The (Intangible) Legacy of the European Capital of Culture in Pandemic Times: Lessons from the Port City of Rijeka

Martin Valinger Sluga & Lucija Ažman Momirski 

The Adriatic port city of Rijeka in Croatia was one of the European Capitals of Culture (ECoC) in 2020. In the run-up to ECoC 2020, this title was envisioned to become one of the cornerstones of a long-term urban regeneration strategy. Shortly after the official opening, the ambitious vision was shattered by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the initial shock and a severely reduced budget, Rijeka’s ECoC programme was soon adapted, with a greater emphasis on community-oriented projects and urban experimentation. In this blog post, Martin Valinger highlights the importance of the intangible legacy of major urban events and reflects on the transformative potential of collaborative socio-cultural and spatial practices.

Major events with a socio-cultural focus have long been perceived as potential catalysts for urban regeneration in cities around the world, including port cities. While event-triggered regeneration is often driven by large-scale urban transformations, iconic architecture, and city branding, recent examples show that increasing the social capacity of stakeholders involved and facilitating community development is an equally important part of events' legacy (Liu, 2017; Richards, 2017). In addition to tangible legacies (e.g. new buildings, facilities, and projects, as well as measurable socio-economic impacts), intangible legacies include increased awareness, enhanced knowledge, and improved capacity of local actors to engage in the regeneration process. This is especially true for major cultural events, such as the European Capital of Culture (ECoC), which have been shifting away from large infrastructural projects and now advocate more the strengthened role of creative industries and social innovation in regeneration strategies.

In 2016, the port city of Rijeka in Croatia was awarded the title ECoC 2020. At the time, the title was seen by many as a unique opportunity to address the city's turbulent past, unlock the potential of its rich cultural heritage, and revitalize the shrinking port city. The planned event programme, called “Port of Diversity”, consisted of three intertwined themes (water, work, and migration) that reflected Rijeka’s industrial character, maritime mindset, and multicultural history, but also drew attention to some of the most important issues facing European society today (Rijeka 2020, 2020a). Besides striving to create an attractive cultural and artistic programme with contributors from more than 40 countries, the main goal of ECoC 2020 was to introduce new initiatives to support the development of the creative sector and improve conditions for cultural production in the city. 

However, less than a month after the official opening of ECoC in early February 2020, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic started to hinder the ambitious visions and goals. The project soon experienced major funding cuts and had to be completely restructured within a few weeks. A large part of the public events was canceled, others were postponed or moved online. Collaborations with renowned international artists were called off, meaning that the cultural programme did not only shrink, but also became much less diverse than originally planned. A part of the remaining budget was also redirected to speed up the ongoing infrastructural projects, such as the refurbishment of the Exportdrvo warehouse, the renovation of a former 18th-century factory complex into an “art quarter”, and the transformation of the iconic ship Galeb into a floating museum.

Fig. 1: Abandoned industrial heritage along the Riječina river gorge (Source: author)​​​​
Fig. 1: Abandoned industrial heritage along the Riječina river gorge (Source: author)​​​​

On the other hand, the reduced programme budget forced Rijeka 2020, a newly established public body responsible for implementing the ECoC, to rely more on the local cultural and creative scene. Due to the decline in tourist visits from abroad, the programme also had to be redesigned to attract more residents and promote initiatives that could have a greater societal impact. This shift in focus meant that various small-scale urban and artistic initiatives, placemaking projects, and experiments in participatory local governance subsequently took centre stage and received more attention and support than originally planned. The aim was to involve residents in decision-making about the type of interventions implemented in their localities, and to strengthen their capacity to propose, develop, and mobilize the necessary resources for their community projects in the future (Dragonetti, 2021).

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 Fig. 2: "Ćakula" – a series of place-based parliamentary sessions of the fictitious municipal council "MO Hartera" (Source:​​​​​

Similar adjustments were made to the “Sweet & Salt” flagship project, which involved reactivating former industrial and port areas along the gorge of the Riječina river and the waterfront of Rijeka Bay (Rijeka 2020, 2020b). Due to the reduced budget, the originally proposed architectural and urban design interventions to reintegrate the neglected buildings and spaces into the surrounding urban fabric were abandoned. Instead, the initiators of the project turned to more temporary activities that transformed the neglected spaces into experimental sites to promote a critical discussion about the role of the port and its industrial heritage in future urban development. This was also the trigger for the creation of new collaborative initiatives that addressed the most pressing local urban challenges even after the official end of the ECoC.

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Fig. 3: Fiume Fantastika exhibition in the former timber warehouse Exportdrvo, converted into a multipurpose cultural hall during ECoC 2020 (Source: author)

Even though the original vision of Rijeka’s ECoC 2020 was severely affected by the pandemic, in retrospect the unexpected events also opened doors for less conventional socio-cultural and spatial practices that took place outside of the typical cultural venues. New constellations of local actors revealed innovative methodological approaches to stimulate urban regeneration in Rijeka “from below”, fundamentally different from expert-led, top-down solutions proposed so far. Furthermore, with the local creative sector and population becoming an integral part of the programme, the impact of ECoC arguably became much more localized than expected. This allowed for the development of site-specific solutions that demonstrated that change is possible and achievable by enabling gradual improvements at a much lower cost than traditional planning and design approaches. 

Nevertheless, experience from other cities still shows that in order to realize their transformative potential, such novel initiatives eventually need to be organized on a larger scale and in the form of demands that can influence established planning paradigms and governance frameworks. Considering this, an important question remains: will the community-oriented projects serve as a lasting legacy of Rijeka's ECoC 2020 and be integrated into a broader and long-term urban regeneration strategy? Or do they run the risk of falling into the "local trap" and becoming an end in themselves, without any significant impact on the status quo? 

Martin Valinger Sluga is a Young Researcher and doctoral student at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Ljubljana. This blog was peer-reviewed by members of the PortCityFutures community, and edited by the PortCityFutures editorial team: Carola Hein, Hilde Sennema and Vincent Baptist.


Dragonetti,  W. (2021). Culture, No Matter What. Eurocities. Retrieved February 6, 2022.

Liu, Y-D. (2017). Event and Community Development: Planning Legacy for the 2008 European Capital of Culture, Liverpool. Urban Science 1(4), 39.

Richards, G. (2017). From Place Branding to Placemaking: The Role of Events. International Journal of Event and Festival Management 8(1), 8–23.

Rijeka 2020. (2020a). Themes. Retrieved February 5, 2022.

Rijeka 2020. (2020b). Sweet & Salt. Retrieved February 5, 2022.

Source banner image: author