Students build a better life for Roma community

A groundbreaking project led by students from the University of Sheffield is helping an impoverished Roma community to build a better life.

Roma Community Opening CeremonyHuan Rimington and Hannah Martin (both aged 24) are studying Architecture at the University of Sheffield. During their two years in practice, they have chosen to travel to Romania to work with the Roma people, one of Europe's largest and most disadvantaged ethnic minorities.

Repression, discrimination and segregation have characterised the Roma's existence in Europe since their arrival from Northern India in the ninth century. They suffered enslavement in Eastern Europe until 1856 and systematic persecution under Nazi rule during World War II. In Romania today the Roma, a largely settled community, continue to experience widespread racism and remain in extreme poverty on the margins of society.

Huan and Hannah travelled to Romania in August 2010 to work with Roma people in the Tarlungeni settlement in Brasov County for a 14 month project. Alongside a team of 13 student volunteers from the University of Sheffield´s School of Architecture, they worked together with local residents to complete the construction of a children's playground in the heart of the settlement.

The playground was part of the students' wider regeneration programme entitled Tarlungeni Open Space Project. Working with local residents, the team developed a strategy to overcome some of the challenges faced by a community living in severe environmental poverty. Over the past 14 months the project has realised these proposals - establishing the village´s first waste collection scheme, fencing household territories and preventing erosion.

Huan said: "Participatory architectural practices were a key reason for the project´s success. Local residents led the project, community discussions directed decision making and the playground's design was developed through inclusive workshops. These approaches build on a strong history of research on participation and community engagement that we have in the School of Architecture."

"One of the crucial aims of the project is to challenge social exclusion that the Roma in Tarlungeni are subject to. Severe environmental poverty, lack of infrastructure and a build up of waste in settlements often endorse negative stereotypes of Roma people and assertions that their poverty is 'cultural'. Our experience in Tarlungeni presents a very different picture. Residents have aspirations to legitimise, formalise and integrate their settlement into the wider community. We feel the project has helped the community realise some of these aspirations, and is starting to change the way outsiders view the village."

Hannah said: "It became clear that the residents were not to blame for the problem of waste disposal when we delivered the bins to the different households. The villagers have shown full co-operation with the new disposal system, and there is evidence of families clearing their own yards on a regular basis.

"When we began preparing for the design workshops, the charity warned us that the community were not familiar with being asked for their opinion or ideas so it was important that we didn´t demand too much. Despite our previous apprehension, the children fully engaged with the workshops.

"The workshops strongly developed our relationship with the children and the parents of the village, who continued to assist us throughout the construction of the playground. In particular, a large family of 11 mischievous but spirited children were more than happy to fetch water, dig holes and anything else they could get involved with!

"As the playground reached completion the community were already showing signs of ownership over the new playground, and a willingness to protect it from harm. I hope this will continue over years to come, as it is important for the villagers to take responsibility for its ongoing maintenance, so it can continue to be a beneficial facility for the community. We hope to return to Tarlungeni in 2012 to assess the success of the playground and its long-term sustainability."

The Tarlungeni Open Space Project is supported by Huan and Hannah's own charity, Volunteer Studio. They founded the charity in November 2010 to help people create better urban environments, spaces and communities. With the assistance of trained volunteers, they support local people´s involvement in design and regeneration, initiating innovative architecture projects in the UK and Europe.

Huan and Hannah initiated the project in partnership with Romanian charity Foundation for Social Assistance and Youth (FAST). Building on Tarlungeni Open Space Project's achievements, FAST will lead ongoing improvements to settlement infrastructure and homes. The project will initially involve extending the waste collection scheme and expanding the settlements' drinking water supply. In the medium term, FAST will also aim to install street lighting and an all weather road surface.

After completing their course, Hannah and Huan hope to initiate future community-led projects through Volunteer Studio in the UK and abroad.

Roma Community - Drilling ImageThe University of Sheffield has supported the project through the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Scheme, Erasmus programme and an Alumni Foundation grant. The University of Sheffield's Enterprise Zone provided the students with business advice in setting up and running the charity.

Find out more about the Tarlungeni Open Space Project

Find out more about the University of Sheffield's School of Architecture

The University of Sheffield's Alumni Foundation is a grant-making committee established in 1989 to distribute the philanthropic donations of alumni and friends to the most deserving recipients. Find out more