The reconstruction of Prague railway stations is a great opportunity. Representatives must defend citizens’ interests, a study finds
Prague - 20 May 2010
The planned reconstruction of Masaryk’s railway station and of railway stations in Zizkov, Smichov and Bubny is a great opportunity. Grounds in question are so large that there could grow up new high-tech districts with environmentally friendly architecture, which will attract European interest. Developers, however, have not yet grasped this opportunity and keep designing conventional buildings, which generate fast profits but damage the city. The City Hall does not regulate the construction and citizens cannot have their say. That must be changed. Such are the findings of a study prepared by students of the University of Wageningen, the Netherlands in cooperation with the civic association Arnika.
“Thanks to the conversion of brownfields, Prague has got an extraordinary opportunity to transform into a city setting directions to modern concepts of construction” explains prof. Karen Fortuin of the University of Wageningen. “Nowadays - with regard to scarce and environmental constraints - closed material cycles, passive energy houses, material recycling, waste water treatment are commonly applied. Projects proposed for Prague railway stations are outdated from this perspective and they per se constitute a problem” professor Fortuin adds.
For the greatest risk, the students consider the transport accessibility of the new districts, which should be erected on the grounds of Prague railway stations. The roads and streets are already now overloaded and further increase in car traffic is unacceptable from the hygienic and health perspective. Neither the City Hall, nor private developers are able to explain clearly which funds will finance the new public transport infrastructure in those districts.
Authors of the study also criticize the unwillingness of developers to respect the genius loci of individual sites. For example, the Orco coorporation pushed through that the unique storage sheds at the railway stations in Prague-Bubny were taken out of the monumental protection while the object could constitute the part of the new district. The destruction also threatens the functionalist dock yard at the cargo station in Žižkov, which is an extraordinary technical monument.
The students also analyzed the actual needs of citizens of city districts, where the discussed railway stations are located. Moreover, they conclude that the new reconstruction must also include new and sufficiently large parks and public squares, which would balance the construction. They also propose to connect the developed sites with other districts by a network of green belts, which would allow for walking and cycling and would serve as bio-corridors for wildlife.
The study also includes other specific recommendations. For instance, students suggest setting up an independent body responsible for the conversion of brownfields. Also there should be legally binding rules for setting new green spaces, which developers cannot carelessly ignore in next phases of designing. The study also highlights the possibility to give new social functions to the protected monuments by establishing art galleries and cultural centers. Building strong alliances and networks is crucial for more efficient inclusion and participation of civil society in the decision-making process according to the students.
Thirty students of Masters programs in environmental sciences and urban environmental management from 17 different countries took part at writing the study. The total research period was 8 weeks of which two were spent in Prague conducting - among others - 37 interviews and gathering 528 questionnaires
Aside from specific locations, the students also targeted the new land use plan of Prague and criticized its generality. If regulatory mechanisms are not specified more, there is a risk of further abuse of legal loopholes by private developers the study finds. Nowadays it is very evident as the students say that the face of the city is formed by developers in cooperation with politicians and officials while land use plan as well as citizens’ opinion does not count at all.
Arnika will now circulate the printed copy of the study to officials and politicians of the city districts and city hall. The reconstruction of railway stations is a subject to the new land use plan, which is now being prepared and it is possible to submit comments. “The University of Wageningen brings a fresh look from outside of the box and also offers a number of constructive proposals. We believe that it may inspire developers and politicians to take a new approach to construction in Prague,” comments Arnika’s spokesperson Zora Kasikova on their intentions.
This year too, a team of students will visit Prague to conduct further research here. During their already third visit they will focus on sustainable urban water management in the Capital.
1) Strategy of new use of brownfields
The strategy of optimal conversion of brownfields differs in each case. The factors which play a role are the current situation in the location as well as the preferences of citizens of Prague, inhabitants in the location, preferences of tourists and entrepreneurs.
For inspiration a case study of the successful use of brownfields in the past can be used, such as the old Karlin. The old power station in London was transformed to a successful art museum Tata Modern. Maassilo in Rotterdam in the Netherlands newly became a workshop for artists Creative Factory and turned to a popular club. In the north-east US, textile factories from industrial times were converted into office spaces for companies running high-tech business. There is a plentiful of positive examples which show how unused brownfields were given a new meaning as cultural spaces, recreational sports or new lively social centers.
From interviews with experts and from the survey, students concluded which land use functions are currently missing in Prague. Brownfields represent a great opportunity for setting up these new functions and also bringing new balance into the city and creating healthier environments for life. Here are the following functions:
- educational facilities
- recreation and sport facilities
- cheap accommodation
- large green fields creating a green belt
- little greenery
5 greatest opportunities
- Using modern urban approaches
- Eco-architecture can inspire Europe
- Interconnecting Prague with green corridors
- Involvement of public can be of use to all the city
- Widening of the public transport network
- Further unbearable increase in car traffic
- Destruction of protected monumental buildings
- No or too little greenery and public squares
- Lack of cultural, sport and social facilities
- Soil contamination, not yet mapped
3) Other recommendations included in the study
- Civil society organizations must control the plans for unsustainable construction and intransparent process of state bureaucracy and self-government. Politicians and officials need to take responsibility.
- It is necessary to newly define clear functions of individual areas, otherwise, space is open for corruption and false interpretation of definitions.
- It is desirable to establish an independent institution which would be accountable for questions related to brownfields. Nowadays, the responsibility is very fragmented.
- The city of Prague needs more green elements in public spaces. Those will contribute to better water cleaning, limit noise and improve rain water treatment.
- The conversion of brownfields is an opportunity to connect green fields across the city. It is possible to found green corridors delivering ecological and social functions and connecting together different parts of cities.
- It is necessary to consider sustainable transport infrastructure (tram trails and bicycle paths), which limit car traffic.
- There should be legally binding criteria for establishing green fields, which developers cannot carelessly ignore in next phases of designing.
- Revitalized protected monumental buildings could also fulfill social functions, for example as art galleries (such as in Karlin) and as cultural centers.
- Contradicting interests of developers and officials are the major danger for monumental protection. It is necessary that these two stakeholders should cooperate.
- It is also necessary to find new accommodation for homeless people living in abandoned brownfields, such as in Karlin, in Zizkov and at the Masaryk’s railway station.
- It is desirable to find a new strategy for sustainable development of the Masaryk’s railway station together with citizens. Citizens also understand that they can have their vote and opinion in the new development of the city.
- Civil society organizations should create new strong alliances and ask for their role in the decision-making process. They should start working in coalitions and networks.
- Non-governmental organizations must objectively criticize developers - they should continue talking about negatives but they also talk about positive aspects of their plans.
- The ecological sustainability of projects can emerge from cooperation of citizens, officials, developers, suppliers and other stakeholders.
- Green certificates are not sufficient but more ambitious conceptions can bring a real difference what environmental impact the buildings will have.
- Sustainable concepts should be included from the very onset of projects. A relevant alternative of the current projects is for example the concept of “urban harvest”.