Vol. 3, No. 24 (December 15, 2010)

Transforming public spaces in post-Socialist cities

Leyla Sayfutdinova
PhD candidate
Middle East Technical University, Turkey

Urban public spaces are important local intersections where economic, political and social relations are revealed and played out.  For this reason, the transformation of public space in post-socialist cities is especially important for understanding state-society relations and their change in post-socialist contexts.  In Western literature, the origins of urban public space are often traced back to the agora of the Greek city-states (Neal 2009, p. 5; Mitchell, 1995/2009, p. 88).  The agora, translated as a gathering place, was an open area in the center of the city where all citizens could gather and participate in a variety of political, religious, and social activities.  These two features—accessibility and openness on the one hand, and the plurality of activities on the other—are the most important characteristics of the urban public space in modern age as well.  In capitalist cities, the most contested issue is the privatization of public space, and therefore lack of openness, accessibility and deterioration of truly public character of those spaces.  In contrast, in socialist cities the public spaces were indeed more open and accessible, however the variety of activities in such spaces was rather limited and focused mostly on recreation and official demonstration, as opposed to informal politics and commerce.  The post-socialist transformations have changed this situation profoundly.  

Despite some variations, these changes have included in all cases the privatization of land and housing with the introduction of a real estate market, the decentralization of political power at least initially, and the emergence of new power centers in the cities as a result of the weakening of state authority (Sailer-Fliege 1999, p. 11).  Another significant change involved the shift from industry-dominated urban economies towards the service oriented ones, a profoundly important change because it created two classes of cities, “winners” and “losers” in the transition (Kovacs 1999, p. 5; Sailer-Fliege 1999, p. 11).  And finally, while the transition opened the way to international investment as part of globalization, not all cities benefited equally (Stanilov 2007a, p. 75). 

All these changes have had a major impact on the urban public spaces.  In most of the post-socialist cities, there has been a reduction in the total area of public space, largely as a result of privatization or the return of buildings to their pre-socialist owners (Stanilov 2007b, p. 269).  This was especially destructive for smaller public spaces such as playgrounds, small gardens and pieces of greenery in residential areas, as new owners exercised their newly acquired property rights.  Although this has created tensions between old residents/tenants who did not want to lose the public space and new owners, those tensions were overwhelmingly resolved in favor of the new owners, as authorities sided with them.  And in a related development, there has been the rise of shopping centers and office buildings in the urban periphery, which earlier served as “the green belt” of the cities (Stanilov 2007a, p. 82).  In some places, these forces reduced the amount of green space by half in only a few years (Granitska 2005, cited in Stanilov 2007b, p. 272).

Overall, commercialization of public space has been a defining feature of its transformation.  After the economic reform, a ‘retail explosion’ took place (Stanilov 2007a, p. 87).  Immediately after liberalization of economy, street trade and small shops proliferated, and as a result, not only streets but also other public spaces such as parks and squares were turned into improvised retail markets.  The public spaces for once began to resemble the archetypical agoras.  The street trade period subsided by the end of 1990s, and in the 2000s the next phase of retail commercialization began, with the construction of large shopping centers and supermarkets (Stanilov 2007a, p. 88), and thus the commercial activity shifted from public spaces to pseudo-public.  Gated communities also proliferated rapidly, thus taking up formerly public land for private purposes. 

The remaining parks and plazas have also undergone changes.  Many of them were renamed and assigned either old pre-socialist or completely new names.  The extensive monument complexes of the socialist period are sometimes preserved, but more often they were either destroyed, reconstructed, or left to decline.  Commercialization of the remaining public spaces has involved both street trade, although at a lesser scale than in early 1990s, and more upscale developments such as open-air cafes.

In order to understand these processes more fully, it is useful to examine one of the “winner” cities, Budapest in Hungary, and one of the “loser” cities in Siberia.  In Hungary, as elsewhere, the post-socialist transformation began with large-scale privatization of both land and housing.  Housing was mostly privatized by the current tenants—unlike Czech Republic and Baltic states, Hungary did not implement restitution of property to the old owners.  Instead, the old owners were offered compensation in the form of vouchers (Dingsdale 1999, p. 57).  The newly organized local government adopted an entrepreneurial approach and was eager to sell off its land assets.  Thus, an intensive real estate development began in Budapest.  Hungary in general and Budapest in particular have been very successful in attracting foreign investment, and real estate has been an important part of this process.  The vacant plots in city center were the first ones to be developed, mostly by Austrian companies, mainly for office space (Tosics 2006, p. 136).  Another major development was the construction of shopping centers and hypermarkets.  These were usually built in the “inner periphery” areas of the city.  The positive effect of this process was that it revitalized some of the old industrial sites, which have been largely left to decay in the post-socialist period (Tosics 2006, p. 138).  But at the same time, green areas in the inner center have been affected by the residential construction, triggering conflicts between old and new residents (Tosics 2006, p. 143). 

Another interesting development in Budapest has been the growth of gated communities.  In fact, as Bodnar and Molnar (2009) argue, the term is rather misleading since they are rarely physically gated.  They suggest calling these new forms “residential parks” as real estate firms there and in Germany do (Bodnar and Molnar 2009, p. 7).  The construction of these complexes has led to a (re)negotiation of private and public space in Budapest.  The developers often favor the districts with large green areas and open access to river.  These, however, are usually protected areas, and the access to river in particular is problematic, since the legislation establishes a 30-meter special regulation zone along the Danube embankment.  The local government which does not have resources of its own has used existing legislation to pressure the private developers into investing in public projects, such as Marina Park.  This is an upscale complex on the Pest side of Danube, offering river view, luxury services, and marina to its residents.  In exchange, they were required by the government to build a large public park with a bicycle lane along the embankment.  There are, however, continued concerns as to how public and open this space will be in practice, since the entrance to the park is controlled despite the regulations (Bodnar and Molnar 2009, pp. 11-13).

While restructuring of the public space in Budapest is rather well described, the use of it remains less known.  An example of a post-socialist transformation of use of public space can be found in Bodnar (1998).  Moscow square, renamed in 1990s to the original “Elizabeth” is still commonly referred to with its socialist name.  Originally a clay pit in 17th century, it had since been a site for brick factory transformed into a skating ring at the turn of 20th century; during the World War II, it became a busy traffic center with tram terminal and bus stops.  In 1972, its transportation function was enhanced even further with the opening of underground station.  Its location within the city is important, as it connects the inner city with the hilly suburbs of Buda.  Throughout the day, the square is used by different groups of people, some of which pass through it on the way while others come to stay.  Early in the morning the square is used as an unofficial labor market; the supply of unskilled and low skilled labor is provided by ethnic Magyar men from Romania.  Later in the morning appear elderly ladies selling flowers and other small items, representing the continuation of a tolerated socialist practice.  They are followed by ethnic Magyar rural women from Romania, selling their hand-made needlework.  At the opposite side of the square Hungarian Roma women sell cheap low quality products, from watches to underwear.  There are also street singers (Ukrainian), charity workers distributing food, and beggars.  The activities, in addition to transport, commerce, begging and charity, also include politics, as political parties often come here to gather support (Bodnar 1998, pp. 492-496).  In addition to these largely informal activities, there are a number of established commercial enterprises, from fast-food stalls right on the square to nightclubs and real estate agencies in the surrounding buildings.  Finally, there is the police surveillance, not very visible but always present; resolving arising conflicts between different groups of vendors, sometimes pocketing their profits, but ignoring, for example, the labor market in which employers pay neither taxes nor social security benefits. 

The Moscow square is a great example of the public space transformation in a post-socialist city.  All the activities that were forbidden in socialist times, the commerce and the politics, are present there.  So is the visibility of poverty, thanks to beggars and homeless coming to get their free soup.  Other changes include two kindergartens that were closed down, thus illustrating the shrinkage of public services in the city.  Another issue is the change (or lack) of public order: in socialist times, the Moscow square was apparently a much more ordered space.  And overall, the square became a polarized and conflict ridden space, similar to many such spaces in the west. 

The mono-functional cities in Russia present a rather different picture.  They have been hit the hardest by the post-socialist transformation and the de-industrialization this has entailed because their economies were based on a single industry (Molodikova and Makhrova 2007, p. 64).  By the time of transition in 1989, about half of cities in Russia had been in the mono-functional category.  Most are relatively new, a majority are in Siberia and the Far East and all are linked to a hierarchical urban network connecting them to larger, more mixed economy urban centers in the South (Engel 2007, pp. 285-286). 

Barbara Engel bases her analysis on three mono-functional cities in Northern Siberia—Angarsk, Sajansk and Ust-Ilimsk.  In terms of urban design, these cities were new and socialist and did not have any pre-socialist characteristics.  In practice, this meant construction of monotonous blocks and geometrical grids of streets.  The open public space was abundant, and included urban squares, parks and boulevards.  In addition, there were also vast expanses of “poorly differentiated open space” between buildings (Engel 2007, p. 296).  The primary function of the squares was the demonstration of political power and they were used mostly for parades and other public celebrations on major Soviet holidays.  There were also a number of smaller public spaces and various facilities for sports and recreation.  Like the cities of which they were a part, such places were also mono-functional. 

In general, according to Engel, in the socialist period the public spaces in these cities were under-utilized, because of their abundance and limited number of approved uses (Engel 2007, p. 291).  The privatization and more generally the post-socialist transformation have changed this situation dramatically.  The mono-functional cities faced serious out-migration, but because of economic decline, they still had massive unemployment (Engel 2007, p. 296).  As in Central and Easter Europe, the state largely withdrew from maintenance of urban space.  The privatization appears to have taken place without any regulation by state.  Small public spaces, such as children playgrounds, neighborhood parks and so on, disappeared.  Streets and larger open spaces became the arena of unregulated street trade.  And automobile congestion exploded.  

Engel’s analysis focuses on the appropriation of public space, not on its actual use.  Thus, her account does not say much about the use of public spaces, the conflicts around them in the post-socialist period.  Lack of other studies on these cities makes it difficult to generalize, but from her account, it does appear that the public space in mono-functional cities is in decline, both in terms of reduction of its area and appropriation by private owners.  Her main conclusion is that the development of urban space in these cities in the post-socialist period is chaotic and not regulated because of the weakness and lack of resources of the local government.  The solution, in her view, would be to decentralize the government structure and allow local governments more powers to regulate the private sector activities in the public space (Engel 2007, p. 298). 

The comparison of “winner” and “loser” cities shows important similarities in the post-socialist transformation of public space.  In both cases, the post-socialist transformation of urban public space meant, first, the reduction of total area of such space, and second, the increasing diversity in its use.  The privatization and the withdrawal of the state from many of its public duties, such as maintenance and provision of public services, are also common.  However, the state is neither absent nor neutral: it performs surveillance and control, and is actively in the structuring of the remaining public spaces through engagement with private interests. 


Bodnar, J. (1998) “Assembling the Square: Social Transformation in Public Space and the Broken Mirage of Second Economy in Post-socialist Budapest”, Slavic Review, Vol. 57, No. 3, pp. 489-515

Bodnar, J. and V. Molnar (2009) “Reconfiguring Private and Public: State, Capital and New Housing Developments in Budapest and Berlin”, Urban Studies, OnlineFirst, 7 December, doi:10.1177/0042098009351188, pp. 1-24. 

Engel, B. (2007) “Public Space in the ‘Blue Cities’ of Russia”, in Stanilov, K. (ed.) The Post-Socialist City, Springer, pp. 285-300. 

Molodikova, I. and A. Makhrova (2007) “Urbanization Patterns in Russia in the Post-Soviet Era”, in Stanilov, K. (ed.) The Post-Socialist City, Springer, pp. 53-70.

Mitchell, D. (1995) “The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 85, No. 1, pp. 108-131. Reprinted in: Orum, A., Z. P. Neal (eds.) (2009) Common Ground?: Readings and Reflections on Public Space, New York: Taylor and Francis, pp. 83-99

Neal, Z. (2009) “Locating Public Space”, in Orum, A., Z. P. Neal (eds.) Common Ground?: Readings and Reflections on Public Space, New York: Taylor and Francis, pp. 1-12.

Sailer-Fliege, U. (1999) Characteristics of Post-Socialist Urban Transformation in East Central Europe, GeoJournal, Vol. 49, pp. 7-16.

Stanilov, K. (2007a) “The Restructuring of the Non-Residential Uses in the Post-Socialist Metropolis”, in Stanilov, K. (ed.) The Post-Socialist City, Springer, pp. 73-79. 

Stanilov, K. (2007b) “Democracy, Markets, and Public Space in the Transitional Societies of Central and Eastern Europe”, in Stanilov, K. (ed.) The Post-Socialist City, Springer, pp. 269-283. 

Tosics, I. (2006) “Spatial Restructuring in Post-socialist Budapest”, in Tsenkova, S and Z. Nedovic-Budic (eds.) The Urban Mosaic of Post-Socialist Europe: Space, Institutions, and Policy, Heidelberg and New York: Physica-Verlag, pp. 131-150.