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Does the City of London offer any development lessons for Prague?

While the Prague real estate market has been one of Europe’s outstanding success stories of the last two decades, emerging problems – from surging construction costs to a housing crisis – are threatening to derail its growth. The British Embassy’s “City Showcase” at the Centre for Architecture and Metropolitan Planning (CAMP), whose mission is to improve public debate about the development of Prague, was therefore an opportune event.

Architects, developers and planning officers from both the UK and the Czech Republic gathered at CAMP on 30th September to examine architecture and urban planning in both countries. They questioned how it was possible that the experiences of the City of London and Prague in managing growth and development are so vastly different, despite both being essentially medieval cities, chock-full of listed buildings, conservation areas, protected parks and gardens, not to mention world heritage sites. Why, asked moderator Jan Kasl, President of the Czech Chamber of Architects, “is development so slow in Prague and why is it so fast in London?”

OLD AND NEW

While there are obvious differences between a big city like Prague and the City – London’s historic centre and primary central business district (CBD) known as the Square Mile – there are certainly several concepts conceived in London that the Prague authorities could draw inspiration from as they strive toward crafting a long-term development strategy for the Czech capital.

First and foremost is to change the mind-set that it is always a case of “old versus new” to one of “old and new”, where modern high-rise buildings can sit comfortably alongside older historic ones. Such an approach has been successfully deployed in cities across Europe, not only in London, but also in Copenhagen, Vienna and Berlin.

Central to achieving this in London has been allowing high-rise construction in the City, but only within the confines of “viewing corridors” that the planning department created to preserve existing views of, for example, St Paul’s, the Christopher Wren-designed cathedral which sits on Ludgate Hill at the highest point of the City. The result of this policy has been a cluster of skyscrapers in an area of the City that doesn’t sit within any of the viewing corridors and doesn’t have many historical buildings.

To speed up construction of such high-rise buildings like Foster + Partners’ iconic The Gherkin and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ The Cheesegrater, the City of London Corporation’s planning department has introduced Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs). These PPAs are designed to bridge the gap between planning application fees and the growing costs associated with assessing those plans – a common problem holding up development across many cities in Europe. Alison Hayes, a planning officer with the City of London Corporation cited a recent PPA example costing a total of £50,000 (CZK 1.45 million), which resulted in a recommendation on the project within a year. This would also help reduce the long delays in assessing and issuing planning permits for new construction. Inefficient bureaucracy and over-regulation are regarded as prime causes of corruption.

There has also been an evolution in thinking behind the public space that is required for each new development. In the City, lower floors of high-rise building can be used as public space, where members of the public are free to visit the shops and restaurants located in several storey-high atriums. In Prague, however, the public space has to surround the building, and a local architect pointed out that every municipality must respect this rule regardless of whether the location is in the centre or outskirts of the city.

SELF-APPOINTED GUARDIANS

Eva Jiřičná, a renowned Czech-born architect who has been based in London since 1968, said the Prague authorities need to drop this mental block about high-rise development. “The height of a building will not spoil a city, it’s about the quality of a building,” she told attendees at the event. “I fear that this conservative approach to planning in Prague is getting worse… There are so many shining examples of European cities taking new approaches to public space, but I can’t see such intentions in Prague.”

Equally conservative are Prague’s self-appointed conservation guardians, who James Woolf, founder and CEO of the developer Flow East, says are given too much power over development matters in the city. “These vested interests are not interested in architecture, they are interested in having a fight, because it’s fun and the system allows them to. There are people with vision in the authorities, but there are too many funny people in funny places who can put a spanner in things. You have to be financially tough to cope with that.”

Ondřej Boháč, director of the Prague Institute for Planning and Development (IPR), who described Prague as being in the midst of a “housing crisis”, said there also needs to be a radical change in the mind-sets of the state and its politicians, who all too often regard Prague as an “evil stepmother” that needs to be battled in a kind of trench warfare, rather than a place where state investment can help drive development and create the kind of living spaces the younger generations crave, which in turn generates more tax revenues for the whole country. There are over 6,000 municipalities in the Czech Republic, he noted, and the government considers all of them equal, regardless of the economic role of each.

MICHAEL BUBLÉ IN BUBNY?

Amidst all the frustration, though, are emerging signs of hope. External events and public-private interests working together managed, in the case of the 2012 London Olympics, to deliver 25 years of development in just five years - out of necessity. Lada Kolaříková, Director of Urban Planning Development at the IPR, says a decision to build a much-needed and long-talked about new concert hall for the Czech Philharmonic in Prague’s Bubny, a brownfield area which has both public and private ownership, could be a clear stimulus that finally kickstarts the transformation of the whole 110-hectare site.

In light of this, Kolaříková says the September announcement that DPP, the city's public transit company, had agreed to work with Nové Holešovice Development, a joint venture between developers Karlín Group and Ungelt Group, to revitalize the part of Bubny around the Nádraží Holešovice metro station and its surrounding area, is a very positive development.

 

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