Rural Renaissance in Slovenia: Enhancing Remote Places Through Placemaking in Polhograjski Dolomiti

Placemaking in Slovenia’s “small and remote” places

Placemaking can be a collaborative process that involves transforming public spaces to enhance quality of life for the people who use them as well as their sense of belonging. The process entails understanding the unique characteristics and needs of a place and leveraging those features to cultivate vibrant, inclusive, and resilient communities. In rural areas, placemaking particularly matters because it can help revitalize struggling communities, preserve local culture and heritage, support economic development, and improve inhabitants’ overall well-being. By engaging residents, businesses, and stakeholders in the design and the bringing to life of public spaces, placemaking fosters social connections, boosts civic pride, and enhances the overall attractiveness of rural areas as desirable places to live in, work in, and visit. Moreover, placemaking efforts in rural areas can contribute to the creation of dynamic public spaces that serve as focal points for community interactions and cultural exchanges. Therefore, exploring the role of placemaking in general and residents’ participation in particular becomes essential to understand how small and remote places and the communities who live there can utilize their natural and cultural assets to thrive in the contemporary context.

In the context of Slovenia, a “small” settlement typically boasts a relatively small population size and limited urban infrastructure. While there is no strict numerical definition, small settlements in Slovenia often have populations ranging from a few dozens to a few thousand inhabitants. Moreover, places are said to be “remote” when they are geographically isolated or situated away from major urban centers or transportation hubs. In Slovenia, remote areas may include mountainous regions, rural villages, or communities located far from major roads or public services. People in remote locations often face challenges such as limited access to amenities, services, and economic opportunities.

This article explores the dynamic process of placemaking in small and remote communities inside Slovenia’s Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park. Situated in central Slovenia, west of the capital city of Ljubljana, this hilly terrain embodies a rich historical agricultural legacy intertwined with contemporary (sub)urban lifestyles and recreational pursuits. This research delves into the evolution of the landscape, from its origins as predominantly agricultural to its current status as a recreational haven and natural sanctuary. An examination of community mapping projects and placemaking initiatives—including community engagement and artistic interventions—highlights the challenges and opportunities faced by communities inside the Park in preserving their cultural heritage while accommodating their needs for contemporary amenities. The role of public spaces in fostering community interaction and social cohesion is discussed and innovative approaches to address the lack of such spaces in remote areas are proposed.

Furthermore, the article offers insights and recommendations for reinventing rural spaces in the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park through placemaking efforts by drawing on the experiences of a specific project that took place there in 2020—the Smoties project. This project was part of an international project funded by the European Union (EU) Creative Europe program in ten European countries since 2020. The goal of this EU program has been to experiment with placemaking in remote places and exemplify placemaking principles in the rural context. In Slovenia, the Smoties project was selected for the program. In the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park, the primary goal has been to revitalize and enhance local communities and their environment by using the region’s cultural and natural assets to co-create public spaces. This co-creating has involved the collaborative efforts of residents, stakeholders, and external experts. Indeed, the Smoties project has aimed to encourage sustainable development practices by promoting natural and cultural preservation and social cohesion. Key objectives in the reinvention of public spaces in the region have included engaging the community in decision-making processes about the use of public spaces, preserving local cultural heritage, supporting local businesses to promote economic sustainability, and implementing environmentally sustainable practices.[1]

In order to effectively implement placemaking strategies in these “small and remote” places, it is essential to tailor approaches to the unique characteristics of their environment and the challenges they face. For example, it is important to foster partnerships and collaboration among various stakeholders, including local governments, community organizations, businesses, and residents, and to encourage them to use diverse perspectives and resources when addressing local needs and priorities. Integrating cultural and environmental sustainability principles is also crucial, as it involves preserving cultural heritage and natural landscapes and promoting practices that enhance resilience and adaptability to environmental change. To this end, effective communication and engagement strategies are paramount, as they ensure the meaningful participation of a wide range of community members and foster inclusivity and empowerment, in particular of those groups that have been marginalized. The Smoties project has shown that by adopting a holistic approach that emphasizes collaboration, sustainability, and inclusivity, placemaking efforts can play a transformative role in revitalizing small and remote places.


Setting the scene: the history of the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park

The Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park features a picturesque landscape characterized by a hilly terrain, dense forests, and scattered settlements dating back to the late colonization era of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.[2] Early farmers settled in the region at that time, establishing villages amidst the challenging hilly hinterlands and engaging in various agricultural activities such as orchard cultivation, forestry, and beekeeping, which significantly influenced the area’s cultural and economic landscape. As time progressed, the region transitioned from its agricultural roots to become a recreational haven and natural sanctuary, attracting visitors from lowland urban areas seeking respite in its scenic beauty and tranquil ambience. Today, the area’s rich history of settlement and agriculture is intertwined with this more recent evolution. It not only showcases its agrarian history but also provides a mix of natural beauty, cultural heritage, and recreational opportunities for visitors and residents.

The transition from preindustrial agricultural livelihoods to suburban living and recreation activities reflects broader societal shifts and economic transformations that unfolded over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in Slovenia. As industrialization swept across the country’s lowlands in the twentieth century and nearby cities experienced substantial growth, the Dolomiti region experienced an influx of new settlers seeking suburban lifestyles within close proximity of urban centers. This demographic shift reshaped the area’s socioeconomic fabric, leading to the emergence of a hybrid living environment in which the population engages in a mix of agricultural, suburban, and recreational activities. Today, the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park is a cherished recreational haven that attracts nature enthusiasts, hikers, and cyclists seeking relaxation in its natural beauty and on its scenic trails. In light of these nature-based activities, preserving the region’s agricultural traditions and cultural heritage has remained a challenge and required a delicate balance and some thoughtful placemaking interventions to ensure the sustainability and vitality of the local landscape for future generations.

Despite the idyllic charm and rich cultural heritage of the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park, communities there face a myriad of challenges in their quest for sustainable management and preservation. Rapid urbanization and changing demographics have posed a threat to the wider region’s agricultural traditions and way of life, as younger generations are less rooted in the local environment and gravitate towards urban centers in pursuit of career opportunities. Moreover, the pressures of climate change and environmental degradation loom large, which was starkly exemplified by devastating floods during the summer of 2023.[3] These pressures render necessary the implementation of proactive measures to safeguard the park’s fragile ecosystems and biodiversity.


Cultural and natural assets as responses to challenges in the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park: the “Smoties” project

To provide an understanding of the intricacies of the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park and its significance to local communities and visitors, the Smoties project has relied on a conceptual framework rooted in place attachment and heritage mapping. Drawing upon the “Smoties Toolbox,”[4]—a set of analytical tools for understanding the challenges and assets of public spaces in remote places—as well as the work of Leila Scannell and Robert Gifford,[5] the concept of place attachment was utilized as a lens to explore the emotional and cognitive bonds individuals and groups form with specific places. This framework has clarified three primary subdimensions of place attachment: personal, place-based, and process-based. The “personal” aspect concerns the levels of attachment individuals and groups feel towards the features of a landscape, while the “place-based” dimension draws on the physical and social elements contributing to this attachment. Finally, the “process-based” component provides an explanation for the mental processes involved when people form a bond with places and focuses on people’s cognitive and emotional connection to these places.

As part of the Smoties project, heritage mapping was used as a methodological tool to identify tangible and intangible assets within the landscape. Heritage mapping included a comprehensive assessment of historical documents concerning the park, professional expertise reports, and fieldwork mapping to unveil the rich tapestry of cultural heritage in the area. Fieldwork mapping entails visiting the research area and mapping the location of heritage sites while noting their characteristics. In addition, on-site interviews with key local figures and decision-makers were conducted to gain valuable insights regarding the region’s historical significance, agricultural practices, and communal traditions. By employing a multidisciplinary approach that integrated urban design analytics with natural and cultural heritage mapping, a nuanced understanding of the landscape’s physical, functional, social, and cultural dimensions emerged, laying the groundwork for subsequent local placemaking interventions.

The analytical step included giving residents a voice. One successful tool was the newly invented “Sprehosads” (“seed while you walk”), which invited people from all backgrounds to walk together through the meadows, orchards, and forests inside the park. These walks had a practical aspect: while walking, attendees literally planted seeds or plants. For example, they seeded honey plants in mountain meadows or planted heirloom fruit tree varieties in local orchards. During the walks, participants also reconsidered the assets and possible futures of the places through which they walked. The act of “seeding” was indeed also meant to be symbolic: people planted ideas, as they discussed their future together.

The initial analysis of the mapping done in the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park reinforced that a wide range of tangible and intangible assets contribute to the region’s cultural richness and historical significance. In the park, tangible assets encompass physical features such as local meadows, orchards, forests, and built structures. These assets not only serve as visual markers of the landscape’s heritage but also play a pivotal role in sustaining local livelihoods and fostering community identity. Intangible assets, on the other hand, encompass agricultural traditions, cultural practices, social customs, and collective memories embedded within the fabric of the landscape. For example, local foodways, artistic and cultural activities, and formal and informal communal gatherings add vibrancy and vitality to the area, shaping its distinct identity and sense of place. By identifying and cataloguing these various assets, the project provided the stakeholders with valuable insights into the multifaceted layers of the heritage present in the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park. This holistic understanding served as a springboard for the development of placemaking initiatives aiming at preserving and enhancing the region’s cultural legacy while also fostering sustainable development through community engagement.


From mapping to acting: hands-on placemaking in the Smoties project

The transition from analysis to concrete community engagement in the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park entailed a rich array of activities, each contributing to placemaking experimentation in the area. These initiatives, spanning from spring 2022 to 2024, served as dynamic platforms fostering dialogue, collaboration, and creative problem-solving among a diverse group of stakeholders, including residents, visitors, and decision-makers. In the course of two years, more than 20 public events were organized to catalyze community involvement and shape a collective vision for the future of the landscape and its settlements. Thematic gatherings, community-led walks, roundtable discussions, and hands-on workshops provided inclusive spaces for exchanging ideas, sharing insights, and co-creating solutions to existing challenges.

At the heart of these participatory efforts were collaborative workshops—local events where stakeholders from various backgrounds met to pool their collective creativity and expertise. These workshops served as incubators for innovative placemaking interventions and actionable strategies, empowering participants to envision the transformation of orchards, forests, and built heritage into potential public spaces celebrating the area’s unique identity and heritage. Various questions were asked: how can orchards be transformed into meeting places? Can forests be places of social encounters? How could the renovation of built heritage contribute to the creation of places where people could pause and socially interact?

A multitude of activities complemented the workshops to engage local actors and capture community feedback at different steps of the process. The Smoties project facilitated meetings with stakeholders from the cultural sector, offering presentations and discussions to foster the early involvement of residents and gain valuable insights from them. Such meetings provided informal platforms for dialogue and collaboration, allowing locals to share their perspectives and contribute to the shaping of pilot areas within the park. Meanwhile, community members were interviewed, which led to in-depth discussions about their perception and needs regarding public spaces. It was important to ensure that the placemaking efforts envisaged were rooted in the lived experiences of those who call the area home.

Traveling talks and expert panels were other forms of placemaking activities that brought together a diverse range of voices, from experts in fields such as heritage preservation and traditional orcharding to community members with intimate knowledge of the park’s history and culture. During these sessions, people delved into topics such as heirloom fruit tree varieties and the construction of traditional dry stone walls, which furthered their understanding of the complex issues involved in the development of innovative preservation techniques and the reinvention of elements of cultural heritage through placemaking.

Workshops provided further opportunities for stakeholders to engage in meaningful conversations, address pressing issues, and co-create strategies for positive change in their communities. Such meetings were typically most successful when organized around some local tradition that immediately drew the attention of residents. For example, people baked bread in clay ovens together; these ovens are still present in certain buildings in the region. People also participated in designing tablecloths, which traditionally were kept as family treasures and exposed on tables on special occasions when the whole family and wider community gathered to celebrate or mark special events. As part of the Smoties project’s placemaking activities, a local artist from Zavod CCC (a local organization focused on cultural and community development initiatives) led residents through the creation of contemporary tablecloth designs. These gatherings constituted perfect venues to discuss local life and the needs and possible futures of remote places.

Furthermore, the project included the organization of prototyping studios, which entailed hands-on heritage revitalization activities that served as laboratories for creative experimentation. In those studios, people repurposed existing heritage buildings and landscapes into social nodes that celebrated the rich local history while embracing forward-thinking approaches to placemaking. Hence, people gave new life to structures that had lost their prior economic or functional purpose—for example, old hayrac and storage houses. In fact, a storage house on the Pr’Lenart homestead was transformed into an art gallery, and a hayrack became an exhibition space and open-air gathering venue. Locally-sourced materials and traditional techniques were used to produce functional and aesthetic elements for these public spaces, fostering a sense of ownership and pride among residents. For instance, residents participated in creating a large bench in the shape of a nest—the “Big Nest”—which was sourced from locally gathered tree branches. While the result of an artistic intervention, the nest also had a social dimension: it transformed an orchard into a central space in which social activities were triggered spontaneously. Building on this momentum, training sessions were conducted to further engage and educate the community. Participants in training sessions learned about participatory urban design theoretically and practically, which empowered them to take an active role in shaping their respective communities. Exhibitions and public lectures were also organized by project leaders to showcase best practices and project outcomes and to raise awareness and inspire local residents and other attendees.

The effective progression from mapping to action in the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park project was a testament to the transformative power of placemaking in remote places. The project not only revitalized the rural landscape through seeding, planting, and heritage re-purposing, but also fostered a sense of community ownership and stewardship that will be transmitted to future generations. The diverse array of placemaking events and initiatives that were part of the Smoties project collectively aimed to foster community engagement, promote cultural preservation, enhance public spaces, and stimulate economic vitality in this remote region. Through a combination of meetings, workshops, training sessions, exhibitions, and public talks, the project empowered local residents, celebrated cultural heritage, and catalyzed positive change in the pilot area. The use of participatory approaches, innovative prototyping, and interdisciplinary collaborations contributed to the creation of places in which residents can strengthen their community and visitors can experience the unique character of rural landscapes. The Smoties project also inspired other communities and policymakers to adopt similar multifaceted placemaking strategies, thereby contributing to the revitalization and preservation of remote places beyond the project’s specific boundaries. Beyond its local scope, the project unexpectedly also contributed to policy development and to the formulation of national guidelines on participatory spatial design. By extending its impact far past its geographical boundaries, the project ensured that the lessons learned in the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park continue to inform and inspire future initiatives across the country.


Confronting the lack of public spaces in remote areas: challenges and opportunities

Placemaking in remote areas presents a unique set of challenges but also opportunities that are shaped by the landscape’s geographical isolation, limited resources, and sparse population. One of the primary challenges lies in addressing the scarcity of public spaces that encourage social interaction and community engagement. Remote regions often lack centralized gathering spots, which leaves residents and visitors with few opportunities for collective engagement and social exchange. Additionally, the demographic composition of remote areas, characterized by an aging population and the outmigration of younger generations, further complicates their revitalization. The dwindling population base diminishes the potential pool of participants in placemaking initiatives, requiring innovative strategies to engage diverse stakeholders and ensure that decision-making processes are inclusive.

Despite these challenges, remote areas offer abundant opportunities for placemaking to thrive. The natural beauty, cultural heritage, and local traditions that usually define these areas serve as valuable assets to create meaningful public spaces and foster community resilience. By harnessing the collective wisdom and creativity of local residents, placemaking initiatives in remote areas can build on the wide array of traditions found there and on the residents’ skills to reimagine rural spaces as places where tight communities live. Collaborative governance models, which emphasize partnership-building and shared decision-making, are essential for sustaining placemaking efforts in these areas. By forging alliances among local governments, community organizations, and private stakeholders, people involved in placemaking initiatives can mobilize resources, build capacity, and cultivate a sense of collective ownership of shared spaces.

Reinventing rural spaces through placemaking requires a multilayered approach that recognizes the unique challenges and opportunities in remote areas. Through placemaking initiatives, people embrace innovation and collaboration, and communities are empowered to create inclusive public spaces that enrich life while also enhancing place resilience and welcoming visitors. The Smoties project in the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park has been a journey of discovery, collaboration, and transformation that adopted an experimental approach to reinvent remote places through placemaking. One of the key lessons learned from the project is the importance of inclusivity and diversity in placemaking initiatives. By actively involving stakeholders from diverse backgrounds and perspectives—from local artists to farmers, residents, or occasional visitors—the activities led to the co-creation of solutions that resonated with the needs and aspirations of communities while also respecting their traditions and the assets of the natural environment. From collaborative workshops to community-led walks, every engagement opportunity provided a platform for meaningful dialogue and collective decision-making.

Moreover, the approach used by the leaders of the Smoties project underscored the significance of adaptive reuse and creative interventions in repurposing existing assets into community spaces. By breathing new life into orchards, meadows, local trails, and built heritage sites, the project demonstrated the potential of transforming rural landscapes while preserving their unique character and identity. Initiatives such as art installations and cultural community events not only celebrated the region’s heritage but also stimulated the rethinking of future economic development. Despite the challenges posed by suburbanization and economic transitions, the community living in the Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park has, over the three years of the project, slowly embraced placemaking as a catalyst for positive change and community empowerment. The placemaking process clearly demonstrated that a cohesive vision for the future requires stakeholders to cooperate, and that their commitment to preserving local traditions serves as a testament to the enduring spirit of rural life.

The project also yielded valuable lessons for placemaking practitioners and policymakers working in small and remote areas in other countries. The adoption of a holistic approach that integrates community engagement, heritage preservation, and locally embedded sustainable design can unlock the latent potential of rural landscapes and empower local communities to shape their own futures. First and foremost, placemaking initiatives in small and remote places must prioritize inclusivity and collaboration, ensuring that a variety of voices are heard and valued in the decision-making process. By fostering partnerships between residents, businesses, government agencies, and cultural institutions, placemakers can leverage the collective wisdom and resources of communities to co-create vibrant and resilient public spaces in remote areas. Additionally, placemaking efforts should embrace the adaptive reuse of existing assets and the integration of cultural heritage into contemporary design, especially in the rural setting. The celebration of the unique history, traditions, and landscapes of rural areas contributes to genuine and meaningful experiences that resonate with both residents and visitors. Whether through art installations, cultural festivals, or environmental stewardship initiatives, placemaking can serve as a catalyst for sustainable development and cultural revitalization in small and remote places.

In spite of the challenges faced by remote places, there lie opportunities for innovation and collaboration. Fostering partnerships between local communities, government agencies, and other entities strikes a balance between ecological stewardship and responsible development. Moreover, education and engagement initiatives can instill a sense of pride and ownership among residents and visitors, who then are empowered to become ambassadors for the preservation of assets in remote areas. Ultimately, by embracing a holistic approach to management that values the interconnectedness of nature, culture, and society, stakeholders can conceptualize remote places as thriving places with distinctive forward-looking identities that remain nonetheless rooted in a rich legacy of local traditions and assets. The Polhograjski Dolomiti Landscape Park has significant potential to become a model for such sustainable and innovative development.



Matej Nikšič is a senior scientific associate at the Urban Planning Institute of the Republic of Slovenia and lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture in Ljubljana. He is an architect and urban designer specialized in public open space regeneration and participatory practices. Nikšič coordinates the Slovenian branch of the Human Cities network (


Nina Goršič is a senior development associate at the Urban Planning Institute of the Republic of Slovenia. She is an architect specializing in spatial regeneration and accessibility for all. Goršič coordinates the Slovenian stakeholders within the Smoties project as part of the Human Cities network (



This contribution was partly supported by the EU’s Creative Europe programme’s project Smoties – Creative works with small and remote places and partly by the Slovenian Research Agency (Research Core Funding No. P50100). The contribution was initiated within the activities of the COST Action 18204 Dynamics of Placemaking and Digitization in Europe’s Cities.



[1] “Human Cities Smoties 2020-2024”, March 3, 2024,

[2] Vičar, Ana. “Jeterbenške utrdbe v luči arheoloških in zgodovinskih virov – Forts of Jeterbeng in the light of archaeological and historical sources” PhD diss., University of Ljubljana, Faculty of arts.

[3] “Municipality of Medvode”, March 3, 2024,

[4] “Human Cities Smoties Tools”, March 21, 2024 at

[5] Scannell, Leila, and Robert Gifford. “Defining place attachment: A tripartite organizing framework.” Journal of environmental psychology 30, no. 1 (2010): 1-10.


Published on June 17, 2024.



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