protect, develop and promote

The COMUS (Community-Led Urban Strategies in Historic Towns) project is a joint Council of Europe and European Union initiative that is part of the second Eastern Partnership Culture Program. It aims to stimulate social and economic development by strengthening cultural heritage in nine historic towns in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. We spoke to the Project Officer and architect Sarhat Petrosyan about the project in Gyumri.

Text : Areg Davtyan / Photos : COMUS


How and why did COMUS start and what are its goals?

COMUS is the logical continuation of the Kiev Initiative program, which was implemented between 2009-2011. It was carried out by the Council of Europe, aiming to start the processes of revitalizing the historical cities of the Eastern Partnership countries, including Armenia. In the Kiev Initiative they worked mainly on a national level trying to understand the needs and identify resources. COMUS started in 2015 and is more focused, working directly with towns and their communities. There are two pilot towns with valuable heritage in Armenia, in Gyumri and Goris. The main goal is to develop participative urban polices, concentrating on the preservation of cultural heritage in these towns.

So, what exactly does the COMUS team do?

First of all, we cooperate with communities to create a broader understanding and with various stakeholders. We are trying to bring in as many participants to the process as possible, those who are interested and those who represent the community as a whole – civic society organizations, activists, local business owners and community officials. The goal is to make all of the decisions from the bottom up and to not apply readymade solutions. We had lots of meetings with these people, raised questions regarding problems with historical heritage preservation and told them about the possible solutions. We developed together the vision of Gyumri’s development, based on which some sub-projects were implemented. As a result, we will have a mutually developed and agreed fundamental document – A Reference Plan.
We also tried to build capacity to follow-up these ideas. For that reason, we organized workshop and study visits for chief architects and other decision makers who are in charge of the preservation of the historical monuments by training them and try to foster a new approach to their work.
We also expect to support and elaborate on concrete projects that, at a later date, the same communities can address to donor organizations and implement different projects in the future, when the program has finished. These projects will also create a better atmosphere for future urban development.

But one believes, they need some help from the professionals.

Of course. During this period, several international and local experts were involved to assist with the implementation of the COMUS local project unit to prepare all the documents and projects. So, it’s also a changing the mentality and approach to urban heritage. One of the main things we try to spread the idea of thinking broad and integrated, not just restoring one building, but the whole block and its infrastructure. They need to have the potential to be flexible.

COMUS also finances some smaller initiatives…

Yes, such as urban walks called ‘Faro Walks’, a format well known all over the Europe that is aimed at promoting the Council of Europe Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (first opened for signature in Faro in 2005). We supported it once it became a periodic community activity. What’s interesting is that participants of these walks are mainly citizens of Gyumri. It’s great as the main idea of this tour is to show people their own city from a different perspective. On the other hand, such projects may in the future become very useful tools for the development of the tourist industry. At the same time, we made a lot of effort to raise awareness of the importance of historical heritage’s preservation – print booklets, shoot some short films, etc. And once again, it’s all done with the participation of the residents of Gyumri.

What are the expected results, when COMUS is set to finish in 2017?

The community will have a number of projects developed by citizens, with participation of the municipality and help of international experts and will be ready to be implemented. So, the next step, when COMUS is over, is to find financial support for these projects. But these are very ‘domestic’ outcomes… the long term result will be a strong heritage oriented enthusiasm and passion to protect, develop and promote their own assets – Gyumri’s rich heritage.