– by Gabriel Pascariu, Vice President
The late 70s and the ’80s in Romania, were years of general containment, economic stagnation and limited access to goods and services. Queuing for basic goods was a specific image for most of the communist cities at that time. The contrasting situation of Western and Eastern societies was suggestively depicted in Moscow on the Hudson, 1984 American movie with the anthological sequence of Robin Williams (playing Vladimir, a Russian saxophonist) fainting in a supermarket, stunned by the amazing variety of coffee bags he saw on the shelves.
During the last 25 years, the Romanian urban landscape has changed significantly. Physical, economic or social transformations experienced by Western cities along several decades took place in former communist countries at a much higher speed after 1990. The transition from centralised economy and authoritarian regime to democracy and market economy was relatively fast and marked by ups and downs, by contradictory evolutions and in the end by substantial changes of urban life. In spite of economic difficulties and rapid decay of areas depending on the obsolete industries the entrepreneurial and consumeristic behaviour accompanied by a fast development of a speculative bubble in real estate market and constructions sector, strongly marked the new Romanian urban landscape. Towns and cities became crowded by cars, the building stock in inner cities started to be replaced by new high-rise office buildings changing the urban skyline, public spaces were continuously transformed in search for new identities and urban life became in general more dynamic and diverse. The former spatial containment was brutally broken and the expansion of residential, commercial or new production areas went much beyond the former limits of towns and cities.
Todays Romanian urban environment is difficult to be defined as different evolving patterns coexist. Bigger cities are quite dynamic and quickly expanding, the medium ones still looking for a redefinition of their economic profile and territorial role, smaller former industrial towns are going through dramatic shrinking processes while a lot of intermediate and mixed situations exist too. The opportunity of getting European Funds for infrastructure and urban regeneration made local administrations act in a more entrepreneurial way and investing in promotion and strategies. But the competitive approach created some „winners” and lot of „losers” one major problem of Romanian towns and cities is due to the fact that the dynamics of change and the adaptation of the private sector have a much higher speed than the capacity of local administrations to develop the necessary skills and tools to efficiently manage the new challenges. It became quite visible that the private sector played a major role in providing the new look of the Romanian urban environment for either good or bad. Although situation is now slowly changing, for almost two decades, authorities and communities had a rather passive role while the private developers and entrepreneurs were leading the game as major urban transformers.
The new urban icons
The remarkable evolution of the new urban iconic symbols „the mall” and „the hypermarket” stands as a relevant example. The new-old type of commercial centres had a slow start by the end of ‘90s when they began to grow around major cities taking the shape of „cash and carry” model. The successful response of the inner market encouraged the development of new, larger and modern chains of hypermarkets which rapidly multiplied during the 2000s both inside and outside the cities, occupying green-lands and parks, sport grounds, obsolete industrial sites or various types of abandoned spaces. Their proliferation was excessive and generated traffic problems, aggressed various ecosystems and absorbed the small retail activities form the traditional commercial inner cities areas. Besides functional or ecological issues, one important consequence was the transfer of the urban social life inside some artificial spaces recreating a fake idea of street or public space. The new hypermarkets became a new feature of the Romanian society which went through a profound transformation from a productive one to one based and depending on a consumerist behaviour. Just recently – it is symptomatic to mention – two former representative industrial estates, producing heavy machinery in the past, in two main Romanian cities (Bucharest and Craiova) redeveloped into two of the largest commercial malls in the country.
There are already signs of decay of some of these hypermarkets and it is likely that their life duration will be rather short. The stories available on the http://www.deadmalls.com/stories.html could be also the stories of some Romanian malls, rather soon. The recent trends of rehabilitation and revival of the old, traditional and open public spaces of the cities and the increasing interest of local communities for these latter ones can reverse the situation. If one adds the potential increase of electronic retail sector (e-shopping), the menace can become significant. And actually, the online Russian food store http://www.moscowonhudson.com/ already acts in Manhattan!
Gabriel Pascariu is Vice President of ISOCARP and teaches at the University of Architecture and Urbanism Ion Mincu in Bucharest
Gate to the new world of consumerism (a new mall in the city of Timișoara)