Quo vadis, Praha? The heated debate over the future of the Czech capital

26-01-2010

One of the most important documents concerning the future of Prague is the rather unimaginatively named “Development Plan”. Since 1999, the plan has been the key public document laying out the broad rules for what can be built where in the city and its suburbs. For investors, developers, property owners and Prague’s 57 local authorities, the plan outlines development and environmental priorities: in terms of land-use, new building and the transport infrastructure. Since the plan was first drawn up in the early days after the fall of communism, Prague has changed immensely, and sweeping amendments are currently under discussion. The form the final document takes could define the character of one of Europe’s most historic cities for several generations to come.

To get an idea of what is at stake, I only need to look out of window of my own flat in the central Prague district of Holešovice. Directly below me is one of Prague’s busiest main roads: every day, some 45,000 cars crawl past, snaking right through the centre of one of the most densely populated parts of the city. Beyond the road, is the huge area of the half-derelict Bubny railway station, potentially one of Europe’s most attractive inner city development sites, but currently a casebook example of inner city neglect.

Bubny railway stationBubny railway station Kateřina Szentesiová is head of the department for urban planning at Prague city hall’s development section, the team that has been responsible for drafting the new Development Plan. She argues that the plan will help to speed up the regeneration of the city:

“The plan is particularly important for those parts of the city which are changing fast. In our view it’s an important priority for the city not to just keep spreading outwards into the countryside. We want development to take place on so-called ‘brownfields’ sites, within the city as it is now. Under current rules, if a site has previously been used for industry and someone wants to build a multifunctional development on the site, it’s extremely complicated, because each such case requires an amendment to the existing Development Plan. Under the new plan you won’t have to go through all that if it’s clear that the change is for the better and will reduce the ecological burden on the site.”

Martin Skalský works for the Czech NGO Arnika, which is encouraging greater public participation in environmental decisions. He argues that the new Development Plan is not as sympathetic to the environment as may seem at first sight:

Martin SkalskýMartin Skalský “There is a big difference between the plans - the visions – and the reality. That’s the problem of the new urban plan. It says very nice things in its first part, but if you go to the maps you see the exact opposite of the visions. For example, it says that we need to develop the ‘brownfields’ and to change these devastated areas in the city centre to something new, but on the other hand it proposes new districts of Prague on green areas. So that’s the point.”

If there’s one subject guaranteed to cause controversy in any historic city, it is road building. I’m standing by the building site of the Blanka road tunnel, a vast construction scheme, which, controversially, includes several multi-level road junctions just a few hundred metres from Prague Castle. This is part of the city’s inner ring road, which, along with an outer ring road, remains a central pillar of the new Development Plan.

The American architect, Vincent Marani, has been working in Prague for the last eight years. His firm Cigler and Marani, is working on several master plans for major development sites in the city centre. He argues that the ring road system is a much needed part of the Development Plan:

Vincent MaraniVincent Marani “One of the major things we first have to address is transportation, because the road and transportation system in Prague is overloaded. Whenever you’re increasing the volume of people, you’re increasing the volume of traffic and the volume of buildings. It’s an unfortunate thing, but Prague also has a very complicated topography, where we have many hills and the river, and the valley that is created by the Vltava makes it very different on the north side of the river for any through traffic to occur. The junction you mention is associated with a tunnel, so 90% of this highway connection is underground and not visible. Unfortunately it will come out of the ground at some point and there are going to be some junctions, and I know the city has made efforts to make parks and greenery around the areas where these junctions are going to come about.”

But others argue that these huge road schemes are a survival from the communist era, and that they are being kept going through the power and political influence of road building lobby. Martin Skalský says that the core of the problem is that the public do not feel able to get involved in the decision-making process:

“The problem is that we are not talking about one specific area, but about the whole of Prague, which consists of 57 independent municipalities. So it’s a very big area and it’s very difficult even to design an urban plan for such a big city. So it’s a problem of time. If the discussion was open for a whole year, with separate discussions on some sensitive areas or some specific issues, then it would be possible, maybe, to develop something and people could agree with that. But if the debate is open just for 30 days, with maybe hundreds of details that really will change the environment and change the conditions for people’s lives, that’s very difficult.”

For a few weeks in the autumn of last year, the draft Development Plan was opened for public comment. By the December deadline a total of around 10,000 comments or objections were sent to the city’s development section. The department’s Kateřina Szentesiová denies claims that the public information campaign was inadequate:

“We’ve tried to make it as easy as possible for people to get to know the Development Plan, and how they can send their comments. Back in the middle of last year we launched an information campaign – including booklets made available in public transport or at various distribution points. We also set up two offices with the full plan on display and with specialists available all the time to explain things to citizens, and we helped them fill out the forms for their comments and objections.”

Kateřina SzentesiováKateřina Szentesiová As someone who lives right on the edge of one of Prague’s key development areas, I have been following the process closely. I can confirm that Kateřina Szentesiová’s department at the city hall has been very helpful, but I can’t help agreeing with Martin Skalský from the NGO Arnika, that it is hard to get a real sense of being able to influence the decision-making process. The reasons, I think, are threefold: first of all, with the legacy of communism, most people are not used to being able to have a say in the way the environment around them is shaped; secondly, especially when it comes to road building, the schemes now being built have their roots in the 1970s and 80s, when it was considered quite acceptable for whole areas of cities to be swept away. And thirdly, while the city planners seem genuinely interested in dialogue, I have been struck again and again by the reluctance of elected local politicians to engage in the discussion. Not a single city councillor deemed it necessary to attend the big public meeting held last November to discuss the Development Plan – which did little to endear them either to the citizens of Prague or to their own staff at the city planning department, who have spent years working on the plan.

It will be interesting at this stage to see how the city hall will deal with the large pile of comments and objections now on their in-tray. The planning department will give its recommendations, but final word will be with the city councillors.

Photo: David Vaughan

26-01-2010