Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 21
15 November 1999

Congestion in Prague C I T I E S:
Dysfunctional Decision-making
The battle for Prague's future

Andreas Beckmann

Just before midnight on 9 September, after a gruelling, 12-hour marathon session that was accompanied by a demonstrations, whistles, catcalls, protest signs and even the release of a noxious odor from among onlookers sitting at the back of the Council chamber, the Prague City Council finally approved - with an overwhelming majority - a master plan that will guide development of the Golden City for the next ten years. Everyone, from city politicians to investors and ordinary residents, agrees that the zoning plan is urgently needed. But the 9 September decision, which brought to an official close discussions that had dragged on for almost a decade, has done little to resolve fundamental differences regarding the future shape of Prague. Rather than allowing the city to finally get on with the business of development and addressing pressing concerns, the new plan promises to simply usher in the next series of battles for the city's future.

The Prague zoning plan stands as an example for many other cities in the Czech Republic as well as other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where political processes and thinking largely inherited from the Communist regime are doing poor service in new conditions.

Why all the fuss?

The zoning plan is probably the most important document that will determine the development of Prague for the next decade. It sets aside areas for parks and recreation, marks zones slated for residential housing and commercial purposes, and includes major transportation arteries and other public infrastructure projects. The plan does not determine what will be built, but rather what can be built. Trams will now be permitted to rumble down Wenceslas Square, but whether this actually happens will depend on the state of the city's finances.

Investors have been waiting impatiently for a new zoning plan for years. The unclear conditions and slow progress on a new plan have reportedly turned away foreign capital from the city. Other investors who have purchased land for development have had to shoulder unexpected additional costs, as they waited for the green light to start construction.

Inevitably, a frenzy of speculation has surrounded progress on the zoning plan. The 9 September vote confirmed the fortunes of more than a few real estate speculators. Not all came out ahead. TESCO, the British retail chain, hoped to build another hypermarket along the Prague-Brno highway at the southern edge of the city. The billion crowns that the company spent on a prime spot of land was lost in one fell swoop when city councilors unexpectedly agreed to change zoning for the area. They bowed to protests from the mayor of Prague 11, who argued that the hypermarket would suck business from the small and medium-sized shops in his district and create snarls of traffic.

More than a bust or bonanza for speculators, the Master Plan promises to have far-reaching consequences not only for the local economy but also with respect to the quality of life in the city. As a result, dozens of citizens groups have taken up arms over the plan. The main criticisms have centered around transportation, which has quickly become the city's number one problem, as well as green spaces.

Car capital

Ten years ago, the pasty smog that hung over Prague came from ubiquitous coal furnaces and industry smokestacks; today, it comes mostly out of the exhaust pipes of the swarms of cars that have taken over the city. The number of automobiles has shot up by a factor of seven since 1989, giving the Golden City a greater car density than Vienna and many other European cities.

Reducing traffic in the city center, according to texts introducing the Prague Master Plan, is a major priority for the next years. The colorful brochures produced by the municipal government include a map with two concentric circles drawn around the historic core of the city - the two planned beltways that are to direct north-south and east-west traffic around the city rather than straight through its center as is currently the case.

For anyone accustomed to the beltways of Washington, Paris or other major urban agglomerations, the circle roads make sense. But the map only tells half of the story, says Petr Stepanek, speaker of SOS, a coalition of more than 30 civic associations that are leading opposition to the current Master Plan. He pulls out a pen and draws a few thick lines down the middle of the map - indicating the main transportation arteries that currently shoot through the city center, including the so-called Magistrale, which slices across the top of Wenceslas Square and past the front doors of the beautiful, exhaust-painted art deco building of the main train station.

The Master Plan, explains Stepanek, does nothing to discourage traffic on these routes, and, in fact, actually counts on increasing their capacity. North-south traffic will have no incentive to take the long detour around the city and every incentive to take the obvious shortcut through the historic core. In addition, the planned inner beltway directly girdles the historic core, assuring that the city's architectural gems will remain shrouded in exhaust fumes. Parking garages planned for the center will only encourage people to go downtown by car rather than by tram, bus or metro.

A number of groups in the SOS coalition, such as Inhabitants and Friends of Lesser Side and Friends of Balabanka Park, are particularly motivated by concern for the communities, neighborhoods, parks and natural areas that will be sacrificed under the new plan, particularly for construction of the two beltways. While authors of the plan point to the fact that the total area of green spaces will actually increase under the plan, critics note that this growth is thanks to the creation of a new forested area at the city's edge, while valuable spaces within the city, including Balabanka park and parts of Sarka valley, will be lost.

SOS calculates that the highway and street construction envisaged by the Master Plan will carry a price tag of around Kc 88 billion (ca USD 2.3 billion), a heavy load for the city, which at present has only 1 to 2 billion crowns available per year for such investment. "Instead of this megalomaniac plan we should be looking for a more realistic solution... which includes smaller construction and emphasizes public transit," Stepanek concludes.

Despite the City Council's overwhelming 35 to 8 majority approval of the Master Plan, the SOS coalition, mayors of several districts within the capital city and other opponents have sworn to continue the fight in the courts, national government and Parliament, and over individual construction projects. Two groups, Children of the Earth and Prague Mothers, have already filed charges against Prague city authorities. Others are considering following suit.

Poor losers?

It would seem that the plan's opponents are just poor losers. Their response is that the "game" has been rigged. In fact, the most bitter criticism of the Prague Master Plan is reserved for the decision-making process itself.

"I'm here for one simple reason," said Vladislav Kasparek, a 56-year old economist from Suchdol, one of the areas to be sacrificed for the outer beltway, at the 9 September demonstration in front of Prague City Hall. "We tried to prevent the planned highway from going through the middle of our community, and because all of our attempts to use official channels have been more or less ignored, I see no other alternative but to attend events like this. In Suchdol, there are several hundred people that are angry and committed to fighting the highway."

Legislation on zoning plans stipulates that the public must be informed of work on the plan and must be given the opportunity to participate in its development. The law does not, however, describe how this should take place, or what should be done with citizens' input.

Zdenek Kovarik, the deputy mayor (Civic Democratic Party, ODS) responsible for the zoning plan, notes that, in fact, over 4,000 requests for changes in the Prague Master Plan were collected from city residents, local and state authorities. But at least 1860 of these, critics charge, were simply swept into the dustbin, without any record or explanation. The city's urban planners followed those requests that fit their overall conception and ignored the rest.

Little wonder that citizens have been so vocal in protesting against a zoning plan that has been pushed on them from above, says Ivana Bursikova, a city councilwoman and member of the opposition Freedom Union (US), noting that opportunities for citizens to participate in decision-making were repressed as much as possible. "The city's officials didn't do enough to address and inform people [about the zoning plan]," says Bursikova. "But especially after comments were collected, the officials didn't communicate at all with civic initiatives. As the center of the greatest opposition, [the civic groups] were invited to meetings where they had no possibility to change anything."

City officials have repeatedly defended themselves, explaining that the complexity of urban planning requires a technical understanding of issues that only professionals possess. Lord Mayor Jan Kasl dismisses most critics of the transportation plan as "green" amateurs that have no understanding of planning.

Almighty bureaucrats

Not only were citizens effectively prevented from participating in developing the zoning plan, but the city's bureaucrats in essence made decisions regarding the city's future that should have been left to the city councilors elected for this purpose.

The raft of individual proposals that the Prague urban planning department submitted for the City Council's vote along with the new zoning plan included proposals that fit into the existing conception for the plan, but omitted those that put it - particularly its approach to transportation - into question. As a result, the City Council spent much of its grueling, 12-hour marathon vote deciding the fate of specific plots of land, while broader conceptual issues - such as whether to offer more parking in the historical center or permit hypermarkets on the city's edge - were left untouched. Fundamental decisions such as these were essentially made by the city's bureaucrats who drew up the plan, removed from public input and responsibility.

"In the heat of excitement, the Prague representatives that passed the Prague Master Plan did not even notice that in reality someone else had already decided the future of the city long before them - the all-powerful bureaucrat," wrote Martin Bursik, member of the opposition Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL), in an editorial for Hospodarske noviny.

"Enough corruption!"

Having city bureaucrats make the decisions may have suited the Civic Democrats, Social Democrats and Communists that voted in lock-step for the plan, since it has conveniently allowed them to hide some of their political interests and responsibilities behind the cover of the city bureaucracy. Those demonstrating outside of the City Hall on 9 September had little hope that their political representatives would pay any more attention to their concerns than the city planners. The final outcome of the voting on the zoning plan was clear from the beginning, with a clear division of forces on the issue.

The only voices that questioned the decision-making process of the Prague plan came from the Coalition for Prague (made up of members from the Christian Democratic Union, Civic Democratic Alliance, and Democratic European Union and the Freedom Union - KDU-CSL, ODA, DEU and US), which between them could muster only 14 of the 55 seats on the City Council. The Civic Democratic Party and Communists have traditionally opposed increased citizen rights and participation in decision-making processes, while the Social Democratic Party wavers between two opposing wings within the party.

More than a few critics of the zoning plan question to what extent those voting in favor of the plan were doing so for the public good rather than their own private benefit. With so much riding on the zoning plan, investors and speculators have had the greatest incentive to seek to influence its outcome. One of the biggest banners at the back of the council chamber on 9 September, "Enough corruption!," implied that at least some of the onlookers felt that this had indeed happened.

An overstatement, perhaps. Nevertheless, legislation governing conflict of interest in the Czech Republic is inadequate, and ethical norms and standards are not sufficiently developed to pick up the slack. Intermingling of personal interests and powers of decision-making, which would hardly be acceptable in many Western countries, exist both at the local level and the national level. The mixture of personal interests and authority in the Prague municipal government, though perhaps not strictly illegal, certainly does little to dispel doubts regarding the correctness of some of the decision-making.

The future shape of decision-making

Developing a plan to guide the development of a major city the size of Prague is by any measure a complex task, one involving a multitude of different interests - some of which will inevitably have their toes stepped on in the course of decision-making. Compromises have to be made, and, inevitably, some have to compromise more than others.

Prague's Lord Mayor Jan Kasl is convinced that a beltway is essential to relieving the pressure of traffic on the city center; members of the SOS coalition are convinced it will have the opposite effect. Who is right? One way or another, a decision must be made, and someone will end up with the shorter end of the stick. An optimal solution in such a complex situation can only hope to maximize the number of people benefiting and minimize the number of people suffering. But there will always be those left bitterly criticizing what they see as an unfair decision. In this, Prague is no different than any other major city in the world.

Decision-making is a messy process. Still, one would expect that a decision-making process such as the one surrounding the Prague Master Plan - especially one that has dragged on for nine years - would achieve some basic points of consensus or at the least give everyone the satisfaction of having had their opinion heard and considered. The process should serve to increase points of agreement rather than inspire greater conflict. In this sense, Prague's new zoning plan has been the product of dysfunctional decision-making.

What distinguishes Prague - and many other cities in the Czech Republic and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe - are some of the structures and thinking that persist from Communism, which are incompatible with the needs of the developing open society that has put down roots in this region since 1989. The all-powerful, centralized Communist bureaucracy has yet to be fundamentally reformed, pared down, opened up and made accountable for its actions. Politicians and bureaucrats alike have yet to give up the arrogance of their power and become genuinely responsive to their constituents. Ordinary citizens too can get more involved and shoulder some of the responsibility for their community's future. There is still a long way to go - at the local as much as at the national level - before personal interests and authority become clearly defined and separated by law and, even more importantly, by norms and ethics.

In this sense, the SOS coalition, local mayors, and other opponents of the new zoning plan for Prague are fighting for much more than the future of monuments, public transportation, green spaces or their own backyards; they are fighting for the future form of decision-making in their city.

"I fear it will take a number of lost court cases for the city to realize that it is worth working with citizens to achieve agreement rather than imposing on them decisions from above," says councilwoman Ivana Bursikova. If this is what it will take, then opponents of the Prague Master Plan deserve all the help they can get.

Andreas Beckmann, 11 November 1999



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