As he peered through the tiny box in the center of my computer screen smiling boyishly, wondering if I could see him on my end of the Skype video call, I was struck by the playful demeanor of the modest architect-urbanist and futurist.
But after the initial introduction, he showed what I later learned was his strong attention to detail, as he was concerned that the sound quality for our interview should be “as good as possible.”
Confident and purposeful, Thomas Ugo Ermacora, 38, talks passionately, from his sprawling converted warehouse in London, about his concept, “recoding places.”
It’s a term he coined to describe his plan for sustainably fixing broken cities through microplanning and creative collaboration with the urban community.
Registered professionals from around the world experienced in architecture, planning, landscape design, and so on, as well as a variety of other consultants share ideas and plan the regeneration of a particular place through “TED-like” conferences.
Ermacora and a team of professionals then go to the site and empower the community to participate in regenerating the space, rather than just charitable giving.
The planning process for his projects, which are mostly in European countries, as well as Asia and the Americas, start by analyzing a particular issue.
He believes that in order to understand how to effectively remake a city, you have to break it down into smaller places or villages and directly address the needs of the people who live there, rather than “make perfect green cities for people who have money.”
He spoke proudly about a walled garden he and his team created from a derelict piece of land in east London situated between a well-off community and a very deprived community.
Since the age of 16, Ermacora has envisioned a world where the downtrodden can be self-sustaining and happy, living among wealthy neighbors—peacefully.
Building the Concept
This concept of recoding places culminated from a number of inspirations, work experiences, and education throughout Ermacora’s life.
One of the first inspirations was a youthful fascination with what he calls “idyllic sponsored villages,” or prime real estate in the south of France. He noticed that some of the villages were abandoned and not being used, which sparked his interest in solving problems.
The year 1992 stands out for Ermacora, who at 16 years old was beginning to ponder what he would do in life. Coming from a family of many engineers and product designers influenced his thinking, but growing up during a time when people were concerned with the condition of the environment also focused his attention on social well being. “A lot more things connect to the soil and the roots of land, you know with farmers,” he said.
The Rio Summit happened, a conference hosted by the U.N. to address the state of the global environment. “I was interested in seeing what I could do that would be meaningful and not just about profit,” Ermacora recalled, “sustainability was sort of number one on the news,” he added.
He attended seven universities in Europe and the United States including an international school in Paris called Ecole Active Bilingue, the Copenhagen School of Economics, and MIT. After receiving his first degree and a master’s in geography with a concentration in sustainability and urban design, Ermacora quickly became an entrepreneur, creating a business he called Etikstudio.
He was hired by the Danish Foreign Ministry to create a sustainability exhibition as a lead up to Cop 15, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009. The exhibition, Dreams on Wheels, was a mesh between urban cycling and sustainability. It was one of only two exhibitions that traveled to different capitals in the world promoting urban cycling culture as a way to make cities more sustainable.
Ermacora’s business concentrated on small urban planning jobs, working on eco renovations of apartments, houses, and buildings, which gave him hands-on training in architecture, planning, and urban design.
Influenced by architect greats like Shigeru Ban, Frank Gehry, Bill McDonough, and Cameron Sinclair, Ermacora was inspired to view his work with a sensitivity toward social conditions, as well as environmental concerns.
He observed that cities are made slowly … bureaucratically … and segregated. “I realized that basically the way that cities are being developed is a little broken,” he said, with a hint of sadness in his voice.
Despite the emerging consciousness around the need for more sustainable and resilient cities, the residents were rarely involved. He felt the top down strategy was “crushing the bottom,” resulting in an ultimate divide between the haves and the have-nots—cities being “developed too fast to really understand how to manage that divide.”
The creative regeneration model breaks down cities into several villages, and then takes one village at a time, using different planning for each one.
Ermacora identified trends in which a lot of space was not being utilized for revitalization like “post-industrial places that have lost their vitality in cities,” and places that have lost “a key employer … and things change and become semi-ghetto, semi-slum.”
He estimates that 10 percent of the world is planned and designed, which leaves about 90 percent that is not. “I felt there was a lot of space in which design was not being involved cleverly,” Ermacora observed.
He thought decision-makers rarely considered the social question—sensitivity to people of different backgrounds and knowing how to engage them. “We have been very, very good at doing large land grabs and create master plans that make perfect green cities for people who have money,” he pointed out with indignation.
Ermacora introduced his concept of creative regeneration or what he also calls place making, “the act of contributing to the making of a place,” at Urban Age, one of the leading high level invite only professional conferences out there. It is staged through London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank and concerned with how to solve complex issues in cities around the world.
“If places work, then people who are different can actually work together and sort of gradually solve the equation of resilience,” he said.
Ermacora’s team executes creative regeneration under the auspices of a nonprofit called Clear Village, “a London-based charity that helps communities build a better future through creative regeneration,” according to the Clear Village website.
The way the nonprofit works is first it finds a neglected space and determines what issue can be solved by regenerating the place. The team then raises funds, creates the project, involves the local community, takes on the lease and manages the project, then works with the people until the project can be turned over to a responsible local body.
“We actually take the risk. We structurally help generate projects that can be progressively, incrementally engineered to be social enterprises that support a community in a way that it needs to be,” he said.
With insightful thinking, Ermacora and his team successfully regenerated a “derelict infrastructure and heritage” in a London park into a beautiful walled garden. It “was a bridge between a well-off community and a very deprived community … I saw the park as a bridge there,” he said.
A series of co-creative workshops were organized and over time a significant amount of money was raised in order to transform the space into an experiential learning ground for growing, cooking, and eating vegetables—enough food for over 1,000 meals last year.
The diverse community that lives around the garden is compelled to foster new relationships. Children, young offenders, elderly, groups with disabilities and long term unemployement, all learn to grow, cook, and eat food, while understanding nature and our relation to it.
Open for just over a year, the garden’s success is partly attributed to the largest capital funding raised from the Big Lottery and Veolia mainly for restructuring the perimeter and setting up new greenhouses.
Ermacora boasts that it will be the first garden to reintroduce Georgian techniques to grow pineapples by using hot manure.
This success and working on the other Clear Village projects have inspired Ermacora to expand his knowledge to other types of projects. “I tend to hover from one project to another based on its social and environmental capacity,” he said.
Since the common thread among all of his endeavors is to make places better, Ermacora developed a private cultural place in a large warehouse that he calls LimeWharf, which houses exhibitions, living space, events, workshops, etc. It’s like a “mini Clear Village.”
Similar to the water garden, it is located between disparate communities and provides an inviting atmosphere for different classes of people to communicate with one another.
Ermacora put a lot of time and effort into engaging the community to visit LimeWharf, including lots of advertising and sponsoring many free events. He is dedicated to his vision to solve the social question and not only focus on green building.
The underlying goal in all of Ermacora’s projects is empowerment. He says philanthropy is not just about giving money, but it’s also about empowering people. “For me being called a philanthropist is detrimental because … that also destroys the credibility of the creative work that I am doing.”
He prefers to call what he does “new philanthropy,” because it empowers people to become self-sustainable.
Ermacora is now collaborating with his wife and forming a new company that will provide micro grants to burgeoning entrepreneurs who are working on projects for urban well being.
“We are joining forces to not be financiers of change, but rather agents of change,” said Ermacora.
Thomas Ugo Ermacora’s book “Recoded City: Co-creating Urban Futures,” co-authored with Lucy Bullivant, is scheduled to be released by Routledge Press this year.