Despite sharing some of the common challenges faced by post-socialist cities, the experience of Bucharest overlaps its socialist legacy to its unique urban and administrative structure. This is why the MSc programme in Regional and Urban Planning at the LSE chose Bucharest for its annual field trip. In this blog post, we present an overview of the problems and solutions we encountered.
Despite sharing some of the common challenges faced by post-socialist cities, the experience of Bucharest overlaps its socialist legacy to its unique urban and administrative structure. This is why the MSc programme in Regional and Urban Planning at the LSE chose Bucharest for its annual field trip which took place this year between the 24th and the 28th of March. Co-hosted by the Creative Room, the workshop gave room for students to explore the challenges of a transforming city, where there is opportunity for strategic change in sectors such as administration and governance, economic efficiency, mobility, community development, heritage. As we’ve just recently published our fieldtrip booklet, our thinking back to the experience in Bucharest is linked to the challenges of city-region governance and the need for strategic planning and coordination at all levels.
Bucharest’s urban fabric consists of multiple incomplete overlapping layers, each a remnant of a historical attempt to redesign the urban structure completely according to a single ruling ‘logic’. The result today is an appearance that many describe as eclectic: Magnificent, sometimes derelict 19th century urban villas next to almost rural neighbourhoods with bungalows, early modernist grand boulevards, 1950s socialist mass housing, and of course Ceausescu’s brutal inner city redevelopment around ‘Casa Poporului’. But Bucharest has proven to be remarkably resilient against ‘grand plans’ and attempts to tame its seemingly chaotic appearance.
Though urban planners might find this unsatisfactory to some degree, it is maybe a good thing. At the moment, market mechanisms as the most recent ruling logic that arrived with the revolution of 1989 and the turn from socialism to capitalism are altering the layout of the city, not always in a positive way.
For example, after the hastily privatisation of social housing in the 1990s, 98.4% of the housing stock is now privately owned, creating problems of under-investment and fragmentation where community spirit is lost.
The public sector in general and planning especially are weak: Developers can push for changes in strategic and zoning plans with ease, and local councillors feel more committed to developers than to their own planning officers, who often still miss necessary resources and skills. Discussions also revealed that corruption remains an issue to be tackled.
An individualised society has led to the idealisation of the single family home and private car ownership, with the well-known consequences for urban development. Much-needed cooperation between and participation of stakeholders, such as civil initiatives, NGOs, the private sector and the administration is only slowly evolving.
Even on a city-wide and regional scale, competition prevails over teamwork, with sometimes adverse outcomes. Metropolitan region governance is not by far an issue restricted merely to Bucharest. London, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam have all faced the challenges of matching functional urban regions to administrative ones. Some have answered these through partnerships and cooperation between different municipalities, others have created special regional planning bodies.
What make the case of Bucharest unique are the challenges of both intra-city and inter-regional governance. As any capital city, it manages to attract resources and people at the expense of other areas and engages in complex and dynamic relationship with its surrounding region, the Ilfov County. But the lack of a regional planning body and the disproportionate power relations between the city and the smaller surrounding municipalities have made cooperation difficult. Some of the municipalities in the surrounding area still lack proper infrastructure, such as sewage or running water. There is no integrated (public) transport system, which makes residents dependent on their car for commuting. Households have been in charge of development themselves, usually by purchasing land and developing it, through single-family units. And, unsurprisingly, since the region ranks high in terms of GDP compared to the rest of the country (both a blessing and a curse), it will be less targeted for basic infrastructure investments through EU funding. But the Ilfov County has proven to be economically dynamic, with a number of sectors growing steadily (logistics, creative industries, R&D) and overall offers a better alternative and quality of life to inner city socialist housing estates.
At the intra-city level, administration continues to pose challenges. The 6 sectors of the city – each having its own district Mayor and Council – administer a territory that spans from the city core towards its edges, in a proportional radius which doesn’t necessarily match functional boundaries. This means coordination of plans, strategies and policies is sometimes problematic, as it is the case for the city’s centre, whose area is divided between the 6 districts.
But besides the challenges of privatisation and regional fragmentation mentioned above, there are clear signs of change. NGOs are filling the social void left after socialism and are pushing for sustainable urban development. A new generation of planners and researchers with a different mind-set is eager to change the framework and scope of planning. And Bucharest is still one of the fastest growing urban areas of the EU.
Market mechanisms added new layers to the resistant city, but it looks like a new ruling logic is about to arrive: This time, it could finally be a more just compromise between private property interests and the greater common good, with a strategic outlook that combines local and private interests with the bigger societal and regional perspective.
MSc Regional and Urban Planning Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. President / co-founder of Creative Room (Bucharest, Romania). Interest areas: regional planning and policy, participatory planning, urban regeneration.
MSc Regional and Urban Planning Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. BSc in Planning from TU Dortmund University, work experience in Urban Design (Albert Speer & Partner, Germany). Interest areas: land economy, transport, public policy, comparative urbanism.