Using the past to draw the future of

urban regeneration: the ROCK project

July 24, 2017



The stunning Mole Antonelliana in the Piazza Castello in Turin

IMAGE: Giovanni Fontana

2018 will be the European Year of Cultural Heritage- a time for us to rethink how we approach the cultural legacy of our cities. With all eyes on innovation and the new technologies that flow from it, we should keep in mind that thinking about the future of our cities should not come at the expense of their past. Crucially, the historical features of city centers are unique assets for urban regeneration. They are the embodied history of our collective heritage.



We therefore need a mental shift from thinking about cultural heritage as something rigid, only to be preserved, towards using it as an engine to drive the sustainable revival of historical city districts. Co-funded by European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program, the recently-launched ROCK project will develop the tools and knowledge needed for cultural heritage-led urban regeneration.


As noted by the Mayor of Bologna, Virginio Merola, who was present at the launch of the project: “it's important that European funding goes to cities, because it is in cities that people spend their daily life and where they can contribute to changing lifestyle and habits.”


Using the cultural past to build a green future


Led by the city of Bologna, the three-year ROCK project aims to galvanize the transformation of historic city centers afflicted by physical decay, social conflicts and poor quality of life into Creative and Sustainable Districts. The cities of Lisbon (Portugal), Bologna (Italy) and Skopje (Macedonia) will be the testing grounds for cultural heritage-led urban regeneration in demonstrations districts.


According to Dr.Cristina Garzillo, ICLEI senior coordinator for Governance and social innovation, “The ROCK project is about cultural heritage as a socio-cultural asset that has to be maintained for future generations. Therefore, sustainable development comprises also a careful policy regarding historical buildings, arts and immaterial expressions, cultural and environmental landscapes or urban historic areas from the past..” As a network of local governments for sustainability, ICLEI's role will be to spread the lessons learnt in sustainable cultural heritage regeneration across European cities.


The project is not just about generating physical outcomes through the regeneration of historical city centers - it also seeks to bring about changes in perception.  Cultural heritage should be understood as a living organism, building on the past to inspire creativity for a sustainable future. This organic vision of cultural heritage implies that historical urban environments require not only protection, but should also have an active and accessible role as public spaces that citizens live in.


ROCK therefore sees historic city centers as extraordinary laboratories of creativity, through which it becomes possible to demonstrate how cultural heritage can become a unique and powerful engine for sustainable development and inclusive economic growth for cities as a whole. Urban regeneration goes hand in hand with an environmental-friendly approach.


Indeed, Cultural heritage is a non-renewable resource. In approaching cultural heritage via sustainability, we intend to show how this resource can not only be preserved but also be augmented through innovative techniques and technologies. Doing so, however, requires a long-term vision that considers how inhabitants and visitors can fully enjoy cultural elements – whether museums, monuments or others, while addressing the challenges of sustainable production and consumption, for instance, through circular waste management.





ROCK conceptualizes an innovative circular urban system model, called the ROCK Circle (above), to connect different actors, places of CH value and systems, at a European level as well as at a local level


Co-designing inclusive and sharable city models


How do you transform these city centers into dynamic creative districts? How do you ensure they are sustainable?


First of all you make sure that you have everyone on board. The outcomes of this transversal project will only take root if applied inclusively, through the active participation of a broad array of stakeholders, including the local population. ROCK therefore aims to develop a collaborative and systemic approach to promote the effective regeneration of historic city centers.


This will happen through the development of a shared multi-cultural, multi-heritage and multi-stakeholder city vision, building bridges between communities and stakeholders, rather than addressing academics, policymakers, local businesses, civil society and citizens as separate entities. By bringing these groups together, cultural heritage can become a shared asset for improving city branding, the quality of life of citizens and environmental standards. In all three cities, living labs will be set-up, embodying the project's strong belief that urban regeneration will only work with the active involvement of the people that are directly impacted by it.


It will also be about creating lasting habits for younger generations. In Bologna, one of the main project partner is located in the Via Zamboni demonstration district; the University of Bologna. They invited their students to take part in the project. The student council and other associations were involved from the very start and have started by creating an open garden in one of the district’s public squares, Piazza Scaravilli.


Romano Prodi, a former president of the European Commission who was present at the project launch in Bologna, declared: "This is a complex project that will have an impact here as well as in other cities. The Zamboni area has always been a critical zone of the city so it will be an advantage for everyone to enhance it. Critical zones are a general problem for many cities."


Via Zamboni in the centre of Bologna

IMAGE: Universita Bologna

Learning from the best


European funding provides the opportunity for cities to learn from each other. In ROCK, seven cities – Athens, Cluj-Napoca, Eindhoven, Liverpool, Lyon, Turin and Vilnius – act as role models, offering a repertoire of successful heritage-led regeneration initiatives to pick from. Through mentoring and work-shadowing visits, a diverse group of cities will learn from them about how to use their cultural heritage as an asset.


Each of these role model cities will share their experience of different cultural heritage topics. The city of Lyon, for example, will bring to the project its expertise in urban lighting for the creative and sustainable regeneration of cities. They will work with other cities on using energy-efficient lights to reduce the intensity and frequency without altering the visual identity of the city in the night sky.





More information on the project website:


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