– The moment was long awaited, but, as they say, who waits… We waited for it because it was important to us that finally some space in Novi Sad be dedicated to young people and those who work with them – says Dobrila Marković, Deputy Executive CEO of the OPENS, which moved into its new space in the District in 2021, which is part of the network of cultural stations in Novi Sad.
– When you don’t have a building, you have a problem, when you have a building, you have other problems, but that is all part of the process. Somehow we can say that today, two years later, we are still repairing and adapting because we want it to be as much as accessible to young people.
The building in which OPENS is located has a dual role – it is both the OPENS Youth Centre and the OPENS Cultural Station. What these two roles, these two programmes, have in common is that they are both aimed at young people. The cultural station is a place for the artistic and creative expression of young people, while the OPENS Youth Centre is a place for other activities of young people and organizations that work with them.
The OPENS building is a good example of modern architecture in Vojvodina
The building in which OPENS is located was presented two years ago as a good example of contemporary architecture in Vojvodina at the traditional biennale of the Society of Architects of Ljubljana under the name ‘Arhitektura inventura 2018-2020’, among seven outstanding architectural examples from Vojvodina. The choice was made by Slovenian-Serbian architect and selector Andrej Strehovec, a member of the board of directors of the Association of Architects of Novi Sad (DaNS).
– What was important to us was to create a space that would be free and accessible to young people – explains Dobrila Marković. – For this reason, the premises within the Youth Centre, such as the conference room, the meeting room and the podcast room, are available for free use, with prior reservation, while the co-working space and the youth club are open to all young people at any time. The conference hall, meeting room and podcast are mostly used by associations, while the co-working space and youth club are used by young people. As for the numbers, they indicate that we are on the right track. Since we moved in, more than 500 activities with over 100 different partners have been held in the spaces we give to others. It is an interesting fact that more than 6,000 people visited the implemented activities, while the mentioned spaces are used approximately for five hours every day of the year. From the beginning of 2023 to the end of June, there were 5,535 visits by young people in the co-working space and youth club, i.e., we can say that the space is visited by approximately 31 people during a week. A few months ago, we doubled the number of seats in the co-working space, it is full every day and we are very proud of that.
For start, the advantage of space is that it exists
According to Dobrila Marković, there are a large number of organizations in Novi Sad, but having a space to work is a luxury.
– In a large number of cases, these organizations, unfortunately, do not have the opportunity to provide themselves with a space for work. On the other hand, space is necessary if we want to have quality and sustainable programmes and services for young people, but also strong organizations that create many useful programmes for community development. Therefore, as the first advantage of the space, we would point out that it exists and is available not only to us, as an association, but also to other
associations and young people. There are flaws, of course, but they are being worked on. First of all, there is the fact that the District is still a construction zone and will be for some time. What could certainly be improved are green areas, there could be more of them in the District. Furthermore, accessibility could be improved. The Youth Centre building is adapted for people with disabilities, but the road to us and through the entire District is made of small bricks that make it difficult for people in wheelchairs to move.
Changing the location, from the very centre of the city to a new area in the District was a challenge at first, but step by step, the young people got used to the new address.
– The change of space opened up many new options for us – points out Dobrila Marković. – To begin with, it is the fact that we can offer our resources to others, both organizations and young people, which was crucial for us. Finally, the organizations got a space that they can consider their own and where technical, logistical and any other support awaits them. However, I think the biggest change was the opening of the co-working space and the youth club. These two areas brought new young people, who may not have been so active in the civil sector, but they found their place here and, as they say, they came to study, and now they almost live here. The co-working space is used as a study space, while the youth club is a place for socializing, where young people spend their free time. It is important to emphasize that we are open every day from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The new space opened up new possibilities
Supporting young people in the field of mental health is another option opened up by the new space.
One of the major initiatives launched by OPENS is the creation of an informal network of organizations ‘Constellation of Support’ and the Mental Health Club of the same name – reveals Dobrila Marković. – The programme was supported by the City of Novi Sad and UNICEF, and it is partly implemented by volunteers. What is specific about the club is that it is not under one roof. The club gathers several different organizations members of ‘Constellation of Support’, and the role of the Youth Centre is to be, above all, a place for information about services. As a large number of young people pass through the Youth Centre, according to the ‘one-hundred-shop’ methodology, it opens up the possibility to inform them about the services within the organization. Of course, part of the Club’s activities also takes place in the centre, but it is there above all a link between young people and the services intended for them. Through the Youth Mental Health Club ‘Constellation of Support’ in 2023, 11,631 services of free psychological support for young people were provided to 2,907 beneficiaries. In addition to this, 66 workshops were held through peer education, involving 1,688 high school students from Novi Sad. The capacities of young experts in the field of mental health were strengthened in cooperation with the ‘Constellation of Support’, nine trainings were held, in which 139 young experts and 57 people over 30 years of age, experts in the field of mental health, participated.
Excellent rating for a co-working space
When asked how many times they have visited a co-working space, 53.2 percent of young people have visited it once and will definitely return, 23.9 percent have visited it more than 20 times, and 22 percent of them have been at least ten times and say it was great. When evaluating the co-working space, 93.6 percent of young people gave a rating of 5, while the lowest rating was 3, which was declared by a total of 0.9 percent of young people. A total of 89.9 percent of young people would certainly recommend the space to their friends and colleagues.
A new place for young people to gather
The rich history of the District, which came to life through the ‘Novi Sad – European Capital of Culture’ project and through the participation of numerous organizations, artists and institutions, represents a great potential for the city.
– The history of the District itself, which has been a part of our city for a whole century, and about which we actually know little, makes it interesting for research – Dobrila Marković believes. – The location itself – the proximity of the faculties, student dormitories, Liman Park and the famous Štrand, certainly brings with it the potential to become a new central place for the gathering of both young people and all lovers of culture, art and quality leisure time. The fact that there will be different facilities in the same location that people will be able to visit, provides numerous opportunities for the networking of different stakeholders and the creation of a unique offer in Novi Sad, which will make our city even more attractive as a place to live and for tourist visits. We often have students who do their internship in OPENS, and through one of them, tourism students created a mini-tour through the District with the desire to get to know its history and to present it in the right way to all new guests and visitors.
In parallel with the transformation of the District, within the ‘Novi Sad – European Capital of Culture’ project, and especially in the title year, numerous programmes were already implemented, so even before the completion of the works, the place began to live as a new centre of creative industries in which different organizations, just like OPENS, got their new spaces, along with those that were already there.
– There are still not many of us, but the cooperation with the neighbours is excellent – emphasizes Dobrila Marković. – This year we started the initiative to meet occasionally and to discuss the challenges we have, activities and topics that we, as neighbours, have in common. We often rely on our neighbours and their spaces, especially when the Youth Centre is full and we do not have room for some activities. We know we can rely on them and they have always been there to help us so far. The idea of these meetings is to communicate as much as possible and to work as coordinated as possible for the benefit of the community in which we are.
The District – a centre for the creative industries, and more
According to Dobrila Marković, the District is becoming an increasingly popular location, which is extremely visible thanks to the number of visits, but also by the number of people who now come to take a walk there. It could probably become a hub for creative industries.
– You can already feel that energy and what is happening here so far is going in that direction – she believes. – As far as we are concerned, we see the future of the District as broader than the centre for creative industries. The experience of the Youth Centre shows us that space is also needed for organizations outside the field of culture and that, in fact, the best formula for caring for the community is when we have in one place those who deal with culture, but also those who deal with other topics important for youth, such as psycho-social support, activism, volunteering, etc.
In the following period, as Dobrila Marković states, they will continue in the same spirit.
– As far as we are concerned, we continue in the rhythm we started. The space will continue to be aimed at free assignment to young people and organizations, and we will try to improve that part of the programme as much as possible. We will certainly try to expand the capacity as we are now mostly full. There is a great need for additional spaces, especially for programmes such as youth mental health. The plan is to expand the space for rest, but also to improve the participation of young people in decision-making related to the Youth Centre. Furthermore, what awaits us is the expansion of the youth centre model from Novi Sad to other cities. This year, according to our model, Niš, Sombor, Subotica and Novi Pazar are already working on the establishment of youth centres, and a call for new cities awaits us – concludes Dobrila Marković.
Photo: Vladimir Veličković, ECoC