Prague needs vision now for problems in 20 years

Photo: archive of reSITE festival

What kind of challenges does migration present for cities around the world? How could cities benefit from the influx of migrants? And is Prague ready to accept new residents? These are just some of the topics at the core of this year's annual reSITE conference and festival which gets under way in Prague in just a few weeks’ time. I discussed some of the issues with Martin Barry, the founder of ReSITE, and I first asked him to explain the choice of the festival’s main theme, Cities in Migration.

Martin Barry,  photo: archive of reSITE festival
“We think that migration is often indicated or tried to be sorted at the borders, while the real spatial challenges of migration are in cities, because that’s where people are ultimately settling. And ultimately we are all migrants and cities are natural magnets for people.

“It is important to note that we are not just dealing with the immigration crisis from the Middle East but we look at cities as, as I said, natural magnets that need to attract citizens from all over the world and we need to design cities to accept those citizens in order to be competitive, and in order to be more socially and culturally resilient.

“So the topics of integration, climate change, public transit and housing and public space issues are particularly relevant when talking about how to accept and design for new residents.”

You are also saying that the current immigration crisis in Europe and the West has revealed an unexpected experiential gulf between western countries in Europe and new EU member states.

“I think that countries of Western Europe and North America have been experiencing and accepting immigrant for in some cases for hundreds of years. While in this part of the world, in the former Soviet Bloc, particularly during Communism, new migrants were not moving to this part of the world, in fact it was the opposite.

“Cities, particularly in this region, are losing people and this has huge cultural and economic repercussions for the next generations. So where do people come from? What the Prague Institute for Planning and Development is planning a metropolitan strategic plan right now that is planning to accept 400,000 economic residents from around Europe and that’s not counting any residents from Middle East. First of all no residents from the Middle East are wanting to stop here and second of all, that should change.”

To what extent would you say Prague is ready to integrate new residents?

“I think new white residents are welcome to come to Prague in most cases. So in that sense the political leadership is not really supporting a change from the status quo. And that has broader, generational repercussions that filter down through society.

“Migration is often tried to be sorted at the borders, while the real spatial challenges of migration are in cities, because that’s where people are ultimately settling.”

“So I think that culturally, Czechs are not really ready to integrate. Whether the residents are from Ukraine, Italy or the Middle East, I think there is a long way to go.

“Immigration is a natural phenomenon for cities and can be a huge economic benefit as well. If you look at some studies that Bloomberg has done, in North America in particular, those cities that are most diverse have the highest wages and the highest standards for living. So there are huge economic benefits if managed and designed for.”

What other benefits do you see in integrating new residents in the cities?

“Well, just in terms of arts and culture, more diversity spawns new arts and new culture. And one of the things we looked at in particular was food. We decided not to go down this avenue of having a food-centred festival for various reasons, mostly funding.

“But if you look at the cities that are most fun to go to, those are the cities that have the most diverse life in the streets, and have the most life street food. This is something that cities around the world have been trying to replicate. This has huge economic benefits for cities and also it is fun. Who cares about the economic reasons? It is just fun to go there.”

So what would you say are the highlights of this year’s edition of reSITE and who are among the guests?

“We are focusing this year primarily on professional events, so we have major conference at Forum Karlín on June 15 and 17. We are doing a few publicly open salons where people can come and have a drink and hear from ten to 15 global experts talk about design and design thinking for migration.

“We also have this really cool format on Friday, which is a two-hour game. We will have up to 800 people in the conference venue playing a game to plan for migration. We have 50 games for 50 people standing around a massive 3x3 metre game board and we will have 12 boards on the floor of the Forum.”

“People will actually move game pieces around. It will be like role playing, so you can be a mayor, a city councillor, an investor, a citizen or a bike rider and you will have to look at the city through that lens.”

What about the guests?

“We have the global phenomenon of urban sociologist, Saskia Sassen, a regular participant at Davos and the World Economic Forum and Mikael Kimmelman, an architectural critic from the New York Times. He is particularly interested and has been studying climate change and migration. Among other guests is Mimi Hoang from nArchitects, who is focusing on micro-unit housing.

Photo: archive of reSITE festival
“Martin Rein-Cano from Berlin will be talking primarily about his park Superkilen in Copenhagen, designed entirely for immigrants. Ursula Struppe, deputy mayor for integration in Vienna, will be talking about Vienna's policies for integration. As you know, Vienna has much more diversity than Prague and is an example for many reasons.

“And finally, for those really interested in planning, we have a friend of ours, a chairman of the New York city planning commission, Carl Weisbrod, who will talk about how NY City is planning to be a greener city by the year 2020, reducing carbon emissions by up to 50 percent, and also, what he is really in charge of right now, is putting together a plan for 200,000 affordable housing units.”

You established reSITE in 2012, how would you say Prague has changed over the five years and do you see some positive changes?

“It’s remarkable. We are often asked: why are you talking about these issues? Prague is doing fine. The economy is doing well, which is true. But you can't rest on your laurels when you are planning a city. You are planning for the next 20 years, you are not planning for tomorrow. And I can guarantee you that the economy is not always going to be good. We say that the city should be designed better for the next generation than it is for this now.

“But relative to the question whether Prague is better now than it was then. That’s hard to say. Just to give you an example. In four years we have gone through three mayors. We have worked with all of them. There is varying degrees of seriousness when considering the topic of urbanism and urban planning. I think the current mayor really likes and appreciates architecture and has shown some appreciation for what we are doing.

“But the level of support from the city that we get outside of the Institute for Planning and Development is quite small. Looking at some of the things that are being done there is more actions to sort of stopping or prohibiting sustainable planning actions than there are actually implementing.”

Can you give me an example? What about the Prague Waterfront, which you have previously focused on?

“Well it is one of my core issues. It was the first thing we worked on. We did a Waterfront competition in 2012, which garnered about 725 registrations and 200 entries for designs. The city never looked at them. There were entries from as far as Shanghai and the winner is from Toronto, so we had a lot of international experts looking at our waterfront, which is amazing, but nothing happened.

“If you look at what it was in 2012 and what it is today, really nothing has changed. I was down there on Saturday and Sunday and there are thousands of people sitting on the ground. It would be so easy and it would cost almost nothing in the city budget to at least put benches or movable chairs there.

“Cities, particularly in this region, are losing people and this has huge cultural and economic repercussions for the next generations.”

„So that is one issue that could be solved and frankly it could have been solved in the last four years. We could have had a completely different waterfront. So it just takes a little bit of political leaderships to get these things done which frankly I think is lacking. And it is not just about leadership, it is about vision and vision attracts investment.”

Finally, where do you see the future of reSITE? It is not just about organizing the annual conference. You have goals that go beyond…

“That's right. We want to do more than that and we are starting to. I think primarily we are an events-based organisation. We have organised already three events since I came here in September. One of which was at UN habitat major global conference on urban planning here in Prague.

“And actually we have just won a four-year grant from the EU that is being led by reSITE, Czech Centres and the Goethe Institute, curating a project about urbanism and shared city. And we want to be an advisory as well, so we have started a small company on side. And we are also developing a new website which would allow people to participate in urban planning. So we see ourselves as a bridge between the private sector, the public sector and the civic sector.”