Dan Acher is using creative placemaking to combat the isolation and separation between urban residents and build a shared sense of belonging. In doing so, he encourages citizen ownership of public spaces and invites residents to take responsibility for their city, ultimately leading to a more active and empowered citizenry.
The New Idea
Dan is battling the increasingly frequent atmosphere of anonymity, distrust and insecurity within neighbourhoods and cities by creating participative and immersive events that become public tools to strengthen community and build a sense of belonging, thereby contributing significantly to a city’s social cohesion. Contrary to regular events organised by cities, Dan’s experiences are carefully designed to foster connections and collaboration, which is foundational for civic participation long term.
The uniqueness of Happy City Lab, Dan’s organization, lies in the constant exposure of citizens to events and installations that slowly expand their comfort zone - from where they are held to the types of people they bring together. Since the interventions rely heavily on the participation of passers-by, this pushes community members into an active role (for example after working with students on installing Neighbourhood Exchanges boxes in their school, they came up with a Blanket dispenser for the homeless). This low threshold for being active stimulates their intrinsic motivation and catalyzes them to eventually become active citizens and changemakers in their communities. Because people are repeatedly confronted with new ways of revitalizing their city, they are not only inspired to participate in such activities, but to organize similar initiatives, facilitated by Happy City Lab, through either coaching or Do-It-Yourself-Guides. Happy City Lab manages to re-humanize the city and therefore largely contributes to creating a sense of belonging and motivation for citizens to actively co-create the experience of their city.
Starting in Geneva, Dan’s projects are spreading quickly throughout French speaking Switzerland and France. Dan plans to release his projects under Creative Commons Licence so that everyone can replicate.
Today, more than a third of the world’s population lives in cities, and this number is estimated to augment to almost 70% before 2050. With more and more people moving to cities, urban areas become a melting pot of different cultures, backgrounds and worldviews. Even though cities are enriched by a more culturally diverse population, new types of challenges to social cohesion have emerged, like social and spatial segregation. Cities remain fairly anonymous, since the ever fluctuating, sheer mass of people makes it difficult to get to know even the closest neighbours. Therefore, people don’t have relationships with their fellow citizens, and are more prone to distrust and prejudice, since they don’t interact with people that could prove their stereotypes wrong.
Cities try to address this through different events throughout the year. However, cities don’t have a large budget for these, and the dominating model for them is usually consumption driven, fostering neither connections nor active participation. Events and festivals that are not organized by the city itself often have commercial purposes, promoting a product or a brand. Furthermore, in consumption driven events, especially the ones aimed at young people, there are often problems with violence, alcohol and drug use. It is true that methods to significantly lower risks young people take at public events exist, with, among others, Ashoka Fellow Gerald Koller working on risk management through his social enterprise Risflecting. However, event organizers have yet to realize how designing events around sharing and connecting can eliminate violence and alcohol abuse at social gatherings altogether.
Though many cities try to accelerate cultural activities, to strengthen a sense of community, these efforts are mainly concentrated in city centers, while neighbourhoods that have a bad reputation are neglected. Therefore, people living there not only feel excluded from the city’s efforts, but they also lack a sense of pride in their neighbourhood, since it is not deemed worthy of public attention.
Especially in Switzerland, cultural activities are quite expensive. Therefore, many individuals and families with a lower income have little to no access to culture, such as cinema, theatre, museums, etc. This makes them feel excluded, and further accentuates divisions within different classes and groups within the city.
Different factors - namely a lack of connectedness, pride for one’s home, and exclusion from cultural activities - lead people in cities to feel less belonging to place, which results in little to no motivation for citizen engagement and development of urban spaces for and by citizens. In this context, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development states that “[…] unsustainable schemes for urban development have not only emphasized the cities’ vulnerability and environmental footprint, but also contributed to dehumanize urban environments in terms of scale or sense of belonging.”
Dan has recognised this lack of sense of belonging - starting with belonging to physical space - as a crucial part in motivating citizen engagement and creating a socially cohesive urban society. Through Happy City Lab, Dan aims to change this and transform cities into urban spaces where citizens feel like they truly belong.
Dan envisions urban spaces in which everyone belongs and people feel safe. Through participative installations and projects he creates opportunities for people to meet, connect, and have a meaningful interaction with a stranger, eventually regaining trust in their fellow citizens, which makes for a more welcoming, open city. Furthermore, through fun and interactive projects, people feel that something is happening in their city, making it a place truly worth living in. The city of Geneva serves as a laboratory for Dan's creative projects.
Participative projects and installations rely heavily on the participation of people, usually bringing strangers together to have meaningful interactions. Several of Dan’s programs address this, the most important being “Neighbourhood Exchange Boxes” and “Play Me, I’m Yours”.
For Neighbourhood Exchange Boxes, a box is installed in a neighbourhood where neighbours can share every-day items with their neighbours. Any person living in the neighbourhood can take something from the box or put something in it. This way, people share everything from books, to kitchenware, to snow chains. The box is set up by Happy City Lab; but, in the end, the people living in the neighbourhood are responsible for making the system work. Seeing this system work restores confidence in a person’s neighbourhood, especially in urban neighbourhoods where people don’t necessarily know their neighbours, and makes for a sense of connectedness and security. More than 80 Neighbourhood Exchange Boxes have been set up and, after releasing a Do-It-Yourself-Guide, Happy City Lab has accompanied a woman from Lyon to set up the first Neighbourhood Exchange boxes there. She has created her own association, has installed many boxes, is helping others to follow through and is creating a global project around this concept.
“Play Me, I'm Yours” is a social and artistic project by Luke Jerram, which has been organised in Switzerland since 2011 by Happy City Lab. Pianos are installed throughout the city, free for people to play, making for small improvised concerts, children playing for the first time, and people generally connecting through music. In 2011 twenty pianos were installed in the city’s centre. Now, the project counts around 60 pianos all over the city. The pianos invite people to take possession of these collective spaces through music, which generates new perspectives of the city. For the project to work, it is vital that people take responsibility for it, on the one hand actually playing the pianos, on the other hand taking care of them by covering them when it rains, for example. Despite initial scepticism from the city’s administration, there has never been a piano damaged.
Another huge part of Dan’s work is immersive projects and installations. Using these as tools, Dan aims to make culture available to everyone, regardless of their social or economic background. In Switzerland, cultural activities are usually quite expensive. This makes for an atmosphere of exclusivity, excluding people who are not able to afford cultural activities like the cinema, theatre, or even traveling on a regular basis.
CinéTransat is a very well known Open-Air Cinema held during the summertime in various cities in Switzerland and France of which more than 90’000 people attend every year. CinéTransat is free for everyone, and people can decide on the movies via internet beforehand. The only condition at this cinema is that the movies must have a happy ending. In the spirit of connecting people, the screenings are also designed to be participative. For example, before a Bollywood film there would be professional dancers that teach the audience a dance. There are also events like thematic evenings, where everyone is encouraged to show up in a costume, and karaoke nights, where the lyrics are projected on a huge screen. There have been many local versions of CinéTransat in towns such as Basel, Bern, and other cities. In Bern, CinéTransat has been organised by Swiss fellow Nicola Forster, among others.
Borealis, on the other hand, is a laser show that projects an imitation of the northern lights over public spaces. This allows people to see the northern lights without actually having to travel there.
Last but not least, by placing monumental installations in neighbourhoods and suburbs where usually little to nothing happens, Happy City Lab brings culture to seemingly mundane parts of the city. This way, people see that their neighbourhood can also be part of something special and interesting, instilling a deep sense of pride. Within the Turn Me On-Installation, passers-by press giant switches, launching monumental projections of eyes and mouths on building façades.
Through each of his projects, Dan encourages people to take care of their city. Many other initiatives have been inspired and accompanied by Dan, such as a group of students in Paris who organised a project around the Turn Me On-installation in one of the capital’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Even people in city administrations report more incentive from citizens to actively contribute to their neighbourhoods. Furthermore, Dan has been able to prove that designing events and social gatherings around sharing, connecting, and exploring significantly lowers violence and alcohol abuse. For example, at the Geneva New Years Event for young people, he managed to completely transform the experience from a festival with a track record of frequent violence and alcohol abuse to an engaging, peaceful and deeply human event.
For Dan, the city of Geneva serves as a laboratory for his creative projects, addressing different ways of triggering a sense of belonging in people. However, he wants to spread his ideas beyond Geneva. Dan is convinced that citizens should not have to depend on their city’s public authority to get active and offers tools that active citizens can take advantage of through Creative Common license. He spreads his projects and strategy through media visibility, teaching at universities, working with Ashoka Fellows on leveraging the power of Creative Commons, and having permanent installations in Geneva and beyond. This way, Dan is inspiring others to replicate his concept and create a community of engaged citizens that want to foster a culture of sharing, connecting, and building trust within cities. By engaging motivated groups and individuals around Happy City Lab, Dan is reinforcing sharing, connecting, and exploring to create trust-based communities in urban spaces. This year alone, he realized 32 projects in Geneva and several other cities.
As a teenager, Dan was already asking himself where he belonged and how he fit into society. In a constant quest for meaning in life, Dan went traveling for a year before his University studies. He encountered many different cultures and different ways of living on his trip through India, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand. This led Dan to ask himself a new question: Where does the sense of belonging in a society come from? Dan’s first major project was to organise Critical Mass (coincidental cycling, a movement where people come together to reclaim the city by bike, protesting the predominance of cars). Dan first organised it by himself in New Zealand and later, upon his return home, in Geneva.
Realizing his great capability to motivate others for a community project, Dan decided to create an initiative for the environment in Switzerland. The project consisted of many different smaller initiatives, like cleaning a river or planting trees. The project peaked in a “Green Festival” where only recyclable dishes were used. Due to its great success, the city of Geneva later adapted this to be the standard for all festivals.
In 2010 Dan was commissioned to organise the official New Year Eve Event for Geneva. The city had experienced problems with this event every year: alcohol, waste, violence, and a general feeling of distrust in the event. Dan, instead, chose to design a highly participative event and was able to transform the vibe of the entire city. The event Dan organised was very peaceful: no violence, little to no alcohol, and no drugs. It was a deeply human celebration on a large scale and a great success.
After this success, Dan received many commissions from the City of Geneva and neighbouring towns. In order to meet the demand, he started Happy City Lab as a tool to transform public spaces into areas of interaction and connectivity among citizens.