Placemaking Through Art in Vienna and Newcastle: An Interview with Bahanur Nasya and Yilmaz Vurucu


Bahanur Nasya and Yilmaz Vurucu are based in Vienna and engaged in scholarly and artistic projects focused on placemaking in European cities. While Nasya has worked with nonprofit foundations on this topic, Vurucu approaches placemaking from the filmmaker’s angle. Among other projects Nasya also participated in “Open Heritage,” which was funded under Horizon 2020, a European Union’s funding scheme for innovation in research that lasted from 2014 to 2020. The project explores successful models and best practices in heritage re-use in Europe while also creating knowledge sharing products (manuals, films, stories, webinars, and training opportunities). Vurucu, who has come to Europe from Canada, produced a documentary about sustainable urban development (The Sea in Me, 2010) and engaged with urban development in a series on “Open heritage.” Moreover, Nasya and Vurucu have jointly participated in CONSIDER, a project funded by the European Union (EU) that focuses on the sustainable management of industrial heritage as a resource for urban development.

This interview took place as part of a European Cooperation in Science and Technology grant (COST Action #18204) on the “Dynamics of placemaking and digitization in Europe’s cities” whose aim is to investigate how placemaking activities—such as public art, civil urban design, and local knowledge production—re-shape and reinvent public space and improve citizens’ involvement in urban planning. The conversation offers the opportunity to place the COST Action in a transnational context and explore placemaking through the work of two professional placemakers. Nasya and Vurucu trace their respective journeys from their early training as an architect and a professional filmmaker, respectively, to placemaking activism. Additionally, they report on important citizen-driven projects in Vienna, Austria, and Newcastle, UK, explaining how gradual changes in urban regeneration in Vienna and more radical artistic interventions in post-industrial Newcastle prove that both artists and  financial subsidies are important for maintaining an urban ecosystem that supports citizens.


Zsuzsanna Varga for EuropeNow


EuropeNow  How have you combined your activist mission with your training in architecture and film to face issues of urban revitalization?

Bahanur Nasya Although I am trained as an architect, I do not design new buildings anymore; my work is mostly about redesigning. There are so many already existing buildings that only need modifications to become human-friendly. Therefore, instead I now focus my designs on how to make spaces lively, friendly, and productive. I am most concerned with what space enables. My redesigning can take the form of placemaking or revitalization. It can also entail improving social spaces in terms of energy use and sustainability. I feel that I am still creating spaces, only no longer with a ruler and a pen.

Yilmaz Vurucu I am first and foremost a filmmaker. After working in Canada as a director and producer, I moved to Vienna, Austria, where for the last 15 years I have focused on video art and documentary-making. In recent years, I have become increasingly involved in communities, as I chart and document structures that shift and modify the built environment to create sustainable and inclusive opportunities. In my films, I am passionate about documenting communities that strive to make change. I also shoot short dramatic films as a pastime, and I am active in many EU-funded projects. I use film as a means to create exchange and engagement, to show people what the possibilities are, and to inspire them. Filmmaking and storytelling are at the center of what I do.

EuropeNow How have you shifted from designing buildings and producing short films for the arthouse audience to placemaking? How has your training as an architect and filmmaker helped you in making this shift?

Bahanur Nasya It is quite common for architects, urban planners, and even landscape architects to be concerned with placemaking. Architects or planners sometimes work on places that could be improved for the people living there, and they are trained to effect this kind of change. Those professionals see the landscape, walk the streets, and exchange with people. But much depends on their eagerness to bring these people together. The notion of “placemaking” is rather complex. It was first used by scholars in the US and is not commonly used in Europe among professionals, although many people are actually doing it.

Yilmaz Vurucu In my work, thinking about space comes naturally, because filmmakers are always restructuring space, although what they do is not “placemaking” per se. Rather, it is about creating drama. Moreover, as a filmmaker, I want to show my work to an audience, which I do in cinemas or festivals. I do not draw as much satisfaction from showing my work to selected audiences in private settings, such as cinemas, as showing it to wider audiences in public spaces. I recently was involved in a few projects that specifically incorporate the concept of placemaking. For example, “Park(ing) Day for Fitness,” which was funded by the Erasmus program, entailed turning parking spaces in Vienna into areas where people can exercise. When I walk through the city and see parking lots, streets, and parks, I realize the potential these spaces have to improve life for the resident communities. These spaces have their own stories, and with my colleagues, I have initiated a few projects to tell the stories of such urban spaces.

EuropeNow You alluded to the difference between North American and European practices in managing urban spaces. Could you put placemaking into a transnational context?

Bahanur Nasya There is much variation within Europe itself in the practice of placemaking, since it is very much culture-dependent. In regions where planners focus on sustainability, people may want to preserve the old charm of places with as little intervention as possible; but in other places where free market forces are especially active in shaping urban development, placemaking serves as a response to  commercialization. The term placemaking itself can be somewhat confusing and lack an equivalent in certain languages. For example, in German, there is no word for the concept, so the English term is used. However, even when the word is not used, the concept of placemaking exists everywhere—South America, North America, Africa, or Asia; it happens everywhere and unites people. In every country I have worked in so far, I have found that there are people coming together and sharing tools and approaches about transforming their environment. There is also much diversity in the way people address connected issues of sustainability, heritage, or storytelling.

EuropeNow What is the Canadian perspective on placemaking?

Yilmaz Vurucu I have a layman’s perspective on placemaking. But I do see how public space is shaped, formed, and used differently in different countries based on how capitalism is reproduced through different apparatuses, for example through hypercapitalism in Canada and the US. In Canada, my home country, the role of public spaces has been reduced, and the private sphere has taken precedence. The latter is now where people mostly live and interact with each other. There are public spaces, such as parks, but people do not use them as much as people use such spaces in Vienna. There, I have conducted placemaking projects on the topic of health, for example through pop-up film screenings. It would be harder in the Canadian context to create such bottom-up activities. Moreover, the funding for social activities in Canada is very limited, compared to the funding available in Austria.

EuropeNow What role might climate play in grassroot placemaking efforts, especially when comparing Canada and Austria?

Yilmaz Vurucu Climate plays a role. In Canada, shopping malls are where people meet in the winter because it is too cold outside. These are highly sterile spaces where the function of space is clearly labelled. But the rarity of placemaking projects in Canada has much more to do with economic and social structures and how these shape people’s perception of private property, ownership, and public space.

Bahanur Nasya A few years ago, the nongovernmental organization “Placemaking Europe” had a call for projects around the idea of winter placemaking. There are beautiful examples of placemaking projects in Northern Europe in which snow is used. In Germany and Austria, Christmas markets are sites of public interactions in the winter, much like malls in Canada.

Yilmaz Vurucu Zoning has a lot to answer for in Canada. Outside of large cities, industrial and housing zones are usually separate, which means that someone living in a suburb usually must drive to a commercial zone to buy groceries. I think that when compared to European cities, there tends to be less opportunities to simply walk to the corner store in many North American cities, which has an impact on how people use space.

Bahanur Nasya Placemaking entails both outside and interior spaces, such as factories that are revitalized and reoccupied in experimental ways to serve local communities.

EuropeNow You live and work in Vienna, a city rich in built heritage, as opposed to post-industrial cities in the UK, where vast derelict areas are typical. What forms does placemaking take in Vienna?

Bahanur Nasya Vienna was the capital of the Habsburg Empire, during which time the social structure in the city was hierarchical; this structure is still very much alive. As a result, the Viennese have approached the built environment in a rather top-down manner, and the citizens of Vienna are seen as rather passive by their leaders, who grant them the use of certain spaces. People in Vienna trust that the system and the municipal government will take care of them. For instance, the social housing program started 100 years ago and has aimed to provide everyone with housing based on the belief that there is enough space for everyone in the city. Discussions with municipal officers reveal that they think they manage the city properly, as they act according to master plans that are top-down. Urban development initiatives always start from the municipal government, and changes to the city always happen from their perspective. Since Vienna is an old historic city, transformations there are limited. Master plans are usually restricted to the management of noise levels in certain neighborhoods or other interdictions. There is signage throughout the city about what people are allowed to do or prohibited from doing. These signs create a city that is not inspiring, not inviting, and not engaging for people. Nevertheless, it is green, usually clean, and available and accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, this top-down model of urban transformation reacts slowly to contemporary social and environmental challenges. Nevertheless, grassroot placemaking is happening in Vienna, for example through the work of a small community of activists, who may not actually call themselves “placemakers.” These people have established neighborhood associations that can “activate” certain spaces where local residents can gather: gardens, ground floors of buildings, or community parks.

In spite of Vienna being a historical and post-imperial city, there are a few examples of creative use of former industrial buildings. For example, citizens occupied three sites in the seventies or eighties, when heavy industry was declining and factories were closing. These building takeovers were legalized, and although the buildings have had their ups and downs, occupiers have managed to stay there. One particular locomotive manufacture has come to host three centers: an education center, a cultural center (Werkstätten und Kulturhaus, or WUK), which is a performance venue where many musical careers have been launched, and a women’s center that promotes their financial independence and provides assistance. Today, we are witnessing a transition taking place there, because the building is undergoing renovation and one of the three user groups obtained a lease from the owner for the entire complex, while the other two centers only sublet their space. The women’s organization is displeased with this hierarchy, because it is no longer able to negotiate the conditions of its lease. As of 2024, the changing circumstances present challenges.

Yilmaz Vurucu In Vienna, the concept of Wohnstrassen, or residential streets, was borrowed from Dutch cities. These Wohnstrassen are located in residential areas but smaller in scale than North American residential zones, which means that they are meant for walking rather than navigated by car. There are now 200 or so Wohnstrassen in the city. Most of them are outside the Gürtel (beltway), mostly in areas built in the 1970s and 1980s. I participated in several Wohnstrassen projects, and for one of them, we shut down the street and installed a cinema screen to show a film. This sort of activity can be seen as placemaking. Moreover, the process is simple, as on these designated residential streets, residents can claim space for their use. In contrast, when we work on a project that does not involve a Wohnstrasse, we must go through a complicated bureaucratic process. For example, in the “Parking Days for Fitness” project, we transformed parking lots into fitness zones. It was quite a task to get permission to use these lots because of the heavy municipal bureaucracy in Vienna.

EuropeNow In Vienna, what is the process by which a street can be claimed by residents as a “Wohnstrasse”?

Bahanur Nasya The phenomenon started in the 1970s. Since then, the municipal government has planned and built about 250 Wohnstrassen. They have thus existed for decades, but no one had realized their potential to support citizens’ initiatives until recently. The initiative “Place and Space” focuses on the potential of Wohnstrassen as a legal framework to allow people to practice certain activities that would be otherwise prohibited on the street, such as playing soccer, or make uses no one had thought about, such as setting up chairs there to have a picnic. We learn from each street project and bring that knowledge to the next street or district in which we work.

Yilmaz Vurucu On a Wohnstrasse, people can organize a range of activities, including workshops, lectures, or flea markets. In our projects, we have used a legal loophole to use these streets to bring people together. For example, we organized a “guerrilla film screening” in the public space. This kind of screening is based on the unique experience people have together rather than cinematic quality. In those screenings, we curate short films on topics relevant to the particular audience, who can then participate in post-screening discussions.

EuropeNow You recently conducted research in Newcastle (UK) on the development of a sustainable management model for industrial heritage sites. How did this “CONSIDER: Sustainable Management of Industrial Heritage as a Resource for Urban Development”[1] project approach the notion of urban transformation?

Bahanur Nasya CONSIDER started from our extensive experience working on heritage projects and learning about different approaches to heritage management. We gathered the best practices in initiatives that aimed at sustaining and financing heritage while also making heritage sites accessible to the local population. We then integrated this knowledge into our urban development work. A consortium of eight countries comprises the CONSIDER project; all are focused on developing sustainable management models for industrial heritage sites. Within the project, participants can be detached and go work with a scholar outside their own institution or with a practitioner. Yilmaz and I had the chance to visit Newcastle and be hosted by Newcastle University.

A comparison between placemaking in the coal-mining areas of Germany and in the Newcastle area is instructive. In both regions, coalmines were shut down, but the pace of change was different, therefore the entire placemaking context developed differently. In Germany, mine closures took 20 years, so people had time to learn about the new industrial context and adapt to it, while decision makers introduced initiatives to slow down the process and make it more acceptable to the population. There were also programs for miners to acquire new skills, which allowed them to obtain new jobs, and  the  government also subsidized  the use of  former industrial sites for the arts, research, and culture. In the UK, on the other hand,  post-industrial capitalism was adopted as an economic model earlier and took hold faster, partly due to Margaret Thatcher’s policies. People had little time to adapt, so many post-industrial spaces were left empty and derelict as people became unemployed. These empty industrial places around Newcastle attracted the attention of artists residing in London, who were struggling to pay their rent. Without the help of the government, a number of artists moved to Newcastle and established themselves as a community. They earned income, paid their bills, and worked as a collective. They also became involved with local universities and developed ideas together. They connected with the local population over the years, built connections, and created new synergies between art and the experience of living in post-industrial spaces. They became able to support their artistic projects through commissions, some external funding, or teaching-related projects at universities or in collaboration with TV networks. Through various experimental projects, the artists contributed to the regeneration of Newcastle’s derelict industrial areas and did so with far less structured government support than artists in German’s post-industrial sites.

EuropeNow In what way has the cultural context in Newcastle changed since the appearance of these artists’ communities?

Bahanur Nasya Much has changed for grassroot artists since the 1980s in Newcastle. Today, government funding is directed towards large organizations. Also, established arts institutions are under pressure to showcase big names, such as Bansky. In other words, today’s funders behind the “creative industries development model” essentially see creative industries as profit-making organizations, which simply require initial financial investment to become profitable. But this approach does not nurture artistic and cultural initiatives to create an arts-based ecosystem that allows artists such as Bansky to emerge. Such an ecosystem is indispensable to foster the next generation of experimental artists. The UK is more advanced than Germany or Austria in the implementation of this model of “creative industries,” but these trends are slowly coming to the continent, although some countries such as Austria and Germany still actively rely on a social subsidy system in support of this arts-based ecosystem, which Yilmaz and I also seek to support through our research and work. Currently, in Vienna, the arts and culture scene plays a major role in reestablishing the character of places, but we need to ensure that the local actors remain active after any artistic project ends. Affordable space and funding are essential for local residents to sustain our projects.

EuropeNow When you arrived in Newcastle, what inspired you in the city’s industrial heritage, and how did you incorporate the work of artists who were already there?

Yilmaz Vurucu Our original goal in Newcastle was to research industrial heritage. That city has had a tremendous history of industrialization. In recent years, the city government has transformed old industrial sites to accommodate present needs. For example, a flour mill was transformed into an art gallery —the Baltic Museum. In addition to presenting art exhibitions, its curators decided to also show the history of the building itself by displaying sacks of flour. When I was there, I noticed that one of the sacks was from the Bean Growers Co-op in my hometown of London, Ontario, which intrigued me.

The Side Gallery and Side Cinema movement are other examples of industrial heritage preservation. The Side Gallery has gathered the best collection of documentary photography telling the story of marginalized people in the northeastern part of England. As coalmining came to an end there, there was a tremendous amount of poverty and joblessness, which created many social issues. When the artists arrived in the 1980s, they started telling the stories of local people through film. Hence, the arts and artists have had a great role in the revitalization of former industrial sites. In researching how industrial heritage sites are being preserved, what we discovered is that art is always at the forefront. Aside from our work in Newcastle, we have also documented similar processes in documentaries about a market hall in Bratislava, Slovakia, and a paint factory in Stockholm.

EuropeNow In England, artists have been pushed out of London by the unaffordably high living expenses, moved north to Newcastle, and reestablished themselves there. How did the locals respond to their arrival? How have unemployed and uprooted former miners and  incoming artists cohabitated?

Yilmaz Vurucu When they arrived, the artists totally immersed themselves in their new environment. As an example, some artists went to North Shields to document the decline of the fishing industry there and ended up purchasing a pub and living there for two years before approaching the locals with their idea of documentary filmmaking. This approach allowed them to ease their way into the local community and understand people’s struggles. This art-based research method entails the artists fully immersing themselves into the local environment, as opposed to looking at it from a distance.

Bahanur Nasya When the Side Gallery and similar artist collectives were set up, there was already a sizeable community of artists living in Newcastle. Not all of the local residents were open to being photographed, and some were ashamed that the pictures showed them living in poor conditions. They had their pride. While the artists were not accepted by everyone, they nonetheless created an awareness of art’s potential and perhaps also helped with advocating for the rights of ex-miners. As a consequence, TV networks became interested in these artists’ communities, and this interest helped open up perspectives for the locals.

EuropeNow You talked about two very different types of artistic interventions. In Vienna, you described an example of using an existing street to make it more inhabitant-friendly according to a model of continuous improvement. In Newcastle, you showed how a run-down industrial area could be entirely regenerated with the help of artists. Where will your next project take you?

Bahanur Nasya As I said, I no longer plan new buildings. Instead, I make plans for future communal living spaces, whether small or large-scale. As architects, we need to ensure that urban ecosystems are sustained in the future through good practices and that these ecosystems enable artists to play a major role in a type of placemaking that entails citizens’ collaboration. We also need to ensure that people can live in affordable places that foster their personal growth. Unfortunately, the creative industry, which relies on public subsidies, faces challenges in obtaining funding and legal authorizations to intervene in public spaces.

Yilmaz Vurucu I am deeply convinced that neither societies nor cultures are commodities. In our current socioeconomic reality, collecting and telling the stories of communities responsible for creating meaning out of sociality is an active act of resistance on its own. I do not see a clear trajectory for my future, but I do know that I will continue to document and promote the stories of those communities that are active, inclusive, and striving for change. This change could occur through reusing buildings or space, but it is also highly important to tell, disperse, and disseminate those unheard, positive stories to demonstrate people’s ability to act as autonomous agents. I see myself continuing along that path.



Bahanur Nasya is an architect, researcher, project manager, and film producer. She has studied in Vienna and Barcelona, specializing in sustainable architecture, just and fair scenarios, and future-proof development concepts. She has worked with the nonprofit foundation “Placemaking Europe” and “Wonderland: platform for European architecture,” and she was also project manager for an EU-funded joint programming initiative “Place City” project, which develops frameworks to revitalize neighborhoods and create local central hubs for urban stakeholders. In other projects such as “Open Heritage,” funded by Horizon 2020, she has explored successful models and best practices of heritage management. In her current work, she combines research with the creation of knowledge transfer products (manuals, films, stories, webinars, and training opportunities), and develops collaborations with citizens, practitioners, scientists, engineers, and decision makers.


Yilmaz Vurucu boasts over 20 years of international experience in creating stories and in producing, writing, and directing films, documentaries, and ad campaigns. As an award-winning filmmaker, he has covered a wide range of subjects. In his most recent film—I Feel Human. Again (2023)—he questions whether AI can develop human traits.  He has also covered sustainable urban development in The Sea in Me (2010), social inclusion and justice in Borders (2011), social inequality, class struggle, and family abuse in Dr. Zack (2010); and he captured the stories of adaptive heritage re-use in The Open Heritage documentary series (2020). He is currently in post-production on a feature documentary telling the stories of how communities transform historical heritage buildings into socially inclusive projects and is active in research and social programming in numerous EU funded projects, where he uses artistic research methods to reach diverse groups in society. 


Zsuzsanna Varga teaches Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow. She has extensively published on Hungarian culture and literature, including Worlds of Hungarian Writing (2016), Popular Cinemas in East Central Europe (2017) and several articles in academic journals. She is the chair of the COST Action “Dynamics of Placemaking and Digitization in Europe’s Cities.” Her current main interests are in urban history and cultural heritage preservation.



This interview has been edited for style and clarity.


Published on June 17, 2024.


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