I met Martin through mutual friends and we started chatting about ecology at an unlikely spot – Friday night, in front of one of my favorite bars in Sofia. It turned out that Martin is one of the main organizers of a festival that’s going to happen this upcoming weekend – The Rivers of Sofia (26-27.09). The initiative aims to restore life in and around the city’s main rivers, Perlovska and Vladayska, by transforming them from smelly and unpleasant canals into green locations for art, leisure, and recreation.

Martin is a landscape architect who studied and worked in London. After gaining experience in UK’s capital, he felt the urge to return to Sofia and become part of the social change happening here. Instead of building private gardens, he wanted to use his skills and experience for socially significant projects in Bulgaria. That’s how he created The Collective Foundation. Its primary goal is to develop the urban landscape and cultural life in the country. The upcoming festival, The Rivers of Sofia, is a part of this bigger picture and will happen in 3 locations – Vassil Levski Stadium, the roundabout at Lion’s Bridge, and Zone B5, around “Three ears” street. Several weeks after the festival, a workshop will be held at the coworking and exhibition center KO-OP, where architects and artists will meet with public officials to discuss long-term sustainable solutions for the rivers of Sofia.

Martin and I met at KO-OP to discuss what rivers mean to a city, the problems with Sofia’s rivers, solutions to similar issues in other countries, as well as what can be done here.

What do rivers mean to a city?

They are the cradle of life. It’s a bit different in Sofia because we have a lot of underground basins and the city was built not just around the rivers but also near the mineral water springs. But rivers, and water in general, are the blood vessels of a city, its beginning.

Around 100 years ago, at the Ariana lake, there was no basin and the river would flow directly into reed lakes. There, children played, women washed carpets, and entire families would ice-skate together in the winter.

What is the problem with the rivers of Sofia?

Since the Industrial revolution, rivers were shunned by our cities. They turned into sewers, used merely for transportation and garbage disposal. People started having water at home, so they no longer needed to go to the river for washing. Gradually, we alienated the rivers and forgot that they are sources of life. It happened in many places but most smart cities are now trying to involve the rivers back into urban life.

In industrial cities, such as Berlin or Leipzig, rivers were used by the heavy industry and were much dirtier than our Perlovska river, which was illegally used as a sewer. Now, when we hear “the canal” (Perlovska river’s nickname) we picture a dirty, disgusting puddle. Yet I remember looking down from Eagel’s Bridge as a child, and seeing the fish in the river. Today, its murky waters contain no life, but this can be reversed, if we give the rivers a chance.

What are the solutions?

It’s definitely important to be mindful of how we treat the rivers but I wouldn’t say that people nowadays use them as a place to dispose of their trash. The problem has more to do with the neighborhoods where the rivers spring and the illegal sewage pipes that flow into the rivers.

Our main task, as a society, is to understand that these are real rivers, not just dirty canals. Each of us can contribute to the cause by changing their perspective and wanting to include the rivers into our lives.

There were several projects for building above the rivers, reconstructing the riverbed, or even covering the rivers completely – the exact opposite direction of where the future’s headed. After hearing all of these ludicrous ideas, we wanted to adopt a similar approach to what some Western European countries do – place making. Meaning small interventions with an important impact on urban planning.

What are some of the reactions you’ve experienced? Do people tell you that it can’t be done, as we sometimes do in Bulgaria?

There will always be sceptics but at the end of the day, what matters is that institutions and experts take responsibility. When there is infrastructure next to the river, lighting, trash cans, people will organically start using these spaces.

What has prevented us from making use of our rivers up until now?

Well-known problems – they overflow, the water level can rise by a meter within half an hour, they smell. However, there are urban planning solutions for both.

As I mentioned, there were rivers in Europe that were much dirtier and their water levels fluctuate much more dramatically. With well-thought-out interventions, we can work with these phenomena. For now, we can’t talk about controlling the river’s levels here but we definitely can add staircases, ramps, and so on. The main goal is to get used to seeing the rivers as an integral part of our city and to focus on the solutions.

Could this be a part of a bigger awakening?

In the past, people used to live with the rhythm of nature, but now it’s all urbanized, cemented, linear, and artificial. As a result, we are gradually starting to feel that this environment that we’ve created is no good. Small changes, such as installing bee-feeders on balconies, green roofs, and cleaning industrial canals, are taking place with an increasing intensity. All of this is a part of a bigger process and we would like to be the engines of change in Sofia.

Our collective interest can activate the potential in Sofia’s locked up spaces, whether they be interior or exterior.

What you want to do sounds like the “Broken window theory,” but in reverse. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Sofia is full of abandoned spaces and our foundation’s ambition is to breathe new life into them, through workshops, institutional collaboration, and expert knowledge, similar to what we are now trying to do with the rivers of Sofia. In the UK, this approach is known as “meanwhile spaces.” The local community teams up with artists and together they take over abandoned spaces that encourage vandalism, by turning them into locations for entertainment, culture, sports, and leisure.  

Sofia shows great promise, and places like Fabrica 126 are an example. Our city can be the capital of transformed spaces because we have an abundant canvas. In Budapest, for example, the Ruin bars are a hit. Something similar can happen here as well. Of course, it only works when enthusiastic people get together, tackle the bureaucratic obstacles, and overcome them. Sofia’s lead architect seems willing to help. So we just need people with ideas and motivation, willing to transform ruins into exciting spaces.

My short experience in Bulgaria has shown me that if you’ve got ideas, you’ll always find collaborators. Even very busy people get inspired and you start working together, in the name of something bigger.

The Rivers of Sofia Festival

This is what Perlovska river currently looks like

The event will take place during the weekend of September 26th -27th and is meant to elicit that the rivers can turn into parks, even if it’s just for two days. There will be music, drinks, food, and everything else you’d normally find at a festival. Apart from The Collective Foundation, other organizations will contribute as well – AtoJazz Festival, Imp-act Agency, CredoBonum Foundation, KO-OP, KvARTal Festival.  

There will be three locations

Vassil Levski Stadium with music and several bars will have the biggest festival vibe.

At Lion’s Bridge, there will be a gypsy caravan with a bazaar. Here, as well as at the first location, DJs will be playing sets.

In Zone B5, near “Three ears” street the event will have a family flair, with entertainment for both children and adults.

A few weeks after, a workshop will be held. Experts, officials, architects and artists will meet to start working on the focal points of change for the rivers of Sofia.

What do you think about the idea behind The Rivers of Sofia? Will you go to the festival? Can you think of locations in Sofia (or other cities) that are abandoned but can be transformed? Share with us in the comments below! 🙂