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The Rebirth of Prague's Vltava River


When Petr Vojak was deciding where to settle down with his family last year, his aim was clear. He wanted somewhere peaceful yet central. Eventually, they decided on a new flat in a northern district along the Vltava river, which flows through Prague.

"I love that it's so close to the river," he said while walking his dog along the riverside one warm July day. "I can have a coffee on my balcony and stare at the sun glistening on the water for hours, I never get tired of it."

Such sentiments are commonplace in many riverside cities, where people pay a premium for a water view. But in Prague, where the Vltava has long been seen as a flood threat or an industrial dumping ground, they are the first stirrings of a changing attitude toward the river.

A flat on the Vltava is surely a common daydream for visitors to the Czech capital who walk across the Charles Bridge, with its incomparable vista of Prague Castle. Toward the end of the 19th century imposing buildings went up along the embankments to house the city's wealthier citizens, followed shortly by a flowering of art nouveau apartment houses.

But in the early 20th century, residential development along the river gave way to industry. In 1918, about 70 percent of the Austro-Hungarian empire's industry was in the Czech regions, which had become a factory for textiles, glass, shoes, sugar, and porcelain. In the 1920s, Czechoslovakia had the 10th highest industrial output per capita in the world.

In addition, looming war clouds helped gin up arms production and mechanical engineering. "By World War II, numerous industrial buildings had appeared on the banks of the Vltava," said Pavel Benes, an architect in the city's planning office.

After World War II, industrial output skyrocketed. Many factories, with their attendant pollution, were located by rivers, including the Vltava.

"The Holesovice and Liben ports [downstream from central Prague] were especially important. They used the river as the transport path to Germany and other countries," Benes said.

But as the communists gave way to the Velvet Revolution, so, too, did heavy industry give way to light industry and, increasingly, jobs in the service sector.

"The CKD [state engineering company] exported its large, heavy products such as cranes, locomotives, and trams on ships on the Vltava for decades. These days, boats aren't used as much for transportation, and the industry structure has transformed from heavy to lighter branches of industry. Thus, most companies like CKD cut production or went bankrupt," Benes said.

But that past emphasis on heavy industry left a legacy of contaminated rivers.

Jan Valek, laboratory director at the Prague office of Povodi Vltavy, a state river management company that has monitored the quality of the Vltava since the 1960s, said, "Under communism, the water was intensely polluted by heavy industry, which wasn't helped by the city's inefficient water treatment plants."

Meanwhile, the government was pouring money into tall, nondescript apartment complexes on the outskirts of the city and, along with subsequent governments, neglecting to invest in adequate flood protection. There was less and less reason to think of the Vltava as anything other than a channel for effluent or a barrier to be crossed on a bridge.

After 1989, that slowly began to change.

A NEW ERA

In the 1990s, the city made a major investment into a new water treatment system. That and the phase-out of heavy industry led to a dramatic improvement in water quality, although progress has slowed recently. "Lately, the improvement has not been that fast. I think we've hit our technological limit," Valek said. Still, he added, the Vltava is safe for swimming, and fishermen say new species are returning to the river.

But flood protection remained in the background, as was dramatically illustrated during the catastrophic flood of August 2002. Although mobile walls protected parts of the city's Old Town, there was no protection for the ancient Lesser Town, across the river, and for the city's many underground spaces, including the metro system. For weeks afterward, neighborhoods along the river were no-go areas, blacked out and guarded from looters by police and soldiers.

Sprawling Stromovka park, usually full of joggers and families, was under several meters of water.

From that destruction, however, came a rebirth and a commitment by the city to protect its riverside areas – a project to be completed by the end of this year. The city estimates that the final price tag will top 3 billion crowns (120 million euros).

In the Karlin district, once home to factories and cheap workers' housing, old buildings have been renovated since the floods into offices and multi-use spaces. The Karlin theater, a large hall for musicals and operettas, was modernized after the 2002 flood, and about five years ago the city finished a flood barrier on the nearby riverbank. The system uses a combination of fixed walls and embankments as well as mobile walls.

These improvements, along with rising prosperity, have encouraged developers to take the riverside areas seriously once again, especially the heavily flood-damaged districts of Karlin, Liben, and Holesovice.

Among major projects planned or under way are the 340-apartment Prague Marina, developed by the Lighthouse Group, a German, Polish, Israeli, and Czech consortium; from 150 to 200 apartments, along with shops and offices, on Rohansky Island, to be developed by the Prague-based Sekyra Group; and The Dock, which is being developed by Crestyl, a group of U.S., Czech, and U.K. investors.

Benes, from the planning office, said the value of riverside land shot upward as most of the flood barriers were completed between 2002 and 2005. "Also, you can barely find an area of similar size and infrastructure amenities in Prague anymore."

DREDGING UP THE PAST

Radim Sayed, project manager for The Dock, agrees. "We believe it's one of the few beautiful places left in Prague where construction on such a large scale is possible. The river makes it a very attractive area and it's close to the center," he said. "However, we only chose to build here because the flood protection had been finished."

Sayed's project will include about 350 flats, along with offices, shops, and restaurants on a tributary of the Vltava; Crestyl expects to sink about 7.5 billion crowns into the development.

Sales have been slow, but Sayed attributes that to potential buyers' reluctance during the downturn to pre-pay for flats, something hundreds of people – residents and foreign investors alike – were willing to do a few years ago in Prague.

The builders also must deal with the river's industrial heritage. "Because there used to be heavily active docks for decades here, we're expecting lots of scrap and probably also hazardous chemicals on the bottom of the river," Sayed said, noting that the mud on the riverbed will have to be dredged.

Not all locals are convinced.

"I come to the riverside regularly to relax and like it very much, but I wouldn't want to live right by the water," said Martina Brzkova, a Liben resident whose house, though not near the river, was flooded in 2002.

Likewise, Jindrich, an elderly former engineer, said, "I wonder what sort of happiness the rich people are expecting. It stinks here. The part of the Vltava in Prague is a hideous river full of rubbish and there are loads of rats here."

To help alleviate the smell, Crestyl plans to dig a channel to keep water flowing in the tributary.

Sayed is banking that plenty of affluent people will disagree with Jindrich and Brzkova. He said most of his clients so far are professionals or executives. Flats in the docks sell for 80,000 to 85,000 crowns (3,200 to 3,400 euros) per square meter, compared with 50,000 to 60,000 crowns per square meter for a new flat in an area away from the water.

"The majority of our neighbors are well-off, aged between 30 and 50," said Vojak, who lives in the Prague Marina complex, across the river from where The Dock will be. "It's simply beautiful, what more can I say?"

Intelligent Eastern Europe

Lucie Kavanova is a journalist in Prague.

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