If you were in Southeast Europe this summer, one thing probably captured your attention: the heat. Mercifully, my flight left only three days into “Lucifer” – the name given to early August’s heat wave, when temperatures easily reached 40+ in much of southern Europe. Thankfully, by the time Lucifer attacked, my McCloskey and REEI Mellon funded research in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) had already been completed.
I spent most of July in Tuzla, in the northeastern part of the Federation. The visit marked the beginning of my research into the effects of built environment decay on political participation – the built environment being the human-made spaces in which people live, work, and interact, and decay being, well…decay. For someone from the Detroit area, it’s not a surprising topic – though it is oddly under-researched. The main idea is that empty, abandoned, and/or derelict structures send signals to community members, influencing their interpretation of the political and economic environment and, by extension, their societal engagement.
In BiH, vacant built landscapes arose out of post-communist economic restructuring and post-conflict political and demographic changes which combined to create a perfect storm of mass disinvestment and migration. Abandoned buildings in this context become symbols of a state unwilling or unable to assist its citizens. In 2014, Tuzla was the epicenter of country-wide protests when frustrations against the corrupt and inept regime boiled over. Protestors burned the SODASO building which housed the Cantonal government, creating what is arguably the most prominent empty structure in Tuzla today. However, the city’s famed industrial heritage has left a number of other large buildings empty or running at partial capacity, though not for a lack of workers. The country’s struggle with unemployment and poverty is reflected in the built landscape: homes in Tuzla are rarely vacant – shops frequently are.
These observations come from my time spent walking around the city collecting the geospatial locations of empty buildings. I use the term empty rather than abandoned because it best reflects what I saw – from pristine shops with “for-sale” signs, to large structures with boarded windows, to vacant lots. I also marked construction zones, which stood out as sort of “ruins-in-reverse” – the construction materials and rubble scattered around these locations imitate neighboring abandoned buildings, but the addition of a few construction cranes and workers send a markedly different signal, though I’d hesitate to call it an opposite one. I’m hoping that when I return for interviews next summer I’ll be able to pull that distinction apart.
Overall, my GPS tracker says I walked more than 34 miles geotagging about 375 buildings, though in reality I probably walked twice as far if you count getting to and from destinations, and the segments I had to do-over. The number of locations is also a rough estimate as I still need to clean the data and disaggregate some compiled tags. I suppose I’d call this summer a success though there are some neighborhoods I missed, blank spaces that trigger my research anxiety: Why didn’t I climb to the top of that hill? What if I missed something crucial? But then I remember the heat and try to console myself with reminders that perfection is an illusion – and there’s always next summer anyway.
Thank you to REEI and the McCloskey program: I would not have been able to complete this research without your support.
Amanda Lawnicki is pursuing dual master’s degrees at REEI and the School of Public and Enviromental Affairs.