Prague still not truly Western city, study suggests

View of Prague from the Clementinum Astronomical Tower

A new study by the Prague Institute of Planning and Development (IPR Prague) comparing the Czech capital with 11 other European cities has found that there is still a gap between East and West in many respects. The analysis looked at areas of life such as housing, transport, work and free time to see how Prague fared in a European context, and concluded that the city has not yet shaken off its post-communist legacy in some ways. I spoke to Lucie Pára from IPR Prague to find out more.

You compared 12 cities in your study – Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Vienna, Munich, Amsterdam, Milan, Barcelona, Bucharest, and Sofia. It seems like you got a good spread from north to south and east to west, but were there any other criteria by which you selected them?

Prague’s Centre for Architecture and Metropolitan Planning  (CAMP) | Photo: CAMP

“As you said, we wanted to have a good representation of different regions of Europe, so we wanted to have north, south, west, east, and central Europe as well, of course. But we also wanted to pick cities that were comparable with Prague, because what we often see in international comparisons of quality of life is that Prague is being compared with Tokyo, New York, and Sydney, which are not cities comparable in size or population.

“So we wanted to pick cities that are either capitals of other European Union member states, or if they are not country capitals then they are regional capitals like Munich, Milan and Barcelona. And we wanted them to have populations between 50 and 150 percent of Prague’s population, so the smallest city is Copenhagen with roughly half a million people, and the biggest was Vienna with a little under 2 million, which is roughly 50 percent more than Prague.”

The study suggests that there is still a gap between cities in Western and post-communist parts of Europe in many respects. In which areas was this most visible?

“Well, there are areas where the gap is still visible but the study also showed that there are many areas where there is no geographical clue as to why a phenomenon is present in a certain city. For example, in terms of the cost of public transportation, there is no logical geographical explanation.

“But there is still a visible gap mostly when we look at car ownership and also when we look at disposable income and purchasing power in central or post-communist countries compared to the north, west and also south of Europe.

Illustrative Photo: Lenka Žižková,  Radio Prague International

“There is also a gap in work-life balance, meaning people in central and eastern Europe usually spend more hours at work weekly than people north, west and south from us. There is roughly a one hour per day difference, and with some cities like Amsterdam, it’s almost a two hour difference.”

Why is it the case that the cities in formerly communist countries like Warsaw, Prague and Bucharest have such a high number of cars per number of inhabitants, and that trend is only going up, while in Western Europe the number of cars per inhabitants in cities is significantly lower and the trend is either stable or going down? The number of cars in Prague especially surprises me given how great and affordable the public transport is…

“You’re right, it is surprising. It is also one of our main claims – that given Prague’s quality of public transportation, we shouldn’t be afraid to put some limits on car use in the city.

“From what we gathered from discussions with our colleagues in other cities across Europe, in post-communist countries, cars are still seen as a status symbol – so owning a car still means you’ve “made it” in a way – whereas in other cities in western, northern and southern Europe, that’s not so much the case.

“And also the decrease or stagnation in car ownership in non-post-communist countries is linked to popular knowledge about climate change and the policies these cities put in place to promote more sustainable ways of getting around, be it in Barcelona with the superblocks or Amsterdam with their bicycle policy. I think it’s a lot about what people are willing to sacrifice from their own personal comfort for the global good. This is something that we’re still a bit behind on in central and eastern Europe.”