Urban social problems and marginalized populations in post-socialist transition societies: Perceptions of the city centre of Prague, the Czech Republic

By Jana Temelová, Jana Jíchová, Lucie Pospíšilová, and Nina Dvořáková

Urban social problems and marginalized populations in post-socialist transition societies: Perceptions of the city centre of Prague, the Czechia
The study of social problems and marginalization in urban space has a long tradition in Western scholarly research. However there have been far fewer studies of these issues in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Moreover most authors use only statistical data to examine them. Thus we have decided to offer a perspective on the perception of social problems and marginalization in post-socialist urban societies. Using Prague city centre as a case study, we showed how social problems are perceived, interpreted, localized and dealt with by key actors in the city’s social development.

The paper draws on the data gathered through semi-structured interviews with the key actors of social development in Prague, including city officials, local politicians, police authorities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Different working background and also place of activity (in and outside the city centre) were important attributes for analysis of the interviews We discussed the following broad topics with the respondents: what social phenomena do they perceive to be urban problems and why; where are these problems localized; who is marginalized; what are the consequences for people and the urban space; and what initiatives and policy responses can they identify with the aim of ameliorating these social issues.

Major perceived problems
All interviewees characterized Prague city centre as a unique place within the metropolis. There was consensus that the city centre serves as a magnet that draws a variety of people attracted by the diverse opportunities offered both by the city core and by the capital in general. This concentration and fluctuation of people, enterprises and institutions is reflected, according to the respondents, in the higher occurrence of certain social problems in the central zone than in the rest of the city. They identified homelessness, drug addictionand lack of social service as major problems of Prague city centre. These results are similar to those found in Western cities. On the other hand stakeholder’s interpretation and attitudes are strongly influenced by relatively short period of experience of overcoming these issues that appeared during 1990s in Czechia.

Respondent’s Views
There were several contrasts in attitudes and perceptions among actors with different working background (municipality x NGO), agenda (broad social problem, selected topics) or activity working space (in or outside the city centre). Actors active outside the city dealing with social development in general tended to connect social problems of the city centre with persons and activities visible in urban spaces and often negatively perceived by the public. They seemed to represent rather the views of the public than people involved in the city’s social development. Their perceptions tended to be mediated by their personal feelings, the media, and public awareness in general. Their narratives indicated prioritizing the majority ahead of marginalized populations. For instance they expressed a stronger concern about the image and quality of the city centre, such as the creation of an urban environment pleasant and safe for citizens.
The opinions of actors active in the city centre relied on a rich vein of knowledge gathered during their daily work lives. They were able to see the social problems from different perspectives. Actors, particularly NGOs but also of some City Hall respondents, voiced greater concern about the structural and individual contexts of social problems and marginalized populations. They were aware of unwanted spillover effects as well as the low efficiency and poor sustainability of displacement strategies towards homeless people and drug addicts and the services that helped them. However, they perceived other solutions as conditioned by the attitudes and activities of other actors that are difficult or impossible to influence. These actors are faced with the challenges of accommodating entrenched marginalized groups, none of which can be solved at the local level. They are confronted with a lack of coordination at the city level and they must overcome the absence of city-wide and state-level strategies to deal with the deep societal problems that exist.

Different needs and demands
Local authorities experience conflicts between public (city-centre residents) demands and the needs of homeless people or drug addicts. This can be seen in the contrast between the attitudes of NGO respondents and those of local municipal authority respondents. While an individual-level perspective characterized the attitudes of NGOs, a place-focused view defined the stance of local municipal respondents. NGOs tended to elaborate on the social problem per se, including its societal causes and its influence on the quality of life and the opportunities of those marginalized. By contrast, the local municipality seemed to be much more concerned about the place, and they must take both residents and users into account. The fact that the views of residents are given more weight can be attached to populism.

Various displacement policies have been adopted by the local government in order to deal with the perceived problems. It was f. e. displacement, prohibition of alcohol consumption in public spaces, urban design prevention, surveillance, and police patrols. All these strategies can be interpreted as a manifestation of neoliberal entrepreneurial urban governance and revanchist urbanism. However, we argue that it need to be studied to better understand the nature of these repressive policy responses. The in-depth interviews indicate the complex conditions of displacement strategies and the mismatch between the practices and perceptions of local stakeholders.

In the analysis of the interviews, contrast between different actors in the perceptions of social problems and marginalized populations in the city centre has been confirmed. That was based among others on different working background (municipality x NGO), agenda (broad social problem, selected topics) or activity working space (in or outside the city centre). Actors who are involved in the development of city centre or in particular social agenda (homelessness, drug addiction, lack of social services) perceive the social problems differently comparing to those who operate outside the city centre and deal with social development in general. They are aware of the context of the problems and do not stigmatize marginalized people. However, their activities do not always correspond to their perception. They faces different kinds of barriers in their work that need to be taken into account. The gathering and analysis of in-depth insights into the perceptions of different stakeholders is essential so that equitable social and spatial policy responses can be designed and implemented for the benefit of all.

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