The place and role of cities is changing dramatically, and critical urbanists offer new ways of analyzing these changes that are making cities more popular in several respects.
This was the message delivered to the audience at this week’s EHU Public Conversation “Popularising Urbanism: Vilnius, Warsaw, Minsk” featuring both EHU Lecturer and Co-Founder of the EHU Laboratory of Critical Urbanism Dr. Benjamin Cope (Oxford University) and urban activist and researcher Andrei Karpeka (EHU, Class of 2015, MA Cultural Studies: Critical Urban Studies), who co-founded the Minsk Urban Platform.
The discussion, moderated by EHU Vice-Rector for Development and Communications Dr. Darius Udrys, focused on the ways in which urbanism is becoming popular. Of these, the speakers noted the following three: urban initiatives are multiplying, public involvement is growing, and cities are often functioning in a mode that is populist (with leaders aiming to curry public favor and increase the prestige of their cities through spectacular urban projects like national stadiums, world-class museums, and the like).
“At a moment when the level of national politics across Europe is characterized primarily by profound disillusionment, disengagement, and stagnation, we see at the city level a profusion of new initiatives attempting to redefine social life through a changed relation with urbanity,” said Cope. “It is our conviction that these initiatives are as ambiguous and problematic as they are innovative and citizen-enabling, and it is this ambivalence that we try to capture with the term ‘popularisation of urbanism.’”
Karpeka, an EHU alumnus who is active not only in Minsk but also regionally, explained how analyzing the sometimes neglected aspects of urbanism that focus on the social impact of decisions that are made on an urban scale can yield insights that help citizens come into dialog with each other and mobilize for more inclusive solutions to urban issues. In Belarus, these initiatives are yielding promising results at the neighborhood level and helping citizens feel a sense of empowerment, pride, and ownership.
As to whether the practice of community involvement and decision making that Karpeka and his colleagues from the Minsk Urban Platform promote in Minsk could lead beyond the neighborhood and create an impact at least citywide, Karpeka is cautiously optimistic, though he also reminded listeners of the stringent restrictions and close government oversight that activists endure in Belarus. For now, the activists and citizens involved in these initiatives work carefully within the system. Yet even so, they can sometimes run into problems.
“In Warsaw, where citizens do not face such restrictions, a reorientation of civic engagement around urban issues is a growing phenomenon, with movements like The City Is Ours emerging in recent city elections as a significant political force,” said Cope.
The speakers admitted, however, that in all three post-socialist capitals average citizens need a nudge as well as some guidance before they start taking responsibility for problems and issues in their neighborhoods. In Minsk, this nudge can come from activists such as those involved in the Minsk Urban Platform, explained Karpeka. Another problem is that a lack of constructive dialog persists between various urban stakeholders, including not only individuals in existing urban communities, but also businesses, politicians, developers, and migrants, as well as different social and economic classes.
To analyze these processes and describe alternatives is a task for critical urbanists in academia as well as urban activists who understand that high-quality city life is about more than just buildings and other infrastructure. It is about how people relate to each other and act together in the spaces they inhabit as well as the feedback effects of those spaces on inhabitants’ relationships and activities.
This new kind of political activism is part of a reconfiguration between activism, politics, business, and academia, the consequences of which are only beginning to emerge. Thus, the questions of who defines how the city becomes popular and how and in what terms it is narrated and valued, is one that has itself become popular; there are a lot of agents involved. What are the causes, potential, and problems of this is something we are exploring, added Cope.
In this context, both Cope and Karpeka argue that students of the humanities and social sciences have a significant role to play in developing the narratives through which the city is understood. Equally, however, these narratives need to be related to the structural conditions in which cities such as Warsaw, Minsk, and Vilnius today find themselves. The comparative optic in which students and faculty at EHU work, moving between Vilnius and Minsk, is a good basis for creative and critical work of this kind.
For more information about EHU Public Conversations, click here. Video excerpts of this EHU Public Conversation will be available soon.
EHU Public Conversations are sponsored by Novotel Vilnius Centre.