since 2017), Head of the Centre for Sustainable Development of Wroclaw’s Communities, Rector’s proxy for CSR, Board Member of University Network of the European Capitals of Culture (UNeECC), Coordinator of the “Reading the City” project conducted as part of the European Capital of Culture 2016, author and co-author of several publications, translator of Banksy’s book (“Wall and Peace”) into Polish.

The city is your playground, you don’t need to ask for permission.
Kidpale (Barsky and Barsky 2016)

If you ever think you’re too small to be effective,
you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito!
Wendy Lesko (Mason et al. 2016)

Wroclaw is a city of thousands of students—with 10 public universities and several private ones—that create a vibrant crowd. The international, multicultural group of students of the University of Wroclaw brings creativity, craziness, but also faith and hope to the city’s visual and sonic landscape. During specific student festivals (organized mostly by academics), youth takes over the city, making its older citizens feel a bit uncomfortable. Music, laughter, loud conversations and discussions can be disturbing. Empty alcohol bottles and all sorts of trash from the outdoor parties might not be the most pleasant sight. Nevertheless, that is what brings real liveliness to the city and prevents the old urban spaces from dying (Rykwert 2000). Students simply treat the city as their playground, asking no one for permission.

During the European Capital of Culture 2016 (thereafter: ECC 2016), students’ involvement as artists, volunteers but, above all, active participants in the events was quite strong. For example, during the projects realized as part of the performance program curated by Chris Baldwin, there were 375 students among choir singers, musicians, performance artists, and actors. Obviously, among thousands that participated in the “Awakening,” “Flow,” and “Heaven” performance events, a great number were young people, who just wanted to have some fun.

I am not going to quote statistics here, as they are not amusing by themselves and give a rather misleading picture. Numbers are notoriously easy to manipulate. As I was personally involved in many of the ECC 2016 projects and relevant research, I will try to present the discussed issues from a somewhat different perspective. I will endeavor to convey how visible the students were (so much so that they were often referred to as “mosquitoes”), and try to accurately demonstrate how Wroclaw became their playground.

Student participation in events was obvious in concerts of David Gilmour, Rammstein, and Limp Bizkit (during the “Capital of Rock” festival). All those bands attracted large crowds. Student participation here might have been loud, but it was, nevertheless, passive; especially in comparison to such project as the “Singing Europe” (curated by Agnieszka Franków-Żelazny), where 1,000 young people worked together in choirs and gave an amazing performance before an audience of 20,000 people. That is quite the buzzing of mosquitoes, isn’t it?

Surely, one of the most participatory actions of the ECC 2016with around 1,000 active participants and more than 10,000 audience memberswas the project called “The Bridges.” Many possible symbolic meanings of a bridge, along with the notion that Wroclaw is a city of 200 bridges, were a great inspiration for many young activists. Twelve studentsmembers of the Association of Critical Educationhad the idea to organize a concert on the Oławski Bridge (one of the 27 bridges included in the project) at midnight, with violin played by a “friend from the Academy of Music,” and simultaneously display 300 houses made of clay by 100 kids from local schools. That was something, but not enough… The notion that those clay houses would look quite mystical if there was a candle burning inside each one pf them led to another crazy thought: to turn off electricity on that bridge. Sounds like fun? Sure it does! Imagine a playground, in darkness, at midnight, with candles and music, all organized by young people. The project was named “Weingasse: A Bridge to the Country of Stone Houses and Wineries,” and it can be a great example of a small budget project that was greatly influenced by a group of young people.

The fact that the above-mentioned event was deeply rooted in the history of that particular urban space—a space now really devastated by urban development processesbrings us to the second way student participation was really inspiring: colonizing spaces of exclusion. Anyone who knows the city knows that backyards, streets, and forgotten spaces are the best locations for such activity. Interestingly enough, that helps the city grow and blossom, and makes it, paradoxically, safer (Jacobs 1961). There were two specific curated events that young artists from all over Europe set up in devastated areas: “Wroclaw – Entrance from the courtyard” (curated by Michal Bieniek) and “A-i-R Wro” (managed by Berenika Nikodemska). They included: a really controversial, and highly criticized in media, concrete sculpture forming the word Kocham (Polish for I love) in a devastated neighborhood (Elżbieta Jabłońska); a mirror floor in a well courtyard of an old tenement house that made the sky shine from both top and bottom (Joanna Piaścik); a colorful tree house (Cecylia Malik, Piotr Dziurdzia, Jakub Wesołowski, Bartolomeo Koczenasz); and a giant hedgehog made of soft textile that was both a sculpture and a children’s toy (Izabela Rutkowska). Sounds like a playground? Sure it does! Sometimes it was more fun for the young artists than for the inhabitants of those areas, but at times both sides enjoyed the cultural micro-interventions. Art had a visible, non-negotiable character—one that asserted the right to colonize and beautify those spaces.

That brings us to the third part of my reflections: intimate, personal experience. In 2015, much of the ECC 2016 program was designed specifically with the active participation of the city’s inhabitants in mind, and statistics show that most of its beneficiaries were under 30 years old. Many of those projects are still ongoing, and even increased in scope, benefiting from multiple different financial and organizational schemes called “micro-grants.” The whole panorama of those little initiatives shows that Wroclaw spaces became the places for displaying crazy paper clouds, community gardening, painting murals, having picnics, reading books, and playing urban games with neighbors. Receiving a mere 5,000 PLN in financing, allowed over 200 young citizens a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in the city, for the city’s benefit as well as their own. Young energy, a bit of arrogance, and a dash of craziness were needed to awaken those sleepy city spaces. Wroclaw is never boring!

Last but not least, I would like to mention thinking and fighting for the future, which have their unique expression in the young generation. Taking this into account, an outstanding project entitled “Foresight 2036/2056” was directly focused on young citizens. This project was created as part of the “Future City” program (curated by Edwin Bendyk) and managed by Łukasz Medeksza. Working on the simple assumption that Wroclaw will not belong to us but to our children, we (I was personally responsible for the participatory part of the project) invited kids from the city to talk to us about their dreams and fears. We organized workshops in schools, picnics in backyards, several small and big events—all aimed at collecting children’s opinions. Viewing the gathered material though the notion of the city developed by Kevin Lynch (1960) provided the basis for further analysis and reflections, which were eventually collected in a series of books. By transforming the city into a playground and allowing children to freely express their thoughts and opinions, we gave voice to the youngest generation; we empowered them. In my opinion, the best example of this empowerment was the “Children’s Conference,” organized by the University of Wroclaw. In 200 years of the University’s academic history, it was the first time such an event took place; and it was ECC 2016 that made it possible.

doi: 10.18278/aia.4.2.16


Barsky, Akay, and Peter Barsky. (2006) Urban Recreation. Årsta: Dokument Förlag.

Jacobs, Jane. (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.

Lynch, Kevin A. (1960) The Image of the City. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Mason, Diana J., Gardner, Deborah B., Hopkins Outlaw, Freida, and Eileen T. O’Grady. (2016) Policy & Politics in Nursing and Health Care. St. Louis: Elsevier.

Rykwert, Joseph. (2000) The Seduction of Place: The History and Futures of Cities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.