Suburban Realities

Thoughts on the Socio-physical Development of Central European Suburban Landscapes

Bálint Kádár

As half of world population lives in urban areas now, the other half is still rural by definition. But what is there between the two? Where are all those counted living in the sprawling suburban areas around cities, with many aspects of their environments still rural, but most of their living habits already urban?
People living in suburban areas are counted into the urban half of world population if their area is considered “city” in national statistics (UNFPA, 2007). Therefore those living and working in a farm inside city boundaries are considered urban, while those living in a dense suburban settlement in the agglomeration while commuting to the city nearby every day are considered rural according national and UN statistics. This controversy is only a minor example to the undefined and ambiguous situation of the sprawling areas around our cities.
To give a better definition of the suburb than the one of different national statistical agencies, we must understand which neighborhoods are considered suburban in the given socio-cultural environment. The favellas of South America, the high-rise housing estates of Russia or Hong Kong, or the never ending sprawl of detached houses for the upper classes in the United States are totally different living environments. It is the European suburbia, where all these forms can be found simultaneously in a borderless landscape surrounding the neat historical towns.
Around Central European cities all species of the classical European suburban landscape and lifestyle can be found, and maybe even more of it. The “socialist” period of many countries left special forms of settlements around cities, while post-socialist transformations did lead to some of the most curious and wild forms of urban sprawl. Therefore it can be of special relevance to analyze suburban zones of Central Europe, such as those around Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava or Ljubljana. Around these localities nearly all types of suburban life forms can be found, all in constant transformation. The effects of the changing of economical factors, like the decay of socialist industrial settlements, the new patterns of migration, the segregation and mixture of different nationalities, age groups and social classes, all have a constant effect on the landscapes and lifestyles in these undefined rural-urban zones.

The administrative subdivision of land is quite similar in different Central European countries. All of the territory is divided between towns: some of them cities, some villages. Land can be within the towns city limits, or outside the statutory urban zone. According to national statistics those living in the zones belonging to cities form the urban population, the rest is rural. But is it that simple?
In Central Europe it is common to find farmlands inside the legislative territories of cities, sometimes even inside their city limits. At the same time enclaves of housing estates once serving some obsolete factory or streets of neat row-houses giving home to wealthy commuters earning and spending their salaries in urban centers do exist within settlements having the legislative status of a village. People living there have an undoubtedly urban lifestyle, while they refuse to live in an urban area, or simply the legislative and planning entities of cities refuse to manage them as urban dwellers.

Around all of the Central European capital cities there are traditional villages already filled up with factory workers since the second half of the 19th century; these communities were usually annexed to the cities during the 20th century, sometimes evenly urbanized to form sub-centers of the cities, but sometimes still keeping the form of an interior suburb, with much poorer infrastructures than interior parts of the urban areas. This first wave of suburbanization occurred as an effect of the industrialization, arriving late to Central Europe. The same process lead to the formation of the first upper-class suburbs, where aristocrats and richer layers of the society escaped from the centers affected by noise, pollution and the more and more visible working class. All these first suburban areas – originally characterized by mono-functional living environments never seen before – today form part of the cities themselves.
A second wave of suburbanization occurred in the 20th century, when heavy industries and a new service sector attracted even more of the rural population to the cities. In this period, after the two World Wars Central Europe also saw a considerable migration process between new borders and nationalities, continuing even at the end of the 20th century with the Balkan wars. Most of the new labor and immigrants found work in the cities, but the in many of the Central European capitals the possibilities of dwelling were restricted, in Budapest for example migration into the city was prohibited by law. To fight the shortage of housing big housing estates were erected, usually inside the city boundaries but in peripheral areas with no traditional infrastructures. These new mono-functional satellite towns are not tied strongly to the centers, so still today they have a suburban position inside the cities. Some of these neighborhoods face the problems of their aging original population and the new immigration waves of poor people from very different cultural backgrounds, like the case of Sandleiten in Vienna or Zalog in Ljubljana. Other estates fight urban decay like Ursus in Warsaw.
The erection of smaller housing units, usually with a prefabricated technology, was common even outside the city boundaries, near smaller industrial or agricultural production units. Some of these buildings stand like aliens at the edge of a traditional village, others form little estates, sometimes in the middle of agricultural land.
Those willing to work in the cities, but not lucky enough to have a tenancy, had to build their own home in the agglomeration. The vast suburbs of single family houses around the Central European capitals were uniquely owned by the poorer working class, not by middle class as in the Western societies. These settlements in the agglomeration were either extensions of a traditional village, or totally new towns. One example of such form in the agglomeration of Budapest is Délegyháza. This community founded in the 1950\\\\\\\'s still today attracts poorer people not able to pay for property prices in the capital, willing to build their on houses in the extending village. But since the 1990\\\\\\\'s another type of migration is also visible here, as many from the middle class began to build holiday houses or permanent homes. Even some higher income people settled seeking for better living environments in this area unique for its lakes.
The third period of suburbanization in Central Europe followed the models set up in England and the United States, but beginning much later. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the socialist era in this region permitted these processes somewhat natural in westernized societies. Of course this third wave of suburbanization began earlier in Vienna, but post-socialist capital cities cached up soon in the 1990\\\\\\\'s. Mainly middle class people living previously in the city centers moved out in the “countryside” to enjoy the “fresh air” and “greenery”, at the same time not giving up their work in the cities, often keeping the same central schools for the young or the same places for recreation. This suburbanization still affected both the suburban zone inside the city limits and the villages in the agglomeration nearby. The bigger contrast is visible in the villages around these capital cities, often multiplicating their populations in a few years. The original inhabitants here had predominantly agrarian jobs and lifestyles, and even those arriving in the 50\\\\\\\'s to 80\\\\\\\'s to find jobs in the cities had a half rural lifestyle, as they used the plots around their houses to grow fruits and vegetables, necessary to reduce the costs of living. The newcomers moving out of the cities had no necessity and will to follow an agrarian lifestyle, green lawn and swimming pools surround their homes, not allotments. Their relations with the original dwellers are minimal, as their social backgrounds are quite different. This is imminent in the case of Psáry near Prague, while near Bratislava the multi-ethnicity of Rusovce, or the Slovak commuters settled in the Hungarian town of Rajka represent an even bigger challenge for social cohesion.

The suburbs of Central Europe are synonyms of the undefined, transitioning and ambiguous. Urban lifestyles without urban infrastructures, rural landscapes without agricultural use, these places don\\\\\\\'t want to belong to something previously defined. Between rural and urban, industrial and green, large numbers of people tied to these capital cities live without historical roots. They are parts of very different social layers usually clustered together in ways well readable from the patterns of their homes in the changing landscape around cities.

There is a great quest professionals of architecture and urban planning, sociology and different humanities as well as artists can face. People living in the suburbs of Central Europe have many needs unfulfilled. Many infrastructural ones, of course, but also cultural needs and some forms of community life. To start with, a unique yet common relation – mainly a mental-cultural one – with their living environment would be needed to define in a steady way the notion of “home”. Some qualities of these undefined, transitional landscapes should be discovered, and reformulated to give a new sense of place to these often non-places. The traditional urban planning policies will not work here. The efforts to tie these areas to the cities are too big and expensive to be feasible, while the population migrating to the suburbs will probably create new ones if these areas will became neatly urban. The rural values are as important as the urban ones, so the answer is more close to none. New qualities could emerge from the migration of people and lifestyles, from the specially filled emptiness, the meeting of the wild and the conquered. All artistic, planning or research activities in such areas must aim to find new strategies to arrive to new identities for the suburban. Instead of big interventions, the soft unfolding of the suburban lifestyles into something substantial and valuable is needed. Helping new types of communities evolve, helping effortless yet interesting ways of space usages to thrive is a possibility.
Researching the Central European suburb is significant, as many typologies of suburbanization exist side by side, creating an interesting and unique environment, much more in transition today as in other Western societies. Intervening in these environments is a challenging, yet fruitful task, holding the promise of a new lifescape, evolving from the ambiguous to the unknown.


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