Typology of terrain vague and emergence mechanisms in post-communist, post-industrial small and medium-sized towns in Slovakia: Case study of Humenné, Strážske and Vranov and Topľou

Romana Hajduková, Alžbeta Sopirová

These days, the importance of brownfield regeneration and reuse of vacant land is crucial for sustainable development, particularly in post-communist, post-socialist countries, where a series of key historical events caused socio-economic and political changes leading to urban decay. However, if we want to provide a comprehensive picture of the current urban structure and its issues in any city, all unused areas cannot be labelled as brownfields. Instead, we should study urban structure from the perspective of inverse urbanism, which uncovers many unused areas serving their primary function and still appearing as vague areas without any function at all.

The terms commonly used to describe such areas include terrain vague, lost spaces, non-places, white areas, voids, buffer zones and many others. The common denominator of the emergence of unused areas are political and socioeconomic changes after transitional periods, which all the quoted authors refer to. However, geographic and cultural nuances play a huge role in defining and naming unused areas. We chose the term terrain vague for our research, but there are only few studies focusing on it in Central Europe. The one that is the closest to our research is the case study of Prague.

As we mapped and discovered terrain vague in model towns, we recognized the need for creating a typology of terrain vague and for identifying the emergence mechanisms in model towns of Humenné, Strážske and Vranov nad Topľou. Currently, these towns face several challenges, from declining population to surplus of underutilized areas; therefore, our results will provide us with a better understanding of terrain vague in our model towns and help us to design coping strategies. Our research results could be generalized and used for all small and middle-sized towns in Slovakia that were greatly affected by socialist industrialization.

The aim of our paper is to create a typology of terrain vague and to identify the emergence mechanisms of terrain vague in the context of post-industrial small and middle-sized towns in Slovakia using the case study of towns of Humenné, Strážske and Vranov and Topľou. We combined field survey and desktop analysis methods to map terrain vague based on set criteria. After the evaluation of the data, we used it to create a typology of terrain vague and we identified key emergence mechanisms and their subcategories.

While creating our typology of terrain vague, we decided to use some terms defined in scholarly literature (urban wildscapes, white areas, voids, vacant land), together with 3 types dedicated to green spaces (residential greenery, public green spaces and restricted (campus) green spaces) and a descriptive name – terraced garages.

In our research, we identify 3 main emergence mechanisms, which are further divided into subcategories. We chose this approach based on the key factors influencing the development of urban structures in model towns since the second half of the 20th century until the present. The first emergence mechanism is related to political and socio-economic changes, particularly those occurring in post-communist countries: socialist industrialization, deindustrialization and urban shrinkage. The industrialization and deindustrialization have had opposite effects on urban structures, but in some cases, we cannot completely separate these processes from one another. The second emergence mechanism is an unintended product of urban planning with the following subcategories: remnants of the urban-renewal days, places (deliberately) deprived of a function and places without a function. These processes are solely related to spatial panning, urban design and mostly, a complementary image of an ideal industrial town and a way of reaching such ideal. Remnants of the urban-renewal days are the result of unfinished projects and their realized fragments, while places (deliberately) deprived of a function are the outcome of the consistent effort to organize cities and places without function are transit areas, unstructured landscapes, basically any and every space without a clearly defined function. The third and last emergence mechanism is the cycle of urban development, which is inherent to every town, regardless of the context. It is a common, even inevitable part of the urban development of cities as living, constantly evolving organisms. The emergence of unused objects is a common phenomenon unless they are not neglected for a long period of time and do not emerge suddenly in huge numbers. A similar common occurrence is the vacant (undeveloped) land, providing a spatial reserve for further development and places excluded from construction that cannot be developed for their terrain configuration. Predictably, 6 out of the 9 types are related to some type of green space, 2 types represent buildings and developed areas and 1 type represents paved open spaces. Therefore, we can assume that under-maintenance and the lack of activities in green spaces are the main issue in the model towns.

Our typology and identified emergence mechanisms could be used as a basis for further research related to terrain vague potential in Slovak small and medium-sized towns, and for developing strategies for their management and transformation. It provides a deeper understanding of the potential of terrain vague for urban regeneration and re-development in post-communist, post-industrial towns.

Keywords: terrain vague, post-communist, post-industrial, small and medium-sized towns, typology