City in Transitions: Spaces of Confusion, Places of Hope

INURA Conference – September 3-11, 2016


Bucharest -Bucuresti in the Romanian language- host city for the 2016 INURA Conference

Bucharest’s urban fabric resembles a mosaic made out of the shards of a fragmented and tormented recent past, out of which the conference focuses on the last 26 years. This time period coincides with the lifetime of the INURA network itself. During these decades, however, while the INURA conferences were concerned with supporting civic actions through research, and with grassroots resistance and political struggles in western cities to provide rights to citizens, Bucharest passed through a period of transitions from the former totalitarian regime, in search of survival, recovery and a renewed sense of meaning.

As you will experience in situ, this particular political experiment has left deep wounds that are still to be healed. Yet if carefully listened to, beyond the noise of appearances, a story about our common European future is unfolding… and this story is suggested during the three days of the conference.

With the change of political regime in 1989-1990, identity and ownership were among the main values brought into question. When the communist experiment following a Soviet model has been implemented in Romania, the modern nation-state was still very young, the vast majority of its population was living in rural areas, and the country’s regions were still bearing influences – from political culture to architecture – of past Empires, namely the Habsburg monarchy in Transylvania, and the Ottoman in the former vassal principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, the latter being the province where Bucharest is located.

Most of Bucharest’s recent population was to live in newly built socialist neighborhoods of 200-300.000 inhabitants, as large as a medium-size city; since the mid 1970s the total population of Bucharest is fluctuating around two million people. In these new neighborhoods, besides collective residential buildings, the state supplied mainly healthcare, education, transportation and commercial facilities. Despite the lack of cultural and community centers, the current civic culture of Bucharest has been shaped in these neighborhoods. The fall of the communist regime changed quickly the urban living conditions. On the one hand, state-built housing was completely privatized at an early stage, residents being entitled to buy their apartments for affordable prices. As such, tenants turned overnight into real estate owners, without any agreed-upon organization or management plan for the microsystem of the multifamily buildings, for public amenities and for the neighborhood at large. On the other hand, aside from providing financial gains for the state’s legal apparatus, the decades-long restitution process of nationalized real estate and the associated acts of injustice have had dramatic consequences for citizens, who became impoverished, caught in conflictual circumstances with fellow citizens, and more and more mistrustful of the state institutions. To augment the confusion, the waves of the globalization process have been hitting hard the fragile shores of this enthusiastic urban population, significantly unprepared though to react in defending their civic rights.

The aftermath of early 1990s street movements in Bucharest had a tragic effect on building momentum for democracy, because of the brutal coercive measures adopted by the newly appointed political elites. While revealing a low level political consciousness in Romanian society, it highlighted the urgent need for thorough education in civic and participatory democratic practices. After two decades, the conference presents some initial experiences with struggles for the right to the city, particularly in two areas a) reconversion, adaptive reuse and preservation of urban heritage and b) the environmental impact of the free market economy and possibilities for sustainable urban life.

At the same time, the exploitation of natural resources is of particular concern in Romania. At the beginning of the nineties one third of the Romanian territory was covered with forests, being an important part of the last remaining European reserve of virgin forests, out of which it is estimated that half of all the timber cut since 2008 has been illegally harvested. Thus deforestation, land grabbing, and invasive mining technologies by means of cyanide or fracking are the focus of grassroots political campaigns. They have addressed directly also the European authorities to stress the importance of broadening the scale of environmental struggle, from the national to continental and even to the global level. A recent success of environmental activism is the listing on the indicative list of UNESCO World Heritage of Rosia Montana site, an ancient gold mining area in the Apuseni Mountains, which became one of the largest campaigns against mining in the last two decades.

For the effectiveness of urban and environmental activism, however, it is urgently needed to connect grassroots calls for action with policy making and governance. Therefore, this is going to be the main domain of action support at the 2016 INURA Conference in Bucharest.