We are a group of 50 international scholars and experts on urban development and planning, visiting the city of Belgrade for our 24th annual conference. We have expertise on waterfront developments in London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Barcelona, Boston, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Sydney and Melbourne.
We are very impressed by the unique qualities of Belgrade, especially the fine-grained and mixed urban spaces that this city provides. The connection of the downtown and the water could be enriched by a careful development of the area between the city centre and the Sava River. We understand that the Belgrade on the Water project is an initiative to make this connection, and we applaud the impulse. We have seen and studied the plans, however, and want to communicate some serious concerns about the current proposal.
The economic risks are high and gains to Belgrade are low
Belgrade on the Water as currently framed carries very high risks. Foremost, megaprojects are always vulnerable to market fluctuations. Giving the entire project to a single investor increases the risk: if the company becomes financially unviable, Belgrade will have an unfinished development on this prime site. At the very least, ensuring a diversity of developers can mitigate these possibilities.
Even the expectations in regards to this investor are unrealistic. The proposal envisages 200 new buildings, but the economic context is such that only what is referred to as ‘the first A phase’ of the project has some probability to be constructed: two apartment buildings, two hotels, a high-rise tower and the ‘largest shopping mall in the Balkans’. The prospect of these structures standing unsold and isolated on a cleared site, cordoned off from the public until land values and purchaser interests increase, is too great to justify this approach.
The promises of economic gain through jobs in design, construction, maintenance and operations need guarantees of use of local resources and labour with good wages and conditions. However, the buildings proposed for the waterfront suggest that most of the on-going jobs on the waterfront will be short term, low paid construction and service jobs. The content of this important development could be much more diverse and foremost respond to the real needs of the city and citizens.
The land along the Sava has great potential value. Its transfer at low or no cost into long-term private leasehold will deliver little benefit to the citizens of Belgrade. In addition, the commitment of EUR 200 million of public funds to the clearing of the Sava Amphitheatre is likely the beginning of high expenditure from the state which characterizes such projects. It seems that there are many better ways of using these means and the area, in the way which would be more appropriate to economical, societal and ecological context.
The plans are clichéd and exclusionary
In the unlikely event that the proposal does come to fruition, the current designs reveal a generic landscape of soulless and disconnected office, residential and commercial buildings. This high-end ‘mixed use’ formula contains no social, economic or cultural mix. It is a clichéd, corporate model that neglects local needs in terms of housing or work. It provides a very limited range of opportunities for production and consumption.
Belgrade’s greatest attractions are intricately connected to its people and culture. The city’s people populate the streets and create the spaces that make it so distinctive and full of potentials. Their exclusion from the planning and design processes for Belgrade’s waterfront development is not only inequitable – and therefore dangerous – but missing a profound opportunity to engage and utilise the city’s most vital assets.
The environmental consequences have not been taken into account
The Sava’s delicate ecological balance appears to be neglected in the current proposal. In a period of serious climate change in an already flood-prone city it makes little sense to build on riverbanks without careful consideration of adaptability and allowance for water expansion.
Waterfront developments in the past have destroyed local ecologies, displaced resident populations, and made public open space inaccessible. Technologies for climate change adaptation and new approaches to the ecological consequences of waterfront are developing rapidly. Here is an opportunity for Belgrade to display a new and exciting approach to its river bank.
State-of-the-art practices engage local communities and employ innovative mechanisms
International practice and standards for making waterfronts available for better and wider uses are also improving rapidly. Development finance arrangements are evolving to include mechanisms for planning leverage and value capture. These public funds are then used to ensure a higher degree of community benefit.
Local authorities are now employing sophisticated urban design processes, including fine subdivisions of land for lease or sale to a range of investors from larger companies to small entrepreneurs and community groups. These principles encourage innovative local and vernacular architectural styles in large project designs, and ensure diversity in built form and use. This in turn allows local opportunities to flourish in the context of a more globalised environment.
Participatory processes in planning are being advanced and refined to guarantee better outcomes. In engaging local communities and their local knowledge, project outcomes are not only very often substantially improved, but they are locally owned, and receive a particular legitimacy from this process. Such an approach would make the development of the Belgrade waterfront more viable.
Here is an opportunity for a project that really does capture the global imagination
If Serbia wants to improve its economic position through development of Belgrade, it must ensure proper valuation of a valuable site and local needs. If the nation wants to invite the world into its social, cultural and environmental heart, it needs to do more than plan for a run-of-the-mill development formula that lacks any character unique to Belgrade.
Rather than providing a standard blueprint with an unclear business plan (the obligations of the state being much greater at this point than the obligations of the investor), this project should be built step by step, closely monitored by the highest standards of local planning regulations and transparency. It must have attention to local economics, and to the design and use of this central part of Belgrade. It must involve its people, recognise the need for ecological restoration and sustainability, and not fall prey to the expectations of a corporate urbanism that is rejected by urban professionals and citizens alike around the world.
If Belgrade on the Water is to be a sustainable success, it must project the city’s needs and desires onto the global stage, rather than making one of Belgrade’s prime pieces of real estate the extension of a nameless global enterprise.
The gain must be Belgrade’s. We wish you well.
The International Network for Urban Research and Action, July 2014