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Urban Mobility in Sofia between Routine and Revolution

Posted by ucfaam0 at Aug 08, 2013 10:31 AM |

by Anna Plyushteva

I came to Bulgaria to do fieldwork on urban commuting. Since April 2013, I have been looking at big new transport infrastructure – represented by the recently opened Line 2 of the Sofia Metro – from within the small, familiar practices of everyday travel. What better, my reasoning went, than a socio-technical disruption such as a new metro line, to illuminate the world of the mundane and the taken-for-granted? Well, disruption is exactly what I got, but of a somewhat different kind:  Bulgarians decided to bring down their government.

The peaceful protests began in mid-June, when the newly elected coalition government appointed as Head of National Security a hugely controversial figure (opinions on the street are in the rather narrow range between “mafia boss” and “mafia pawn”). I cannot do justice to the political reasons and outcomes of the unrest in this text; suffice to say that even though the appointment was withdrawn, public discontent grew. Every morning and evening, for over a month now, protesters have gathered in central Sofia. The demands are about transparency and accountability, targeted at a political establishment which has become synonymous with serving specific economic interests, including blatantly criminal ones. And for over a month, everyday travel in Sofia has been anything but mundane.

As I am writing this, sitting on a kerb during the second full-day blockade of Parliament, another evening of very unusual journeys home is descending upon the city. Key roads are shut off by protesters and police. The metro station which I had listed in my notes as the busiest station for evening commuters entering the system, is now known for being the destination for the thousands joining the protests after work. The new real-time bus stop displays blink improbable waiting times, as buses sit stranded far outside the city centre. Suddenly, the everyday journeys of my respondents begin and end in the most unexpected of places, at very  unusual times.

This could have been a very frustrating fieldwork situation to deal with, so I have thought up arguments to help me fight off the visions of PhD disaster. It helps that, on a personal level, I support the cause of the protesters, and am myself one of them. But even from a PhD perspective, there are reasons to appreciate what is happening.

Firstly, the “disruption” of “normality” has highlighted the fact that my account of everyday life practices should be more about on-going process of making and reconfiguring, and less about perpetual repetition of whatever I happen to frame as the “typical day”. The reason may be a new metro station, a headache, a new watch, or indeed civil unrest: in all cases, daily urban mobilities involve the continuous shaping of the everyday by weaving new with old. After 35 days of protesting in the same square from 6.30pm, my respondents have shared many insightful comments on how their bodies and minds “learn” places and situations, how they make new routines, sensing, thinking and moving with otherwise unusual spaces.

Secondly, that a porous definition of a research field can allow all kinds of interesting and important topics to seep into a project (and I realise that I may come to bitterly regret this). During the last month, the metro passengers from my PhD project have made me interrogate the assumptions built into my questions and methods much more carefully.  I had not planned to reduce respondents to mere “passengers”, dots whizzing between A and B and back again. But as the protests became Sofia's daily reality, it grew ever more important to locate the interest in commuting habits in relation to the myriad of subjectivities and environments that made up participants' everyday lives. Are the political beliefs of the interviewee relevant? Whether they own a dog (which must be walked before 8pm)? Their views on walking outside with an open beer can?

These are only some of the ways in which this project on daily mobilities is being illuminated from angles I did not anticipate. No big insights or exciting theories, a lot of work yet to be done and decisions to be made, and all kinds of traps to fall into. For now, I can see that thousands of people are craving political change, and even more people are loving the change happening already, in the city's streets. There is a six-lane road which is now a place where families spend the warm summer evenings sitting on the tarmac; kids are roller-skating, people are cycling, walking their dogs, eating ice creams. As I walk home just before midnight, Sofia's streets are quiet, and the air is cleaner than ever.

The transformation of one of Sofia’s busiest roads during the anti-government protests. Photo: author.

N.B.: This post was written on 18 July 2013. On 23 July, tensions in Bulgaria escalated. Protesters clashed with police during a blockade of the Parliament building, which left Members of Parliament trapped inside overnight.

Anna Plyushteva is a PhD candidate at UCL Geography exploring socio-technical change in the context of urban mobility. She is partially funded by a Doctoral Grant from the Economic and Social Research Council. More details on her research can be found here: http://www.geog.ucl.ac.uk/about-the-department/people/research-students/anna-plyushteva

Map of the Month!

Posted by ucfaam0 at Jul 31, 2013 03:09 PM |

Nick Mann from UCL’s Geography Department Map Room picks this month’s map.

This month I have pulled out an OS map of Fermanagh and Tyrone Sheet 45 (Ireland) dated 1903.  A first year student was looking at the map series as she wanted a detailed map of the coastline for her project.   It is one inch to the mile and surveyed in 1833 by Colonel Sir H. James.  The map has wonderful hill shading which gives it the 3D look this was engraved by hand at the OS office, Dublin under the direction of Captain Wilkinson.

OS map of Fermanagh and Tyrone Sheet 45 (Ireland) dated 1903

You can visit the extensive UCL Geography map collection in the Map Library and Reading Room in Bedford Way: http://www.geog.ucl.ac.uk/about-the-department/support-services/map-library

Welcome to the new UCL Geography blog!

Posted by ucfaam0 at Jul 31, 2013 11:42 AM |

We’re a team of 140 geographers working tirelessly in the pursuit of understanding the world better and making a difference through geographical research. The blog is produced by members of the Department of Geography to showcase our latest research and activities, and provide an interactive forum in which to discuss contemporary geographical issues affecting the world today.

We’re a diverse group here at UCL Geography: the department has over 60 academic and research staff and approximately 80 research students covering a broad range of research areas from recent environmental change, environmental modelling and past climates; to migration, geographic policy, urbanism and geopolitics. By anyone's standards, that’s a breadth of interest and expertise.

Comments are actively encouraged here! We’d love to hear from you so please feel free to comment on any of the posts. And if you’re feeling very passionately about it, you might like to contribute a post, please email geog-blog@ucl.ac.uk.