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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg March 20, 2018

Postsocialist Informal Urbanism between Creativity and Power. Notes on Four Projects from Romania

  • Şerban Văetişi EMAIL logo


The author illustrates squatting, do-it-yourself urbanism, creative re-appropriation of public space, guerrilla gardening, and artistic occupy-type intervention as forms and evolutions of informal urbanism. By interpreting examples observed in two postsocialist Romanian cities the author comments on the thin boundary between informal and authorized urbanism, and between creativity and power; he interrogates also the key matter of access to the city, with its regulations, resources, and potentialities. His perspective implies an empirical and ethnographic approach to informality, which is analysed in the contexts of privatization logics, especially in relation to the reconfiguration of the public and the private which is so specific to postsocialist transformations. The contrast between grass-roots responses and official projects is seen as decisive in understanding strategies of representations, control of resources, and capital accumulation. Additionally the author suggests the relevance of theorizing such postsocialist urban processes in fruitful but critical comparison with other non-Western forms of urbanism, notably postcolonial ones.

‘If the dichotomy between the planners as creators of the city and the people as its mere users has become blurred, and if creativity and power are distributed in different subjectivities and spatialities, how can we conceptualize the user’s creativity in relation to the city?’ [1]


In this paper I shall refer to four projects of informal urbanism which are guided by authorized institutions and therefore involve a critical idea of informality which I shall discuss further as the major subject of the article. In order to introduce the reader to postsocialist urban transformations in Romania and contextualize urban informality there I shall first of all briefly refer to two illustrative examples and then return later to the four projects which are the focus of this article. Those first two examples will allow me to present some typical reactions of local people affected by urban development matters and will provide the eventual analysis of the contrasting models of actions that urbanites adopt as informal activities. I relied for methodology primarily on illustrative examples of that kind and on case studies in which the empirical situations illustrate my own narrative of the matters discussed. I have employed both direct and mediated observations, as well as websites, social media, and visual content commentary.

My study asks the following questions. First, how successful are projects of informal urbanism, and what aspects or criteria allow them to be described as successful on websites, social media, and in official presentations? I wondered secondly, to what extent do the practices within the projects help produce better urban spaces? How do they create a new kind of urban environment and how is that agreed upon by urban specialists and locals? And finally I asked how, with the help of these projects, do formal official institutions use informality as a tool of accumulation, authority and power? And what are the consequences?

Postsocialist Urban Problems and Local Reactions

In May 2013 in Bucharest in Romania a number of poor families took up residence in what was once a neighbourhood vegetable market. [2] The area is part of the Titan district and lies at the intersection of two boulevards dominated by residential housing. Over the immediately preceding years various commercial units had opened locally, such as convenience stores on the ground floors of blocks of flats, two supermarkets, and a shopping mall; and this process so deeply affected what had been the neighbourhood’s market that it came to be less frequented, until in the end it was abandoned. Nevertheless the market area is still visibly demarcated, for it had a concrete floor and single-room enclosed compartments that had been used either for storage or as sales booths. What was once a public space used to sell fruit and vegetables—still with its concrete tables or what is left of them—has now been adopted as a dwelling by local people who are living there with their families and personal belongings as well as the other things they need to survive, such as carts, boxes, pots and pans, and clothes.

My other preliminary example is from April 2013, when the residents of the suburb of Colonia Sopor in Cluj-Napoca were outraged that the four kilometres of road connecting them to the city had become full of potholes which caused frequent and costly damage to their cars. In response, they decided to repair the road themselves, as a form of protest against a situation that had been dragging on for years and was still unresolved. People purchased construction materials, brought up a horse-drawn cart and a light truck and with wheelbarrows and shovels began to fill in the holes in various sections of the road. [3]

Both Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca, like many other cities in Romania and Eastern Europe have changed dramatically over the last two decades, with public spaces, the urban economy, and the built environment being drastically reconfigured. New commercial and residential areas have been created, old structures have been demolished and new buildings and businesses have been built up. New institutions have emerged, while places formerly frequented by locals have been transformed or have simply disappeared. Certain well known routes once open to all have been blocked by new fences, gates or warning signs, while road connections between new areas that have emerged in the meantime are still waiting to be built.

Urban residents respond to such changes, needs and perplexities in ways as unanticipated by the local authorities as by investors. Despite the ubiquitous redevelopment visible in new buildings, new facilities and new functionalities, other places, communities, and objects, many of them marginal, have been utterly neglected as unprofitable. Working class neighbourhoods, Roma or semirural periurban communities have experienced an obvious setback, as has socialist infrastructure such as factories or marketplaces around which activities had once been organized. In response people have developed forms of ‘ad hoc’ or vernacular urbanism, attempting to adjust to the transformations going on around them.

People affected by the rapid changes occurring in the postsocialist city have waited twenty years, first—following the logic of socialist paternalism—for the state to do something to improve their living conditions and secondly to try somehow to reap the benefits of the privatization which, following the logic of liberal capitalism, has ended up dominating the urban space. A significant number of inhabitants of such cities, of various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds find themselves in the same situation and as the examples above show, communities, families and individuals have begun to react in ways that suggest their inherent critique of urban change.

Usually, adaptation of that sort is not a viable solution but is mostly a short-term remedy. It is relevant or functional only from a ‘tactical’ point of view, as action and reaction. Those squatters in Bucharest will have to find another living space once a new development project materializes on that market ground; the road in Cluj-Napoca, or any other road ‘repaired’ only with inappropriate equipment and enthusiasm by local people will be ruined again by the first heavy rain or snow. But at a more profound level the strategies adopted by such people are a response to the fundamental inaccessibility of the postsocialist city, which has become increasingly obvious since 1989. What is at stake within the postsocialist city is ultimately the matter of spatial accessibility and exclusion; in other words, who will have access to useful, bigger, more beautiful, more profitable (and so on…) spaces? Investors, racketeers, tourists, retired people, the people who pay for the spaces, children, corrupt politicians, the general public; or who…?

The Four Projects. Their Regional and Theoretical Backgrounds

The two major cities mentioned, Bucharest, the capital city of Romania with two million inhabitants, and Cluj-Napoca with 400,000 inhabitants, remain the focus of this article, although there will be brief references to two smaller Romanian cities, Galaţi and Piteşti, as well. The first project, Oraşul Posibil, ‘The Would-Be City’ was first developed in Galaţi and then replicated in Cluj-Napoca. It may be invoked as a general case study to allow understanding of the rationale and mechanisms of developing such projects in recent times in Romania. The other three projects are ‘Landscape Choreography’ and ‘Smart Verdure’, both developed in Cluj-Napoca and finally ‘Street Delivery’, developed in Bucharest. I shall analyse each of them separately and more consistently in an attempt to problematize particular aspects they reveal.

As a background observation it may be said that those cities have experienced processes and forms of response to urban change that can be characterized as informal. Analysis of their specifics still exposes a number of more profound aspects of postsocialist urban transformation, but informal responses to particular urban problems are not confined to the local contexts under discussion here, for similar reactions can be found all over East Central and Southeastern Europe. [4] Indeed, they can be found in other postsocialist countries [5] too, and notably in the postcolonial South. [6] Squatting, or the sort of do-it-yourself urbanism exemplified above can be encountered not only in Romania or Albania, but just as much in Central Asia, South East Asia or, for instance, Kenya. That suggests that this type of analysis may be integrated into a broader urban theory that can be formulated as an analysis of recent urban change not only in the context of the transformation of former Eastern Bloc cities but in contexts of contemporary socioeconomic crises in non-Western urbanism too.

Not only will the following four case studies therefore illustrate informal urbanism in postsocialist Romania but I shall also interpret them as cases that problematize the social-urban difficulties of the region as well as the very notion of informality. The theoretical framework will draw largely on informal urbanism as a challenged notion, as it was recently debated by authors such as Kenny Cupers, Kurt Iveson, and Colin McFarlane. The analysis proposed here will reconsider the topic of urban change in Romania from the perspective of the fragile demarcation between creativity and power, as expressed by the projects discussed.

Privatization, a Key Process

Like other cities of the former Eastern bloc after 1989, Romanian cities too experienced a period of transition from state centralism to the privatization of goods and spaces. That constitutes a central idea in studies of the postsocialist city, and various authors suggest its key importance in characterizing the change from the state centralism that was specific to socialism to the privatization that was specific to postsocialism. [7]

Privatization might take very diverse forms and exhibits legal, semi-legal and illegal aspects of appropriation, as well as a complex set of sociocultural forms of taking possession and expressing such possession. [8] The appropriation of postsocialist urban spaces or objects is a form resulting from legal acts of purchase, ownership, and transformation or regeneration projects, but can also be the result of social practices like occupancy, allotments, closures, markings, ‘personalizations’ or ‘embellishments’. Beyond legal approaches which in many cases are complex, those last require a particular kind of fine-grained anthropological analysis. Moreover, sociocultural attitudes and practices such as those deserve special attention not only because they are often on the edge of legality—their status is often unclear, which could lead to conflict, exclusion, and abuse and might eventually affect the liveability of cities—, but precisely because they are culturally connoted. They are embedded in the complex social and cultural workings of society, requiring an intimate understanding of those social and cultural practices. The complexities and dynamism of postsocialist urban privatization are illustrated in the introductory examples. Although it is not immediately evident, the actions taken by those occupants of an abandoned marketplace in Bucharest and by the repairers of that road in Cluj-Napoca are not in fact simply reactions to present difficulties or to the disadvantages of ‘transition’, but also express a logic of property and privatization manifested at the level of informal reactions.

Such changes, as already suggested, are part of a more profound discussion about access to cities and about how a city’s users respond to its dysfunctional aspects, exclusions, or limitations which they encounter daily. That brings in relevant aspects of how the postsocialist city should be analysed, conceptualized and theorized, and how it can be made functional or useful, aesthetically pleasing, profitable, and used.

As suggested by the introductory examples, urban change after socialism is accompanied by excitement, revolt and informal or alternative—sometimes desperate—responses to what is perceived as hostile or bad or generally lacking urban intervention. I shall now attempt to analyse other kinds of responses to postsocialist urban transformations. They will be conceptual projects of informal urbanism, alongside which I shall reconsider urban change in relation to the aspects highlighted so far, namely informality, creativity, privatization, and accessibility within the city.

Informal Urbanism as Urban Change

One of the most interesting projects aimed at the creativity and potentiality of the postsocialist city in Romania was the Oraşul Posibil / ‘The Would-Be City’ project. It was established as a reflection group called plusminus that sought ways of transmitting to the general public specialized information on architecture and urbanism. Originally it was developed in the city of Galaţi in southeastern Romania and then extended to Cluj-Napoca. In a book bringing together the impressions and knowledge of those involved (architects, sociologists, urban activists), István Pásztor has reviewed the main actions coordinated within that particular project and similar ones in Cluj-Napoca.[9] They can be broadly categorised as ‘do-it-yourself urbanism’, although many of the projects failed to progress beyond the virtual planning stage. They were coordinated by specialists and professionals, so they were not spontaneous responses of the urban social body but rather were educational proposals for what one might construct and label as ‘informal urbanism’. Pásztor notes that many such projects end up being funded by local authorities, cultural institutions, interested companies, governments and ministries. The plusminus project itself is a good example, for it was financed jointly by the Romanian Administration of the National Cultural Fund, the Union of Architects of Romania, and the French Embassy through the Centre d’Action et de Coopération Culturelle. One might ask then, if local authorities, cultural and educational officials, politicians, companies, urban managers and so on approved of such actions and even financed them, does that mean they were successful?

Then, taking into consideration some recent revisions of informal urbanism[10] one might ask also: How do we measure the impact of these informal activities?[11] This question suggests that such actions or projects should be assessed in the light of broader interests and explicit purposes. In other words, the question is to what extent do these practices help produce a new kind of city, and what should such a city look like?

Certainly, assessments of such projects take into account the model of such actions set up by urban professionals and activists. The model is obviously a Western one or, more precisely, what one author has called ‘first world urban activism’.[12] Or, as has been suggested, quite simply the various policies that have supported ‘creativity’ and the concept of the ‘creative city’ in the West have generated on-going niches for artists and activists. Considering that, the question is how the ‘creative class’ and ‘creative urban activists’ in the East mimic this game, follow the pattern, or build such niches?

Thus finally, as Colin McFarlane, writing on the resources and criticism of urban informality, has suggested, we could ask whether the state (or any other body of control and power) has used informality as a tool of accumulation and authority?[13] As I implied above, all these discussions are also about urban resources, access, potentiality, and change. The question is how urban residents, ordinary citizens or professionals have gained access to resources and how they have used those resources to develop particular strategies for urban transformation. Recruiting the city’s potential, as squatters have done as a survival strategy, or engaging in a would-be city project, means building ‘cities within a city’, which is done by ‘both declaring new forms of authority based on a presupposition of the equality of urban inhabitants, and finding ways to stage a disagreement between these competing forms of authority’.[14] That last idea, together with the assumptions stated above, is analysed below with reference to other informal urbanism projects.

Three Recent Cases of Informal Urbanism in Romania

‘Landscape Choreography’ was a project of creative re-appropriation of public space. It was set up by artists, planners, and activists, and conducted in three European cities, Taranto in Italy, Cottbus in Germany, and Cluj-Napoca in Romania.[15] In Cluj-Napoca the project was aimed at transforming a derelict plot at the edge of the Mănăştur working class neighbourhood, an area known locally as La Terenuri (‘In The Fields’). It is an ambiguous unplanned space between a residential area and peri-urban forests and meadows. The project’s goals were to create a community space, to encourage urban gardening, to preserve green spaces and to promote debate and participatory action. In addition, there were to be regular events organized locally.

The plans for informal urbanism implied the exploration and adoption of the La Terenuri site for transformation and renewal, while the idea of ‘choreography’ suggested that the participating bodies would come together to cooperate in the creation or re-assignation of a new urban landscape. The actions included building a theatre stage and seats for the audience using recycled materials, gardening, and activities such as kite workshops for children, and story-telling about the city and its locality. Debate was encouraged about how citizens could participate actively in the life of the city and their neighbourhood, the site’s past was discussed along with its present and future, and there were open air shows with hip-hop and Balkan music and a series of documentary films. The activities were given life by partners such as the Architecture Students Association, the Colectiv A organization, and local media with funds coming from the European Commission via the Romanian Administration of the National Cultural Fund and the Romanian Ministry of Culture.[16]

Verdeaţă isteaţă (‘Smart Verdure’) shares certain similarities with ‘Landscape Choreography’ but is more tightly defined and focused. The actions concern one particular type of urban intervention in urban gardening, in a small patch of the city made up of two small and otherwise unused triangular plots at the intersection of two main roads in the heart of the Mănăştur area. Although the two small plots are in the same neighbourhood as La Terenuri the area is much more visible and considerably better connected, so that Smart Verdure has greater potential to encourage the extension of this pattern of gardening to similar areas in the city. It might even become a recognizable form of urban intervention and urbanism comparable to similar practices in other European cities. The project is part of the ‘Adopt a green space’ programme coordinated by the Cluj-Napoca municipality which proposes, quite simply, that local companies ‘interested in Corporate Social Responsibility,’ should ‘adopt’ a green space in the city ‘for a period of 3 years’. The project recommends that such companies should be prepared to become involved ‘both financially and creatively, so as to add value to these spaces in exchange for transparent public recognition, by placing a sign on the plot informing about their involvement and work’.[17] The project members included The Clinical Institute of Urology and Renal Transplantation, the Eco Ruralis Association, the InfOMG Association, the Colectiv A organization, SC Iris HR Services Ltd., as well as individual volunteers.

From an interview with the organizers of the project published on the Landscape Architects Network’s website, we learn that the programme will last for three years and that the practice of urban gardening inaugurated by it has a dual purpose, both practical and aesthetic. Those involved will grow vegetables on the site and they will introduce flowering plants, lay paths, and decorate the sites with landscape art objects:

‘The desired effect is to create awareness and open up the community to a healthier and more active lifestyle. We are dealing with a project that gives people a public space initially insignificant and unheeded, while calling out into the community to take responsibility for it.’[18]

‘Street Delivery’ is a project in Bucharest but is replicated in other cities in Romania. It is the work of a group of artists, architects and photographers. Their favoured interventions take the form essentially of street happenings to draw attention to the ‘alternative’, experimental and innovative use of urban space. The Bucharest actions focus on the city centre, near various architectural and urban landmarks such as the Anglican Church and the Grădina Icoanei Park and have been supported by among others the Bucharest City Hall, the Architects Chamber of Romania, The Cărtureşti Foundation, Radio Guerrilla, Sony, and Grolsch. According to its manifesto:

‘Street Delivery is campaigning for a city to provide enjoyment to its inhabitants, in a city where pedestrians are to be given the same importance as other road users. We propose to induce the authorities to create a pedestrian cultural route in the Arthur Verona Street area, which will eventually expand to directly connect Grădina Icoanei to Cişmigiu Park. The urban planning objectives include widening sidewalks, creating an underground walkway to cross Magheru Avenue and an underground parking on multiple levels. The new promenade will mainly serve pedestrians and bicyclists, aiming to provide an alternative solution to traffic jams and noisy streets of this area. The promenade will have both utility and a cultural dimension. This means that passers-by can walk and enjoy the city, being able to linger on the café terraces or participate in various outdoor street performances. We are interested in the city, how it works and how it reacts to human intervention. But we are interested equally in people feeling full of life and having goodwill in their interaction with the city. Therefore, for three days a year, Arthur Verona Street closes to cars and opens to people.’[19]

Informal Urbanism. Participation and Reactions

Both participation in and reactions to those projects and activities have been varied. In general, urban residents show curiosity about the principle and a wish to be involved. La Terenuri has become a site of spontaneous parties; the neighbours in Mănăştur have brought seeds and flowering plants from their own homes to be planted in the Verdeaţă isteaţă garden; and Arthur Verona Street has become a promenade for youngsters eager to feel part of an alternative project of urban regeneration. Nevertheless, such actions cannot be classified as spontaneous urbanism nor as ‘self-emergent urbanism’,[20] for they are planned, approved, and sponsored by the local authorities. They are approved by the government, monitored by cultural or commercial bodies and their duration is known and clearly established (‘three years’; ‘three days’) while their expected outcomes or effects are clearly set out in manifestos. Therefore they are not true expressions of ‘spontaneous urbanism’ but forms of ‘tactical urbanism’—however much they imitate spontaneous forms. They are in fact expressions of tactics adopted by local authorities, companies, cultural organizations or artists to promote themselves while transforming spaces. Such activities increasingly imply the blurring of distinctions between urban planning and urban activism in a way not anticipated by classical theorists of active urban transformation.[21] The various actors are allowed to make low-cost urban interventions which the local authorities see as advantageous insofar as they help solve certain specific problems such as with road traffic, the decay of urban spaces or the neglect of objects and functionalities in the city. Although sometimes simply illegal or at best unsanctioned, such interventions ranging from graffiti to ‘creative occupation’ of certain urban spaces have become increasingly popular with municipalities and authorities, and are practised or attended by an active category of ‘cool’, ‘trendy’ or ‘hip’ youngsters.

From another perspective, as long as most such actions manifest themselves as ‘spectacles’ or ‘shows’ one must give equal importance to their audiences, who are the ordinary urban public. One must therefore consider how the public appreciate, consume, and respond to such acts. From that point of view things are not so clear as might seem from the arguments and motives of project promoters. As shown above, even characterization of the projects as informal urbanism might sometimes seem inaccurate as the way behaviours (and even feelings) are suggested and recommended often seems artificial. For instance, the La Terenuri intervention happened in a space that had already been appropriated by the locals for various activities of informal urbanism such as sunbathing on its lawns, picnics, gardening, use as a children’s playground; all of it before the actions proposed by the project and independently of them. Even the kind of parties organized within Landscape Choreography’s activity programme as lists of events to be completed, are being set up anyway even if, of course, with more limited but also more intimate participation. Then, in the case of ‘occupying’ Arthur Verona Street for three days, the feeling that the action (however appealing) was imposed from above appears even more obvious. Even building a cultural pedestrian route—in which ‘the experts’ decide what is ‘cultural’—requires a kind of ‘mandatory’ happiness where participants are all expected to be ‘full of life and in a good mood’. So it is then, that vernacular, informal urbanism and actual urban activities are usurped by the official, ‘co-opted activist’ artificial-informal urbanism.

Critical responses to the initiatives emerged soon after their implementation. In the comments section of the Ziua de Cluj online newspaper which dedicated three articles to the presentation of the Verdeaţă isteaţă project, one could read for example:

‘Another source of stealing for Gypsies’ (flr).

‘Back to the 80s when some people grew vegetables between the blocks and the site looked like hell. One doesn’t have to farm between blocks; so get away with your experiments indicating poverty; they remind us of the food shortages and the hunger in the 80s’ (Cetatean).

‘This is an example of conflict. That uncle joins you, brings his gardening boxes and used tires, and works the land every week. In the end he won’t enjoy his harvest because of the other “willing” people that will take the vegetables thinking it’s a public benefit. The relationships between your hard-working uncle and the “free-loaders” won’t be characterized by harmony and understanding’ (radukku).[22]

In the case of the La Terenuri project a few of the neighbours responded with some radical vernacular ‘feedback’ of their own: they simply destroyed what the activists had built; dozens of tires used as improvised audience seating were thrown into the nearby brook a week after the project began.[23] It seems that certain locals (the organizers blamed youngsters) perceived the programme as imposed from outside, something that troubled their peace, their local customs, and their everyday practices. The place became suddenly animated as the project got going and more and more outsiders came to work on it—and have a bit of fun. Then the press arrived and a few officials; everything surrounding the project gained notoriety and some people did not like that.

Commenting on the residents’ negative reactions to such projects, István Pásztor had this to say:

‘[t]he association of inhabitants we have contacted until now for cooperation are against the reactivation of public spaces in housing estates. Their arguments are matter-of-fact and clear: We don’t want public spaces to be set up because people will not keep off the grass; they will be used by others as well; homeless people will squat; they will be used by children.’[24]

Besides those arguments it may be added, as I have suggested, that some people perceive such projects as imposed by outsiders whose stakes or interests are unknown and are outside local control. People who live near project spaces, especially in working class neighbourhoods, have their own, perhaps unspoken fears. Many are afraid that if public spaces are revitalized then they will lose their semi-legal garage or unofficial parking place; they might lose their garden or their bench or their carpet hanger round the back of the block. Many such amenities exist in such uncertain public spaces. Then, for better or worse, people are sick and tired of being told what they need, so they refuse innovations, preferring the minimal comfort they have built for themselves,

‘so that they can cling to the opportunities of undermining and parasitizing, and impose their individual agendas (garages, parking spaces, avoiding contribution to the maintenance costs, fraudulent fencing off and exploitations of the public space etc.)’.[25]

Such reactions should be considered and in fact expected when there is to be direct involvement of a community in decision-making, such as in the participatory budgeting project developed as a pilot programme in 2013 in the same Mănăştur neighbourhood; and more generally when setting frameworks for professional and public debate in such areas.

Critical Informality, Access to the City, and Power

Criticism of such more or less informal urban actions—some of which are actually rather formal although they might appear informal—is sometimes subsumed within a broader critique, on the one hand of the ‘creative class’ and ‘creative cities’ as exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities, and on the other hand of a lack of efficiency in the development of sustainable economic structures.[26] In the above mentioned postsocialist examples criticism must include the realisation that actions like those can produce new exclusions too, new segregations, new restrictions, new configurations of the public-private relationship. The key problem of access in the city remains therefore a critical question in the context of urban change and urban regeneration.

Thus, although the projects presented here may be seen as responses to situations that had been affecting access, in their turn they produce their own limitations and boundaries, fragmentations and individualizations which in themselves constitute critical questions. Those who occupied the marketplace in Titan, Bucharest (Photo 1), tend to deny access and resist the curiosity of others, such as other needy or homeless people, other ordinary people locally, the authorities, or potential buyers of ‘their’ strip of land. Those who repaired the road in Colonia Sopor in Cluj-Napoca (Photo 2) now tend to consider it a semi-private road belonging to their community, a ‘parochial realm’ as a result of the work done at their own expense to repair it.[27] The artist-activist groups who occupied and transformed more or less abandoned spaces in cities such as Galaţi, Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest tend to perceive their interventions as actions by their own group of professionals, artists, friends and ‘urban experts’ whose mission is to educate the ‘urban population’ through graffiti (Photo 3), creative re-appropriation of public space (Photo 4), guerrilla gardening (Photo 5), or street art happenings and ‘Occupy’ intervention (Photo 6).

Photo 1 
Squatting in Bucharest on the site of a former marketplace, closed down due to commercial development in the area. Source:
Photo 1

Squatting in Bucharest on the site of a former marketplace, closed down due to commercial development in the area. Source:

Photo 2 
Do-it-yourself urbanism in Cluj-Napoca. ‘Volunteering work and civic protest in Colonia Sopor’ / ‘We repair our roads ourselves!’ Source:
Photo 2

Do-it-yourself urbanism in Cluj-Napoca. ‘Volunteering work and civic protest in Colonia Sopor’ / ‘We repair our roads ourselves!’ Source:

Photo 3 
Street art workshop set up by the plusminus association within the Oraşul Posibil /‘The Would-Be City’ project, Galaţi, Romania. Source:
Photo 3

Street art workshop set up by the plusminus association within the Oraşul Posibil /‘The Would-Be City’ project, Galaţi, Romania. Source:

Photo 4 
Setting up the stage at La Terenuri from recyclable materials on an empty space in Mănăştur neighbourhood, within the ‘Landscape Choreography’ international project. Source:
Photo 4

Setting up the stage at La Terenuri from recyclable materials on an empty space in Mănăştur neighbourhood, within the ‘Landscape Choreography’ international project. Source:

Photo 5 
Furnishing an ‘urban garden’ on a strip between traffic lanes, within a volunteering project supported by Cluj-Napoca City Hall. Source:
Photo 5

Furnishing an ‘urban garden’ on a strip between traffic lanes, within a volunteering project supported by Cluj-Napoca City Hall. Source:

Photo 6 
Filling a street in Bucharest with familiar home objects as an expression of conviviality and care for urban areas. Source:
Photo 6

Filling a street in Bucharest with familiar home objects as an expression of conviviality and care for urban areas. Source:

They set themselves up, then, as quasi-exclusivist ‘occupation’ artist groups, urban communities and networks of urban activists who tend to deny access to others as they are aware that their work is for a symbolic capital. As we have seen, although their projects are predominantly outside-funded, once they have transformed spaces activists tend to perceive them as their own ‘playgrounds’, to the cost of others.[28] They proceed to talk of them as ‘their’ projects, which they then accumulate in a series of other projects. They list them in social networks with their friends, and see them as activities relevant to the professional bodies to which they belong and add them to the record of winning projects in their individual CVs. Thus, although the projects might be intended to be open to the city and at their announcement are offered as public interventions and events, they tend to acquire an air of private urban entrepreneurialism with attendant limitations and conditions of access, further inscribed into a competitive logic within the paradigm of the entrepreneurial city.[29] Although such projects rely on use of a city’s unexplored potential they consume many resources, including funding from local budgets. They target certain symbolic benefits and commercial interests as if they were specific individual interests. They can generate tension, or at least misunderstanding. Finally, although they invoke a problem-solving approach they are generally projects funded from above and they follow existing, mostly Western, models and the ‘franchises’ of international projects. Despite their informal appearance then, actually they neither continue nor even connect with the sort of previously existing informal practice so characteristic of both the socialist and postsocialist periods in disadvantaged or working class communities. Consequently, as we have seen, they appear somewhat like formulas enforced by the authorities which locals sometimes react against. In that sense the ‘insurgents’ are the targeted residents, not the activists helping with transforming some locality or another. In response to the misunderstanding and resistance shown to such projects by local residents, discourses expressed by activists tend to be moralizing and ‘Westernized-civilizing’.

For example, one individual who had commented on an online article about the Verdeaţă isteaţă project was lectured by one of the organizers, who said that ‘edible plants in urban areas are a “concept” which already belongs to a global movement’ (Adela); while another commenter justified the practice by invoking as examples the ‘civilized cities’ of London and Berlin where ‘entire acres of green areas are landscaped in this way’ (Dan).[30] In addition, a number of comments noted this inadequacy with regard to the local culture, for example:

‘However, the most difficult question refers to the sustainability of the project. Do you think that after three years without further involvement of the organizers, the tradition of community urban agriculture will continue? I doubt it. I like the idea. Probably it is written well, but I find no reason to present it using sophisticated language. It is a very modern idea, very Western. Unfortunately, I think, too Western.’ (radukku)[31]

Ultimately, critical responses like that are derived from the complexity of the very concept of ‘informal urbanism’ and its applicability. The term is applicable to everything from slums, ghettos, and working class areas to central areas in cities, the new middle-class neighbourhoods and sites along commercial arteries. Informal urbanism is conceptualized for both derelict buildings and fancy art workshops, as much for gentrified areas animated by the ‘creative class’ as for areas of urban blight. We must therefore understand the similarities, so that we can apply the same term to actions that might have divergent purposes. What are their actual purposes? And what are the differences?

From this formal point of view the action of the needy who occupied the old vegetable market in a working class area of Bucharest (Photo 1) is very similar to that of the urbanites who during a cultural event ‘occupied’ a central street of the same city of Bucharest (Photo 6). So although squatting is similar in form to the artistic occupy-type happenings in that both include the practice of bringing domestic objects to ‘exhibit’ in public places, nevertheless they are different and that fact should draw our attention to the typology of participation in such activities, and to their reception, and effectiveness. Paradoxically, although reactions to the first type of occupation (Photo 1) are often considerably more negative—sometimes betraying a racist element—as compared to the more understanding and sympathetic reception of the second type (Photo 6), the first type is much more efficient under the logic of utilizing urban space and urban resources. That is because the first, as a desperate squatter settlement, is the result of necessity while the second is something of a game that mimics the alternative/informal type of Western urbanism and is therefore ‘occupying’ as a sort of ludic-cultural project.

The goals, stakes, interests and resources of these projects can be very different and cities certainly cannot be radically transformed by them. The concept of ‘self-made cities’ is probably utopian, for cities are not made by their residents; and perhaps that is a good thing. Therefore it might not be necessary to perpetuate the illusion by claiming that all urban residents have equal access to city resources, or by staging projects imposed from above as intentional actions of ‘play, parties and goodwill’.[32] All these critical observations are relevant to what I shall now develop in the last section as a theoretical discussion of how postsocialist informal urbanism contributes to global urban theory. With this discussion I shall attempt to compare postsocialist urbanism with postcolonial urbanism.

Postsocialism, Informality, and Global Urbanism

Colonialism, in many ways like socialism, was a project of modernization and discipline in which towns and cities were reconfigured as spaces of social control dominated by material and symbolic elements affirming political power.[33] Both types of urbanism represented ambivalent spaces subjected to a powerful control system, but characterized by relative autonomy.[34] In both types of city therefore informality—social, economic, ultimately urban informality—could emerge as a powerful element of resistance or survival that was tacitly accepted by the authorities. Regarding that aspect of informality especially, I consider a fruitful comparison can be made between socialism and colonialism and the aftermaths of each, as a contribution to an integrative analysis of urban postsocialism within the global urban theory.

I think that which can be usefully compared is not so much the political economic regimes but how people treat space. I would therefore suggest an anthropological comparison considering how people respond to similar forms, or corresponding global trends. What unifies the discourse is not automatically a symmetrical paradigm but a ‘post-post’ approach which refers to global urbanism but not necessarily to the ‘legacy’ of former regimes. From that point of view the comparison is practical primarily because it can provide a contribution to global, non-Western, urbanism. At the same time such a comparison reveals the theoretical relevance—far less noticed—of postsocialist urbanism. Such comparison comprehends the purpose of discovering ‘its potential to push issues of general concern in urban research’.[35]

Thus, comparison of postcolonial with postsocialist urbanism remains useful for what concerns forms of informal urbanism such as those that developed in response to the limitations and imperfections of urban organization, as well as for projects which in their own way generated new exclusions and new segregations during the ‘post-’ periods. The importance of informality was recognized as characteristic of those societies long before the establishment of the modernizing colonial and socialist regimes. Informal practices in fact continued throughout both the colonial and socialist periods, so we can now say that they have a ‘tradition’. Developing informal solutions where formal institutions have failed to address the many socioeconomic questions is generally seen as one of the basic characteristics of the colonial and socialist worlds and what came after them. Now that it is established as a ‘cultural tradition’ and ‘social characteristic’ it is not surprising to see informality inserted into secondary, but profitable, discourses and actions such as tourism or creative interventions. In the postcolonial case, for example, various sorts of informality, from picturesque home bricolages to slum survival skills are made ‘marketable’ by tourist companies so that they can be ‘sold’ to tourists, ultimately shaping the image of postcolonial cities as ‘informal’.[36] For example, what sort of pictures are taken by tourists visiting such cities? Of course, they photograph informal settlements as elements of local ‘authenticity’ and ‘tradition’.[37]

Socialist societies have a similar tradition of informality, which also exudes an aura of the ‘authenticity’ of a region. Informality was important in socialist societies, especially as a response to the ‘economy of shortage’ but also as a cultural strategy in the face of official political control. An example is the grassroots samizdat practice for which informal publications became more helpful and informative than the formal official ones.[38] That informality was reflected in the organization of urban space such as connections among neighbours, the use of space including surplus micro-spaces, informal appropriations, and so on. Similarly with the evolution in the postcolonial space of informality as tradition, iconic element and life strategy, we can track the continuity of informal practices in postsocialism. Thus in the context of the economic crisis of the 2010s certain efficient forms from the 1980s have recurred or been reinvented. There are many examples, such as the reinvention of the corner shop, which after a period of glorification of the supermarket was reinstated as a much-needed specific form of proximity shopping in connection with previously existing sociability. As a result many informal expressions of socioeconomic relationships that existed in the 1980s have now been reconstituted, especially in working-class areas. The tradition is not necessarily derived only from economic crisis or poverty but also from a perception of the need for informal proximity, which also involves consumption on informal credit or borrowing from neighbours as both economic and social practices. They restore certain informal and creative practices of using the neighbouring space, whether that be the entrance hall or even the access road to the block of flats, daily trips to the vegetable market or the bus station, going to church or visits to the playground, and so on. Each of those routes, through practices of proximity, personalization, and informality resists aggressive commodification. To the eye of an outsider they appear inefficient and aesthetically unpleasing but to a certain extent at least they are deliberately kept like that, as a form of resistance to the commodification and liberalization of spaces and practices.

On the other hand, informality can be seen as the negative image of ‘formal’ practice which ‘recognizes and strengthens the Western idea of the legal, rational, capitalistic (financial), public, and institutional’.[39] From that viewpoint informality emerges from an external logic as something inappropriate to the Western model and therefore as an ‘obstacle’ to the process of transition. The adoption by the municipality of alternative urban projects may be regarded as a form of accommodation and incorporation of informality and as an attempt to present it using formal and acceptable expressions. Such strategies of formalization might suggest that informal urbanism can remain resistant to neoliberal capitalism and to practices limiting access to cities only if it is not incorporated into the political economy, neoliberal projects of urban regeneration, or private interests.

The foregoing observations form part of the growing interest in global urban research intended to investigate how urban spaces and practices can become critical to the interests of major corporations and international developers who, on the pretext of ‘investment’ or ‘regeneration’ of urban spaces substantially and irrevocably affect the socioeconomic fabric on which urban life relies. The ‘neo-colonialism’ of certain development projects is therefore one of the most prolific critical topics of recent urban transformation. Many projects presenting themselves as ‘alternative’ cannot be separated from other processes of urban transformation that are clearly driven by the logic of profit and the exploitation of resources. Such projects are of forms similar to those of neo-colonial projects such as ‘gentrification’, for example. As Kenny Cupers noted, writing on the particularities of ‘do-it-yourself urbanism’:

‘Squatters often discover hidden potentialities in the voids of the urban landscape, but as soon as they have reached a certain gravity or influence, they tend to be taken on board by more powerful cultural industries—signifying a process […] that has transformed many post-industrial empty areas into “cultural quarters”.’[40]

Arthur Verona Street in Bucharest or La Terenuri in Cluj-Napoca will become only more attractive for investment after their inclusion in mass-mediated creative projects. That will destroy not only the socioeconomic characteristics of such areas in ways similar to those typical of gentrifying scenarios but also, and all in the name of the required ‘artistic’ or ‘creative’ variety of ‘informal urbanism’, it will sweep away the existing genuine informality they exhibit as urban sites and communities.

That sweeping away may be seen as a strategy, since similar abuses of informality can be detected in other approaches, not only in the domain of artistic and creative interventions. For example, referring to the informal occupation of abandoned buildings (informal housing settlements), Sasha Tsenkova has noticed another interesting plan. Since many abandoned dwellings represent an opportunity to take over housing of good quality with acceptable infrastructure, certain speculators favour such dwellings despite their uncertain legal status and restrictions regarding modification of the houses. In such cases, informal urbanism ultimately refers to a resource accessible to certain property speculators who then utilize it through abuse and corruption to bypass complex uncertainties or legal restrictions, and gain rapid enrichment through investment and resale. Such constructions not only circumvent the legal aspect of particular areas of housing but as a type of urban development they lie outside any zoning plans. The visible result is the creation of residential units, or even larger residential areas, without even the minimum urbanistic integration or infrastructure facilities or access. Tsenkova invokes here the city of Piteşti as typical of development in all Romanian cities:

‘The illegal subdivision in the city of Piteşti, Romania, emerged very quickly following the restitution of agricultural land on the outskirts. The new owners quickly subdivided the land of 4.1 hectares conveniently located next to a housing estate […]. Today, close to 105 new houses at various stages of construction boast a mix of urban and rural lifestyle.’[41]

In the words of Colin McFarlane informal urbanism is part of a global ‘idiom of urbanization’, a ‘discursive’ expression through which a series of interests are activated in the name of what are in fact false alternative visions in ‘developing countries’.[42] Not only does the distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ collapse within global marginal practices, such as those in postsocialist Europe or in the postcolonial Global South, but even the idea of alternatives for a better urban life is undermined.

According to Mirko Zardini, informal urbanism should ‘propose alternative lifestyles, reinvent our daily lives, and reoccupy urban space with new uses’.[43] With that as its goal informal urbanism should be considered the alternative to corruption, segregation, inequality, neoliberalism, and so on. However, in many cases forms, actions and projects announced as informal urbanism are co-opted into objectionable practices and unsustainable development plans by cities that on the contrary are characterized by corruption, segregation, inequality, and neoliberalism. Any critical or emancipatory potential of such actions is therefore immediately cancelled, as is access to both information and spaces, and participation in urban processes is impossible. The postsocialist city, like the postcolonial city is ‘used’ as a source of power and capital accumulation and ‘is made possible through an idiom of planning whose key feature is informality’,[44] thus continuing and even relying on practices developed historically within it. Now such practices are adopted by new elites and ‘the consequence is an ontology of the city that is always already formal and informal, and that is fundamentally constituted by fragmentation’.[45]

As I have tried here to show, the characteristic fragmentation of postsocialist cities is more complex and subtle than a simple matter of the utilized versus the unutilized, rich versus poor, public versus private, or accessible versus inaccessible. Rather, it is part of continual urban change and is a key element of the tactics and policies—some very formal or strategic—of informal urbanism. These are ultimately specific practices of a broader space than the postsocialist one and may therefore be considered relevant to an understanding of certain global phenomena.

One of the purposes of this paper was to reconsider urban change in post-socialism in the light of informal urban practices. The critical interpretation of its major points and of its illustrative examples reveals how they can provide a more nuanced analysis of transformation, strategy, resources, and the potential of cities in the context of recent debate about global urbanism. They offer a possible comparison between postsocialist and postcolonial cities, regarding primarily the aspect of informal practices which I have revisited here from a more critical and complex perspective than that offered by the usual discourses on and idioms of urbanization.

Şerban Văetişi is a Lecturer in the Faculty of European Studies at Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca.

Published Online: 2018-03-20
Published in Print: 2018-03-26

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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