Neugebauer, C.S. and Rekhviashvili, L. (2015), "Loss and (re-)construction of public space in post-Soviet cities", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 35 No. 7/8. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSSP-04-2015-0042
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Loss and (re-)construction of public space in post-Soviet cities
Article Type: Guest editorial From: International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Volume 35, Issue 7/8.
This Special Issue of the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy is devoted to the question of the transformation of public spaces in post-Soviet cities. The Special Issue seeks to contribute to the existing body of multi-disciplinary literature on public urban spaces in general and to the discussion on public spaces in post-Soviet cities in particular. Given the diverse urban contexts and trajectories of post-socialist space and the limited research at hand, the Special Issue aims to advance the understanding of public space and its (re-)production in post-Soviet cities, while paying special attention to the consequences of change, i.e. to the controversy surrounding the (re-)construction and loss of public space. The aim of this editorial is to embed conceptually the interdisciplinary and empirically rich papers presented here in the hope of stimulating much needed future research on public space in the post-Soviet region. The editorial summarises the main arguments of the papers included and brings forward initial observations in terms of contextual specificities, characterising and framing the ongoing transformation of public space in post-Soviet cities.
The Special Issue builds on the acknowledgment in interdisciplinary academic literature of the importance of public space as a site for power and resistance and as a facilitator of social and economic exchange, as well as a stage for art, architecture and performance (Orum and Neal, 2009). Public space brings social cleavages into the open, while at the same time shaping them. Public space is, in consequence, a highly interesting issue for urban research, local practice and urban life. This is especially true with regard to the transformation of publicness and public space in post-Soviet cities, which has so far lacked scholarly attention apart from notable exceptions such as an edited volume on “Urban Spaces after Socialism” (Darieva et al., 2011). This lack of scholarly attention is regrettable given that critical debates on the transformation of public space can serve as an opportunity to better understand post-Soviet societies; their cleavages and cohesion, functioning and negotiation, inherited and newly adopted values and concepts.
Our interest in the transformation of public space in post-Soviet cities stems from both its promising theoretical value for different disciplines in the social sciences and its practical relevance in terms of local quality of life and future urban development. Both interests are linked on the one hand to the fundamental and abrupt shifts in society and space which took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and on the other hand to the specific and long-lasting experience of Soviet state socialism, in contrast to other urban trajectories in Europe. So, even though the boundaries of the public/private dichotomy and the relevance of public space in the Soviet Union are still debated, there is a considerable consensus among scholars which suggests that public spaces in the Soviet period were of limited use, due to extensive political control and surveillance which effectively turned the ideal of “everyone’s space” into “no-one’s space” (Zhelnina, 2013). Recent developments in post-Soviet cities also imply ambivalent but relevant trends for public space. They suggest new liberating opportunities for reconstructing public space after 1990, and at the same time imply the loss of publicness due to new exclusive hierarchies (Darieva et al., 2011) caused by a number of fundamental, post-socialist shifts. Among these shifts are:
the ideological and political shift, which among other things puts into question the meaning of public space for state representation, nation building and collective identity/memory on the one hand (Virág Molnár, 2013) and the level of state control and surveillance over urban space on the other hand;
institutional reforms, which triggered hybrid urban governance and planning arrangements (Stanilov, 2007; Lankina et al., 2008), offering new opportunities for civic participation in urban space as well as producing new exclusive decision-making practices (Tynkkynen, 2009);
economic changes, which are linked to the emergence of new types of economic infrastructure such as central business districts (CBDs), shopping malls and revitalised city centres, as well as the emergence of new economic practices such as privatisation and commercialisation on the one hand, and tenuous informal practices on the other; and
the social shift, which includes processes of socio-economic polarisation and marginalisation in urban communities as well as changing values and concepts, underlying citizens’ perceptions and treatment of urban public space.
Public space is a multi-faced concept – variously defined and approached from a wide variety of theoretical perspectives. Orum and Neal offer one of the broadest and most inclusive definitions of public space as “all areas that are open and accessible to all members of the public in a society, in principle, though not necessarily in practice” (Orum and Neal, 2009, p. 2). Its defining characteristics, according to Zukin, are “proximity, diversity and accessibility” (Zukin, 1995, p. 262). As public space has been studied within diverse disciplines, ranging from urban planning and design, law and economics to geography and the social and political sciences, and also because this space of sociality was often perceived as threatened by the “encroachment” of powerful private interests (Hackenbroch and Hossain, 2012), a number of debates have arisen around the concept. Without attempting to provide an overview of all the related literature and debates, for the purposes of this Special Issue we highlight three debates which present conceptual challenges for research on public space.
First, existing research on public space sometimes offers static dichotomous definitions of public space, often dismissing the physical and informational mobilities that complicate the analytical isolation of private from public space (Sheller and Urry, 2003). Moreover, debates about urban space tend to host implicit assessments and value systems, which often idealise the concept of public space while forgetting that public space in Europe has so far always hosted and shaped the exclusion of people. Conceptions of public space more often than not refer to a “bourgeois, European understanding” of public space (Wehrheim, 2011, p. 168 – author’s translation, cf. Varna and Tiesdell, 2010), an understanding that can significantly differ from Oriental, Islamic and a variety of other non-western perspectives. For example, when discussing ownership of public space, it is often assumed that there is a contrasting private space. However, the existence or security of private property can hardly be taken for granted in a variety of non-western contexts. Thinking beyond static and sometimes Eurocentric definitions of public space can thus be seen as an important goal for research on public space.
The second and perhaps most intriguing aspect of existing debates is related to normative evaluations of the public space concept, linked to the recurring controversy about whether we are losing or gaining public space. Following Sennett’s declaration of the fall of public man (Sennett, 1993), numerous scholars have expressed concerns over the imposition of private and corporate interests on public space (Davis, 1990; Mitchell, 1995; Sorkin, 1992), compromising the publicness of and access to public space, while other writers underline the continued importance and relevance of public space (Zukin, 1995). From this perspective, “urban public space reflects in a particularly creative way the changes and continuities that characterise a dynamic urban public life which reflects both celebration and contention”(Goheen, 1998, p. 480). Whether public space is seen as devalued or continuously reinvented can depend on whether one takes an inductive (interpretativist) or deductive approach to defining the concept. While interpretativist approaches stress the constructed nature of public space and argue that public space is what people or public(s) perceive it to be, more realist and deductive approaches elaborate the overarching criteria or dimensions of public space that can allow researchers to evaluate various degrees of the publicness of public space (Varna and Tiesdell, 2010). The former approach will stress the importance of actors’ perceptions of the loss or gain of public space, while the latter approach will allow observable and perhaps even measurable differences in lost or gained “publicness” to be established. For the latter purposes Varna and Tiesdell (2010, p. 579) introduce six analytical “core dimensions of publicness” and public space. According to these authors, the dimensions of “ownership, control, civility, physical configuration and animation” (pp. 579-580) are useful for systematically and comprehensively analysing public space, how it changes and its roles within societies. Wehrheim (2011, p. 170) adds the symbolic dimension of public space in terms of meanings, coded social rules and values. From our perspective, sensitive and critical analyses are necessary to reveal (deductive and indicative) judgments concerning the scope of public space, whether that scope is changing (there is a loss or gain) or not, and what the factors are that lead to exclusion from public space.
Finally, the loss or gain of public space will be evaluated differently depending on how the politics of public space are understood. This leads us to the third debate, which concerns the actors, practices and institutions that shape how public space is defined as well as how it is used and negotiated, in other words the politics of public space (Goheen, 1998; Low and Smith, 2006). As Goheen argues, scholars who emphasise the loss of public space sometimes rely on Habermas’s (1993) understanding of the public sphere as the “the arena of influence of a well identified group whose institutions and means of communication [are] visible and dominant in society” (Goheen, 1998, p. 487). In contrast, a number of scholars, primarily feminist writers (Matthews, 1992; Ryan, 1992) have argued that politics cannot be reduced to the mobilisation of political actors who are perceived as legitimate at a given point and are privileged by the state. Pointing out the contentious politics pursued by women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century at a time when women’s political rights were restricted, including the right to vote (Kaplan, 1993), these scholars call for recognition of the importance of the politics of marginalised actors, whose tactics of reclaiming public space differ from those of more widely recognised and legitimised civil society groups. Moreover, instead of only looking at formal and institutionalised channels of political participation and claim making over public space, these scholars underline the importance of everyday practices (Certeau, 1984) in the process of negotiating the meanings and changing the definitions of acceptable and legitimate behaviour and discourses in public space. Thus, critical writings on public space call for acknowledgement of the diversity of actors, daily practices and institutional settings, be they tangible and formal/state institutions, intangible institutions or socially and culturally embedded norms and values (Morris, 2011; Morris and Polese, 2014; Stenning et al., 2010). Moreover, instead of reducing social cleavages to state versus civil society or corporate versus public opposition, the scope of research is extended to the study of a diversity of “publics”, the complex interactions and interplay between them and their creative strategies of claim making over public space.
The seven papers in this Special Issue are set in various countries of the former Soviet Union and cover cities in the Baltic States, Russia, Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Far from resolving the three fundamental challenges to research on public space, these papers make a modest but considerable contribution to each of the debates by critically researching the transformation and contestation of public space in post-Soviet cities. First, they refine definitions of public space and sensitise them to contextual specificities, reflecting on multiple dimensions of public space, specific historical experiences and culturally embedded norms and practices as well as tangible and intangible institutional settings. Second, the authors discuss the loss or (re)construction of public space throughout post-socialist transformation. In doing so they pay attention to local actors’ various perceptions and feelings of loss and gain, and make their own assessments about whether transformative social, economic and political shifts have caused the publicness of public space to be lost or regained. Third, the papers bring to light the diversity of local actors and practices of contestation and claim making while discussing the politics of public space. Instead of summarising the main arguments of each paper, here we offer an overview of the papers in relation to the thematic contributions they make.
1: The first two papers contribute to the analytical debate on the public space concept by critically questioning the prevailing, Eurocentric understanding of public space against the contextual specificity of local, culturally embedded interpretations and uses of public space. Susanne Fehlings argues against seeing public and private as binary concepts. Instead, they can be better captured as “a spectrum of different kinds of culturally embedded interactions between the state and public officials on the one hand and private actors and social groups on the other” (p. 1). In Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, this spectrum starts with the concept of the tun (house) as the ultimate space for privacy and intimacy. Ironically, the same concept of tun also encompasses the nation state or homeland, illustrating the lack of separation between the public and private spheres. National political elites rely on the same cultural concepts, norms, particularistic personal networks and kinship circles as do the rest of citizens, thus further blurring the already unstable division between public and private. However, unlike in Soviet times, when personalist networks were accessible for the majority of the citizens, in post-Soviet settings they have become more exclusive, and have turned into tools in hands of political elites which they use to gain advantage at others’ expense. Wladimir Sgibnev also questions the applicability of the public/private dichotomy in contexts where the security of private property or the existence of a clear definition of what constitutes a “private space” cannot be taken for granted. Using the example of a housing estate courtyard in the Tajik city of Khujand, the author observes that, rather than being stable and static, public space constantly shifts and relocates, following culturally embedded and life-cycle related routines of local community socialisation. In search of a non-dichotomous approach, he suggests the use of rhythmanalysis (Lefebvre, 2004) to capture patterned practices and alternating public and private meanings often assigned to the same spaces with hourly, daily or yearly rhythmicity. Illustrating the applicability of their conceptual frameworks to the cases of Yerevan and Khujand respectively, Fehlings and Sgibnev offer theoretical entry points to studying the role and meaning of public space in non-western contexts.
2: A number of the papers address normative evaluations of public space, discussing whether the publicness of public space is perceived as lost or (re)gained. They critically question the local value systems and conceptions of public space which underlie perceptions of and prevalent practices in urban spaces. In doing so, they reveal conflicting interpretations of these values and concepts among the actors within a society and across different post-Soviet urban contexts. They discuss the hybrid or overlapping origins of these specific values and concepts in pointing to pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet local experiences. For example, Lela Rekhviashvili and Costanza Curro show how the government’s visions of modernisation of urban space are in sharp contrast with culturally embedded norms for perceiving and appropriating public space in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. In contrast, Melanie Krebs illustrates that many of Baku’s urban dwellers approve governmental efforts at inner city redesign, while she finds generational differences in how legitimate and appropriate norms of behaviour in public space are defined.
3: The following papers refer to the interplay of local actors and practices constitutive of the politics of public space in various post-Soviet cities. They discuss how, throughout the process of transforming a socialist to a capitalist economy, state projects to redraw boundaries between public and private space reshape state/society relations and produce new exclusive hierarchies. Lela Rekhviashvili underlines the social and economic aspects of the new exclusions and supports the proposition that control of public space is central to the neoliberal marketisation strategy. She argues that the neoliberal marketisation process requires the control and regulation of public space, and more specifically the enforcement of a strict functional division between private and public space in order to enable the emergence of the core institutional precondition for a market economy: the security of private property. This process in turn triggers the social and economic marginalisation of those segments of society that previously relied on access to public space for income-generating activities. Constanza Curro discusses the social and cultural sides of the marginalisation process that emerges as a consequence of the top-down imposition of the new spatial order. Discussing Georgia following the Rose Revolution of 2003, Curro illustrates how the government’s visions for the modernisation and “Europeanisation” of urban spaces rendered socially and culturally embedded practices for appropriating public space unfit, backward looking, dangerous and even criminal. In contrast to its declared goals of creating more transparent and democratic urban spaces, the government subjected public space to increased surveillance and discouraged public participation in construction of the meaning of public space as well as its spatial design.
The contributions by Jolanta Aidukait/Christian Fröhlich and Melanie Krebs discuss the changing interplay of local individual and collective actors, while pointing out the nature of conflicts which emerge in the context of encroaching private/corporate interests and the state’s inability or unwillingness to defend the publicness and accessibility of public space. Aidukait and Fröhlich rely on theories of social movements to show how different configurations of political opportunities and threats shape repertoires of citizen mobilisation in residential neighbourhoods in Moscow and Vilnius. While urban social movements in Vilnius tend to focus on sustainability and environmental issues, citizens in Moscow contest privatisation and land use issues with economic elites. Despite the restrictiveness of Moscow’s city government regime, Muscovites devise informal mobilisation tactics to voice their opinions of urban developments. This mobilisation might not always yield the desired outcomes, but it contributes to the politicisation of questions related to urban governance and generates positive community building experiences. The authors discuss the importance of informal networks and social media for community mobilisation in the case of Moscow and forms of more or less institutionalised civic engagement in Vilnius. In showing that Moscow residents make impressive efforts at mobilisation despite their limited political opportunities compared to their counterparts in Vilnius, Aidukait and Fröhlich add rich empirical material to the relatively understudied topic of collective mobilisation under diverse political regimes, which in post-Soviet institutional settings are described as “impregnated by neo-liberal ideology” (Laze, 2011, p. 303). In a similar vein, Melanie Krebs describes how the “right to the city” is claimed by citizens living under authoritarian, post-Soviet rule, where the national government makes singlehanded decisions over the shape of public space, leaving virtually no room for open discussion and negotiation. The major focus of her paper, however, is the contestation of public space among different groups of city dwellers themselves. Despite having limited “rights to the city”, the established city dwellers of Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku make claims to the city by defending their urban habitus and defining what is appropriate urban behaviour. However, the claims of the established city dwellers, who describe themselves as Bakintsy, are made in opposition to newcomers rather than political or business elites. In contrast to the case of Tbilisi, where the government’s agenda for modernisation, control and surveillance is often contested, for older and often even younger generations in Baku, control and top down urban redevelopment projects evoke feelings of stability and an impression of progress – feelings that refer to an appreciation of former Soviet modernisation concepts and practices.
Finally, Joldon Kutmanaliev’s piece on ethnic riots in the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, illustrates how spatial structure and the built environment of public space, together with the spatial agency of community leaders, shapes, enables and/or disables different forms of mobilisation. The author focuses on the built environment of urban space and its interaction with human agency to explain the dynamics of ethnic riots in Osh. Together with spatial structure and agency, the special role of informal community leaders in preventing conflicts is outlined. Kutmanaliev’s paper contributes to the literature on the role of informal practices in social mobilisation in contexts where formal civic associational life is not strong. Moreover, it draws attention to the significance of space as an important category for understanding contentious politics. While many of the papers in this Special Issue focus on how actors and their practices shape the meanings of public space, Kutmanaliev’s contribution illustrates in turn how the built environment of public space allows different opportunities and sets different constraints for actors’ capacity to mobilise and prevent violence. The papers by Kutmanaliev, Krebs and Fröhlich/Aidukait show that conflicts over public space in post-Soviet cities are not limited to the state versus the people or corporate interests versus public opposition. Instead, different groups of citizens make competing claims to public space or elaborate different strategies to secure, control or appropriate public space, thus reflecting and reshaping the changing relations within local communities.
The papers in this Special Issue engage with diverse strands of literature and discuss cases set in various institutional and cultural contexts. Despite this, it is possible to make a few observations that can be generalised across all or most of the articles, hinting at the persistence of a number of similarities among post-Soviet cities. First, the papers presented here illustrate that conflicts which arise within public space and struggles over access to public spaces are defining for urban life in post-Soviet cities. Shifting boundaries between public and private space redefine state-society relationships and the interplay between diverse claim making actors, and thus alter the distribution of power and resources within communities. Second, the papers underline the importance of the long-lasting culturally embedded routines and value systems and routines which survived the Soviet regime and, in a number of cases, gained prominence during post-socialism. Third, most of the cities discussed have to face the legacy of the Soviet experience, whether in terms of the built urban environment, inherited values or social expectations about state versus personal responsibilities. But since urban experiences during socialism were far from uniform across the cities, interpretations of those experiences after the collapse of Soviet Union are also different. While some of Baku’s inhabitants retain a nostalgic sentiment for the concept and practices of Soviet urban modernity, in the Georgian case the Soviet inheritance is predominantly seen in a negative light. Moreover, the different relevance of intangible Soviet legacies depends on diverging post-Soviet trajectories/experiences. So, while the public authorities in Vilnius have to accept the institutionalisation of civic engagement in urban planning, thus preventing Soviet style disregard for civilian inputs, the Moscow authorities retain this attitude, which fits well with the authoritarian urban government regime of the post-Soviet period. Also, almost all the papers emphasise the ongoing importance of informal networks and practices in shaping social resistance and social mobilisation as well as community life and citizens’ survival tactics (Round and Williams, 2010). However, still more debate and research is needed with regard to the interplay of local actors, the underlying value systems and the multiple analytical dimensions of public space under transformation. In carrying out such research, special attention should be paid to the differences between post-Soviet contexts, whether in terms of cultural specificities or different post-Soviet experiences and reforms.
A last but still intriguing observation is that almost all the papers discuss the emergence of new exclusions, whether in the form of economic marginalisation, neglect of citizens’ political rights and collective voices or the devaluation of some types of socially and culturally embedded practices, and hence of the social groups which are associated with those practices. The instability of state institutions and the lack of democratic accountability, among other factors, seem to produce and reproduce new inequalities in the public spaces of post-Soviet cities. Making claims to public space, both spatially and as a political/discursive construct, seems to be at the frontline of social resistance against these new exclusions. Through diverse and creative ways of mobilising and their embedded daily practices, the inhabitants of post-Soviet cities are domesticating (Smith and Stenning, 2006) new and still uncertain political projects and the imposed social order.
Associate Professor Carola Silvia Neugebauer, Department of Public Heritage, RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany
Lela Rekhviashvili, Doctoral School of Political Science, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary
The Guest Editors are grateful for the patience and responsiveness of the authors in addressing the comments and those of the peer-reviewers. The Guest Editors thank all the peer-reviewers for their close and sensitive reading of the papers, as well as for their repeated detailed feedback. The Guest Editors' gratitude goes to the ira.ubran research project at the Leibniz Institute of Regional Geography (IFL, Leipzig) for supporting the Special Issue, as well as for organising the preliminary meetings and presentations by the authors and editors. The Guest Editors appreciate the critical feedback received from our colleagues at IFL, primarily from Isolde Brade and Wladimir Sgibnev, and the administrative support provided by Yuliana Lazova. The Guest Editors thank the Editor-in-Chief, Professor Collin Williams, for his generous support throughout the entire process of developing the Special Issue, and Cristina Irving Turner at Emerald for her help throughout the production of the Special Issue. Last but not least the editors appreciate the invaluable help of Matthew White in proofreading and stylistic editing of the (majority of) the papers in this Special Issue.
“Here it is useful to follow Low and Smith’s (2006, p. 6) distinction of public sphere as a political concept (i.e. the politics-of-the-public) and public space as a physical concept, with public realm being where the two concepts coincide” (Varna and Tiesdell, 2010, p. 577).
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About the Guest Editors
Carola Silvia Neugebauer is an Associate Professor for Cultural Heritage at the Faculty of Architecture, RWTH Aachen University in Germany. She holds a PhD in architecture and urban planning. Experienced in international and interdisciplinary research, her interest is focused on urban developments in Europe with special emphases on urban planning, governance, (UNESCO world) cultural heritage, post-socialist transformation, spatial identities and differentiations. Associate Professor Carola Silvia Neugebauer is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: mailto:email@example.com
Lela Rekhviashvili is a PhD Candidate at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. In the scope of her doctoral research she studies the impact of institutional transformation on informal economic practices. Lela is currently also a visiting PhD Fellow at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Leipzig, Germany. She works under the project “Urban Reconfigurations in Post-Soviet Space”. Her research interests include: political economy, informal economic practices, post-socialist transformation, social movements, urban development.