Newsletter #4 – Regenerating under-populated areas through participatory architecture

The University’s forth Interdisciplinary Research Forum (IRF) workshop was held on online on Thursday 18 June 2020.

Five academics with overlapping research interests presented papers exploring multi-disciplinary research between architecture, social and community psychiatry, and wellbeing and mental health. Following on from the presentations, members of the audience were given the opportunity to direct questions to the speakers and also to engage in discussions on the potential for further interdisciplinary study of these topics. The event, which was chaired by Dr Jane Clossick, included as speakers:

  • Dr Domenico Giacco, Associate Clinical Professor at Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick and an Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at Coventry and Warwickshire Partnership NHS Trust.
  • Sandra Denicke-Polcher, Principal Lecturer at The School of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University.
  • Dr Corinna Haenschel, a Reader and Clinical Psychologist at the Department of Psychology, City, University of London.
  • Prof. Alistair Ross, Professor of Politics & Education at the School of Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University.
  • Dr Beatrice de Carli, Senior Lecturer in Urban Design and has recently joined the research team at London Met’s School of Art, Architecture and Design from the University of Sheffield.

During the course of the session, a variety of related themes in the study on how to regenerate under-populated areas through participatory architecture were explored, drawing specifically on place-based pedagogical and community-practice action research. Different methodologies and findings were shown in order to contribute to the definition of “home”, its impact on mental well-being, as well as to the understanding of links between physical space and individual mental space. In particular, the aim was to identify what impact a series of participatory architecture workshops have on mental health and to understand mental well-being and social identity in the different groups of the communities involved, with a special interest in the refugees. Academic staff and PhD students from a wide range of disciplines across the university attended the virtual workshop and were actively involved in the wider debate that took place following the presentations.


During the last years, marginal territories in Europe are mostly considered as a resource and not as residual areas. These territories are rural and mountain areas and often consist of ancient villages and small urban historical centres. A phenomenon of intense depopulation has emerged in the last decades and gradually caused abandonment and territorial degradation through modern urbanization processes. Internal migration, abandoning villages and rural areas to live in larger cities is contrasted by the phenomenon of migratory flows into European countries, travelling through the Mediterranean. Although this phenomenon solicits fear and insecurity in part of the local people, this is also an opportunity for new processes of integration and inclusion, making these areas attractive for experimentation with new cultural and social forms in order to enhance territorial resources as a new model for development. These spaces have gradually become laboratories of experiences which try to combine environmental and socio-cultural rural values with advantages of the city.

Presentations and Discussion

In the first presentation on “Social exclusion and mental disorders in asylum-seekers and refugees”, Dr Domenico Giacco offered a framework about why social integration of refugees is important to prevent mental health disorders in this group. He commenced with a definition of the terms migrant, refugee, asylum seeker, and irregular migrant in order to give an understanding of various social contexts. He continued by referring to the percentage of mental disorder in the general population and in migrants, in order to demonstrate how similar this is amongst the two groups, in particular during the first resettlement of refugees. However, after five years of resettlement, refugees report high level of mental disorder. He analysed that the raise of anxiety and depressive disorders are associated with social isolation and unemployment in combination with acculturation issues. To conclude, Dr Giacco suggested practical and innovative methods to overcome these issues and show projects with innovative attempts of facilitating social integration through various pedagogical methods such as language courses, vocational programmes, volunteer “neighbours”, and peer refugee coaching to improve the mental disorder issues. Overcoming barriers to care and fostering engagement is another important step to improve the mental health of refugees during their resettlement. He concluded by bringing the discussion to think in an innovative way about the “problem”.

Sandra Denicke-Polcher and Dr Corinna Haenschel presentation on “Regenerating underpopulated areas through participatory architecture, raising social capital and creating a 'home' for refugees" demonstrated a scientific analysis of people participating in architecture workshops in order to gain an understanding of the positive effects these workshops have on traumatised people. Sandra introduced the work of "Crossing Cultures" done in Belmonte Calabro since 2016 with London Met students, graduated, other academics and local communities and institutions. This academic research is based on a real context and aims towards the regeneration of Belmonte Calabro, a town which - as many other inland areas in Europe – is suffering from a phenomenon of depopulation. The research looks at this phenomenon as an opportunity more than a crisis, and tries to create a synergy with the phenomenon of migration, another prevailing impact in the Calabria territory. In fact, Calabria is one of the main arrival gates of Europe for refugees coming from North Africa and West Asia. Therefore, the project in Belmonte is created around the needs and visions of three communities: locals, international students/young professionals and asylum seekers/refugees. Dr Corinna Haenschel introduced her work within the summer workshop 2019 and the methodology used in order to study these communities. The methods used were based on topic guides for the interviews, an ice-breaker followed by questions about the perceived impact of the workshop. The interviews were done with 10 students, 10 locals and 10 migrants in Belmonte. The emerging themes of the research presented were: “Working together (as equals)”; “Living together” – importance of residential stay and informal contacts; “Making home” – getting to know the place; “Understanding and respecting differences”. This preliminary analysis allowed to understand the benefits of these workshops for the mental health of migrants and refugees: “Creating a space for connection”; “Revitalising local resources”; “Promoting attention to deprived towns”; “Broadening horizons”; “Re-gaining or practising skills”. The analysis will be continued in a larger group in order to focus on specific issues such as “resilience”, “the building of a sense of community”, and “autobiographical memories in the making”.

In Prof. Alistair Ross’s presentation “Young Germans’ constructions of Heimat during the refugee ‘crisis’ of 2015-16", he draws on empirical data collected through deliberative discussions with small groups of young people (between the ages of 12-19) across Europe in various sized settlements – small towns to large cities. In this forum, he presented on how young Germans use the term “Heimat”, particularly in the context of the refugee crisis of 2015. He examined the impact that this crisis had on how young people construct their own identities, and how they relate to the understanding of nation and nationalism, migration, and racism, referring to studies in seven locations in Germany and three in Austria. These deliberative discussions with these groups of young people lead to the understanding of a range of views in which he also indicated the idea of “Heimat”. A series of quotes from the young people illustrated the understanding of the idea of “Heimat” and how this differs from the idea of “Home”. Prof. Ross concluded how young people in Germany have a particular concept of home as space. This is rooted in particular location(s) that contribute to their personal sense of identity, which is generally linked to a discrete location in a country, city or village, rather than with a whole state.

In the final presentation about “Participatory design and homemaking. The case of Architecture sans Frontières (AsF) - UK, Change by Design”, Dr Beatrice De Carli explained that ASF – UK is a non-profit design organisation that aims to build the capacity of urban professionals and communities to participate in the co-production of more equitable and inclusive cities. The aim of Change by Design is to explore participatory design and planning as tools for advancing social justice and deepening public participation in urban decision-making processes. AsF’s initiatives are grounded in strategic partnerships with local stakeholders, and utilise design and planning to support vulnerable and marginalised urban groups, so that they can affect change in the cities where they live. Beatrice explained the activities done so far in six different cities and continents.

From this experience, Dr De Carli described how, within the programme of Change by Design, reading space through a participatory process can help to understand the intimate connections between the production of space and the systemic production of power – exposing and challenging the role that space/spatial orderings hold in the inclusion and exclusion of particular groups. The methodology used is divided in four main steps: diagnosis, dreaming, developing and defining; it includes four main components: dwelling, community, city and planning. The result of these actions and studies created a series of tools for strategic collective action. Dr de Carli concluded by summarizing the three main elements for participatory design and homemaking which are: “fostering critical learning”; “supporting networks of solidarity”; and “influencing decision making”.


The presentations ended with a series of questions from the public that enabled the panel to start a cross-disciplinary conversation about their interests and research topics. The first question came from a Master student at London Met who asked if the research was driven by the refugees' needs or purely by the researchers’ interests. Dr Domenico Giacco explained that the drive regarding mental health research is often initiated by the government needing to know the best ways to manage these particular situations, so a scientific analysis can help to understand how best to handle these fragile groups. In addition, Prof. Alistair Ross and Sandra Denicke-Polcher explained how in their particular research the need came out from the act of listening and understanding best ways to help. The final comments from Dr Matthew Barac and Dr Corinna Haenschel closed the conversation with a positive feeling regarding these interdisciplinary meetings which create opportunities for sharing different but complementary points of views and methodologies on a common topic that allows academics but also students to open their mind and approach their interest with a new perspective.

Rita Elvira Adamo, PhD Candidate
London Metropolitan University, School of Art, Architecture and Design and Università Mediterranea di Reggio Calabria