Prague - Eighty Years of Expansion

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The coming of the new year marked an anniversary for the Czech capital - it is 80 years since a law came into force creating Greater Prague. Ian Willoughby reports now on how the city has grown since then and wonders where will that expansion end.

"I'm around 30 or 40 metres from the gates of Prague castle in the Hradcany or Castle district of the city and from here there's a wonderful view. You can see for miles and miles. You can see down across the red-tiled roofs of Mala Strana, or the Lesser Quarter, and across to the city's Old and New Towns. You can also see such districts as Vinohrady and Zizkov. The interesting thing is that until 1921 those areas weren't officially part of Prague. They were outside the city's boundaries."

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Prague was made up of only eight districts. They were Hradcany, Mala Strana, the Old and New Towns, the Jewish quarter of Josefov, Vysehrad and - perhaps surprisingly, given their relative distance from the centre the - the industrial districts of Liben and Holesovice. When Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918 Prague became a capital city and had to change accordingly.

"Eighty years ago this month 37 districts became part of the newly-established Velka Praha, or Greater Prague. One of those areas is Vinohrady where Radio Prague is situated. Vinohrady means vineyards and there are still a few functioning vineyards in the area. I'm standing around a hundred metres away from some of them now. Of course it's the middle of winter here in Prague so nothing is growing. One thing that is happening is that loads of kids are sliding down the hill on sledges, including what look like improvised plastic bag sledges. And I must say some of the kids are using some pretty strong language - even the girls."

"As Prague has grown over the years the division of the city into different districts has changed several times. Vinohrady is now in Prague 2 but here on the street U Havlickovych sadu I can see an old sign saying Prague 12. At another time Vinohrady was in Prague 7. Now all the street numbers in Prague are in normal numerals - back in 1922 Roman numerals were used."

Of course, Vinohrady wasn't the only district to join Prague in 1922. Other areas to join included the old working class quarters of Zizkov and Karlin. The residential district of Vrsovice and the upmarket Dejvice also became part of the city at that time. Prague was 172 square kilometres in those days - a third the size it is today. The 1921 census records that the population of Prague was 675,000 - it is now a million and a quarter.

All cities evolve of course and the area of Prague that may have changed most in recent years is Karlin - the area between Vitkov hill and the River Vltava. Alena Prokesova has had an office in Karlin for the last few years - I asked her what Karlin was like 10 or 20 years ago.

"Well I should say Karlin looked the same way as the whole of Prague. As my friends from the US and Germany said when they came to Prague - Prague is not colourful, it's grey and black and dirty. And Karlin was the same. Maybe more because there were factories here. It was a workers' quarter."

And how has Karlin changed since then?

"I think the whole of Prague has changed since that time and Karlin has changed most of all. Because it's very near to the centre of Prague. There are new offices here. The houses are very colourful - they have new facades. There are a lot of offices and with offices come restaurants, banks, notary and all services. So everything is going up here very quickly."

In 1960 more areas were added to Prague - among them Ruzyne, where Prague airport is. In 1968 some 21 areas - such as Haje and Modrany - also became part of the capital.

The most radical enlargement took place in 1974 when more areas - including Zlicin and Stodulky - were added, and Prague became the size it is today. That is 496 square kilometres - three times the size it was when Greater Prague was founded.

"Back in 1974 it was all green fields here in Stodulky, now it's all grey. Grey prefabricated blocks of flats, what the Czechs call panelaks because they're made from panels. Miserable shops - it's a truly horrible place."

Jan Flemr lives nearby. I asked him how it is living in such an area.

"I'ts drab, drab and ugly. You have to share a very small area with a number of people of all ages, races and so on. You have to share places where your children go to play with children who go to these sand pits for a smoke or something. That all makes life there very uncomfortable. Everyone's anonymous. I'd say there's not a single good pub where I live. And there are no orchards where you can steal apples or cherries from."

Would you like to live outside Prague?

"I would. A good thing about living where I live is clean air. You can find that outside Prague but not much in Prague itself. I wouldn't mind commuting. The idea of getting to know your neighbours after living in a panelak is quite tempting now."

What are the chances of Prague staying at its current size? There are lots of villages and areas outside the city which are growing fast as people who can afford to buy or build houses. How many areas which are just outside the metropolis now will some day be within city limits?

Katka Kolarova lives in a village called Zdiby not far from Kobylisy, and just a few kilometres outside Prague. When we met at a local restaurant I asked her if people in the area would like to have their village join Prague?

"I can't speak for the whole village. I'd say that some of them are encouraging it very strongly. Of course some of them are afraid of becoming part of Prague."

Are you for becoming part of Prague?

"Yes, I am. For me as quite a young person it's a big advantage to live in Prague - everything from the public transport to development and shops...cinemas or whatever."

From what Mrs Kolarova tells me she would be happy if her village was technically part of the Czech capital, but she also wants to enjoy the benefits of living somewhere quieter and greener.

"I really like leaving Prague behind me in the evening, to come home to Zdiby, to a quiet place, to have a rest and it helps me so much. In the morning I'm refreshed and ready to go to work again."

And do you think you wouldn't be refreshed if you lived in Prague?

"It's difficult to say like the surroundings, the greenery and the garden. All this makes me happy."