Public Space Must be Defended… and Remade

Text by Ivan Kucina

‘’We are not giving up our little park’’ is a slogan written on the improvised board carried by the group of people who have gotten together to express their resistance against the privatization of the green space in front of their building. It has been turned into a building site of a new real estate development in one of the suburban modernist neighborhoods built during the socialist period in Belgrade, Serbia. Their protest has been lasting for months, during which time they have asked for support from relevant institutions and the general public, without a helpful response. They have been left alone to fight the system whose corruption has become a norm during a lasting post-socialist transition. 

Public resistance against the appropriation of public spaces has its long history in Belgrade. The original version of this scenario, The Fifth Park case, took place almost fifteen years ago at a similar location in another part of the city. One Sunday morning in May 2006, a group of workers of the city communal company for the maintenance of the green spaces started to cut all big trees at a small park that served neighbors for their daily outdoor routines – walking, relaxing, meeting, and playing. The noise of the motor sews woke up the residents of the surrounding buildings who came down to get the explanation. It took them a few days to find out that the small public park that they have used permanently and considered as their own courtyard, has been sold by the local municipality to a private developer who was planning to build a six floors condominium with commercial services. 

People reacted angrily and decided to organize a defense of the small park, at first by using their bodies to stop construction works and after by creating a media campaign to alert the public. It took them three years of everyday struggle to defend their place which was, in the meantime, turned into a torn-down battlefield. It has not changed much since then, but it has become known in the whole country as the first case of the self-organized citizens’ defense against a corrupted system in which city authorities support the financial interests of private developers at cost of the public good. 

When city authorities do not want to manage public good, public spaces become an easy loot for all kinds of profiteers. The successful defense of The Fifth Park has been much more than a local story that easily disappears beyond the public horizon after a few weeks. The defended park has become an indicator of the power of self-organization in defending the public space and a symbol of the citizens’ fight for the right to the city.

Right to the city has been embedded in peoples’ minds for long, together with other ideological constructs of the previous socialist state. Socialist ideologists projected high modernist ideals of universal humanity, such as equality, unity, and liberty, onto the concept of public wellbeing. In the following, public spaces were organized around communal housing blocks as a system of roads, parks, squares, and playgrounds, and complemented with various public facilities that were all made to serve the generic idea of a public good, environmental health, and basic comfort.

The transition from socialist to post-socialist state as defined by neoliberal tendencies towards privatization, commercialization, and profit growth has changed the concepts of such spatial organization. An economic system that is based on permanent growth of consumption has assigned a speculative real estate market as the ultimate mechanism of urban development. In the last three decades, it has enabled administrative deregulation and massive constructions that have transformed the inherited living environment. The city has become a competitive field where entrepreneurs are trying to attract more consumers by radiating glossy images to seduce the masses. As a result, public space has been turned into an illuminated scene for urban spectacles that have become the only form of public expression. 

A radical reversal of the post-socialist city from a space shaped with a focus on public wellbeing to a space shaped by unleashed private initiatives signifies an important shift in the history of urbanity – the disappearance of communal values that were determining human settlements since the ancient time.  The city has been always considered as both the inhabited place and the community that inhabits it.  The post-socialist city is in fact the largest urban structure that is evidently growing without community, and instead under constant struggles among individuals who are using it for their economic interests. Public spaces offered by the authorities have been appropriated by private developers, while citizens have been left alone to find their own ways to replace institutional support. Urban conflicts between the private and the public interests have been awakened for the new battles in which everyone is fighting against everyone else. They turned the city into a conflicted scene with no holds barred for individual success.

It seems that the only defense against reckless privatization of the public space is a self-organized resistance of angry citizens who cannot stand the violent appropriation of their everyday life. Under circumstances, they gain power only in relation to others with whom they used to share these spaces. In order to defend their space citizens have to get together and by getting together they are regenerating the lost sense of community. Defense of the public space stimulates social integration within the groups and gives impetus to the rise of communal values – such as solidarity, empathy, and collaboration.

However, defending is insufficient for establishing alternatives to the dominant urban development model. After a successful defense, public space must be remade. Transition from the state of defense to the state of remake may reveal unforeseen conflicts within self-organized citizens. Immediate threat connects people and strengthens the integrity of the community, but when the threat weakens, differentiations and segregations begin to manifest. Besides, defense has visible goals while the outcome of remaking is not so clear at the beginning. Uncertainty endangers the integrity of the community. Some are trying to repress others by imposing a leadership that is justified by greater merits or professional competencies. This is contradictory to the spirit of community where common interest has to be managed by incorporating diversity. As long as there is no imposed leadership there is a possibility that different interest could be managed through negotiation. Everyone will agree about simple and viable proposals embedded in everyday life and resilient to all the troubles. But that would not be enough. Remaking of the public space would have no sense without development of the new public system.

There is a lot more that must be done in a different way than what has been done in order to establish a new public system in which empathy moves personalities rather than individual success, solidarity runs society rather than market competitiveness, and collaboration transforms the environment rather than profit-making.  This process has to be placed in the heart of threatened territories, adopting the public spaces that are already there in order to facilitate collaborative work. Therefore, the prior goal of remaking the public space is the creation of a public platform for active participation in decisions making about the transformation of their living environment.

It is through collaborative work and sharing knowledge that the citizens generate opportunities to reclaim influence on their urban future. Collaboration encourages a wide variety of urban actors to join the program and contribute their merits and skills as equal participants in the societal realm. Discussions organized on the public platform have to engage all the parties, public administration, citizens associations, developers, and architects. Architects can articulate collaboration among them, and influence authority to put forth citizens’ arguments.  When collaboration is well maintained, it becomes so powerful that it can change the dominating urban hierarchy and influence development of the new public system in which bottom-up initiatives meet and question top-down frameworks.

Development of the new public system is imagined as a cycle of step-by-step change. City authorities should play the role of the catalyst in promoting collaboration whereby citizens should commit on the basis of self-organized associations. Collaboration among different actors produces a diversity of proposals that corresponds to the needs, demands and resources of diverse urban contexts. Public space becomes an interactive field with unlimited potential to originate opportunities for collaborations that will produce a new round of urban interventions. Street by street, a series of emergent citizens’ interventions facilitated by the city authorities will develop a new kind of ongoing urban development process. 

Public space developed through a collaborative process embraces the creative contamination of contradictory relationships among citizens, architects, authorities, and developers. It is no longer based on any of their fantasies of order and omnipotence, but it is the staging of their debates. Public space no longer aims for stable configurations but for the creation of infrastructure that accommodates processes that are transforming it. 

This dynamic context open to permanent transformation needs also a new kind of urban economy for its maintenance and physical growth. The goal of the authorities will be to engage citizens’ productive potential instead of identifying them as consumers.  In this way, the developers who have the knowledge to bring together social desires and production technology are turned into curators who can articulate production using the codes imagined by citizens.  Furthermore, with the financial infusion of the developers, self-organized citizens’ association can develop their own production and share the benefit together. At this point, the developer’s control over production is hardly discernible in the reciprocal interplay between citizens and created products. 

The capacities to coordinate and synchronize diversity, to make choices in the multiplicity, to improvise in real-time– these are the foundations of public life in the city. Remade public space is not a mix of styles; it is an overlap of contributions. It is not a fusion; it is juxtapositions, collisions, and ruptures. Such patterns of behavior are in constant flux, continually disrupted by new and improvised encounters. Therefore public space is uneven, uneasy intersections of people who do their actions in the context of others and eventually find ways to work with each other. They struggle to connect but sometimes manage to. The way to use such public space seems to be to allow this to happen as much as possible – to become, discover, transform.

On the road toward these visionary heights, the process of remaking  The Fifth Park was organized in successive stages so that they could examine and verify each other. At the beginning of the collaboration, separate working groups were formed to provide divergent options. Specially prepared questionnaires for each group have been used in order to make the groups’ profiles. The questionnaire was not a simple survey about the elements that citizens would want to have in the park, but a search for the indicators that cannot be expressed immediately: unfulfilled desires, motivations, activities, and the symbolic capital. 

Interpretation of the citizens’ answers was as important as the answers themselves. The profiles of the groups that came out from the analysis of the answers was not a simple sum of the properties, nor their general thoughts, nor their lowest common denominator, but rather a complex value that bears the most vital and often contradictory notions that interpreters consider important for defining the elements of the project. 

According to diverse group profiles, few mock-ups were developed suggesting the contours of the projects, but not defining its final shape. Provisional mock-ups served as a means for debating about the elements within each group of citizens. By working together, they reflected and suggested, added and rejected, moved and fixed these elements for further development of the projects.

Projects that were developed separately were presented to all the citizens at the public meetings so that they could agree about those elements from each project that were satisfying them all. Those elements were combined into a new joint proposal which was then turned into a life-sized drawing on the ground of the park. That was followed by another public debate where citizens could comprehend the advantages and shortcomings of the final proposal. 

Although reimagining such a small park seemed like a simple task, it was made complex by the range of different influences that needed to be reconciled. Citizens could agree on a liveable and sustainable proposal that did not differfrom what was destroyed in the park. That included standard elements of the inherited socialist public space in residential areas: greenery, basketball court, park benches, parking spaces, and discreet lighting. Citizens did not expect their park to stand out from the similar parks in the city – it had to be conventional to become a part of their everyday life.

In collaborative work architects assumed a new role: instead of imposing their visions, they built a discussion platform, they mediated to reach an agreement, and they translated agreements into an architectural project. When the agreement was endangered by personal interests, they seeked to preserve the path of discussion. As long as there was a possibility for agreement, there was a reason for public space to be remade. In the process of remaking The Fifth Park, an agreement could not be reached and the demolished park was left unchanged until today. During this period, corruption of the public system has been intensified and privatization of the public spaces has been radicalized.