Contested Space in Post-Socialist Sofia - Reading Negative Space as Urban Landscape

The urban landscape at large is a cultural product. The concept of cultural landscape studies integrates the social, cultural and spatial aspects of landscape (FRANZEN / KREBS 2005). It is seen necessary not only to regard the physical attributes of space but also to understand human work as cultural imprint in physical space. As the urban environment has been produced by man, it is to be conceived as a cultural expression of a social formation, in both its positive and negative spatial form. With the emergence of Cultural sciences, the 'other' as a differentiated view on society, culture and space has been introduced. Terms like race, class and gender highlight particular, underexposed perceptions of space to focus on discrimination, precarious positions and imbalances. The representation of power in space, the availability of space for certain social groups and processes of upgrading, displacement and reinterpretation are discussed in the discourse about contested space. Discussing urban space in post-socialist Sofia, the social content of space is regarded with the concept of contested space. Introducing the term 'negative space' enables for detecting the meaning and the attributes of those spaces.

    • Negative space

The artistic research group Stalker brings the term negative space into discussion: “Many contemporary cities are divided into two different perspectives or zones: The first, which we consider to be the positive one, is where we all live and act as a society at large. It is the normal urban development pattern. The second, the negative one, contains abandoned areas or spaces that are not useful for the positive pattern, but nonetheless exist in an osmotic relationship with it” (STALKER 2006). The significant content of a given landscape is of relevant in this approach. While the positive form of space is seen as signified – filled and defined with relevance, the negative space has lost its relevant content – it is perceived as non-significant, marginal and empty. This process of assignation is interacting with dominant societal values and modes of accumulation. Thus it is important to regard space not only in its physical structure but also in the signified context of its content (RODE 2007). “The interplay of specific, defined sites produces the conception / idea of landscape” (SAUER 1925). While the signified urban landscape is made up by signified places, negative space is made up by non- or designified spaces. Signified urban space is commonly connoted with the topographical centre of a city – places of political and economic power, historically meaningful places, representative space. Negative space is conceived as undefined in the sense that it hasn’t been designed for a super ordinate purpose and thus has no defined contribution to the city’s image. It can be seen as the spatial waste of a dominant formation and as this it contains the formation’s values and specific attributes but not in a positive and conscious way, but in a negative, remote mode. Out of this configuration, the attributes of those spaces are described as anaesthetic with a relation to the subconsciousness of society (WELSCH 1990). Indeterminacy, indefiniteness, transitoriness as attributes are brought forward by the concept of ephemeral landscape (QVISTRÖM / SALTZMAN 2006). Focusing on the everyday aspects of landscape, it refers to the vernacular landscapes of J. B. Jackson (JACKSON 1984). The physical structure of those landscapes is characterised by its ephemerality, which is related to short-living social and cultural dimensions. It forms a counterpoint of the permanence of built, signified structures. Thus one relevant aspect in the reflection of negative space is the process of transformation. In setting the focus on this process, the permanent renegotiation and reinterpretation of ephemeral landscapes becomes evident and reflects the relation to durability. The integration of landscape and urban development is discussed in the recent discourse about landscape urbanism. The potentials, attributes and the constitution of urban landscape are forming the basis point for this approach. Attributes as organizational systems, performative agendas, formal languages, material palettes, signifying content (CZERNIAK 2006) are expanding the conventional view on landscape as a physical terrain which offers views and provides for ecological values but enrich it with social and cultural contents.

    • Post-socialist Sofia

The group Stalker takes the amount of negative space as an indication for the wealth of a city. The approach of regulation theory (BECKER 2002) sees those spaces as a manifestation of a formative crisis, while positive space express a stable societal development. In post-socialist landscape of Sofia, both conclusions are appropriate. The transformation process since 1989 has changed societal values, economic structures and urban space fundamentally. The conception of society in general and of a city in particular has changed from a centralized planned, controlled and homogenized subject to an individualistic, liberated and often disoriented flow of contradictory interests. The processes of privatisation and restitution set the basis for a reallocation of urban land with massive effects on the quantity and quality of urban green space. Fragmentation, degradation and indeterminacy are prevalent in the urban landscape of Sofia. The contentions and contradictions between the existing spatial and social structures and the new conceptions will be presented in two case studies. The one on the housing estate of Mladost focusses on the effects of the restitution of open space in an residential area. The example of the southern territories present the conditions of a 'diffuse' area - an edging, negative space, on which commercial interests have been put recently. Privatisation and restitution The overall principle of privatising public property has been implemented quite radically in Sofia, comprehending municipal enterprises, services and non-housing municipal property used for economic activities. Different forms of governing techniques can be distinguished in the issue of land management. These are founded in the two different forms of public ownership of land: public and private municipal ownership. While the first one is to be described stable in its status and not for sale, the latter one is open for status changes and can be transferred to private ownership. It is largely unclear, how the procedure of categorizing publicly owned land works and who the decision makers in this procedure are. Due to this intransparency, a considerable amount of public green space has been sold off to private individuals or business (GRIMM-PRETNER ET AL 2006). The effect of this course of action is best seen along the edges of public parks in Sofia, where petrol stations, business areas and shopping centres have been established. This means not only a quantitative loss of green spaces but also a cutting off, fragmentation and degradation of certain areas of public parks. In 1992, the "Restitution of Nationalised Real Property Act" set the basis for the return of unbuilt plots of land onto the former owners or their successors in law. As this act has been agreed upon on constitutional level, all other regulations on local level are of minor relevance. The restitution process primarily focuses on unbuilt plots of land. The green infrastructure, which has been established in the socialist era (as large public parks, the green system of the prefabricated housing estates etc.) is therefore mainly affected. Housing estate Mladost The district of Mladost is situated in the south eastern part of Sofia. As a typical socialist housing estate from the 1960´s and 1970´s, it has been developed on nationalised ground of former agricultural land at the edge of the densely built up city area. It consists of five areas, with 424 blocks of flats and a population of approximately 110.000 inhabitants. The restitution meant in the first step a privatisation of public ground, this was often followed by the conversion and selling-on of the plots with the aim of gaining profit. The restituted plots in the housing estates were classified as urbanized land, although their original status was agricultural land. This meant not only a raise in the value of the plots but also the opportunity to easily get a construction permit. The ongoing process led to a massive change in the spatial organisation of the open spaces within the housing estate, without following any planning principle. It resulted in a densification of the built structure - through the construction of new residential buildings or small offices - a fragmentation of the open space system - the conversion of playgrounds, sports facilities and recreational areas into parking lots or fenced areas, interrupting interior traffic relations (both walking and motorized traffic relations) - and in a provision with infrastructure such as petrol stations, car wash, super markets or restaurants. Not only the physical structure of the open space system has been fragmented but also the cultural meaning of the open space system has been damaged. As the restitution process is still ongoing, there is no certainty, how a given plot of land will develop in next future. This results in neglecting the remaining open spaces, in lacking responsibilities for maintenance and investment and in a general marginalisation of public open spaces. It is not only that there is a lack of financial resources in the budget of the local administration, but also a lack of concepts and instruments for a comprehensive and sustainable development. The intransparency of these processes and the uncertain status of the remained open spaces led to a feeling of distrust from the inhabitants against the local authorities and the new owners. The privatisation process has produced an imbalanced situation, focussing on the interests of certain private actors, neglecting existing spatial and social contexts. Out of this situation, an initiative has been founded in 2001, which aimed at the protection of the common interests of the inhabitants and the establishment of a local self-government. In 2002, the registration as an official NGO took place. Within a short period of time, similar initiatives have been founded all over Sofia, which number grew continuously to 40 in the beginning of 2006. 'Green Sofia' has been established - a civil movement - for the protection of open and green spaces in Sofia. In 2005 the 'Network of Associations of Citizens of Sofia' (NACS) has been registered. With the civic organisation of resistance against the governmental regulation of public open space, a bottom up process has been started, which has the potential to change the governing technique at the local level in Sofia. The communal elections in the end of 2005 brought a change in the city municipality and in the attitude towards open space and towards the participation of civil society. The issue of 'Green Sofia' has become a serious theme of the administrative work and representatives of the political administrative system are establishing regular contacts, meetings and cooperations with the civic movement. The case of Mladost exemplifies the direct spatial and social effects of the restitution process on open spaces. This not only has a major impact on the system of open green spaces in quantitative and qualitative respect, but also shows the close interconnectivity of the mode of regulation of open space with the emergence of civil society structures. Commercialisation Bulgarian economy has grown by an average of 5% since 2001. From 2005 on, a very dynamic impulse can be observed from the real estate sector. This growth has been fed by the inflow of foreign direct investment, which is also true for the real estate sector. International investors and developers are the driving actors - followed by smaller Bulgarian companies - of the rapidly developing process of commercialisation of urban space. There exists a continuing demand for high-grade apartments and offices. The spatial focus of the related construction process orients on the most attractive locations of the city centre and the topographical favoured southern area. One effect of this process is seen in the growing segregation of urban space - in a rough overview the attractive, wealthy southern areas and the declining, industrial northern part of the city. The approach to the urban landscape is reduced to opportunities for maximizing profit. Thus open space is often solely seen as building land reserve. Southern Territories Between the southern villages on the foot of Vitosha mountain and the densely built up urban area, along southern by-pass, is an attractive area located, which has been reserved as a resource for future development in socialist times (SOFIA MUNICIPALITY 2004). After 1989 the development pressure on this area increased massively, which led to a development concept, which focuses on the production of an image of the future development, neglecting the diffuse character of the site (DOYTCHINOV 2002). What is this 'diffuse' character made of? The area can be described as a heterogeneous fabric, which consists of structures as small scale, illegal detached housing stemming from socialist times and newly built five to seven storey condominiums. Large landscape structures build up a connection to the further south national park of Vitosha mountain, while stone pits and industrial areas relate to recent and historic anthropogenic uses. On a micro scale exist spatially undefined street space and the gated space of condominiums, which produce a contradiction not only in structural and spatial respect but also in social concerns. Relational Space It seems, as if the diffuse character is produced out of this heterogeneity, out of these simultaneously existing elements, which are related to different references. There seems to lack a comprehensive, overall understanding of the meaning of this landscape. While the actual processes are focussing on the attractiveness and profitable valuation of the area, the character of the landscape and the traces of former meanings are vanishing. Though the existing anthropogenic relicts remind on processes which carry the potential to build up a specific identity: A rusty steel frame refers to the process of industrialisation in socialist times, the run down detached housing areas refer to the process of provisional appropriation of ground and small scale traces of agricultural production refer to the need for self-sufficiency in post-socialism and reflect the economic and societal transformation and crisis. In the ongoing development, they are forming foreign bodies and alienated structures, which are contradicting the processes of homogenization and utilisation. In contrast, the supportive structures of landscape provide for continuity: the big, open and often derelict lawns establish view relationships to the Vitosha mountain, the characteristic topographic and vegetative setting reminds on the natural conditions of the site. The referred space and time dimensions are much bigger, but nevertheless is the actual preliminary character of the site reflected in the processual character of landscape. There are similarities to be detected, which allow for a sustaining path of development. As a basis point, urban space is to be seen as an open system which employs the specific qualities of place for the activation of existing potentials. •           Reading Negative Space as Urban Landscape For developing an approach, which enables for the reading of negative space as urban landscape, an understanding of urban space in the aspects of product and space is helpful. Urban space as product focuses on the multidimensional character and types of urban green space. It describes the actual state of the space, as well as it sets up the standards for the future development in quantitative and qualitative respect. Urban space as process takes into account the various forces which could be relevant for the process of production of space. Its characteristics have to be analysed in order to be able to steer the process towards sustainability and to formulate adequate strategies. This enables for detecting the existing potentials and meanings of the physical as well as the social space. For a comprehensive understanding of the physical, social and cultural urban landscape it is important to expand the idea of landscape to spaces which have been described yet with exclusive terms. For discerning the qualities and potentials of negative space and for learning from their conditions for future urban planning, it is necessary to fully integrate them into our idea of city and of urban space. The permanent process of reinterpretation forms a basis for the understanding of designification, placelessness and divergence as attributes to build up identity. References BECKER (2002): Akkumulation, Regulation, Territorium – zur kritischen Rekonstruktion der französischen Regulationstheorie. Metropolis, Marburg. CZERNIAK, J.(2006): Looking Back at Landscape Urbanism - Speculations on Site. In: WALDHEIM, C. (ed.) (2006): The Landscape Urbanism Reader, Princeton Architectural Press, New York. DOYTCHINOV, G. (2002): Das pluarilistische Experiment - Widersprüche und Potentiale der mitteleuropäischen Stadt. Verlag der Technischen Universität Graz, Graz. Ferguson, F. (Hg.) (2006): Talking Cities – Die Mikropolitik des urbanen Raumes. Birkhäuser, Basel. FRANZEN, B. / KREBS, S. (Hg.) (2005): Landschaftstheorie – Texte der Cultural Landscape Studies, Walter König, Köln. Grimm-Pretner, D., Rode, P., Wück, R., Dimitrova, E., Markova, A., Kovacheva, I., Dandolova, I., Hadj Pecova, S. (2006): Activating the Potentials of Public Urban Green Spaces. Forschungsbericht; Auftraggeber: ASO - Austrian Science and Research Liaison Office Sofia Bulgaria / Centre for Social Innovation. JACKSON, J. B. (1984): Discovering the Vernacular Landscapes, Yale University Press, New Haven / London. Qviström, M. / Saltzman, K. (2006): Exploring Landscape Dynamics at the Edge of the City. In: Landscape Research, Vol. 31, No.1; Routledge, London. RODE, P. (2007): A View on Sofia from the Periphery. In: University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy (Eds.), Jubilee Scientific Conference - 65 Years University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy, CD, UACG Jubilee Conference, 17.-18.5.2007, Sofia, 305-313. SAUER, C. O. (1925): The Morphology of Landscape. In: Leighly, J. (Ed.) (1963, reprint): Land and Life: A selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer. University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 315-350. SOFIA MUNICIPALITY (2004): Master Plan of the City of Sofia and Sofia Municipality – Synthesis. Sofia. STALKER and STUDIO E.U. (2006): Berlin Wall(k). in: Ferguson, F. (Ed.), (2006): Talking Cities – The Micropolitics of Urban Space. Birkhäuser, Basel. WALDHEIM C. (ed.) (2006): The Landscape Urbanism Reader, Princeton Architectural Press. WELSCH, W. (1990): Ästhetisches Denken. Reclam, Stuttgart.

overview of sofia; location of the case study territoriesrestitution plan for an area in Mladost, in yellow - plots to be restituted, in orange - buildings

leaflet of the NGO Citizens for Green Sofia

campaign of the NGO in Mladost, the transparent says: We want to breathe!

newly built condominiums at the southern edge of Sofia

overgrown relicts of socialist industrialism

supportive structure of landscape - big lawn connecting to the Vitosha National Park

negative space as urban landscape