by Sara Grossman
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In the third act of Shakespeare’s great, albeit lesser known, tragedy Corolianus, the elder tribune Sicinius ponders aloud, “What is the city, but the people?”
In the four centuries since this observation was first put to parchment, “the people” have grown even more integral to what the city fundamentally “is”.
Indeed, in an era when the movement of people to and within urban space dominates headlines and conceptions of “community” have been fundamentally changed by technology and globalization, cities today are even less about buildings, barricades and boundaries than they are about the constellation of individuals within them.
Still, today’s news about European cities is characterized by two dueling narratives about “the people”. One account warns of the continent’s smaller cities threatened by negative net migration and communities degraded by a steady outward flow of people; another warns of its urban jewels overcrowded with newcomers, unequipped for such breathtaking growth. Latvia, for example, where most of the population lives in the capital city of Riga, is experiencing a stunning loss of residents—over a quarter of its population has disappeared since 1989, a trend with little sign of slowing. London, meanwhile, has gained nearly 2 million residents since 2000, with more than 500,000 newcomers arriving since 2015 alone.
Both phenomena—remarkable shrinkage and even more remarkable growth—mean that cities across Europe are scrambling to address new urban realities and the social cleavages that result from rapid re-adjustment. In places that are emptying out, citymakers are seeing a growing detachment from civic life and cultural engagement. In cities with many newcomers, rising anxiety towards change and difference has led to heightened xenophobia, fragmentation and exclusion along identity lines.
It is within this context that three Actors-supported projects from Chișinău, Rijeka and Valencia are working to cultivate new notions of community, seeking to expand access to cultural and civic life and, most critically, help their cities adjust to fast changing urban realities.
On the aggregate and across decades, the continent’s transformations can be traced along its nebulous national borders and unstable political alliances. Yet the changes that Europe is experiencing today are perhaps best examined not from the view of the nation-state, but from the vantage point of the city—a category in which nearly three-quarters of Europeans now identify as home.
Perhaps the best illustration of a city still adjusting to fast changing urban realities is Chișinău, in Moldova, which enjoys the dubious honor of being one of the top three fastest shrinking countries in the world, with a projected population loss of nearly 20% by 2050. The city alone has lost almost 10% of its residents between 2004 and 2014.
Coupled with challenges surrounding the city’s post-Soviet transition in the 1990s, like the degradation of cultural infrastructure and the private development of public space, this demographic shift has contributed to a “general process of individualization,” said local journalist and community organizer Vitalie Sprinceana. The overall “lack of opportunity to participate in the citymaking process” in Chișinău, coupled with the replacement of cultural spaces with for-profit entities, has fundamentally eroded communal values, he said, emphasizing that he does not mean to suggest a particular nostalgia for Soviet cultural infrastructure.
“But it’s really tragic when you look at the fact that most forms of collective participation have shrunk in size,” Sprinceana said. “People go less to the church, they participate less in trade unions, political parties and so on.”
Perhaps the most conspicuous manifestation of this communal alienation can be found at the street level, where cars litter public space and roads act as de facto parking spaces—and the lonely pedestrian has little claim to the pavement. The byproduct of this “car is king” policy has been to further isolate individuals from shared public spaces, cultural offerings and, fundamentally, from each other.
“Generally having equal access to space is a right, a right to the city and pedestrians don’t have this right in Chișinău,” said Alexandru Munteanu, president of Chișinău’s Center of Urbanism. “You could break your neck walking on the city’s sidewalks if you’re not careful.”
“Cultural moments are a framework for people to come together… to create meaningful relationships and then build upon that.”
It is this particular problem that Actors’ Team Chișinău is seeking to tackle—if they succeed, the community will benefit well beyond the street. Over the past year, the team, which brings Munteanu together with a local architect and a representative from the city’s Department of Transportation, has been working to turn a road used largely for parking into an active hub for pedestrians. They have successfully closed off Veronica Micle Street in central Chișinău several times over the past year for cultural events and workshops, such as a tango workshop and a Christmas market.
“This kind of active citizenship [helps] people understand that this is their space, it’s not the authority’s space and, in this case, it’s not the cars’ space [either],” said Munteanu.
Solidifying neighborhood relationships encourages citizens to engage with city decisions that affect their community in critical ways, Munteanu argues. In Chișinău, he said, too often residents are excluded from the city’s decision-making processes—a secondary, but equally important, challenge that his team is working to address by closing Veronica Micle Street and encouraging neighbors to get to know each other.
“We are building up a community of active citizens who care about their city,” Munteanu said. “We believe this is actually activating community. It is making them believe that they actually have a voice in the city and their voice should be on the agenda of the authorities.”
Sprinceana echoed this sentiment, noting that one of the biggest failures of community organizing in Chișinău has been a focus on cultural activities without a similar push for active citizenship. The strategy of Team Chișinău— bringing people together around cultural events and then activating them on issues like the privatization of public space—is a model for future organizing, he said.
“The real way to engage people is to supplement their cultural participation with political participation,” he said. “Cultural moments are a framework for people to come together…to create meaningful relationships and then build upon that and do civic actions and engagements.”
Fifteen hundred kilometers west of Chișinău, resting along the glittering Adriatic coast, the Croatian port city Rijeka is similarly struggling with demographic shifts and a fundamental lack of cultural infrastructure. Having lost, according to projections, around 15% of residents since the early 2000s, the city has been left with swaths of deteriorating and unused infrastructure. A recent headline declared that, “With Drivers Moving Abroad, Rijeka Forced to Reduce Commuter Bus Services.”
Yet the city wasn’t always so exhausted. Rijeka was hotly disputed among empires for generations, each of whom sought to lay claim to the city’s strategic port and the river that snakes through it. The empires came and went, but their influences endure—not only with the remarkable architecture that remains, but in the diverse makeup of Rijeka’s citizens, who lived under nine different flags in the 20th Century alone and have come to embody and embrace the various influences that accumulated through time.
“When someone wants to see another country, they go there,” the city wrote in its successful bid to become Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2020. “Here, countries come to Rijeka‘s citizens.”
However, the authors continued, “this array of worldviews, social systems and, more recently, classical transition challenges has created a kind of dome over the local population under which it is difficult to discern a unique identity of the city and its citizens.”
Indeed, Rijeka’s biggest challenge today, said Kristian Benic of the Rijeka City Library, lies with the alienation of citizens from culture itself. With thousands of Croats leaving every year or commuting hours outside the city for work each day, coupled with deindustrialization and the disuse of the city’s once-demanded port, the notion of community itself is fraying.
“If you’re not contributing to communal activities, the next step is alienation and then psychological disorders and mental health issues. Connecting community contributes to quality of life in a solid way.”
As a child in the 1990s, said Bernard Koludrovic, Program Manager with Rijeka 2020 LLC, the residents in his building shared daily communal activities to take care of their shared environment. Today, a private contractor is paid to manage everything—just a single example of how once-tight community relationships are loosening.
Along with Benic, Sonja Šegon and Patricia Tićac—both members of the Association for Urban Regeneration Courage—Koludrovic is working in the hilltop neighborhood of Skurinje to counteract the area’s lack of shared space and cultural infrastructure, for, as Koludrovic said, “not a single cultural thing exists”—no clubs, cinemas, concert halls, or even a library.
“If you’re not contributing to communal activities, the next step is alienation and then psychological disorders and mental health issues,” he said. “Connecting community contributes to quality of life in a solid way.”
Team Rijeka is seeking to push back against this lack of communal engagement by tackling a root cause of Skurinje’s engagement problems—lack of open space to share and gather. To achieve this, they are reframing private “micro-spaces”—like balconies, a key architectural feature of Skurinje’s block-style apartment buildings—as places of communal exchange with seminars and exhibitions. Seeing urban sustainability and green space as key aspects to a livable city, the team has also held a number of workshops to promote urban gardening and seed exchange.
They ultimately hope to foster residents’ relationship with nature in a city that remains largely detached from its own central waterway, much of the river’s banks cut off by long-shuttered factories and other vestiges of the city’s former industrial might.
“Things are changing, but [it] is a long way from the notion of the city that fully uses and lives its river and harbor in a way you can see in other Mediterranean cities,” Koludrovic said.
The warm waters buttressing the Mediterranean city of Valencia remain comparatively wide open. Most recently in international headlines for welcoming a boat carrying hundreds of migrants that was previously rejected by Italy and Malta, Valencia is a city not lacking in people who wish to live there.
In the course of a few decades, Valencia has witnessed a substantial increase in the number of foreigners who call the city home—from under 1% in 1991 to almost 17% in 2018, an increase on par with Valencia’s more glamorous sisters Madrid and Barcelona. Having gained nearly a million residents since the mid-1990s, the city is primed to benefit from increased diversity and its role as an increasingly international city. Still, this superficial openness can also serve to mask the challenges Valencia is facing in achieving lasting integration and inclusion.
“It could take one direction or another— it can be a future segregated city or a model of integration, an experiment that can be replicated in other cities in Europe.”
Certainly, said Papa Balla Ndong, representative for the civil society association JARIT, after 15 years in Valencia, he is still asked why he inhabits certain spaces—even activist spaces—as a Senegalese man with a migrant background. “They ask me, ‘What are you doing here?’, because the purpose of the migrant is to work, to seek money and to send it back home,” he said. “They don’t know that when something affects the whole population, like inequality or lack of jobs, it affects the migrants [even more].”
Still, said University of Valencia researcher Oscar Miguel Blanco, Valencia remains a relatively good place for migrants compared to other European cities. Immigration is still fairly new in Valencia, he said and the local population is open to accepting difference—although he warned that in order to remain a positive place for newcomers it must actively include them in the development process as the region grows.
“On the one hand Valencia is an open society, but institutionally it has a long path to go,” Blanco said, noting that migrants can be found in social spaces and shared areas, but not yet in universities or government.
Fundamentally, Blanco said, the city is at a turning point. It could easily turn to embrace newcomers and enjoy the fruits of rich cultural diversity, but could just as easily go the way of other European cities like Marseilles and Brussels, which suffer from entrenched spatial segregation and migrants who are locked out of opportunity in de facto urban ghettos.
“Valencia is at key moment,” Blanco said. “It could take one direction or another—it can be a future segregated city or a model of integration, an experiment that can be replicated in other cities in Europe.”
Blanco and Ndong, along with journalist and fellow team member Paco Inclán Cervera, are seeking to enter this conversation with an editorial guide to Valencia’s gastronomy, highlighting the varied and indulgent cuisines of the city’s diverse migrant communities. The guide is multifold—a cookbook, with recipes and articles from the many cultures highlighted in the book, as well as texts from contributors representing an array of fields, including journalism and sociology and research about gastronomy and migration.
Along with community food events and festivals, Team Valencia hopes its work will demonstrate the benefits of the city’s growing diversity and change perspectives of the migrant as someone who has deep and fruitful cultural knowledge, not just one who is only asking for help. Gastronomy, they say, is the perfect entry point to bring the topic of cultural diversity into the wider conversation. As Blanco said, “Food is not only that which you can find on a plate; food is everything that surrounds the recipe”—and, perhaps most critically, a place of bridging and an opening for dialogue, the dinner table synonymous in many cultures with friendly conversation and familial understanding.
As the project grows, they hope to hand over the reins of the cultural events to the migrants themselves, giving them an opportunity to earn money and gain financial stability. Their events so far have hosted more than 300 people, coming together to experience and enjoy dishes from Senegal and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In the long run, Blanco said, Valencia’s acceptance and enjoyment of diverse gastronomic offerings (or not) could be a good indicator of the city’s progress in integration. As Valencians come to see these dishes as rich and important parts of their city identity, he hopes so too will they see the people that brought them.
Community projects like that in Valencia, as well as in Rijeka and Chișinău, are perhaps the ultimate illustration of Shakespeare’s keen observation more than 400 years ago. People, these projects declare, are at the heart of what turns space into place and place into community. Indeed, in response to Sicinius’ idle question, the Citizens in Corolianus respond rightly in unison: “The people are the city.”