In collaboration with the Technical University of Munich, Wow Urbane Utopien implemented a project in Maxvorstadt in the summer of 2023. The model was the idea of the Superblocks from Barcelona. The project also included 14 trees from the Wanderbaumallee.
© Wow-Urbane-Utopien

Wow Urbane Utopien: Enhancing urban living spaces and transforming gray into green

Many Munich residents are probably familiar with the "Schanigarten" by now: the temporary outdoor areas of restaurants, usually set up in parking lots, are very popular in summer. With the parklet, they have a kind of public counterpart. Here too, parking spaces are converted with the help of superstructures, usually into seating areas with additional facilities such as urban gardening options or lockers. Bicycle stations are also often integrated. The Munich startup Wow Urbane Utopien is behind several of these parklets in the state capital and elsewhere. We spoke to the founders.

Munich Startup: What does your startup Wow Urbane Utopien do? What problem do you solve?

Wow Urbane Utopien: Urban public spaces are limited and are used and claimed individually by different interest groups. Especially in a time of change, adapting our cities to meet the needs of a liveable future is essential. City centers are facing structural challenges such as increasing vacancy rates and the extinction of pedestrian zones. Urban mobility is changing more than ever before and the first effects of climate change are becoming noticeable. Our public spaces should use this transformation as an opportunity for change.

Our startup focuses on sustainable urban development and relies on tactical urbanism to create liveable spaces and identify alternative uses. Our goal is to make urban space tangible and transform it from gray to green. Among other things, we offer alternatives to the conventional use of parking spaces by reactivating public space and making it usable for people. Overall, the aim is to enhance a wide variety of urban living spaces and offer innovative solutions for sustainable coexistence. Our services range from advice and information to individual solutions for small and large urban transformation projects.

Benjamin Domnick and Elisa Maschmeier created Wow Urbane Utopien together with Simon Emmer. © Wow Urbane Utopien

Munich Startup: But that’s nothing out of the box!

Wow Urbane Utopien: Our offer is unprecedented and stands out due to its unique design and project-related and individual complete solutions. Although there are already similar offers in other cities, we are the first to individually meet this high demand in Munich and the surrounding area. Last year, we already had to selectively bring projects forward and cancel others due to insufficient capacity.

Wow Urban utopias: From private project to startup

Munich Startup: What is your founding story?

Wow Urbane Utopien: During the Covid lockdown in 2020, we started placing furniture in a square without a permit to transform an unused space into an open meeting place for the neighborhood. In 2021, we were given the opportunity to build the first parklet professionally as part of a pilot project by the city and with financial support. Due to the positive response, the project received a lot of attention, which led to the first inquiries from other cities. In view of the continuing demand, the idea was born to design street furniture professionally and offer our consulting service to cities, municipalities, and other interested parties.

After pop-up workshops in various temporary spaces all over Munich, we were finally able to open our first own workshop in 2023 and have been offering professional, individual solutions for our customers ever since. When we painted a standard-sized parking space (12 square meters) on the workshop floor when designing the first professional parklet, we realized how much space a car takes up in a public space.

Munich Startup: Changes in public spaces are sometimes fiercely contested, such as in Kolumbusstraße last year. How do you win people over to your projects?

Wow Urbane Utopien: We win people not only for, but above all with our projects by focusing on participatory planning and joint construction. We involve people directly in our projects through construction workshops and interactive opportunities. Interestingly, former critics have now often developed a supportive attitude towards our projects. Acceptance increases considerably when people recognize the added value that the resulting place offers them in terms of quality of stay. In our parklets, we integrate a variety of offers that appeal to different interests. These include swap lockers, notice boards, bike stations and raised beds, which help to meet a wide range of neighborhood needs. People feel cared for and connected.

A notice board adorns the Rainer-Werner-Fassbinder-Platz near the Donnersbergerbrücke.
© Wow Urbane Utopien

“We hope for simplified and accelerated internal city processes”

Munich Startup: Where would you like to be in one year, where would you like to be in five years?

Wow Urbane Utopien: In a year’s time, we aim to develop projects that we can already prepare and build over the cold season. We hope for simplified and accelerated city-internal processes that will make it possible to implement more projects in different neighborhoods. The city itself should have a greater interest in promoting and facilitating transformation processes. As a consulting and implementation company, we would like to accompany these processes and have a significant influence on the design of public spaces. Another goal is to allow parklets to remain in place in winter to enable their use during the cold season and to integrate further offers and construction methods.

In five years’ time, we aim to be permanently commissioned by cities and other customers. Our aim is to enable early pre-planning so that projects can be set up in spring with the first rays of sunshine. We want to enter into collaborations with sharing mobility service providers and other partners in order to create mobility hubs and revolutionize inner-city mobility. We also want to expand our advisory services in future-oriented urban development topics for cities and municipalities throughout Europe and establish the Wow name.

“Street space experiments are increasing and creating real laboratories in the city”

Munich Startup: How have you experienced Munich as a startup location so far?

Wow Urbane Utopien:: In Munich, we have found the startup location to be challenging, but with potential. The will to promote innovation “Made in Bavaria” is there, but some official processes seem cumbersome, inefficient and not goal-oriented. The city should be more daring and not put any additional obstacles in the way of young entrepreneurs. Finding an affordable office or workshop, for example, was a long journey, in which only a bit of luck played into our hands in the end. Street space experiments are on the increase and create real laboratories in the city. In this way, the general public is increasingly sensitized to the issue of street space reuse, but at the same time, the projects are hampered by rigid German bureaucratic regulations.

One absurd example was a requirement that we had to install 33 street signs at the parklets set up for a municipal project, at our own expense of course. In comparison, other cities such as Helsinki take young entrepreneurs and startup funding more seriously, offer space to try things out, network and grow, and make it easier to become self-employed.

Munich Startup: Public transportation or bicycle?

Wow Urbane Utopien: The decision between public transport and cycling is a difficult one, but the right combination makes for real flexibility. Micromobility through sharing services or with your own bike, in conjunction with a functioning public transport and rail network, is the fastest, cheapest and most sustainable form of mobility. Depending on requirements, we use different means of transportation such as trucks, cargo bikes, racing bikes or express buses, which enables a multimodal way of getting around the city.

But if we really have to decide, we personally prefer the bicycle, especially in Munich, because it promotes health, keeps you fit, is fun and always allows the direct and usually fastest route. What’s more, you don’t have to deal with connection problems and train cancellations.