In 2013, within the Department of Urban Planning and Landscape Design, a very small team of academics "ventured" to apply for funding for a research project through Norwegian (EEA) funds, receiving that impetus from a young architect of Romanian origin, an assistant at the School of Architecture in Bergen, Norway. The link between us and him was represented by a...city, the city of Braila. Cristian Ștefănescu, a native of Braila who emigrated with his family to Canada in the 1990s, studied architecture and was at that time tutor of the Master's group in architecture and urban planning at the Bergen School of Architecture, on the theme of cities in decline, seeks to find out what is happening to his home town in terms of planned and unplanned urban development. That's how he came to our department, to me, who at the time was working on updating the General Urban Plan of Braila. Preliminary discussions with him, with arch. Cătălina Ioniță and urb. Mihai Alexandru, our closest colleagues in the department, led us to the idea of an independent project that would "see" the city differently than an urban planning documentation could do, to investigate in the field and interdisciplinarily an important issue for European cities today: Namely the decline, the physical shrinkage of the urban territory, but above all the loss of quality of spaces and urban life and, at the same time, the lagging behind of their development potential, which is becoming less and less visible every day, made up of traces that are being erased in the speed of "modernisation" (unfortunately also carried out with precarious and inauthentic means).
Although there had been other research experiences in UAUIM, many of them in national or international consortia, the independent winning of an EEA grant, writing the project by ourselves, from scratch, without any special prior training, without consultants in the field and animated only by the ideas that were born in the discussions and visits together in the outskirts of Braila, was, at least for the urbanism faculty team at that time, a first. The enthusiasm of that project was sustained by the contacts established, by the sharing of experiences with students and teachers in Norway, by the involvement of a significant number of students dedicated to the activities and of experts from other spheres than urbanism and architecture (sociology, anthropology, literature, art).
However, BLAB was a very difficult project, because during the course of it, right in the middle, the tragedy of Colectiv happened, taking away my two colleagues - Cătălina Ioniță and Mihai Alexandru with whom I had started it. The moment of the breakthrough was hard: on the one hand, because the basic springs of the project, stored in the knowledge and dedication of the two colleagues, had been brutally broken, and on the other hand, because the logic and bureaucracy of the programme did not take into account this dramatic rupture. There was a point when the decision was to stop, to close the project, to give up on seeing it through. Fortunately, we found colleagues and students around us who understood the situation and helped, put effort and energy into all the activities that followed, we all gritted our teeth and brought to a successful conclusion a project that, although perhaps imperfect, has certainly achieved one thing: it has paved a way for the youngest and most enthusiastic of urban planners, it has shown that it is possible to do research in this field by getting external funding, that things are not as stuck as we knew them to be.
The DANUrB project that followed a year after the end of the Braila lab owed its start to the fact that a team from Budapest preparing the application through the INTERREG-Danube programme found out about us, about B-LAB, and wanted to take us on board as bearers of good practice. I like to think that it couldn't have happened otherwise, that if it wasn't for Braila, it wouldn't have been Giurgiu or Calarasi, or the whole family that we have formed since then with the DANUrB consortium, projects that have succeeded each other until now, relying on the same basic idea that has animated us from the very beginning: That the decline must be investigated thoroughly and from the grass roots, that the periphery of the Danube and the condition of demographic decline are not a stigma that cannot be removed from these cities, that there is good potential for regaining identity provided that it is made visible and that the local people regain confidence.
What this extensive laboratory of "Danube projects" has shown us so far is that:
Prof.PhD.Arch.Habil. Angelica Stan
The Danube basin is clearly a cultural area whose diversity cannot be disputed. Most of this diversity is due to the urban way of life, which is due, on the one hand, to the physical urban spaces shaped over time on the basis of matrices originating in the area of contact with the Danube, and, on the other hand, to the people and their behaviour, the way they manage and conduct their social life. Today, the Danube area presents itself as a fascinating mosaic of distinct communities living in areas with very different spatial characteristics, as a result of a historical evolution manifested by multiple demographic dynamics, economic changes, local, regional or global political decisions, social and cultural transformations.
However, a closer look reveals that the Danube's urban basin is far from balanced, quite the contrary. Both in terms of the distribution of cities in the longitudinal section of the river, their density in terms of number of inhabitants, the configuration of the areas of gravity generated by the major poles (not to mention the distribution of per capita income or other economic indicators), and in terms of cross-border relations (for the Danube is also a border, in addition to its historical role as a centre-generator of development), the urban phenomenon of the Danube cannot be captured in a single definition, but requires detailed research on multiple levels and, moreover, requires an inter- and trans-disciplinary approach, in order to correlate spatial data with economic, demographic, social, etc. data.
In particular, dedicated research is needed on these huge differences between the cities that form the 'web' of the Danube's urbanity: between the major urban poles of the large metropolises, small and medium-sized towns form a diffuse plane of an urbanity that is perhaps less sparkling and often invisible to the major political discourses, which is facing structural problems, many of them economic and demographic (shrinking), and which also entail negative processes in the socio-cultural sphere and in the resources and built values that these towns possess. And if in the increasingly heated discourse on the sustainability of future urban life - and not only urban life - it is clearly necessary to take into account all resources and above all to see them as part of dynamic, interrelated systems seeking the necessary balance, to 'forget' these cities is to ignore resources, capacities for beneficial change, potential for development and sustainability at regional level, at least.
More often than not, these small and medium-sized cities are the bearers of strong urban character, but benefit less from a well-defined spatial-cultural position, and have fewer cultural and economic opportunities than nearby larger cities. The limited development possibilities of urban areas with peripheral positions in relation to the centres along the Danube make the sustainability of the region quite a challenge for researchers and planners. In smaller cities, cultural heritage elements can only contribute to socio-economic development if they are well understood and managed. The value of local culture and heritage is seldom understood without a wider context and good accessibility to enter tourist circuits and for which new narratives are needed to improve their attractiveness.
The INTERREG Danube funding programmes (and others in which this subject can be inserted) make room for these new possible narratives, which are extremely necessary as a scientific "substrate" necessary for their promotion and sustainable development, in the hope of a better balance of the "urban situation" in the Danube basin.
BRĂILA LABORATORY - Alternative approaches to urban peripheries in a city with stagnant growth (B-LAB)
Danube Urban Brand: A regional network building through tourism and education to strengthen the Danube cultural identity and solidarity
Creative Danube: innovative teaching for inclusive development in small and medium-sized danubian cities
Danube Urban Brand: Building Regional and Local Resilience through the Valorization of Danube's Cultural Heritage