Public space and Urban Identity

New symbolism in Western Balkan urban spaces

With Besnik Aliaj I worked on a study called ‘The public in search of identity – new symbolism in urban spaces A study of central squares of Balkan capitals’, published as a chapter in the book The Role of the Public Sector in Local Economic and Territorial development edited by Maris Finka et al. (here). The Central and Eastern European context is very interesting. After the collapse of the socialist systems during the early 1990’s, countries have been engaged in conceiving their new identity. National identities as seen as historical constructions that are constantly being reconstituted according to a presentist agenda, that is viewing the past with a somewhat limited to present-day set of attitudes and beliefs. Building new political and cultural identities was not on top of the political agenda during the early phase of the transition but developed after institutional transitions were made.

We studied how new identities in capitals of four Western Balkan countries (Tirana in Albania, Pristina in Kosovo, Podgorica in Montenegro and Skopje in North Macedonia) are expressed in significant places. The alterations of central squares of capitals, seen as tangible expressions of national identity, have been studied. The study shows that national governments have sought to create expressions of national identity in main squares, in Skopje and Tirana in a dramatic manner and in the cases of Pristina and Podgorica in a more retained but still significant style. It is concluded governments made efforts to wipe out expressions of the recent communist past, have replaced memories of the socialist past with historical and/or modern Western appearances, and have paid limited attention to minorities and public participation.

In 2022, Besnik Aliaj, Katerzyna Stachowiak and I published on the issue of whether city governments could or should be engaged in (social) urban identity formation. From a functional angle, social urban identity formation can help to gain loyalty and pro-social and environmental behaviour. Clich here for the article in Current Urban Studies.

photo 3 Tirana Skanderbeg square 2000 15

Urban commons and public spaces (Bulgaria, Poland, Montenegro, Albania)

The picture (right) shows one of the big public spaces of Szczecin, Poland, the Solidarity Square. With Co-PLAN’s Rudina Toto in the lead, Marija Ćaćić (Montenegro), Zvezdina Ivanova (Bulgaria) and Katarzyna Stachowiak-Bongwa (Poland) and I worked on a study dealing with the governance of urban public open spaces. They are seen as 'urban commons'. We explored the ways of collaboration between stakeholders (commoners). These community actors’ groups are counterparts of urban governments. The leading question in the study is whether urban commoning can be complementary to / part of urban governance, which is defined as a framework for making the city liveable.

The underlying issue is how to make the most of open spaces in the city for the city and the people. Hence, what should stakeholders know in order to make use of commons-based modalities in urban governance, particularly for the public space? We observed in four cities 17 public open spaces of different typologies and users’ pool (central, intermediate, neighbourhoods); interviewed people about property rights over each space, the processes, benefits and costs of maintaining them, and values related to those spaces.

In 2022 a major paper will be submitted 'The uncommonness of the urban commons', with case studies of Poland, Russia, Montenegro and Albania. 

Photo 2 Szczecin Solidarity square 2000

Urban identity, Rotterdam

How citizens think and feel about a city differs, because each citizen has a different subjective attachment to the city. Perceptions of a city’s identity are equally varied. In the Netherlands, Rotterdam’s identity has been a collective story of a working class and entrepreneurial port city that was reconstructed after it was severely damaged during the second World War (WWII). Rotterdam has been known as a harbour city, with an open, no-nonsense, ‘roll up the sleeves’ working culture. However, urban identity as it is pictured in this fashion, is becoming a partial and superficial impression.

 

Rotterdam's identity is changing. The physical reconstruction period is finished, the port facilities have moved to the shore and a much more diverse population and culture, are factors influencing Rotterdam’s identity. And values, such as the feminization of society, starts to play a role. The conclusion is that Rotterdam’s identity becomes more hybrid. An artcile was published in Current Urban Studies (click here).
Photo right: Mayor of Rotterdam and chairman of the Intl. Advisory Board presenting an report on culture in the city, 2017 (photo Municipality Rotterdam).

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Metaphor and urban studies‑a crossover, theory and a case study of SS Rotterdam

Metaphors are used in various ways; at the surface for framing a message and below the surface metaphors are related to the ways we think and act. This study focused on the relationship between metaphors and urban studies. It was observed that, so to speak, every new urban phenomenon observed (divided cities, smart cities, etc.) gets a new metaphor around which theoretical notions are developed. 

This paper explores what urban studies can learn from organization theory. In particular, the question whether the set of metaphors from one of the classics in organizational theory—namely Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization—can inform urban studies, can be used to grasp, to ‘read’ cities. The case study is the SS Rotterdam, a former luxury cruise ship that that came back to Rotterdam to serve as a catalyst for urban development, became a complex 'headache project'. It ws turned into a hotel eventually. Different metaphors of Morgan’s set are applied to develop a better understanding of the management, decision making, culture and political system. 

Picture 4 SS Rotterdam 998_5730 v2 kl.jp

Ambiguous Memorial Landscapes in Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Tirana’s Pyramid

 

This is a descriptive study done with Eranda Janku in 2019, that narrates the history of the so-called “Pyramid” since 1991 and explores why it was never either restored or demolished. The Pyramid is a memorial landscape in Tirana, constructed to commemorate former socialist leader Enver Hoxha. The Pyramid became a landmark building in Tirana and has been recurrently discussed. The photo on the right is from a 1990 State Tourist Guide.

 

The Pyramid has survived all discussions, decisions, and various plans for new destination of the stucture. It got into serious decay. Generating clear answers regarding the continued existence of the Pyramid proved to be difficult, as the Pyramid has been subject to overlapping discourses around architecture and urban design, politics, history, memory, and identity. The first main conclusion of the study is that the Pyramid is hardly recognized by citizens and professionals as a memorial landscape. A second is that various governments have developed ideas, discussed, and quarrelled, but political parties could not reach an actionable conclusion – refunctioning of the Pyramid has apparently been too complex.

A survey was carried out to understand what the general population thinks about the Pyramid. Most respondents indicated that their attachment to the Pyramid is not strong and they are in favour of redevelopment. The paper concludes with recommendations for adding elements of a memorial landscape to the next planned redevelopment of the Pyramid that started finally in 2021 and should be completed in 2022.

Pyramid 1990.png
Oyramid 2015.png

Place attachment, Tirana

Three three colleagues from Polis University (Sotir Dhamo, Dorina Papa, and Merita Toska) and I did a study on place attachment in Tirana.  Place attachment and meaning are the person-to-place bonds, encompassing people’s knowledge, understanding, beliefs and cognitions of various aspects on the environment. Over 300 citizens living in seven different neighborhoods of Tirana were interviewed on place attachment issues such as sense of belonging, familiarity, self-identification and neighborhood experience.

The results of the empirical study show that place attachment in Tirana is quite positive. The findings and analysis indicate that place attachment indicators do not vary significantly according to educational level, gender and age, but do correlate with length of residence in Tirana. It also appeared that place attachment indicators are higher in well-established neighbourhoods compared to the new high-rise areas. The study concludes with recommendations for follow-up research, specifically qualitative research on citizens’ meaning of place attachment and study on place attachment related to responsible behaviour. An arcle with the study is in Current Urban Studies, click here.