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Article Article October 13th, 2022

How cities are engaging with residents to imagine the cities of tomorrow

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💡Building a deeper understanding of the challenges facing residents can be tough. Together with @UNDP, we're finding ways local govs can really listen and engage with residents to find solutions.

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🎓To successfully engage with residents, local govs need to approach things with a learning mindset, say's Beatriz Cano Buchholz, @ShaheenSaib89 & @justynakrol @UNDP

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Take a closer look at how these cities and towns have taken a different approach to tackle the complex challenges its residents face. @UNDP

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Urban Imaginaries

CPI is working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to co-design and implement the Urban Imaginaries programme. A new ten-month initiative, Urban Imaginaries is a learning journey devised to support cities across Eastern Europe and Central Asia to develop solutions to their most pressing urban challenges.

Find out more

Local governments are at the forefront of change and opportunity – whether that is tackling climate change, addressing inequality, or attracting and retaining talent. Yet, faced with new and emerging challenges all the time, cities and towns must be able to listen to residents, innovate and reimagine their ways of working to effectively respond to a rapidly changing world. 

That’s why the Centre for Public Impact and the United Nations Development Programme are excited to be partnering on the Urban Imaginaries programme under the Mayors for Economic Growth, a joint initiative between the EU and UNDP. Urban Imaginaries is a 10-month initiative that is supporting cities across the Eastern Partnership to develop solutions to their most pressing challenges by applying Human Centered Design - a problem-solving approach which seeks to change the way governments approach challenges, by engaging citizens in the design of better – and more human - solutions.  

The Urban Imaginaries programme in numbers

4 key learnings for successfully engaging with residents

Through the first phase of the programme, we’ve helped local governments define their challenges. These have ranged from how to reinvigorate cultural life and make public spaces more accessible, through to how to tackle youth unemployment and improve transportation systems. As part of this, we’ve supported local governments to engage with residents and other key stakeholders in their system to develop a deeper understanding of their challenges by using methods like social listening and sensemaking exercises. This has provided ample opportunity for learning, and we’ve summarised four key tips for those in local government who want to work more closely with residents.  

  • Engage in the process with a learning mindset: Engaging with residents in problem-solving can provide a powerful tool for local government teams to learn more and question their assumptions about the challenge they’re hoping to solve and the way it is impacting residents. By practicing an open, learning mindset, this can better unlock ideas for solutions, and help teams reimagine their relationships with residents. 

  • Co-design solutions for – and with – residents: While listening to residents to better understand your challenge is the first step, it is important to also continuously engage residents and other key stakeholders in the entire process of designing solutions to emerging urban challenges. This is key to ensuring that city leaders effectively engage with residents and will help deliver greater impact by creating services that better meet the needs of residents. 

  • Preparation is necessary to listen deeply: The art of listening well to your stakeholders can be learnt, and practiced. Preparing a tailored interview guide in advance, capturing insights as well as making time to collectively reflect on learnings acquired during those conversations are key. It is also important to remember to come in with an open mindset and avoid leading questions. 

  • Foster values such as empathy, humility, openness and inclusivity: These are all important attributes for city leaders looking to transform how they engage with residents and build trust. 

A closer look at our cities and towns

Having concluded the discovery phase of the programme, we’re excited to share how the cohort have engaged residents, what they’ve learned and provide an update on their progress. 

Amplifying cultural life in Alaverdi (Armenia) and Tsqaltubo (Georgia) 

Arts and culture can change lives, but also have a valuable role to play in contributing to a city’s economy. The arts and cultural heritage of Alaverdi and Tsqaltubo is unmatched in the region. Post-pandemic, both cities want to reimagine and innovate their arts and cultural sector to enrich the lives of residents, create jobs and galvanise economic activity and creativity.

The city of Alaverdi is reimagining cultural life for young people, to create more dynamic and flourishing cultural spaces for the community. Traditionally, Alaverdi has been a centre of cultural life, hosting international festivals such as “Theater fest”, organised annually to honour renowned writers Hovhannes Humanyan and the great actor Sos Sargsyan. As part of this learning programme, Alaverdi has been working with the community to understand their ambitions, aspirations and hopes for this sector. Residents have reflected their desire to enhance the city’s cultural life, which will benefit locals, attract tourists, preserve the area’s rich cultural heritage, and also create new jobs - thereby addressing the issue of migration the region is facing. 

"I am surprised at the results of the interviews! It seems the residents are really keen to get involved and they have a MUCH bigger understanding of the issue. For instance, in our interviews with youth, we learnt that they are keen to get involved in the co-design of cultural activities and participate in educational programmes."

Ms. Karine Simonyan Local Economic Development Officer (LEDO), Alaverdi Community Administration

In Tsqaltubo, the pandemic highlighted the need for social interactions, especially among the young population. Now things are changing, and residents are keen to connect, "we are happy to meet each other in person" reported one student. In response to this, the city is focussing on transforming cultural spaces into places for cultural and social interaction between diverse groups.

They were initially looking at how to increase the capacity of the Museum of Niko Nikoladze, in the city’s central cultural hub. However, in-depth user research revealed that residents face transportation limitations which inhibits their ability to experience all the city has to offer. The city is now exploring how they might better link surrounding villages and towns to their local cultural hubs. By addressing these needs, Tsakltubo hopes to take gradual steps towards creating vibrant social and cultural spaces away from the capital, to improve the quality of life for local people and create the conditions for local and international tourism.

Designing inclusive public spaces in Poti (Georgia), Ashtarak and Charentsavan (Armenia)

Many of our cities are focussing on making public spaces more inclusive, accessible and beautiful - which are often a reflection of the values and identity of a city. Frequently, urban spaces are not designed for or with the most marginalised communities in mind. Similarly, urban spaces do not always drive opportunities for intergenerational engagement. Though young people are often described as ‘social glue’, high fences surround our schools, playgrounds are clearly demarcated, and at worst, design features can discourage teenagers from occupying certain spaces. Too often, we erect barriers that segregate different age groups. 

Our cities are changing this. Poti is concentrating on improving open spaces in the city - in particular its central park. The park was previously renovated, but without using a design thinking approach. As a result, the renovation was completed without taking into account the needs of residents. It was built in isolation from many stakeholders and the park now lacks the spaces that residents need for recreation and leisure. The city team is prioritising the inclusion of historically excluded communities as part of their engagement with residents, and some of the ideas emerging from their research include ways of making the park more accessible for disabled communities.

"[complexity informed design thinking methods] are very helpful, because it helps us to understand what others need and build our empathy muscles. We've understood the needs may change from one citizen to the other, and we found some needs that were expressed by citizens that we did not expect. For instance, we came to this process thinking some improvements to the park did not fit, and we've understood through the interviews that they actually do because they respond to a need expressed by citizens."

Irakli Lejava Deputy head of Sustainable Development and Innovation Service, Poti Municipality   


Using the lens of inclusion also means thinking about those who are furthest from the public spaces designed for them. Ashtarak is located in a mountainous region of Armenia, and the city was recently united with 7 neighbouring communities as part of an administrative change. Through Urban Imaginaries, Ashtarak is looking for ways to improve public transportation services between the communities. Currently, these are not well-developed and are impacting the mobility of residents. This includes farmers who find it difficult to sell their products, students who are isolated from universities, and socially vulnerable residents who cannot easily access important public services. By reimagining connectivity between the central city and the other parts of the community, the team hopes to promote economic development throughout the area. 

“There is an excitement for this challenge in some remote communities where public transport never existed before. The enthusiasm from our residents is really pleasing - we're getting really good energy from them as they understand this process allows them to be part of the problem-solving. This work is quite extensive, it might take longer than what we thought, but I am certain this will allow us to get better outcomes. In 20 years, we had never listened to residents in this way, so now we need to make sure we're up to the level and make sure we keep them updated".

Nazeli Arsenyan Member of Ashtarak Community Council   

Charentsavan, a small city in Armenia, was founded in the 1940s by the Soviet Government to accommodate workers at a nearby hydroelectric power plant. One key challenge they are facing is the city’s attractiveness. They are therefore exploring how they can reimagine the city’s public spaces to make it more attractive for both residents and visitors. Feedback from the community has been key in shaping a shared vision and plan for the future:

"By engaging with residents, the one thing that surprised us is that we concentrated too much on the central part of the city - leaving the entrance outside. We've now realised that the perception of the city starts from the entrance. Our assumption to focus on the central area may have had some emotional grounds as well, and we've now realised from our interviews that the entrance needs to be involved in our process."

Ashot Tserunyan Local Economic Development Officer (LEDO), Charentsavan Community Administration

Promoting healthy living in Samtredia, Georgia

In Samtredia, the city is aiming to reimagine their sports infrastructure to improve the health of residents and increase regional tourism. They are interested in reinvigorating facilities around the municipality swimming pool, which was functioning well before COVID-19 and is seen as a popular regional attraction. 

Through the programme, the city team was encouraged to go deeper to understand the health behaviours of their community. In doing so, they learned that residents are apprehensive about visiting public spaces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, residents are also interested in continuing exercise habits outside of the swimming pool which they took up during lockdown. The city is now exploring ways to respond to this feedback. These include introducing electronic booking systems to increase user safety when using facilities, developing gym facilities, as well as making more sustainable and energy-efficient choices for the city by adopting solar energy.  

"Interviews revealed some needs and interesting insights. What was interesting is that we've changed our initial plan based on the insights collected. We started this process with a very narrow angle, but with your recommendation we opened up our view to better capture a diversity of views from the visitors. It's not about what we [the city leaders] want, it's about what residents need."

Mr. Lasha Ormotsadze Head of Coordination Office for Samtredia Mayor’s Representatives

Taking an ecosystem approach to youth unemployment in Rustavi, Georgia

Rustavi, in Georgia, chose to focus on tackling youth unemployment - often a chronic issue that is often difficult to solve. Unemployment in Rustavi is high (approximately 20-22%) and it is above the country average (18.1%).      

The Rustavi team conducted research to better understand the opportunities and barriers in this space. Through interviews with residents, the city gained a greater understanding of how to narrow down this challenge. The findings highlighted that there is already a vast amount of activity underway to tackle youth unemployment. 

For example, they discovered numerous initiatives run by local business and civil society organisations. While well-intentioned, many are not scalable and disconnected from each other. Now, the municipal government is reimagining its role as a connector, convener and amplifier to help the ecosystem collaborate around a diversity of initiatives that seek to develop new skillsets in young people, make job searching easier and provide better career planning tools. This re-envisioning of the role of government with the communities it serves will help solidify and unify efforts across different stakeholders in the city.  

“Thinking about ‘for whom is this really a problem?’ helped us understand who the main stakeholders are in the system around our problem. Our end users are of course the young people - but also the municipality and the local organisations and NGOs that are already supporting young people in the city. We’ve understood that our role is also to enhance the strength and great work local organisations are already doing to tackle youth unemployment. We need to engage them in our journey”. - ,

Michael Lobjanidze Strategic Development Manager of the Center for Artistic, Sports and Youth Development, Rustavi

Improving waste management in Cahul and Calarasi (Moldova)

Calarasi and Cahul are concentrating on challenges surrounding waste management, a key priority in their cities. Waste management infrastructure can be a critical piece of the urban identity puzzle and both city teams are working to better understand the nature of the problems their communities are facing. For example, in both cities the waste collection sites come with a multitude of challenges - they are not contained, attract stray animals, are not well lit and do not offer the opportunity for residents to recycle waste. Furthermore, collection times are often irregular and unreliable leaving the waste sites in disarray. 

By conducting user research and deep listening, they were able to better understand and prioritise the waste management challenges that each city is facing. 

"For us, the process was to learn the methodology and understand how we can put ourselves in the shoes of people. This project helped us understand that we can do things differently - we spoke with those who are in charge of waste management, we spoke to young people, to various people - this helped us understand the problem from various points of view."

Lilia Rata Investment Attraction Specialist, City Hall of Călărași.  

As a result of this work, both cities are able to design more relevant solutions that actually solve citizen needs, improve waste management and collection services, as well as consider environmental sustainability. In Calarasi, one of the ideas they will be exploring is a service that enables residents to share second hand goods with the community, to avoid waste and blockages in the waste management system.

What’s next? 

The next phase of the Urban Imaginaries programme has involved working with cities to support them to experiment, and test and learn from their proposed solutions. We look forward to sharing more about what we’ve learned with cities in the experimentation phase soon!


The Mayors for Economic Growth (M4EG) Facility is part of the M4EG initiative, launched and funded by the European Union since 2017. The M4EG Facility is run by UNDP, starting from 2021, in close cooperation with the EU, local authorities and a range of other partners. 

For media and other enquiries for UNDP/M4EG:

Anton Sydorenko, M4EG Communications Lead, 

Tina Stoum, M4EG Regional Lead,

Reimagining city life

CPI is working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to co-design and implement the Urban Imaginaries programme. A new ten-month initiative, Urban Imaginaries is a learning journey devised to support cities across Eastern Europe and Central Asia to develop solutions to their most pressing urban challenges.

Learn more