City-making: space, culture and identity (2014 – 2018)


Contemporary cities are salient hubs of global, transnational, national and local political, economic, social and cultural flows and, by the same token, transformations. The project
proposes a complex research outline, aiming at untangling and comprehending multiple, multilayered and interdependent (f)actors and processes that influence contemporary transformations—or city-making—in the Croatian capital, Zagreb. We have singled out two dimensions that are largely discussed as agents of change in contemporary cities: the politics of public spaces and the politics of difference.

Both constitute knots at which global political, economic and cultural flows meet and collide with local imaginaries, interests and developments, bringing about the restructuring of the city and its identity. The project emphasises that cities are not just territories where transformations take place, but ‘they are actors of this process’ (Sachs-Jeantet s. a.).

In addition to studying structures, this project also emphasises the agency of city dwellers in these processes and investigates how they remake and re-create the given social, cultural and spatial landscape (cityscape), investing it with cultural meaning and humanising it as well as challenging current political and economic trends. Our concept of city-making thus refers to a comprehensive construction and articulation of urban life.

The project emerges from the theoretical insights of anthropology of the city, anthropology of space and place, urban migration studies, post-socialist studies and post-colonial theory and uses ethnographic fieldwork and participant observation, the phenomenological approach, discourse analysis, and quantitative methodology in gathering and analysing data.

The politics of space segment of the project focuses mostly on public spaces and their
connection with political and cultural economy because public spaces “are simultaneously an expression of social power and a force themselves that help shape social relations” (Low and Smith 2006). Public space is a scene and an arena of negotiating urban identity, subverting current restructurings, remodeling urban everyday life, questioning taken-for granted values of the society. The research centers on governing public spaces in Zagreb, actual life in public spaces and perceptions and use of urban spaces.

The politics of difference focuses on individuals and groups whose difference derives from their a) ethnic, religious or cultural background/belonging or b) socio-economic status. The first group refers to individuals who have a referential relation with some other spaces (of descent and living), while the second relates to economically deprived inhabitants. These are groups of the urban population who are marginal either in numbers or social status, but we believe that just they are the ones who represent a potent position from which contemporary urban identity is examined, making possible re-definitions of the dominant political, social and cultural values (nation, democracy, tolerance, etc.). In order to avoid the methodological trap of so-called groupism (cf. Brubaker 2002) we do not assume the homogenous or coherent nature of narrations and practices of individuals in the selected groups but rather we study them empirically.

An insight into their spatial practices and narrations will enable us to understand the extent to which the city functions as a socially fragmented organism or, for its part, as an interwoven entity. In other words, what is the potential for social cohesion as part of the urban identity of the city? The position from which we start out is one on the margins which, theoretically substantiated by post-colonial theory, permits critical observation of the mainstream and the dominant mainstays of Croatian society on the example of its capital city.

Our research questions can be summarised as follows:

  • 1. How do various actors of city-making (city managers, civil society associations, residents) imagine and create the city? How do these images and creations relate to one another?
  • 2. Which strategies do the city governors use to create a certain identity of the city and raise the city’s visibility (branding, tourism, cultural events..) with the aim of positioning it in the global arena?
  • 3. By which everyday practices do city residents symbolically inscribe themselves in the city, notably in public spaces?
  • 4. How is social, economic and cultural marginality treated by policy makers?
  • 5. How are issues of city governance (with regard to public spaces, diversity, marginality) represented in media?
  • 6. How are the taken-for-granted mainstream political, social and cultural values (nation, democracy, multiculturalism, social diversity, tolerance) experienced in everyday practices?
  • 7. Does the city function as a socially fragmented organism, a ‘social mosaic’ of parallel worlds which live side by side and do not interpenetrate or as an entwined whole? What is the potential for social cohesion as part of urban identity?
  • 8. Which—and to what extent—economic, social, political and environmental factors as well as public policies influence the quality of life in the city?
  • 9. What are venues to ensure sustainable and livable city?

Upcoming Events

  • Project is supported by Croatian Science Foundation
  • Project leading institution: Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Zagreb
  • Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology
  • Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb, Department of Geography