With thirty participants from various backgrounds and countries, the second edition of the Never-never school sought to provide speculative interpretations to a large riverside brownfield in the city of Košice, Slovakia. What follows are not just the emerging futures delineated, but also the methods and ideas through which these futures were imagined.

In the late summer of 2019, we—the Spolka collective—launched an invitation for people to join us in our hometown Košice (Slovakia) for an experiment in co-creation centred on mapping, collective visioning, and the exploration of urban in-betweenness. This was the second time that the Never-never school, as we named this unique space for community learning and research about cities, convened. In the school’s first edition, in 2018, the participants collectively explored the existing urban realities of the suburban prefabricated high-rise estate (‘sídlisko’) Ťahanovce in Košice, where they were invited to rethink the concept of utopia as a form of speculative political action. In the second year, we continued and extended these discussions. We brought together thirty local and international participants from various backgrounds and countries to a large riverside brownfield in our town. On this site, we—together with the participants—imagined and performed its potential futures, as well as tested and developed new forms of collaborative working. This text describes not only the futures, but most importantly the methods and ideas through which these futures were imagined. 

A place in-between 

The topic and the site of the summer school were chosen in reaction to the current (local and global) urban discourses and practices, where architects and city planners often tend to envision cities as constantly growing structures, and ‘development as usual’ is seen as the answer to everything from unemployment to tackling climate change. Even in the ‘shrinking’ or stagnating post-socialist European cities—Košice being one of them—people dream of large developments to fill in the ‘empty’ spaces in the urban fabric, spaces often referred to as brownfields. Alternative proposals to those of the commodified real estate market are virtually non-existent or quickly hushed away. 

During the summer school we all took a closer look at one such site that is stretching between the river Hornád and Košice city centre. The new land use plan, as well as the countless architectural competitions that focused on this area, envisioned it as a place for new housing. The land should also be divided by a highway and a bridge. The city awaits a developer to take care of the area’s future, but no one came forward so far. We wanted to consider the site not—like many before us did—as a blank void soon to be filled, but rather as an already existing network of dynamic human and non-human relationships that could be the starting point for degrowth utopias beyond the anthropocentric present. This large area between railway tracks and a river was once populated by small industrial objects and gardens, which the railway company leased to its employees. The garden colony has survived despite all vicissitudes. It is surrounded by trees and trash, occupied by gardeners, permanent residents, birds, and occasional human visitors. Its only neighbour is a shelter for people without a home. 

Trapped in a permanent limbo between a utopian desire for a proliferating future district and a stagnating reality, there is a peculiar quality to its in-betweenness which we wanted to explore and better understand. The planning limbo offered a crack not just in the urban space[1], but most importantly in the dominant discourse of neoliberal post-socialist planning. We used this opportunity to imagine a world for the many, not only the few. For, according to Ragnhild Cleasson, “to recognise, believe in, and act upon such cracks in dominating discourses, narratives and spaces can be a move towards making feminist futures.”[2]

Utopia in context

Imagining and envisioning other futures is central to our practice in general, and so too was it to the summer school. Utopias were used as an antidote to the TINA (there-is-no-alternative) imperative that filled the voids of post-socialist urban discourses and practices left by the disappointment with the failure of the ‘utopian‘ authoritarian plans. Through the summer school, we aimed to employ utopian thinking as a method of critiquing the modernist approach as well as the neoliberal one, both of which leave little space for an actual, open, and iterative discussion of how we want to live together and co-create a better society for the many. Utopian thinking was used as a productive and critical method of opening up different alternatives to those typically proposed for brownfields as ‘empty’ spaces. We chose the particular site along Hornád precisely because it has been the subject of many of these kinds of visions, produced by local and international competitions or student projects. Putting our visions next to theirs, we wanted to show the potential of utopian thinking, when combined with a careful engagement with the site. 

Utopias, especially in the post-socialist context of urban planning, are often closely associated with modernism and its failures. However, if we adopt a feminist understanding of utopias as an open-ended, situated, and pluralistic driving force towards the ‘possible impossible’,[3] rather than an ideologically closed totalitarian world[4], the concept becomes particularly useful to get us out of the vicious circle of neoliberal reproduction. The idea is not to imagine new grand top-down schemes planned on a tabula rasa—the kind of planning that has dominantly shaped the city of Košice over the last century. By understanding the city’s past and carefully engaging with its present state, rather than creating blueprints for the city of tomorrow, we hoped to sketch out options that would have an empowering and liberating character. 

The three futures envisioned by the school’s participants—Trojan Horses, Desire Produces Reality, and Community Island—show how utopias, when created from within rather than from above, could be a starting point for better cities for all (humans and non-humans alike). All proposals built on the already existing aspects of the space, which they strengthen and make visible: shelter for people without home, its inhabitants, plants categorised as invasive, wilderness, the river, and the gardens. While some of these elements were missing and were made invisible in all other future proposals for this site, in our proposals they became central actors in the future development of the site. Yet, all proposals want somehow the same thing: to make the site a place for inclusive encounters in Košice.

Mapping as a method

Since one of the biggest critiques of utopias is their non-place-ness[5] and thus their disconnection from reality, it was key for us to address and overwrite this aspect. For that reason, we rooted the visions of other futures deeply in the present by intimately engaging with the space through various site visit methods that promised what Donna Haraway termed ‘situated knowledges.’[6] This, combined with a variety of participants’ professional backgrounds, helped us ‘see’ the many layers of the space we sought to map. For each of us sees different things, and every method gives access to different aspects of the world. It is not enough to consider only the experiences of the Modulor Man[7]—the tall, able white working man—for whom our cities are mostly built. And neither is it about replacing this body with other, differently abled bodies. It is rather to accept a plurality of views and with it a plurality of spaces. Mapping became thus not just a way of discovering the world, but a reflective exercise in realizing how we see the world.

The time we had to closely investigate the ‘brownfield’ site along Hornád was a luxury that no other planners before us had—as it emerged in a discussion with the architects who had created one of the many never-realised visions for the area. Subjected to the logics of the neoliberal value system, planners only rarely get the chance to spend ten days in the field, let alone in the manner we did. In the calculations of developers, there is usually no budget for hearing, imaging, being bored, and interacting with other humans and non-humans. Hence, planners rely on the materials that they are provided with, which usually boil down to already existing data like maps, statistical data, satellite images, or Google Street Views. This approach invariably reproduces a narrow disciplinary image of a place, and makes it difficult for different futures to emerge.

Besides generating our own data through experience, rather than relying on secondary materials, it was crucial to go beyond mapping the ‘usual suspects’ in planning like morphology, typology, green structures or public transport.[8] This is because this narrow vision of urban planning often misses the living spaces and the perspectives of socially excluded people, animals, and plants. These are ‘seen’ by sociologists, or botanists, but they are not usually considered in the urban plans that direct the future of our cities. In the summer school we proposed an interdisciplinary character, combining classical ethnographic and cartographic methods, botanical observations, performative and sound mapping and archaeology of trash. These approaches revealed where people without home seek temporary shelter, which areas are affected by drought, and what is the actual dominance of ‘invasive’ plants. While sight played a key role, it was also through other senses that we could gain an important understanding of the various human and non-human actors that had a crucial role in the eco- and bio-diversity of the area. Such a situated approach to generating knowledge was our antidote to the modernist view from the top. 

Interdisciplinary co-production

The modality in which the summer school took place is also of importance, as none of us alone could have achieved alone what we’ve accomplished collectively. Discussions about cities happen all too often in compartmented disciplines, although space is a shared lived experience. Through the summer school, we tested not just learning with/from the site, but also other disciplines. The working modus was in itself a plea for a utopian space where we come together from different backgrounds, sharing and caring, discussing and also co-creating a city. Because the planning and making of cities, as well as the built environment more generally, should not be only reserved solely for architects, planners, and other designers. Virtually anyone can have a say, as we all have knowledge of the city though our daily interactions with it. What needs to be done is to ensure that everyone can participate in their own right—no matter what knowledge and skills they bring.

Moving towards futures

The three particular futures we imagined were not portrayed through shiny renderings, suggesting perfect worlds—as it is implied from the state of art initiatives in contemporary planning. Instead, at the end of the summer school, an immersive multi-sensory installation was created by the participants in a local gallery to communicate to the public our collective findings and visions. A mix of drawings, photographs, texts, installations, and performances made the envisioned futures alive in the present. We invited local city-makers, as well as the wider public to continue widening the crack through a collective discussion. And they joined in without hesitation: “The completely new idea for me was, for example, to see in this area the potential of doing nothing, to try preserve some part of the area for example for some kind of laziness, [...] that we don’t need to be absolutely efficient in all space, but we can also make some gaps, and let them be in some different way”, noted the chief architect of the city (quote from the Never-never school short film*). These debates, as well as the proposed futures were also further elaborated in the publication Mapping the in-between through academic essays, images, reflections, and even a poem. 

The summer school opened a space for thinking about our collective futures otherwise. We produced specific situated futures that could be an inspiration for other contexts. More importantly, we developed and tested a method of careful critical mapping that enabled us to highlight the qualities, relations and values of this specific site and point to them as the driving forces towards better futures for more of us. We believe that such practice can help to initiate a multitude of futures across places and scales, beyond the current neoliberal reality. We will continue exploring this practice and would be very happy if you joined us.

Spolka is a collective of architects, urbanists and sociologists dealing with space production and engaging the public in the collective making of our cities. We organise discussions, do our own research, make artistic and architectural interventions and create various education formats with and for stakeholders, organizations, city-officials, common people and urban souls. We are based in Košice, Prague, Brno and Berlin. Find our more on spolka.cc.


[1] Kaïka, Maria; Swyngedouw, Erik, (2003) The Making of “Glocal” Urban Modernities: Exploring the Cracks in the Mirror, City, 7 (1): 5–21.

[2] Claesson, Ragnhild (2017) Doing and Re-doing Cultural Heritages: Making space for a variety of narratives. In: Schalk, Kristiansson, Mazé: Feminist futures of Spatial Practice: Materialisms, Activisms, Dialogues, Pedagogies, Projections. p.54.

[3] Pinder, David (2015) Reconstituting the Possible: Lefebvre, Utopia and the Urban Question, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research XXXIX, 1: p. 28–45.

[4] Grešáková, Lýdia; Tabačková, Zuzana; Spolka (eds.) (2020) Mapping the In-Between. Interdisciplinary Methods for Envisioning Other Futures. Košice: Spolka. Grešáková, Lýdia; Tabačková, Zuzana; Révészová, Zuzana (2020) Mapping with Care as an Outline for Post-neoliberal Architecture Methodologies – Tools of the “Never-Never school”, Architektúra & Urbanizmus, LIV 1–2/2020: p. 6–19.

[5] Utopia, from Greek ou-topos (οὐ τόπος) refers to ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’, similar to Greek eu-topos (εὖ τόπος) meaning ‘good place’.

[6] Haraway, Donna (1988) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, Feminist Studies XIV, 1988, 3: p. 575–99.

[7] Modulor is a representation of the human body and its proportions. It was developed by the architect Le Corbusier in the mid-20th century and was used by him and many others as a scale for designing spaces to fit the proportions of humans. Modulor follows the tradition of many attempts to describe the perfect human body, like for example the Vitruvian Man by Michelangelo.

[8] See e.g. Curdes, Gerhard (1995) Stadtstrukturelles Entwerfen, Stuttgart, Berlin, Köln: Kohlhammer.

* Never-never school [short film]. Director: Poppy ILLSLEY, 2020. Available at: https://youtu.be/Y7WqKp6-WZw

All images used in this online article are taken by Poppy Illsley during the Never-Never school, organised by Spolka, in Košice (2019).