Medium_avatar Belgrade – A Tale of Two Cities

05 Sep 10:35

Gerrit Knaap

TURAS team at the Institute of Architecture and Urban & Spatial Planning, Belgrade.

Jasna Petri, Gerrit Jan Knaap, Miodrag Vujo evi discuss presentation by Milica Joksi and Marija Lalo evi at the Urban Planning Institute of Belgrade.

A brief visit to Belgrade, Serbia, was among the highlights of my recent visit to the Balkans. Hometown of TURAS leader, Zorica Nedovic-Budic, and well off the beaten path of typical European tourists, I found the city teeming with activity, its people friendly and accommodating, and the landscape reflective of its slow but steady economic transition. The highlight of my visit, however, was spending time with the TURAS team at the Institute of Architecture and Urban & Spatial Planning (IAUS).
The diverse team of scholars at IAUS graciously provided an overview of their recent research and provided a glimpse of the proposed new development on the Belgrade waterfront and the illegal settlement rapidly expanding at the city’s edge.

The introductory overview presented by the IAUS staff characterized a nation still recovering from years of turmoil and undergoing dramatic economic change. According to the World Bank, between 2001 and 2008, Serbia made considerable progress in terms of both growth and poverty reduction. After 2008, however, economic growth sharply declined, and progress on poverty reduction and shared prosperity sharply reversed. Average annual real GDP growth dropped below zero, with the economy experiencing economic contractions in 2009, 2012, and in 2014, partly because of adverse external factors and partly due to weather shocks to agriculture.1 Much of the limited economic growth concentrated in the banana that stretches from Novi Sad to Belgrade in the north which represents nearly two-thirds of national GDP but less than 10 percent of the land area. The Serbian population has also grown slowly and mostly in Belgrade, the home to many ethnics from all over the former Yugoslavia. Many people came to the city as economic migrants from smaller towns and the countryside, while hundreds of thousands arrived as refugees from Herzegovina and Kosovo, as a result of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

Using GIS data developed as part of the TURAS project, maps prepared by IAUS staff vividly illustrate how much of the recent population growth has occurred in the peripheral municipalities of Barajevo, Surcin, Grocka and Cukarica and in the extreme peripheral communities of Barajevo, Lazarevac, Zemun and Palilula. The result has been a dramatic decrease of population density at the urban fringe and rapid growth in commuting in all suburban municipalities. These growth patterns caused IAUS scholars on conclude in a recently published paper: “the transformation of its urban land policy as well as the land development management in the Belgrade Metropolitan Area illustrate complexities of spatial regularization, further emphasized by the delay in introducing and adopting new urban land policy. [The result has been]… extremely inefficient urban land use and excessive urban sprawl.

Urban sprawl, of course, is the topic of TURAS work package 5 and the focus of much of the TURAS work at IAUS. To illustrate one manifestation of the problem, the IAUS team took me to Kaluderica, characterized by MONDO as the largest slum in Europe.3 While developed illegally over the last thirty years, distinctly unplanned, and still rapidly growing, Kaluderica looks little like the slums of Africa or Latin America. Most of the buildings are built with sturdy red bricks, the streets are generally paved, and from a distance the community looks like any North American Suburb sprawling over the hilly countryside. A stroll through the neighborhood, however, reveals the many problems exacerbated by informal property rights and weak land use governance. While generally paved, the streets are narrow and wonder like deer trails to no place in particular. Many buildings remain unfinished with an odd mix of residential and commercial uses. Public transport is scarce. And it is difficult to escape the stench of open sewers that substitute for a functional sanitary system.

Open Water Sewer in Kaluderica. (Image Gerrit Knaap)

Mixed Use Buildings in Kaluderia.(Image Gerrit Knaap)

Despite these problems, the settlement continues to grow and expand. According to a recent survey conducted by IAUS scholars, residents of the community are attracted by the low cost of single-family homes and repelled by the high multifamily rents in the central city. And while many residents lament the lack of environmental amenities and services, most are reasonably satisfied and have no plans to leave any time soon.

As in other developing countries, planners in Serbia are working in Kaluderica to strengthen property rights, retrofit public infrastructure, and extent the public transportation system. But as elsewhere these efforts to mitigating uncontrolled urban sprawl must include complementary strategies to create new opportunities in the central city. It is natural, therefore, to view the proposed Belgrade Waterfront Development as a welcome opportunity.

The Belgrade Waterfront is a €3.5bn project of condominiums, hotels, offices, retail, and parks dominated by a glass skyscraper that would be the tallest building between Vienna and Istanbul. Its developer is Abu Dhabi-based Eagle Hills, which built the world’s largest shopping mall and tallest building in Dubai. Their Belgrade project manager Nikola Nedeljkovic, claims that the Belgrade Waterfront Development will be a “game-changing hub for Serbia. ”

The IAUS team took me to see the lavish 3-D model of the proposed development in the historic Belgrade Waterfront Gallery. The model includes the entire 1.77 sq. km. district – a core of dense high-rise buildings, dominated by a glass tower that overlooks the River Sava and the new 1.8km Sava Promenade. The master plan also includes the
Belgrade waterfront gulf. To some, however, the Belgrade Waterfront presents as many problems as solutions. Many question whether the Belgrade real estate market is sufficiently robust to absorb all the proposed construction within a reasonable period. Critics also accuse the government of capitulation to foreign developers with little public consultation, amending planning legislation to fit the project’s needs, and using public funds to support private profiteering.

Activists also allege that the agreement to build Belgrade Waterfront violates Serbian law and that construction started without a building permit. Further, they claim, locals were not consulted; the project fails to provide adequate affordable housing, and that the deal was cut without sufficient public input. They also say that families were evicted with little warning, their houses quickly demolished, and that little social or legal assistance was provided.

Thus despite Belgrade’s desperate need for new private capital investment and for revitalization of the inner city, the waterfront project remains highly controversial, and a symbol challenges facings Serbia’s evolving urban economy. Of course these challenges are not unique. Urban sprawl is pervasive in many developing countries, and few large scale urban revitalizations projects are completed without controversy. But Belgrade’s unique situation in time and space somehow makes such challenges even more prominent and an appropriate focus of TURAS resources.

Zorica Nedović-Budić, Miodrag Vujošević, Jasna Petrić and Marija Cvetinović examine a model of the proposed Belgrade Waterfront Development.