Coworking in the Village: how to revitalize a community with one project
Activists in the Lviv region launched a real chain reaction, deciding to turn the local village club into a modern space. We explain how they managed it
Krasiv is a very ordinary village in the Lviv region. Until recently, it reposed on three whales: a church, a cemetery, and a sauna. There are many such villages in Ukraine: local authorities, confident in their steadfastness, lack of normal roads, dubious business, daily teenage "party" at the bus stop, the disappointment of residents. And also an empty village club.
But no change happens by itself. Lviv resident Svitlana Kryzhanivska-Blinova was unfamiliar with Krasiv's problems. Since childhood, she's come here to her grandparents, but the building of the village club drew her attention as an adult: what was once the center of Krasiv's cultural life is almost not used for more than 10 years. According to documents, the community hall allegedly existed, but in fact, its building was brought to a terrible state. Svitlana decided that Krasiv's village club should be turned into coworking for locals.
Why does the village need coworking?
The young activist's goal was to turn the abandoned community hall into a modern space of the European level. It's taken two years to realize an ambitious dream. And she was helped by friends, a team of like-minded people, and caring residents of the community.
To replace the usual but no longer relevant club, the Lviv resident was inspired to create coworking by one of the trips abroad. It was an educational trip from the Leadership Institute of the Ukrainian Catholic University to Poland and Germany. There, Svitlana learned that libraries all over Poland were being transformed into multifunctional spaces, which have a place and time for educational courses and masterclasses, conferences and interest groups, activities for adults and children. For example, a mother can come to a working meeting in Warsaw coworking, created on the territory of the library, and the kid at that time will be engaged with an entertainer.
"Somehow I felt it was a shame," says Svitlana, "that there are many opportunities for people in big cities, but not in Krasiv. Besides, a club converted to coworking could be rented out for field sessions, for example, to Lviv IT companies. So it could earn a living. Of course, the city has many locations, but the village has its advantages: here, in the woods, you can both relax and work productively, because going beyond the usual boundaries always contributes to a new, unusual vision.
The first impetus for change
To start implementing the project, they tried to involve the community and get their support. It didn't work out right away. From the beginning, the idea of coworking wasn't accepted by everyone in the village: some were frightened by the new and unusual format, others spread rumors about the personal benefit of the initiators. Significant opposition to Svitlana's team was also created by the then deputy: she wasn't at all satisfied with the active "foreigners" appearing in the territory controlled by her for decades.
However, the discussion of the initiative to rebuild the abandoned community hall brought all rural problems to the surface, including dissatisfaction with the current government. It turned out that the majority of Krasiv residents disagreed with her arbitrariness, as well as with the decline of the village. The case reached an unprecedented decision; for the first time in the Lviv region, the Krasiv community revoked its powers from the deputy who didn't suit them and handed them over to one of Svitlana's associates, ATO veteran Yurii Dumych.
Having received the support of the villagers, Svitlana decided to apply the coworking idea to the competition of local initiative projects, held annually by the Lviv Regional Council. The project's presentation was approached creatively because the competition was fierce: several hundred other proposals took part in the competition. The project was called "Transformation of a rural community hall into a modern coworking," a photo of what was then and a visualization of the future design were added to the application. Designers who helped with the interior design were found through social media; Svetlana described her idea on Facebook and wrote that she was looking for a design studio that could develop a layout for them. One agency responded and developed the design for free. "Among 300 projects, we took 14th place. Everyone who made this decision gave us very high marks," the public activist is proud of the victory.
"We made this story public, and people got it"
One of the conditions for the project was co-financing. Another 75,000 hryvnias of public contributions had to be collected besides the funds allocated by Lviv State Regional Administration.
"We collected this money literally from around the world," Svitlana recalls. "For instance, I posted my photo for my birthday and wrote that I could be congratulated with a donation for coworking. People who hadn't even sent me postcards before transferred thousands of hryvnias to the account. We made this story public, and people got it. Talking about your idea out loud is important, it greatly increases your chances of success."
Another source of funding was the know-how invented by a team of activists: seeing that the project is interesting for potential tenants, Svitlana offered them to pay for a coworking booking right now, and then come there to work immediately after the renovation. 30,000 hryvnias were collected by the villagers, and it's an unprecedented amount that has ever been collected in the village, because, for instance, much less was collected for the church, which is the main object that the community usually cares about.
And when the regional administration, referring to the coronavirus pandemic, began to delay the payment of the grant, Svitlana put a bold face; she wrote a letter to the head of the administration, collected signatures in the village, and went to a meeting of the commission, which regulated this issue, urging not to delay funding:
"Because it was the first case when our community believed in future changes and ceasing repairing could greatly undermine the credibility of both us and the government in general."
During the long reparations more than once she wanted to give up. The repair turned out to be much harder than planned, it was necessary to see into and control each of its stages. During this time, Svitlana, who graduated from journalism school and is a specialist in communications, learned to understand the cracks in the walls, floor screed, types of materials, installed window sills.
One of the most important components of the project's success is that the woman managed to involve residents in the renovation of the premises. "If we had won a million-dollar grant, built a three-story coworking space, and said that it was a new club, we would soon see the painted walls, or worse, smashed windows. That's why it was important to work with the villagers so that each of them would appreciate their contribution to the common cause and feel that their Coworking in the Village was created by them and for them. So no one will be able to be careless with the new premises or say 'and it will still be sold later because it's not for us.' No, it's a socially responsible project, public property. This space is for people! "
Why come to work in the village?
Two years passed from the concept to the project's implementation. And two days from the opening to the first customers. For all this time, the concept of "Coworking in the Village" hasn't changed. It is as it was, and it worked. Svitlana says, "People come, pay to rent this space, although, for this money, Lviv has many offers, more expanded and comfortable ones. But we have significant advantages: the forest around, rural atmosphere; when you work, you're completely disconnected from the environment to which you're accustomed. Horses pass by, geese fly by, the atmosphere here is cool!"
Svitlana comes here with a laptop to work when visiting relatives. For team meetings, there's an isolated meeting room, 30 chairs, 3 two-meter tables under the windows, 2 in the meeting room, and another 1 is children's one. There's a screen, projector, flip-chart, speaker and microphone. Another highlight of the new coworking space is the extensive library, which activists are very proud of. It contains more than 500 modern books, from fiction to non-fiction and motivational books. More than 100 people, who sent books from all over Ukraine, responded to the request to replenish the shelves. You can read them in coworking, take them with you for a day or open a library subscription. During the session, you can make yourself tea (spring water comes directly from the tap!) and treat yourself to treats prepared by local housewives. There's a place for the future kitchen, modern toilets and… even a shower! So you can come here by bike, park, and work. The complex is open for cooperation all year round, even, if necessary, on holidays.
"Now (and we just opened), coworking has 3-5 rents per month, it's not a lot yet, but we realized that we need a sales manager, not just the head of the community hall, I don't have time because I have my main job in Lviv," Svitlana shares.
And what about the community?
For the community itself, the new coworking has met many needs: it's the only secular space where you can do anything. There are public hearings, children's clubs, a small stage for the holidays, the next step is the arrangement of a terrace for summer discos. Villagers and residents of the surrounding communities use "Coworking in the Village," of course, for free: for work, (for instance, recently the NGO "Lvivske Opillia," headed by Svitlana Kryzhanivska-Blinova, together with "Employment Accelerator for OTG," won a competition with a project, which includes 10 startups of residents), and for leisure. Coworking makes money on its own, for example, if you need to buy stationery for children, they're paid with rent money.
"Coworking in the Village" prompted the people of Krasiv to take action, now a rural green estate is being built in the village, where you can eat and spend the night. And the NGO "Lvivske Opillia" has developed a strategy for the united community and Lviv Opillia development, which brought together all the major businesses that operate here and have a tendency to grow. Local tourism is actively promoted: members of NGOs have installed tourist signs in the ordinary village, which has previously declined, developed a 25-kilometer eco-route, which was marked according to the Czech international system, set up bilingual information stands about all interesting sites in Krasiv and nearby villages.
Lessons for villages: how to turn a wasteland into an engine of development?
Empty, useless premises are available in almost every Ukrainian village. What does it take to awaken the community and turn them into useful spaces? Based on her experience, Svitlana Kryzhanivska-Blinova offers a kind of checklist:
You need to find people who need it. Without caring members of the community and the initiative group, the idea wouldn't have gone further. Seven people who believed in the idea two years ago that the village could be changed simply turned it upside down. We worked together with lawyers, went to court, organized a collection of signatures and a meeting of the village. I'm proud that I could be in such a team.
But we shouldn't forget what will happen to the project after everyone, it would seem, has already celebrated the victory. At first, I thought the repairs would be over and our project would live on its own, and the head of the new community hall would be able to cope with it himself. No, there's a lot of work after the reparation, you can't let everything run wild. For example, the traditional style of the community hall is draped curtains and glamorous armchairs; someone in the community might've thought so too, but these attributes are already obsolete, trends have changed.
Without the concept, everything will stop at the repairing stage. We recognized that "Coworking in the Village" wouldn't be a place for concerts or theater, that is, we didn't need a large stage, which is usually in halls, we needed a multifunctional space for events, and therefore the planning of the hall was based on this. Finding a designer isn't difficult. We managed to attract people on a friendly basis, who also found it important to implement some of their ideas in a social project.
It's crucial to find a niche. Village community halls with embroidered towels and portraits of Franko and Shevchenko, where nothing happens except holiday concerts, have exhausted themselves, they're not needed by young people. Young people want to hang out in rooms where they're comfortable.
You need to find allies among businesses, authorities, to find money to implement the plan and apply for projects. Come up with some cool concepts, for instance, how the transformation of libraries into media and scientific laboratories is currently developing in Lviv.
Why does Ukraine need such locations? Because they start public organizations, startups. When young people want to sit down and talk, they can do it there. And when they have only a bus stop with a bench for it, suitable only for drinking beer, it doesn't contribute to development. Besides, our coworking attracts interesting people who are experts in various fields. I dream that we'll create financial literacy training in the village shortly so that people understand that one pack of cigarettes a day a year will be equal to a two-week trip abroad, where you can completely change your worldview. And if you save money for five years instead of the pack of cigarettes, then in seven years, you can create a passive income that will fully cover the need for food; this money can be earned simply from the interest in the bank.
4. Wanting to create and share
In the first year, I got a job in the city council and worked there a lot. That's when I realized that doing some cool things just like that when you don't make money on them, is normal, and it's very inspiring and invigorating. Personally, after this project, I became a different person, I became bolder, ready to move mountains, in other, more complex projects. All this takes a lot of energy but is also very inspiring.
I also run a journalism club in the village, and the girls and I created an Instagram page for the village, which also helps to promote it. I remember myself as a child when I also attended such a club; it gave me so much that now I, in turn, want to give all this knowledge and emotions to someone else. I started attending it in 8th grade and learned more than in journalism. It completely changed my life and defined my profession. And if our "Coworking in the Village" or club helps at least one child in the village to be successful, I will be very, very happy.