Ostrava: industrial wasteland or urban regeneration success story?


Ostrava has – or at least it did until pretty recently – a reputation for being ugly and polluted. Formerly known as the "steel heart" of the Czech Republic, it was a centre of mining and heavy industry for two centuries. After its plants and collieries shut down following the Velvet Revolution, for a while it looked like Ostrava might suffer from the urban decay that many former mining and industrial towns underwent once they lost the industries that had made them rich and employed so many. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Ostrava underwent a fairly rapid transformation, both economically and culturally.

Ostrava | Photo: Anton Kajmakov,  Radio Prague International

Czechia’s third-largest city can claim an unusual accolade – straddling the border between Moravia and Silesia, it is the only Czech city to lie across two distinct historical regions. The Ostravice River, from where the city gets its name, still divides Ostrava into two parts that can be seen on maps to this day: Moravian Ostrava and Silesian Ostrava. Under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the strip of land that was Moravian Ostrava more or less divided the province of Silesia into two geographically separate territories.

City Hall in Silesian Ostrava | Photo: Anton Kajmakov,  Radio Prague International

After the independent country of Czechoslovakia was born, an earlier failed project from the beginning of the 20th century was resurrected and began to be discussed in earnest – the idea of merging Moravian Ostrava with the surrounding municipalities to create a “Greater Ostrava”. But the idea proved highly controversial, says historian Martin Strakoš, because of the city’s unique location.

“Ostrava is on the border between the then-autonomous provinces of Moravia and Silesia, so where did it belong? Could the neighbouring Silesian municipalities also join Moravian Ostrava? A heated political discussion ensued, as Silesia did not want to let go of its municipalities and Moravia did not want to lose Ostrava completely. Finally, in 1923, it was decided that so-called Great Ostrava would be created out of only the Moravian municipalities in the area between the rivers Oder and Ostravice.”

New City Hall | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  iROZHLAS.cz

The seven neighbouring municipalities were added to the original city core in early 1924, establishing Great Ostrava. Four years later, in 1928, the formerly autonomous provinces of Moravia and Czech Silesia were merged into one region called Moravia-Silesia, rendering the earlier debate about where Ostrava belonged largely moot.

Nowadays, Ostrava is much larger and comprises many more areas than those stipulated in the 1923 agreement, including both the Moravian and Silesian sides. It is also the capital of the modern-day Moravia-Silesia Region, which comprises the north-eastern part of Moravia and most of Czech Silesia.


Ostrava has other interesting geographical intersections, too – located just 15 km from the Polish border and 55 km from the border with Slovakia, it is no stranger to different cultural and linguistic influences. Historically, it had significant numbers of ethnic minorities including Germans, Jews, Poles, Slovaks, and Romanies. While the Jewish population was almost completely decimated by the Nazis and the ethnic Germans were expelled after World War II, even today, around 8% of people in Ostrava have Polish surnames.

As well as its peculiar history and geography, a further reason for the mix of ethnic groups in Ostrava was the city’s industrial boom, which brought Poles, Slovaks and Czechs from different parts of the country to the city in search of employment and economic gain.

Mining tower | Photo: Anton Kajmakov,  Radio Prague International

Extensive deposits of high-quality bituminous coal were discovered on the Silesian bank of the Ostravice River in 1763. Once it was found that Ostrava was located at the centre of a major coalfield, the city massively grew in prominence. Coal mining began in Ostrava in 1782, employing large numbers of people, and in 1828, the Vítkovice Ironworks was established, becoming the largest iron and steel works in Austria-Hungary and employing large swathes of the population.

For miners, life was hard, but their work gave them gainful employment and a means to live, says Vojtěch Polášek, site manager of the Michal Mine, formerly a working coal mine and now a museum in Ostrava.

Hlubina mine | Photo: Anton Kajmakov,  Radio Prague International

"When a miner came to work, the first thing he had to do was change his clothes and take his uniform from the lockers. Then he went upstairs, where he got a snack and continued to the so-called guild hall. There are two windows in the guild hall, and when the miners collected their pay, they dropped it to their wives through those windows. Before the Second World War, their salary was not very high, but it was enough for them to survive. Being a miner also meant being entitled to housing and coal. This ensured that people did not freeze in the winter."

With the increasing number of people employed at the Vítkovice Ironworks, suitable housing and recreation had to be found for them. So-called “workers' colonies” were built, with houses, social facilities, a town hall and a church. And they weren’t just purely functional – the Jubilee Colony in Ostrava-Hrabůvka, a complex of former workers' apartments built in the 1920s, is still an aesthetically-pleasing piece of architecture, thinks Miloš Matěj from the National Heritage Institute.

"The estate in Hrabůvka was completed in 1928 and represented the highest standard in housing of the time. I think it still ranks among the most beautiful places in Ostrava."

Remains of steel and metallurgical production | Photo: Anton Kajmakov,  Radio Prague International

Ostrava continued to be a centre of coal mining, steel and metallurgical production throughout the 20th century – or almost. After the communist regime fell following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, things in Ostrava started to change. The coke and steel plants, no longer profitable, began to be shut down.

On June 30, 1994, the last truckload of coal was taken out of the Oder pit in Přívoz and the Vítkovice Ironworks shut down in 1998. Thousands of people became unemployed. In the early 2000s, the unemployment rate was well above 15%, reaching its maximum in 2003 at 18.4%.

Many people, especially young people, began to leave the city to look for opportunities elsewhere, leading to depopulation. Ostrava lost 7% of its population between 1990 and 2010.

Masaryk square in Ostrava | Photo: Anton Kajmakov,  Radio Prague International

However, around 20 years ago, things started to change. In 2004, the Czech Republic joined the European Union and foreign companies set up offices and production plants and invested into industrial and business zones. The service, IT and car industries blossomed and the unemployment rate dipped below 10 percent for the first time in years. Although the 2008 economic crisis pushed the unemployment rate up again, as it did in the rest of the country, the upward trajectory of employment and economic growth has more or less continued since then.

Nowadays, the unemployment rate in Ostrava is 5.2% and is 5.1% in the Moravian-Silesian Region as a whole – higher than the national average of 3.7% but lower than the Karlovy Vary and Ústí nad Labem regions (both at 6%).

Vítkovice | Photo: Anton Kajmakov,  Radio Prague International

Ostrava has also worked hard to transform the city into a lively cultural hub. It doesn’t do so by hiding its industrial past – it embraces it. Former industrial complexes have been turned into cultural centres like concert halls and museums, and the former coal-mining, coke production and ironworks complex in Lower Vítkovice has been the site of the annual Colours of Ostrava music festival since 2012. It was also the first Czech site to be included on the EU list of European Cultural Heritage and it has applied for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Although some people still think of Ostrava as an ugly place, it has a certain charm, says Martin Kukal, an Ostrava native.

Photo: Colours of Ostrava

“Ostrava is not a town that has scenic beauty, but it is definitely a dynamic, original place, with people that are energetic, direct and very warm. And there are definitely things to see, for example its industrial heritage, which is quite exceptional.”

Most of Ostrava’s tourist attractions are linked to its industrial past (a visit to the Vítkovice complex is definitely worthwhile) – but the city actually has a surprising amount of green space – as much as 30m2 per capita, according to one estimate. It is close to the Beskydy and Jeseniky Mountains, making it ideal for outdoor sports such as hiking, biking, and skiing in the winter. It has its own philharmonic orchestra and opera house, two universities, as well as multiple theatres, museums and galleries, and as well as the Colours of Ostrava music festival, it is also the host of NATO Days, the largest air, military and security show in Central Europe.

NATO Days | Photo: Czech Army

Plus, of course, there are the people – well-known for being direct, but hospitable and charming in their own way, says Martin Kukal.

“I think that people who are from here are very different from people in Prague. There is a saying that in Ostrava, “Good morning” really means “Good morning”, which means that people here are totally unpretentious and they always express what they really think and feel. I find that very refreshing every time I come here from Prague or another place. That is something I like very much about Ostrava.”

The depopulation trend seen between 1990 - 2010 seems to have been halted if not reversed, with the current population size at 316,149, according to the Czech Statistics Office. The wider conurbation, which includes the towns of Bohumín, Havířov, Karviná, Orlová, Petřvald and Rychvald, is home to about 500,000 people, making it the largest urban area in Czechia after Prague.

Miloš Sýkora bridge | Photo: Anton Kajmakov,  Radio Prague International

So much for Ostrava’s past and present – what about its future?

Czech Radio’s regional Ostrava station asked some of its inhabitants what they thought Ostrava would be like in 100 years – here’s what they said.

Bolt Tower | Photo: Jiří Zerzoň,  Czech Radio

Architect Pavel Říhák:

"In 2123, I think Ostrava will have an adequate number of public spaces that are of high quality, connected and attractive for the inhabitants of the city and its surroundings. Ostrava in 100 years won’t see its history as a problem, but as an advantage that it will appreciate, care for and develop. It will develop the surrounding and industrial landscape, it will take care of its rivers and confluences, of which there are a large number here. The energy that the city has will manifest itself in new development, following the example of the original villages and workers' colonies, but also historical parts in such a way that it connects and integrates the originally industrial areas to create new neighbourhoods."

Josef Vlček, vice-dean at one of the faculties of the University of Mining and Technology in Ostrava, thinks that heavy industry will probably have its place in the future as well:

"I think that the technology that we see nowadays as the technology of heavy industry will live on in the future, even in 100 years. I hope that it will be here in Ostrava, because of course the tradition is here, so why give up something on which we as a city and a region made something of ourselves. Metal production, for example, could survive. But the heavy work will probably be done by machines, you probably won’t see people working in the plants by then.

"I would be glad to see happy people in Ostrava, young people, and if they didn’t see a reason to leave this city or this region, if even people from other regions came and worked here."

Top 15 Things To Do In Ostrava, Czech Republic

Authors: Anna Fodor , Patrik Rozehnal , Romana Kubicová , Daniela Lazarová , Libor Kukal | Sources: iROZHLAS.cz , Český rozhlas
run audio


  • Moravia-Silesia Region

    A region that got rich on coal and steel and today attracts visitors to its industrial monuments and mountains. Discover it from a bird's-eye view!

  • Discover Czechia's regions

    With its rich history, stunning architecture and beautiful skyline Prague attracts visitors from all over the world. But there is much more to see in Czechia.