Building regulations became battlefield in Prague

Pankrác, Prague, photo: Kristýna Maková

Prague is no doubt one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, but how exactly will the city develop in the future? Should the new buildings respect the historical skyline? How many cars should be allowed to park in the city centre? And should Prague be allowed to sprawl outwards or make better use of the space in the centre? These are just some of the issues addressed by the new building regulations plan, which has recently became the subject of a political battle at Prague City Hall. In fact, the plan put together by a team of experts around former mayor Tomáš Hudeček, caused a huge stir immediately after it was introduced two years ago.

Adam Gebrian,  photo: Ian Willoughby
I spoke to architect and journalist Adam Gebrian about the controversy surrounding the new rules but I first asked him just how planning developments were regulated up to now:

“To put it simply there are several documents which in some way regulate what you build. There are some which are local, for instance land use for every city, but there are ones which actually work for the whole of the country. It basically sets up the technical standard, about the height of the buildings, the height of individual rooms inside the buildings, the amount of parking places and distances between buildings, and so on.

“But according to one of the authors of the new building regulations, Pavel Hnilička, these old regulations actually reacted to the problems of the 19th century. It presented the city as something dangerous to your health, because it was created in a reaction to the industrialization that took place in mid-19th century. But the situation has changed over the last 150 years and the change should be reflected in the regulations. So this was the main reason why the new regulations were conceived.”

So what are the main changes introduced by the new building regulations?

“I am going to speak generally at first. I think the main change is that it is finally understandable pretty much for everyone. It is written in a way that anyone can understand. There is a text with the regulations, which is about 40 pages long, but there are also some 150 pages that provide detailed explanation.

“I think it is for the first time when you can look at a document and it provides you with an explanation. And I am not speaking about the content; I am just speaking about the form and about the fact that it is finally understandable.

“The new regulations basically say that public space is more important than individual buildings.”

“This is probably the most important thing for any kind of development. I think in the Czech Republic we have got a lot of experience with having rules which are often bypassed, and I think that’s the way the building industry worked in recent years.”

As soon as the building regulations were introduced, they stirred a lot of controversy. What were the main topics that came under fire?

“I think there is one really crucial change: the previous regulations considered every building as an individual thing. But the new regulations say that a building is always part of a bigger whole. And that brought about incredible amount of changes.

“The city that has a certain pattern, there is something called a street line, for instance the facades of houses in the Vinohrady district. If you want to build a new house, you have to make sure it fits in the existing situation, concerning the volume, the height, the division inside. And I think it is a major shift in how you think about a city.

Pankrác,  Prague,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“It basically says that public space is more important than individual buildings. And of course this is controversial for many people, who don’t want to obey the rules and who just demand their own freedom.

“But regulation is not necessarily a bad thing. If you look at the regulations in other countries, for instance in Vienna and Berlin, they are actually pretty strict, and the amount of things you can do is very limited.”

So what exactly was so controversial about the new regulations? Can you be more specific?

“The biggest controversy about the new regulations concerns advertisement, the so-called billboards, and parking. For instance in Amsterdam, if people move into a new building and they don’t have a car, they are not required to build a parking place.

“But in the Czech Republic, this is not possible. There is a minimum amount of parking spaces that you are required to build. The new regulations suggest that the closer the city centre, the more there is public transport and the less parking places are needed.

“For the general public, it was really hard to accept. They worried they wouldn’t have enough parking spaces in the streets. But I believe that the idea that there should be less cars in the city centre is a good one, and we should follow it, even though it sounds unpopular.”

The other thing you mentioned were billboards. Prague has been known for far too many advertising billboards in the streets.

“I would say that every bigger city in the Czech Republic should have its own set of regulations. It’s not about Prague being different from the rest of the country. “

“Yes, funnily enough, it only concerns four paragraphs out of several hundred and it shows me one thing: for politicians, advertisement is more important than buildings. If I may speculate, advertisements and billboards are the only thing that keeps politicians afloat.

“It’s a thing they spend a lot of money on, and maybe they also get some money in return, but it’s definitely very important for them. Now the new Prague regulations made the situation for advertisement companies providing billboards much more difficult and so the people from the business started to create incredible pressure on the politicians.”

The new regulations also met with objections from the Ministry for Regional Development and from the Antimonopoly Office. What exactly did they criticise?

“This something I don’t quite understand. The ministry for regional development came up with small technical issues, but each of them could have been dealt with during the process. Now I am speculating of course but it feels as if the ministry is simply against the regulations.

“Now there is going to be a new law regulating building development in the whole of the Czech Republic and the ministry is actually saying that Prague should not have any special regulations of its own.”

Why is it important for the capital to have its own building regulations?

“I would say that every bigger city in the Czech Republic should have its own set of regulations. It’s not about Prague being different from the rest of the country. And the Ministry for Regional Development should understand that different regions have different rules. If you look at different the cities, they are in different situations, and they face very different problems.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“Prague, unlike the other towns, has Metro. And Metro has a huge effect on traffic and parking. In Austria, for instance, even smaller towns have their own specific rules. So I think that’s the way to go in the future. There should be a common minimum bit there are local things which are specific.

“I think the discussion right now is the worst type of discussion there could be and it puts Prague against the rest of the country. But it is really about different cities being special and about the regulations being more tailored to their needs.”

Did the municipal district authorities and the inhabitants of Prague have their say in the preparation of the building regulations?

“From what I could see it took them one year to create the basics of the text, and then it took them another year to discuss it with pretty much everyone who was involved, including the city districts. I think the process was very successful because there went through some 2,000 to 2,500 issues.

“It’s going to be really interesting now when the current mayor is trying to push through the new regulations that they were not discussed to such an extent. The district and the local politicians are against them, because they say have already gone through the approving process.”

In what way are the new regulations different from the original ones?

“They are actually very similar. The differences are very small content-wise. What they tried to do at the Town Hall over the past six or seven months was to smooth down the formulations. So for an independent observer it is hard to understand what the controversy and the fighting in the coalition is really about and the real reason might actually be very different.”

You have mentioned Vienna as a good example of urban development. When it comes to rating the quality of living in various European capitals, Vienna usually comes in one of the first places. Would you say that the regulations could contribute to a better quality of life in Prague and improving the public space?

“I would say they are essential but there is one thing that is even more important. The fact is that in the Czech Republic we are much more interested in the results rather than the processes and I think it is very dangerous.

Prague,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“Usually when we see the result, we complain that we don’t like it. We complain that a new building is ugly, without really knowing that often there was no other choice and it was the only thing that could be done.

“The authors of the new regulations want to simplify the process so that we can achieve better results. I think people should understand this kind of relationship. They should know that if the process is more transparent and smoother, then maybe we can arrive at better results. And I think that’s what we all want.”