Shift from Communism to Capitalism reflected in urban flight

As the Velvet Revolution decentralized Czech power from communist rule to capitalism, so too it decentralized the capital city’s physical boundaries — Prague’s concentrated geography reflected concentrated power under the socialist government.

“Before the communists came to power, the city was quite dispersed in settlement structure,” says Ludek Sykora, professor of social geography and regional development at Charles University. “But because the communists wanted central control, they concentrated it to large cities.”

Under the Communist regime, high density residences housed the majority of the population, often in the form of panelaks. These panelaks were large, concrete, block-shaped structures intended to provide affordable housing to large numbers of people.

As socialism was overturned, the people of Prague began to see the emergence of what Štěpán Bärtl, a public relations representative at the Prague Institute of Planning and Development (IPR), refers to as the “the Czech dream of the 90s,” which he adds, is comparable to the American Dream.

The new ideal, he says, suddenly became the ability to build your own house, a private property designed by and belonging solely to one’s immediate family. Divisions between socioeconomic status deepened under capitalism, causing the more affluent to move outside of the city, where land was available to build the single family house characteristic of the new Czech dream.

In the past few decades, says Bartl, the Institute has monitored the resulting continual “spreading” into the Prague’s outer regions — an “urban decentralization,” Sykora says. This “decentralization” is a recent phenomena that IPR wants to curb.

“We can’t afford it,” Bartl says. He adds that if Prague continues to spread into the surrounding area, the city will be unable to bear the cost of additional public transportation, underground infrastructure like sewage, and the environmental cost of urbanizing the “surrounding nature.”

IPR also cites loss of “quality of life” as a result of suburbanization. As compared to other European metropolitan cities, such as Vienna and Berlin, the population density of Prague is comparatively low. At 2,468 persons per kilometer, Prague’s population density is a little more than half that of Amsterdam and less than one-fifth of London’s, according to University College, London (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ineqcities/atlas/cities/prague). Bartl asserts this thin population density hinders human interaction.

According to Jiri Ctyroki, head of Spatial Information at IPR, the Institute is attempting to foster “connection” through its Metropolitan Plan, introduced in 2014 and set to be completed by 2017. Ctyroki cites relationships between varying age groups and economic circumstances as a central theme of the plan. “People should create one single community,” he says. “[The plan] is about connecting people within the city.”

According to the plan’s overview, available on IPR’s website, the Institute hopes to attract people back to the city center by transforming abandoned or misused spaces that already exist within the boundaries of Prague, of which Ctyroky says there are many, into modern and attractive living spaces.

Another tactic is the “revitalization” of public spaces. The plan’s brochure calls the banks of the Vltava River, for example, an “important city-forming element” that has been “neglected, poorly managed, and inappropriately privatised.” The Institute plans to capitalize on the waterfront’s potential and transform it into a “much sought-after public space.”

Revitalizing the city appears to be an attractive concept at first glance, but not everyone is pleased with the Institute’s new plan. Cyroky says pushback against the plan has centered mostly on fear of “densification.”

Certain citizen groups, such as Praha Podle Hudecka (Prague Under Hudecka), have protested the plan, displaying posters emblazoned with photoshopped images of towering glass skyscrapers overpowering Prague’s current skyline. The group’s website notes the possibility of resulting traffic congestion, noise pollution, overcrowding and loss of urban character as criticisms of the plan.

Bartl argues against the latter, saying building height regulations and careful attention to locational individuality will not allow Prague to lose it’s historical and architectural character.

Praha Podle Hudecka, however, is not alone it its concerns.

Martin Ourednicek,  professor of social geography at Charles University, says he, too, takes the “minority view” of suburbanization when compared to many of his colleagues. Much of the criticism from academics, especially, has come from the perception of “social polarization” as a result of the affluent building more affluent communities outside of the city.

However, Ourednicek says his research has shown that this polarization is “not so bad.” Urban sprawl in western countries, he says, is commonly in the form of homogenic suburban communities built in locations with no pre-existing structures.Prague’s urban sprawl differs in that suburbanization flows generally into pre-existing communities and spreads out, or diffuses, within them. Supported by an investigation fielding thousands of questionnaires of those living within these new suburban developments, his research suggests that the inflow of money, young people, and resources have revitalized the rural communities that once existed in poor condition during communist times, but now provide better services and education.

“These villages started to live again,” Ourednicek says.

The result of the Czech Republic’s rejection of communism leading to a rejection of communism’s geographical implications means that the “Czech Dream”  is not concerned with location, but with structure of housing.Ourednicek suggests that the true dream would be to build a “one family house in Wenceslas Square,” however, the affordable and logical option has become for single families to build outside of city limits where there is space and affordable land.

“Having my own property and my own garden as a symbol of individualism, freedom, capitalism and choice” takes precedence over location, Sykora says.

As IPR attempts to attract the population back into Prague’s boundaries, they must combat this preference toward architectural and lifestyle individuality.

Featured image taken by .