‘Urban activism’ in Sofia

Anything’s possible if the will is there

Sofia? It’s not love at first sight. Initially, the city seems a little cold, a little distant. A city of buildings, squares and roads reminiscent of the Communist era that existed between 1946 and 1990. Severely damaged in World War Two – in the time of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria – Sofia was rebuilt and expanded in true Communist style. And although such a legacy may not have earned Sofia a place among today’s top 5 tourist hotspots, there’s no doubt it created a fascinating place for inspiration and urban energy. Because the concrete facade conceals a city on the verge of a renaissance. In recent years, the centre underwent a transformation – scratch the surface and you’ll unearth a wealth of cosmopolitan street cafes, wonderful (vegetarian) food and citizens who’ve seized control and are defining the future of their Sofia. And that’s what appealed to us. We wanted to find out more about the people who are making this city.

Gwenda, Rinske, Hristo and Antonina.

The first articles about a new generation of citymakers in Sofia date from 2011. They all note that, up till then, the people of Sofia didn’t realise that they own the public space. The Communist ideology and restricted role of the individual had left its mark. Now, in 2017, a movement of new citymakers is making waves – despite their modest number. In fact, all of them can practically fit around one table. We meet with just a few – Hristo and Antonina – the people behind Don’t DIY Studio, and Ljubo, architect and former director of One Architecture Week and Adriyana managing director of Ogilvy. And, last of all, we’re joined by the municipality’s relatively new Chief Planner. All are committed to making Sofia a better city. Many refer to themselves as ‘citymaker’, while some prefer ‘urban activist’ although are quick to emphasise that the term carries no negative connotations. Their work is bearing fruit – but, unsurprisingly, at a snail’s pace. The results, however, are clear to see. Little gardens in disused strips of land are popping up throughout the city, and people are brightening up the pavement outside their front door, and even entire streets.

Placemaking in a spontaneously closed-off street during the White Rabbit Festival.

Sometimes, these interventions definitely have a more activist feel. Like, for instance, the underground movement ‘Destructive Creation’. Going by the motto ‘You should have done it yourself’ they add elements – unlawfully, and uninvited – to the public space. Bookshelves or benches appear in a park, sometimes in conjunction with a political message.

Larger and more formal changes do, however, call for state support – which is where problems arise. ‘People may be ready for it, but we’re stuck with old-fashioned structures and regulations,’ offers Hristo. The wheels of Bulgarian bureaucracy grind slowly and the proliferation of rules and laws often means that many good intentions remain just that. Whether this is all due to the government, is another question. Bulgarians seem loath to move too far from their traditions and customs. Which don’t include taking the bull by the horns.

Sofia is an incredibly green city, alive with trees, green areas, parks and even city woods. According to the mayor, Sofia’s ambition for 2017 is to be a ‘Green Capital’, and both the government and NGOs are working hard to make it happen. Many of the open spaces are put to good use even though there are few joggers in the city and the number of cyclists can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Currently, Sofia has only a few kilometres of cycle path, which aren’t interlinked. Most of the paths run through, or around the fringes, of green spaces – literally intended for ‘a spin round the park’. The organisation Velo Evolution aims to encourage more people to get on their bike, and has drawn up a ‘cycle code’ for bikes, among other things. But, for the moment, Bulgarian drivers seem oblivious to these rules. In Sofia, cycling’s a risky business.

Family activities in the park.

The car is the favoured means of transportation. It’s the only way to bridge the enormous distances. Sofia is a vast city with many suburbs that, to our Western eyes, look dreary and grey, yet don’t feel as inhospitable as they look. Like the Lyulin district in the west of the city, home to some 240,000 people. Built in the 1970s, these suburbs conform to our idea of Soviet architecture: identical complexes of washed-out grey, beige and ochre – horizontal skyscrapers as they’re often called. Yet, contrary to our initial expectations, this is a popular place to live: relatively inexpensive and well-served by public transport. And, with the advent of shopping centres, the locals really have no reason to leave their neighbourhood. Which, Peyto explains, doesn’t often happen. He grew up in Lyulin and followed the example of many talented young Bulgarians: he chose to study in the West, rather than in his hometown. And has spent the last 7 years living in the Netherlands, most recently in Rotterdam. Philip, a fellow Sofian, began his career in London and spent many years working for major consultancy firms. Now ‘between jobs’ he is considering relocating to Sofia. Although it’s true that the West is where you make money and carve out a career, it’s not the be-all and end-all. He isn’t a fan of the London weather but, more importantly, London isn’t the place to start a family. For that, Philip would rather be in his native land. His friend Nikolay has already made the move back to Sofia from London. His IT job in the UK was a money-maker, but these days a similar job in Bulgaria will net him a comparable salary. ‘When it comes to IT, Bulgaria’s lagging behind, and IT experts are thin on the ground. I can do a great deal here.’

Originally from Greece, Nikos has found a thriving entrepreneurial climate in Sofia. He left northern Greece to study in Sofia, finding his way into the fashion business while still a student. The company was a great success but even so, Nikos still found the time to devise a new restaurant concept with a couple of friends. His new venture, Jasmin, is an ‘urban gastro bar’ tucked away in a little courtyard, away from the hustle and bustle of the main boulevard. Jasmin stands for a wide selection of Italian wines and rare distillations. And, nestling on the first floor, is a speak-easy style bar that wouldn’t be out of place in London or New York.

Tips about Italian wines at Jasmin.

Business, it seems, is booming in Sofia. But the state and the business sector aren’t yet working in synergy. The urban activists say plenty of businesses are eager to invest in the city, but precisely how the state and business sector will achieve this, is unclear. All the more so because there is no single, shared vision guiding Sofia’s development. But the city’s only just begun, and has its sights set on ‘Sofia 2050’. An ambition in which the government is keen to encourage the city’s people to play an active part. And the Sofians? They can’t wait to get involved. They’re optimistic about their future. And so are we.

Rinske Brand
25 April 2017