Crossing cultures and building community

Sandra Denicke-Polcher, Deputy Head of Architecture at The Cass, explores how architecture can foster community between students, locals and migrants in a depopulated village in Italy.

Date: 16 January 2020

Belmonte Calabro is a depopulated Italian mountain village situated on the Tyrrhenian sea. It has seen many asylum seekers arrive on its shores in search of a new life. The depopulation within the municipality is a result of locals leaving for the bigger cities, which has created economic stagnation within the village.

The migrants, coming from Mali, Nigeria and Pakistan, usually live in refugee centres with nothing to stimulate themselves with. Past research has identified refugees as “vulnerable” people who are at a higher risk of experiencing physical and mental health problems, as well as social marginalisation. Yet, through my research as coordinator for the Crossing Cultures project, I have also seen a different picture. 

Since 2016 and in collaboration with the NGO Le Seppie, the project has developed a platform which engages architecture students and staff from London Met in workshops with both the locals and asylum seekers in Belmonte Calabro. They work together on small scale architecture projects to create a deeper sense of community and cultural integration. They respond to the needs of the community by developing ideas for local industry and education, all the while developing a better understanding of how space contributes to wellbeing and cohesion. 

Throughout the trips to Belmonte Calabro, the working partnerships between students, locals and refugees resulted in the development of structures like towers and canopies; furniture products like tables and benches; the recent renovation of community rooms in “Casa di Belmondo”; and the fostering of a sense of community through exhibitions and events.

The students made a real difference to the village’s amenities and spaces while gaining experience for their own long-term learning. More importantly, however, the research project has provided the gift of positive change and created lasting memories between the local people and the migrants. It was clear the work has created an atmosphere of enthusiasm and excitement. 

The workshops established a positive attitude towards different cultures and ideas, which have helped to develop active citizenship and critical thinking within the community. However, this has not been thoroughly looked at, with very little being known about the benefits of these workshops for the different participant groups and the changes in social identity for the local people, the asylum seekers and the students.

Work still needs to be done in order to further this educational model and explore its benefits, as well as its shortcomings. We have established a collaboration with researchers at Dr Corinna Haenschel, City University of London, and Dr Domenico Giacco, the University of Warwick, in order to investigate the benefits of the workshop in more detail. 

To begin the research, we interviewed 23 students, locals and migrants during the Summer Workshop in 2019. This allowed us to explore suggestions for improvement that can help refine the organisation of the workshops, but also to identify experienced benefits of participation in the workshops at a personal level, and for the town as a whole.

The data is currently analysed, but some initial themes and findings will be presented at a research seminar at The Cass, titled Refugees' + Mental Health. This pilot will give us the basis to further develop a protocol to investigate the effects of such workshops on the wellbeing and social identity of the participants. 


One of the refugees sat with two older locals