Our author, Teodora Mebus, an online and radio journalist, talks about the cultural project between RPTU Kaiserslautern, Lviv Polytechnic National University and NGO "Proryv-Misto". The conception and implementation of public space and street furniture with the participation of residents, refugees and the city administration were the central goals of this project. 

When Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine broke out, the masses of refugees posed a great challenge, especially on Western Ukrainian cities. Now, after almost two years of Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine, the number of refugees has stabilized, and these cities have tried to adapt their infrastructure and housing as much as they possible. However, locals and refugees from the South and East of the country have to find a new way to live together and seek mutual understanding in everyday life. The "Drohobych common spaces" university project is trying to mend that divide by building street furniture and creating public living rooms in Drohobych, a town in the Lviv region with 73,000 inhabitants.

A man walks to the counter in a bank and asks to deposit an amount of money. The employee immediately turns pale. "I am sorry; I will not assist you unless you address me in Ukrainian or English". What has just happened here? The customer, a refugee from Eastern Ukraine, an "internally displaced person" (IPD), spoke Russian in a Western Ukrainian town. "Conflicts like that happen all the time in Western Ukraine", says Anna Kuzyshyn. She is the founder of "Drohobych common spaces", a project aiming to foster the integration of IDPs in the community of Drohobych, a Western Ukrainian town close to the Polish border.

War and a difficult history are putting heavy pressure on locals and refugees

Refugees still do not know when they can go back to their destroyed homes so the lives they are living now is a tough balancing act. They are often exposed to tensions and misunderstandings with the locals. Choosing to speak Ukrainian has been a political and a patriotic act in Western Ukraine through times of Polish, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet rule. Having been under Russian control much earlier than Western Ukraine, the eastern part of the country had been forced to use Russian language and culture. Therefore, some IDPs still speak Russian "because it is the language their grandmother, sister or uncle spoke because they were forced to. Language was always an instrument of Russia to colonize Ukraine, so it is very important that all Ukrainians come back to their ethnic roots and speak the Ukrainian language" says Kuzyshyn.

The war and years of being a part of Russia and, respectively, the Soviet Union, is putting a lot of  pressure on the everyday lives of, displaced people, and locals who have to deal with its economic repercussions in a war-affected country. Anna’s project "Drohobych common spaces" aims to help the "new inhabitants" - as Kuzyshyn likes to call IDPs - to integrate and find a new narrative for their live in Western Ukraine. As an architecture lecturer, her means of achieving this goal is through a university project to build street furniture together with locals and IDPs for the city. The university departments of architecture and city planning from Kaiserslautern and Lviv have been involved as well as the municipal authorities of Drohobych, NGOs and most importantly the "new inhabitants".

Work on the project: a permanent triangular communication

But how is building comfortable benches going to help with the integration of refugees? "When people move to a new room or have a new office, they put a picture on the wall, maybe roll out their own rug, or put a plant on the table. This principle of creating one’s own living room also applies to public spaces", explains the architecture lecturer. 

The vital part of the project has therefore been the involvement of the "new inhabitants". The results can only increase the identity with their city if they contribute to it. The project has also been designed as a constant triangular dialogue between the municipal authorities, locals and "new inhabitants" to foster communication and to unify all parties. 

The results: Three places with new street furniture

At the beginning of the project, the students analyzed the city map and its traffic and mapped places suitable for street furniture. After that, two workshops with the municipal authorities, local players, students and naturally the "new inhabitants" took place. The students asked where the "new inhabitants" like to spend their free time and inquired about their preferences. Taking that into account, the students identified three very different places in town suitable for the project.

The first piece of furniture is now situated at an intersection in the old part of the town. From the bench people can view the theater, watch other people crossing the street, or see a major work of Socialist Realism style graffiti of a girl holding a book by the Grech Brothers on the building facade of what used to be a library. "It is a great place to sit and there is a lot to watch. Sometimes a piece of street furniture can demonstrate the potential of a place and inspire to open stores or maybe build something new", explains Kuzyshyn.

New possibilities of working in the park

Another very large bench is located in the park, close to the Teacher’s Training University and in front of a playground. Like the first piece of furniture, this bench offers possibilities to sit and lay, facing any direction. The students designed small bench-integrated tables to work on and take meals. Parents can work on the bench while watching their children play on the playground.

The street furniture from the third project looks very much less like a bench. The wooden cubes had been built at the department of architecture in Kaiserslautern and can be assembled in very different ways: Like a table with chairs, like a wardrobe, a bar etc. They have been placed right in front of a rooming house for IDPs. As wood is only weatherable to a certain degree, the cubes must be brought inside during winter. Anna Kuzyshyn describes them as transportable and bringing them inside should not be a problem. All parties have mainly been working on the project since April 2023. In July the benches were built and installed in Drohobych.

A public living room built by “new” and “old inhabitants” of Drohobych

It was planned to realize the workshop in Drohobych with German and Ukrainian students together but due to the ongoing war, they were only able to gather for a design workshop in Berlin. The project has been a colossal organizational undertaking for Anna Kuzyshyn and colleagues from Lviv Polytechnic National University Solomia Shegolska-Konyk and Yaryna Onufriv, the heads of the project. They are however convinced it has been worth the effort. Local players and “new inhabitants” involved in the project have been sending her pictures and updates of what has been happening with the street furniture and places where it has been installed. “It is being used, especially the bench at the intersection, and usually the benches and cubes are kept clean”.

Littering has always been an issue with public spaces. But Kuzyshyn knows how to deal with that: “The key when building really anything, is to involve as many people and parties as possible. Ask the people you are building something for, what they need, what they want, involve them in the creative process and the result is going to be accepted to a much greater degree than if you are doing it by yourself.” And what if everything works out for the best and refugees are safe to return to their hometowns? “Then the street furniture remains as a document of chapter in the history of the town”, answers Kuzyshyn.

MEET UP! German-Ukrainian Encounter "Resilient Meeting Places for Refugees (2023)
A project of RPTU Kaiserslautern, Germany (Engl. Technical University of Kaiserslautern, Germany); NGO “Proryv-Misto” (Drohobych, Ukraine) and Lviv Polytechnic National University (Lviv, Ukraine)

Anna Kuzyshyn has a master's degree in interior design from the University of Ivano-Frankivsk (Ukraine) and a master's degree in architecture and urban planning from the University of Stuttgart in 2018. Since 2022 she is responsible for exchange projects on resilient urban development between the Ukraine and Germany, funded by DAAD (Ukraine digital) and EVZ Foundation.

Written by Teodora Mebus

Teodora Mebus, an online and radio journalist based in Karlsruhe, Germany. Born in Romania she immigrated to Germany with her family at the age of twelve. She covers topics such as music, culture, migration, subjects linked to Romania, Eastern Europe as well as personal stories reflecting upon political or social phenomena.