Reforming Czech housing estates a tall order

11-03-2005

If you look up the term 'sidliste' in any dictionary, it will be translated as 'housing estate', which is not exactly accurate. While images of urban decay are attached to the term 'housing estate', 'sidliste' just refers to the districts of prefabricated housing, in which 50% of Prague's inhabitants live. Often these 'sidliste' take the form of rows and rows of identical buildings, towering at around twenty stories high. Their aging grey facades may not be beautiful, but such buildings provide many Czechs with all basic living requirements. Are the days of such housing estates numbered? Rosie Johnston takes a look at the future of the Czech 'sidliste'.

Czech housing estates were originally built in the late fifties on land that had been expropriated by the communist government. Because the land came for free, these housing estates stretched over a larger area and didn't need to tower quite as high as their French or British counterparts. Due to the housing shortage at the time, people from all social spheres and backgrounds moved into these flats. Karel Maier is a professor of Architecture in Prague, he tells me why Czech housing estates are currently different from those in Western Europe:

"I think the essence is their population, because housing estates in France and in Western Europe were built as social housing, whereas in this country and in other countries belonging to the former soviet bloc, this was virtually the only chance for people to get housing in urban areas. Only very rich people and those involved in politics had the opportunity to build their own houses in urban areas."

Not everything is perfect in such housing estates, as Martin Lux - a researcher at the institute of sociology - explains:

"We conducted a survey on housing satisfaction, and found that those living in housing estates are less satisfied with their housing than those living in brick and mortar buildings. They perceive the environment of the housing estate as less safe and very anonymous, and these are the main reasons for their dissatisfaction. However, the difference in satisfaction between those who live in housing estates and those who don't is not as great as we'd expected it to be, and it is definitely not as great as it is in Western Europe."

There appear to be two possible futures for existent housing estates in the Czech Republic. The first is that a high level of investment and community activity will keep those living in such housing estates happy, and willing to stay put. Inhabitants of high rise buildings here in Prague vary from the rich to the government subsidized, which is scarcely the case in British or French blocks of flats. It is something that the government wants to maintain. Martin Lux describes what will happen if they fail:

"The worst case scenario is that the social structure of housing estates will change in favour of lower income or socially problematic households, and some of the flats will become vacant. Then we would have those problems that Western countries are facing at the moment."

It is important for the inhabitants of housing estates to take part in their regeneration, but do they want to live on a housing estate to see these changes through? As an inhabitant of a 'panelak' or 'block of flats' myself, I asked some of my neighbours what they thought about where they lived:

"So you have the chance here to be close to nature, but there are some disadvantages - for example, if you are not an introvert and like to communicate then it can be lonely."

"I'm not happy, because the rooms are very small and badly furnished, but living in Prague is very expensive"

It appears that more needs to be done to keep the inhabitants of Czech housing estates content. More clubs and events are needed to counter the anonymity that many residents complain of. More cultural and ecological projects are needed, so that housing estates are seen as a haven outside of the city centre, and not as isolated places - where people are forced to live. Action is required quickly to halt a trend which is becoming apparent. The market price of flats in housing estates is falling; and no one is going to buy a flat which is going to lose them money.

11-03-2005