Planners need to view space as relational

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question: How do we, as urban planners, begin to understand the complicated issues that we are asked to address? I think that the first step is that we must understand that places are not static, and they exist in connection with other places. My C02 emissions as an American directly effects the way of life of a person in Bangladesh as they deal with climate change. My tax dollars which support agricultural subsidies directly affect Uzbek kids whose schools are closed for 2 weeks and they are forced to pick cotton, the only way that they can compete with the US’ artificially low cotton price (you can learn more here). Seeing these connections is the first step in being able to understand and unpack urban issues.
That’s all fine and good, Juliana.  So what does this look like? What does it mean for an urban planner to understand space relationally?  Here are two different perspectives on the issue of Housing in Vidin, Bulgaria.
Here’s a quick overview of Vidin and the situation there:
For years, Vidin had a strong industrial base as it exported products to Romania and Serbia. Starting in the early 1980’s with a trade embargo with Serbia, Vidins industrial base has slowly declined. It is currently one of the fastest depopulating regions of Bulgaria, having lost over a quarter of its population since 1992. Furthermore, Vidin’s 25% of its population over age 65 is the highest in Bulgaria. The region surrounding Vidin has the third lowest economic activity rate in Bulgaria, at 59.8%. Most likely as a result of these factors and Bulgarian pessimism, residents of Vidin are characterized as depressed and are pessimistic about Vidin and Bulgaria’s future.

Typical Approach (viewing space as static):
Vidin, like many cities in Bulgaria is dealing with an older housing stock. While I do not have the statistics on Vidin, we can presume that the housing stock is similar (if not older) than the rest of Bulgaria. In 2000, only 1.9% of the housing stock had been erected in the previous decade. While almost half (48.2%) of the housing stock was erected between 1945-1970 and nearly a quarter (24.3%) was erected prior to 1945.
A researcher viewing space as static would look at the base of the issues. They would look at the issues of depopulation—perhaps even exploring where Vidin’s residents are moving. They would look at deaths and births. They would look at crumbling facades.  They would look at the lack of hope.  Even if they looked at industry moving away, it would simply be to understand how that was impacting Vidin.

Relational Approach (viewing space as relational):
By viewing space as relational, we place Vidin in the same systems as the capital of Sofia and the rest of the EU, where many of the residents of Vidin are moving. Rather than just viewing the happenings in one place in its own context, we can then begin to ask questions about how policies in one place are affecting another. Let’s unpack this by looking at the capital, Sofia.
Sofia is a clear example of a primate city, a city which holds a disproportionate amount of the county’s population and economic activity. While Bulgaria is depopulating at a rate of about .7% a year, Sofia’s population is steadily increasing. In fact, Sofia was one of only two cities in the entire country whose population increased between 2001 and 2011, increasing 10.3%. The area surrounding Sofia is home to one-fifth of Bulgaria’s work force, the highest economic activity rate, at 71.5% as well as an employment rate that at 65.5% is a full ten percentage points above the national average. While only representing 17.5% of the population, Sofia contributes to more than 34% of the GDP. Additionally, half of Bulgaria’s accredited universities are located in Sofia, and 40,000 students call Sofia home. According to Invest in EU, 68% of the FDI that comes into Bulgaria is in the Sofia region. Additionally, 1/6th of Industrialization happens in Sofia.
Wow, that was a lot of information! The purpose of giving all of that was to illustrate how dominating Sofia is within the national and regional economy. It serves as a magnet for people to move to, at a rate of about 11,000 individuals a year!
Now, can you imagine the implications that might have for the story of housing in Vidin? No longer is the story of a depopulating Vidin just the story of business leaving and people are moving elsewhere. We can see how if industry and jobs are being located in Sofia, individuals will desire to move there for better economic opportunities. Our understanding of the issues with the housing stock change into being one that is related directly to the rise of Sofia.

At the end of the day, as planners we must take a relational perspective. Globalization, neoliberalism, issues of race are ubiquitous and they cannot be abstracted from place and time.

Post by Juliana Wilhoit


2 thoughts on “Planners need to view space as relational

  1. Interesting case study Juliana! I think this post emphasizes the importance of regional planning as well as planning “relationally” across borders. I think that the fragmentation of the decision making process has made it incredibly easy for the “little guy” to lose the game. In this case the little guy being Vidin. I don’t pretend to know the answers but I do know that more emphasis needs to be place on regional planning, planning for the good of large areas. Some of the same core issues happen in South Florida where many municipalities aim to push their issues to the next city up or down, whether is be a transit issue or urban renewal. The entire region however, continues to experience the implication of such practices.

    • Edwin, I think that you raise an interesting point, but I don’t think that the issue is “fragmented decision making.” If the central planning is coming out of Sofia, then it is very centralized (ie- non-fragmented) and they are yielding great influence over cities across Bulgaria.

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