Pavel Hnilička – on urban sprawl in the Czech Republic

03-03-2008

Pavel Hnilička is a Prague-based architect and town planner who has authored one of the first books about urban sprawl in the Czech Republic called Sídelní kaše, roughly translatable as Urban or Residential Soup. Prague and other cities and towns in the country have seen unprecedented development in recent years, which the author says is largely indistinguishable from homogenous sprawl witnessed elsewhere in Europe or even North America, albeit on a far smaller scale. I met with the architect at his office in a leafy part of Prague recently to talk about some of the characteristics of sprawl in the Czech Republic as well as possible solutions. Pavel Hnilička – One on One.

“Urban sprawl has just started in our country, it of course does not have such a scale as in the US, this is something that can’t really be compared. But we can see some similarities: it is a process still in the cradle here. The outskirts of today’s towns are being flooded step-by-step by urban sprawl and these built-up areas, which spill out without compromise into the surrounding landscape. There are more and more fragmented areas without life, without REAL life – which are neither cities nor villages – let alone a free landscape.”

People are used to living in cities, having the infrastructure, everything close at hand, being able to communicate; but when you go out into some of these areas they do seem designed haphazardly. Would you agree that there is kind of a dislocation or disconnection?

“I think that we can find quite a lot of negatives. First of all, it is very expensive. We all pay for it even though we might not live in the suburbs. The architect Richard Rogers has estimated that every house built outside the city framework in the UK cost taxpayers 40 thousands to provide a basic level of infrastructure. We can say that urban sprawl segregates social classes, harms peoples’ health, causes problems with traffic, destroys public spaces and last but not least makes it difficult or even impossible to create a sense of place.”

Nevertheless, it must have been a dream for many people after the Velvet Revolution to buy their own house or family homes separate from previous block of flats.

“Of course it’s attractive: to live in a single family house is a dream for the majority of the population and this is important to stress. But we can start thinking about the quality in these places. The advantage of the suburb, or what people often think of the advantage of the suburb is that if they move there they will move into a healthy green environment. But that’s not always the case.”

Are there any areas in Prague that you are aware of that you regard as particularly unsuccessful regarding urban planning?

“Actually, urban sprawl is visible around Prague especially along the highways like the D1 to Brno or the highway to Pilsen. The lack of planning is visible along these main arteries.”

Some of our listeners / readers may have been in Prague once but not really know what some of these areas look like…

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK “That’s always a very interesting issue: when people talk about cities they always think about only a tiny part. They do visit these centres, they like to walk there and so on but this is maybe five or 10 percent of the area of the city. And actually reality is happening ‘outside’ behind the city borders. It is now much easier for investors to invest there and for them to get approval from local politicians and to get permission to build. The problem is ‘crossing’ the borders: you see private houses, private shops, sometimes nice, sometimes not, but that which is common is usually in very bad quality. I would say that it is rather a ‘no man’s land’. First of all, you have to travel by car: try to walk there or go by bike and you’ll get lost very quickly. This is a big change for Czechs: getting used to seeing the world from behind the wheel. This changes the way of thinking because if you step out it’s like being on the moon. When I studied in Zurich I often travelled by car and when I was leaving Prague’s Zličín and arriving in Zurich it was very, very similar! And this is what I have tried to describe using the term Sídelní kaše – kind of an urban, homogenous ‘soup’.”

Talking about development, for years I’ve heard about one part of Prague 6 near the municipality’s Vítězné náměstí where there is kind of this park and greenery which is supposed to be developed. But it’s always a question of what do with such a plot of land. At the same time, it’s kind of not really being used now. How would you approach that problem – taking a fairly large space like that and doing something with it that would be both progressive in terms of services but also retain character?

“I think that especially this plot has to be developed. Vítězné náměstí isn’t really a square, it’s a crossroads and you don’t feel urban space there. I get quite angry about the description ‘green area’ because I think that when talking about cities we should use architect Koutcký suggestion that we talk about parks or tree-lined avenues. A green area has to have some character, a description, it’s not like a piece of grass! It has to have character and it has to be a place. I studied architecture here in Dejvice and I really dislike this stretch. There is a metro station and there should be houses built, shops, offices, and a mixture of functions. If we say that urban sprawl is bad, we should ‘define’ the borders of the city. We should try and reduce construction outside the border, but encourage it within. That was the solution, for example, in Munich and it works. It is possible to live within a dense, green city.”

03-03-2008