If one had to choose just one keyword to synthetically characterise the complex reality of urban development in the 20th and early 21st century, one should probably choose the word ‘suburbanisation’. Depending on historical and local conditions, cities have been extending their built-up structures at different pace and in different forms, yet the growth of suburbs appears to be a process that has been taking place in practically every place of the world. Regarding suburbanisation, the opinions from the ecological, social and economical point of view are pretty much divided. Yet particularly one form of suburbanisation has been particularly often criticised from the sustainability point of view. This form is characterised by a scattered, low-density, and often unplanned development pattern, and it is usually called urban sprawl.
It is generally agreed that sprawl was born in the USA with the advent of mass motorisation and low cost mortgage loans. Western Europe and other economically developed countries of the world soon followed suit. However, as it is sometimes argued, in some cases due to more planning restrictions the urban expansion patterns were somewhat less ‘sprawling’, i.e. more compact and more high-density. To some countries urban sprawl arrived with a delay. This is particularly the case of the states of the former socialist block, where the settlement structures were prevented from sprawling by rules that favoured compact and high-density prefab housing estates over single-family homes suburbs. And of course, the low level of economic prosperity as well as the lack of ‘sprawl-friendly’ things like automobiles and mortgages also played a role.
After 1989 the post-socialist countries have begun to ‘mimic’ the western world in many ways. Living in a suburban house, which seemingly combined all the benefits of urban and countryside life came to be seen as the ideal of the new aspiring middle classes. National planning systems, which have now switched the priorities after years of supremacy of the public interest over the private one, tended to favour this pattern. On the other hand, urban regeneration was hampered by unresolved restitution claims, complicated monument preservation requirements, and lack of financial support from the public hand (with some notable exceptions, including in particular cities in eastern Germany).
Until recently, the dominance of suburbanisation as the main process shaping urban structures in the post-socialist context seemed to be undisputed. The perceptions of this phenomenon generally varied from affirmation that sees even the most sprawling forms of suburbs as a ‘natural’ city expansion, to sceptical acceptance that seems suburbanisation as not perfect but unavoidable. Voices of those who argued that actually the post-socialist cities had a high potential of developable land within the built-up structures, were relatively isolated.
Non-sprawling forms of urban growth in post-socialist context emerge with some difficulty. In some cases changes are facilitated by the reversal of demographic processes that have switched from positive growth to shrinkage. Under such circumstances qualitative developments oriented towards certain market niches takes over traditional quantitative growth oriented approach. A notable example is the city of Leipzig, where the number of people moving to the city exceeded the number of those moving to the suburbs. Some unconventional methods were employed, including the construction of new single-family housing on vacant brownfield plots – a measure that raised some controversy, but apparently succeeded in attracting certain population groups.
Notwithstanding the prevalence of suburbanisation processes, reurbanisation has recently become a new keyword to describe the reality of post-socialist urban development. This should not be understood as a massive back-to-the city movement. Rather, it is a sign of multiformity substituting uniformity. It could be said that after the transition the uniform way of socialist urbanism was substituted by a different, but also uniform way of suburban growth. Nowadays, with the advent of differentiating housing preferences, the forces of urbanism do not act only in the centrifugal direction. And apart from that, also certain policies tend to support urban regeneration and in-fill development.
Among them, one should mention particularly the policies of the European Union aimed at supporting urban sustainability. A number of former socialist countries have meanwhile become the member states of the EU. On the one hand, issues related to spatial planning are not a part of the European legislation sensu stricto. On the other, the EU does not only act through direct regulations, but also by recommendations, which are not legally binding, but should be taken into consideration. And, what is also important, the EU grants support funds, and sets the rules of applying for them. In that way, the fact that local authorities were required to elaborate local concepts of urban regeneration helped to move beyond the perspective of urban extension planning.
There is also a range of factors that will tend to prohibit reurbanising tendencies. One of them is the speculation of land. High value plots in central locations offer good possibilities for speculators. However, also a practice that can be called ‘land freezing’ might occur. A speculator buys a plot of land in a prosperity period, and then not being able to develop or sell it before the advent of the recession, he ‘freezes’ it for a number of years in the expectation of a good opportunity. Such a practice seems to be not so uncommon, especially that in most cases the public authorities do not dispose over mechanisms that would stimulate speculators to bring their plots to the market. One of such mechanisms that has been often discussed but rarely implemented, is a special levy on land, which has a high potential rent, but is not effectively used.
To sum up, reurbanisation processes in the post-socialist context are in their beginnings, and what form and extent they will take in the future will depend upon a number of factors. In my opinion, policies will play a significant role in this context. Wherever cities experience demographic or economic growth, they tend to expand their built-up structures. However, to what extent urban growth will result in the emergence of sprawling landscapes, and to what extent it would be accommodated in the framework of in-fill developments and compact urban extensions, depends also upon political decisions.
Adam Radzimski is an urban geographer, postdoctoral research fellow at Gran Sasso Sciencie Institute in L’Aquila, Italy, and assistant professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland (currently in sabbatical). Research interests include urban and housing policies, with a particular focus on the post-socialist context.
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