Eastern Europe ’s cities are an education in different regimes of public space. Within the spatialisation Lefebvre describes as modernist, rationalized ‘Abstract Space’ public areas of cities are reduced to their function, utility and managed in terms of maximizing value within an overarching vision of land as a commodity to be bought and sold. Although utility is included in calculating its exchange value, this monetary abstraction – the price of land — ultimately over-rides even the use value of land and a necessary platform for economic activity. This tends to reduce city spaces to infrastructure which is understood in terms of needs such as transportation, costs of land and maintenance. Urban public space is a lost money-making opportunity if only because it is withdrawn from the real estate market. Elements such as sidewalks are thus reduced to the minimum required by social uses and safety standards.
In the late 20th century, under what Lefebvre understood as a statist mode of production and accumulation, urban space is not just infrastructure but managed more consciously as a means of social control and as a way of facilitating commerce and trade. This implies policing the minutiae of uses of these areas, moving on loiterers and banning unproductive uses of space. Legitimated, tax-paying businesses are favoured by banning or limiting street traders and peddlers. Traveling between Ukraine and Austria highlighted this for me on a recent trip.
Like many Western cities, the touristic ancient squares of Salzburg provide a good example of such management – a widespread approach, not something unique to Salzburg. Impeccably swept by street-cleaning equipment, stalls vending (usually gourmet) food simulate historical uses of the Platz and Markt and long-established cafes have the right to put out tables for patrons within carefully bounded,, but unmarked, areas. The invisibility of these boundaries of areas of entitlement undergird the simulacrum. The squares are thus vastly empty apart from specifically placed activities such as taxis queued for customers, tourists and tour groups headed one way or another, clustered around a fountain or jockeying for the ‘Kodak spot’ from which to take cliched snapshots as personal souvenirs of Salzburg. Missing in this sketch, and perhaps detectable only via tourists’ weary feet, is the genera absence of public seating and benches in these squares. The only available seating is in cafes for paying customers. Needless to say, itinerant peddlers and beggars have been systematically moved on by police.
What really distinguishes L’viv from the cities of Western Europe is its extensive greenery, parks and promenades. Like Salzburg there are distinct seasons with less clement weather yet, lined with benches, L’viv’s public spaces support an active and inclusive public life which seems to include all ages, abilities, genders and social groups. Families with children occupy benches or stroll by elderly men playing chess in impromptu games on the benches. Strollers practice a now rare, genuine flaneurie – strolling in the heart of the city ‘to see and perhaps be seen’ — of the sort hosted by promenades such as Barcelona’s Ramblas. This is a way of participating in the life of the city and bringing these places alive. Nor is it simply a scene of pedestrian mobility. Rather than seeking what Perniola calls the ‘tranject’ — a simulated cinematic tracking shot as the visual synthesis of what a city is, people stroll and meander (perhaps more energetically than tourists), children trace complex racing zigzags, toy electric cars are available for rent for a few minutes, photographers pose tourists with life-sized plush animal, hawkers display Ukrainian memorabilia on some benches. Monuments to local personages and nationalist heros such as Taras Shevchenko overshadow the space. They underscore the importance of past events such as the historical tragedy of the Ukrainian famine and the pre-capitalist spatialisation of peasant serfdom which lasted into the twentieth century in Ukraine.