Importance of Social Networks in Revitalising Former Industrial Urban Areas – Renewal of the Former Tobacco Factory in Ljubljana

Matjaž Uršič, Primož Medved

Full paper paper published in Slovene language, in a peer reviewed journal DRUŽBOSLOVNE RAZPRAVE, XXXV (2019), 92: 53–79 53




Analysis of social networks in areas undergoing intense urban transformations are

becoming an ever more important topic in spatial planning. The growing attention

given to social networks is due to the rise of problems and conflicts stemming

from disregard of the ‘soft’, i.e. social, components in the local environment. The

problem of stakeholders’ participation and empowerment in spatial planning is,

in fact, one of ignoring or not recognising the importance of the social networks

that exist between actors in space. The article analyses the roles and meanings of

social networks with respect to the development of certain types of socio-economic

activities in former industrial areas. Using data collected from semi-structured interviews

in the area of former Tobacco Factory in Ljubljana, it analyses the types,

intensity and expansion of social networks.



With the transition to a new political and economic system, significant transformation

of spatial planning has occurred in Slovenia. This resulted in the formation

of non-consolidated institutional structures and competitive urban policies, which

were supposed to stimulate rapid economic development. Simultaneously with

economic development some major deficiencies in the coordination of spatial

development have emerged. In larger Slovenian cities, due to various reasons

(restructuring of the economy, introduce of new ownership conditions, denationalization,

etc.), a great number of obsolete abandoned industrial urban area

sprung up. The transformation of such sites involved different types of users,

ranging from formal users (official tenants) to informal (squatter) forms of use. The

majority of users were perceived by the owners or urban managers as a transient

form of space use. In this regard the users have been assigned a ‚temporary

role‘ while the bases for intensive physical renovation and long-term commodification

of these premises were still in preparation. Despite this initially temporary

role, the locations of deprived industrial areas developed interesting services or

programs that exceed their temporality and became and important addition to

the socio-economic functions of cities. The article in this regard addresses the

issue of temporary use of former industrial sites, which include the beneficial

development of complex social networks, which support unique functions and

programs not present in other urban areas.

Past analyses of former industrial sites in Slovenian cities have focused mainly

on the physical changes and direct economic effects of renewal of brownfields,

while much less attention has been paid to the analysis and importance of social

networks that have in the meantime developed on the locations. In our research we

tried to analyse some of these missing elements and present how social networks

affect spatial development of an area, and vice versa. The article is an attempt

to ‚evaluate‘ the importance of social networks for the development of economic

and especially creative activities in cities. In doing so, the article emphasizes the

great importance and need to maintain social networks as a prerequisite for the

establishment and development of creative activities in former industrial areas

undergoing physical renewal. Emphasizing the development of creative industries

is a common mantra of urban economic policies that seek to diversify the local

economic base and replace jobs lost through the restructuring of the traditional

industrial and service sectors. To implement these programs they often resort

to locations of former traditional industrial and service areas. At this point it is

important to mention that the application of creative urban development policies

often results in a lack of adequate attention and insufficient integration of ‚soft‘

social elements that have in the meantime accumulated in the selected areas.

The article aims to show the inseparability of the processes of social network

development and economic (creative) activities on the basis of data accumulated

within the project „Urban Live Education“ (UEL 2019). The key purpose of the

article is therefore to highlight the extreme importance of social networks in the

context of renewal of brownfields and especially in the case of the former Tobacco

Factory in Ljubljana. It is an attempt to point to existing urban development

patterns that all too often perceive social elements in brownfields as a relatively

insignificant part of local economies and an acceptable part of potential collateral

damage during the renewal processes. To analyse the case of Tobacco factory

we relied on the social mapping research model, which is understood as a way

of identifying and linking social interactions with particular user’s spaces. The

application of social mapping helped to reflect, increase awareness of specific

socio-spatial contexts where potential conflicts, negotiations, misunderstandings,

power and responsibility relationships arise.

The results of the analysis indicate to the existence of strong social networks

that gradually formed in the period after the closure of production line in the

Tobacco factory. According to the analysed data, strong formal and informal

networks were established and represented a prerequisite for the formation of

certain economic activities. In the case of creative activities, a series of researchers

(see for example Jacobs 1969; Howkins 2001; Florida 2002, 2005; Bell,

Jayne 2004; Fleming 2011) point to the extreme importance of the coexistence

of both (formal and informal) networks, while the absence of either one of them

represents a great obstacle i.e. greatly limits the growth of the creative ecosystem.

The current presence of social networks on the location of Tobačna is the cornerstone

of innovation and basis for further, longer-term clustering of businesses

in the wider Ljubljana area. Only a local environment that blends different types

of networks and tolerates high heterogeneity while combining work, leisure and

social life fosters creativity that is characteristic for creative neighbourhoods and

clusters of businesses that benefit the wider urban area.