First Collective housing estate in Litvinov.

First Collective housing estate in Litvinov.

Conference reports Urban and Rural Transformation

Over 40 researchers representing countries spanning from Ukraine to the United States and from Sweden to Serbia gathered in Prague to explore the changing roles of rural and urban cultural heritages in post-socialist countries.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:1. Vol. XII. pp 554-56
Published on on March 7, 2019

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The international conference “Spaces and Places in Transition: Urban and Rural Transformations between Central and Eastern Europe” took place November 6 and 10, 2018 in Prague. The conference was organized by the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies, Södertörn University, under the auspices of SIEF (International Society for Ethnology and Folklore).

Over 40 researchers representing countries spanning from Ukraine to the United States and from Sweden to Serbia gathered in Prague to explore the changing roles of rural and urban cultural heritages in post-socialist countries. Bringing together ethnologists, sociologists, urban planners, architects, and cultural geographers, the conference provided a unique cross-disciplinary and cross-sector opportunity to discuss not only theoretical issues, but also applied cases from practitioners working in academia, NGOs, and the public sector.

A key theme running through the conference was the connection between landscape and identity and how particular social fantasies acted out upon spaces try to hegemonize certain values and to erase or ignore certain histories or peoples in the process — including religious groups, industrial workers, people living in rural communities, and those whose political views may be considered outdated. The concept of transition was discussed in many cases as an inevitability, with the key points of interest being what is viewed as acceptable change or an acceptable pace of change. Further, many presenters highlighted a problematic trend regarding the externalization of agency that denies or limits the voice and ability of local community members to influence decisions that affect the places in which they live.

Complex heritages and their links to spaces

Under the theme of the first day — Heritage, Change, and Continuity — the emphasis of many speakers was on the complex heritages of Central and Eastern European spaces — not only imperial, socialist and post-socialist, but also agricultural, industrial, and neoliberal.

Through the concept of intertextuality, both keynote speaker Mariusz Czepczyński and presenter Slávka Ferenčuhová questioned the ideal of separate European spaces proposing instead interdependencies and mutual constitution and dialogue. Both speakers took issue with the false narrative that emphasizes a fundamental difference between East and West, proposing instead a recognition of the continuous dialogue that occurs between the two regions based on perceptions of ‘the other’.

One example of this was highlighted in the socialist and contemporary postmodern architecture presented by Czepczyński, as well as by presenters Irina Seits and Megan Lueneberg. Their research demonstrated how certain architectural practices should be viewed intertextually, as manifestations of broader discourses, influences, and aesthetic preferences, in which the Nobel factory and housing compound in St. Petersburg were part of a longer trajectory of utopian industrial planning, and in which socialist classicism reflected a strong influence from American architects, and socialist realist and socialist modernist structures were often inspired by French, Swedish, or Finnish architecture of the period — often built by local architects who trained in those countries. Similar to these architectural examples, ideas about social organization, economic relationships, or representative democracy are manifest in particular places because of broadly circulating discourses and aesthetic tastes, in combination with locally-contingent realities.

Global processes and local conflicts

With the theme of the second day of the conference — Remembering and Reimagining Rural Communities — landscape, identity, and democracy came to the fore in discussions. Here global processes and linkages were even more apparent between environmental degradation in India and habitat restoration in Scotland; global viticulture practices and the impact of American aphids on Hungarian vineyards; international tourism on the rural highlands of Georgia; and global mining corporations in the abandonment of a Romanian village.

Speakers including Edita Štulcaitė, Imola Püsök, and László Mód observed how the linkages between heritage and tourism in rural communities in Georgia, Romania, and Hungary have had a tendency to reduce local residents to spectators of change as decision-making and ownership in these communities has become increasingly externalised, with the fate of rural communities often being decided in distant cities or in other countries altogether. As keynote speaker Andrew Butler’s examples showed, this is not just something occurring in CEE, but equally in countries such as Sweden and the United Kingdom, due to global discourses of heritage preservation, tourism, agricultural production, and economic development. These intersect to place a value on rural communities that bring investment, while creating conflicts with, and reducing the ability of, these communities to continue the agricultural practices and traditions that are part of the appeal being sold to investors and tourists.

Both Butler and Falco Knaps emphasied in their presentations the persistent challenge among planning and development practitioners to appreciate the value of intangible heritage — that is, the practices and ways of life — and how even well-intentioned efforts in the preservation of tangible heritage can negatively affect intangible elements. This is particularly relevant in rural tourism, which Butler, Knaps, and Mód each discussed with their examples, as efforts to increase the attractivity of such communities for tourism or other forms of economic development can often encourage practices and behaviors that make it difficult for those wishing to maintain traditional livelihoods to do so.

Memorialization and political rhetoric

On the third day of the conference, participants returned from rural communities to discuss Contested Public Spaces and Memorial Narratives. Under this theme, presenters addressed the ways in which different histories are told, erased, challenged, or institutionalized in public spaces such as squares, monuments, cemeteries, and green spaces. As presenter Marjana Strmčnik attended to with an exploration of the symbolic values conveyed in two public squares in Ljubljana, how do the holders of political power determine which pasts are worth telling, and what effects does this have on the present and future of a community? Strmčnik highlighted what can be seen as a will to stay in the past and how it acts as a means of escapism in the face of persistent social challenges. As Viktor Fehér demonstrated with the example of the memorialization of pan-Yugoslavism, this observance/memorialization of the past can also be utilised to remember certain positive aspects of the past and to try to preserve and carry them forth into the present day — in his case through a remembrance of unity across a multi-ethnic Serbian community in the face of persistent ethnic tensions among nationalist groups.

The topic of contested public space also included a panel on urban gardening, providing an opportunity to discuss an area of growing practice in the context of Central and Eastern Europe. Drawing on examples from Hungary, Slovenia, and Serbia, the panelists discussed urban gardening as a practice transforming the urban landscape, encouraging interactions among multi-level social actors, motivating debates on urban governance, and offering new conditions for urban life — but also as a practice involving different and at times conflicting ideals about the forms it should take and the purposes it should serve.

Csaba Bende explored the unique context of Hungary — where a predominantly top-down approach has limited the ability of many initiatives to achieve intended social goals. Tihana Rubić discussed contemporary trends in Zagreb, where three ‘generations’ of urban gardening — of ‘wild gardens’ made by migrants from rural areas, municipally-supported gardens, and guerrilla gardening groups — seem to be converging in complex, and not always complementary, relationships because of the networks of interests, values, and intentions they each reflect. Saša Poljak Istenič provided a historical look at urban agriculture across North America, and Western, Central and Eastern Europe, highlighting how socialist heritage contributed to a later emergence of contemporary forms of urban cultivation in countries such as Slovenia because of the negative connotations associated with so-called ‘communal’ activities and practices.

Large-scale planning in a local setting

The final day of the conference included an excursion into the Czech-German borderlands in the area of the North Bohemian Basin — a region profoundly altered during the last 70 years. A combination of events in the decades following WWII, including the expulsion of the local German population, the development of open cast mining, destruction of villages on the sites of lignite seams, and building of towns with massive housing estates shaped the region up to 1989. Due to industrial decline after 1989, this heritage has left its mark on the landscape and communities. Participants visited a collective housing estate in the village of Litvínov, which was the first such example of housing for workers in the region, combining certain emancipatory amenities — such as a laundry, kindergarten, and leisure activities, with some more disciplinary or restrictive activities — including a communal canteen instead of individual kitchens.

Attendees learned how the latter significantly impacted routines and relationships at the family level.

Additionally, they heard from a resident who has lived at the site since the 1950s, learning about the changes that have occurred over time, as well as the hopes and plans for the future of the building. Across town, participants also visited the Janov housing estate, which has steadily declined since 1989 due to foreign real estate speculators who have failed to maintain many of the buildings not owned by housing cooperatives. A local opposition politician who grew up in the neighborhood discussed his concerns about the segregation of Roma people in the area, as well as hopes of finding creative solutions to bring back investment into the community and address decaying buildings and infrastructure.

In the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries in Central and Eastern Europe have confronted a period of transformation processes that rapidly altered earlier structures of space and society, leaving their mark through out urban wilderness, brownfields, border landscapes, and former military zones on the one hand, and suburbanization, gentrification of cities, and industrialization of agriculture on the other. However, the many topics and cases explored during the conference demonstrated the limits of describing what is occurring in the region as ‘post-socialist’. One cannot easily discuss trends of rural suburbanization, the changing dignity of industrial or agricultural work, transitions to service-based economies, brownfields, heritage tourism, gentrification, ethno-nationalism, and urban democratic struggles that we see across Central and Eastern Europe as somehow inherently or particularly the results of socialist pasts. The ideologies and ontologies that inspire these processes are not geographically contingent — but are part of globally circulating logics. However this past is not irrelevant, nor should it be treated as the determining factor of present political, economic, and social trends.

By attending to cases in Central and Eastern Europe through a range of disciplinary and thematic approaches, the conference challanged the treatment of the region as an isolated geo-political fact. The conference provided an important common ground from which to explore how contested histories and futures are mediated through built and natural environments, and raising knowledge and awareness about the unique contexts of specific countries as much more than the product of their recent political heritage. ≈


  • by Paul Sherfey

    PhD candidate in ethnology at Södertörn University. His dissertation project Cultivating Revolutionary Subjectivities: Politics, Heritage and Desire explores informal activism, using the case of collective gardens as a transnational political practice.

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