Assessing Prague’s green areas

1.9.2008 - Lubomír Sedlák
At first glance, Prague has plentiful areas of greenery although some observers are beginning to question the extent of the damage being done to Prague’s greenery by increased construction and a lack of protection from the city.

The capital was recently visited by a group of students from Wageningen University in the Netherlands who came to survey the city’s situation in terms of public greenery. The Dutch undergraduates cooperated on the project with local nature protection nongovernmental association (NGO) Arnika.

“When we had upon our arrival in Prague driven through the city on a bus, the overall feeling was that there is actually no problem here since we saw so much greenery around us, but when the students began to examine the subject in detail, they found a much more complex story behind the initial impression,” said Karin Fortuin, the students’ professor. What these students discovered, according to Arnika spokesman Martin Skalský, was the damage—if not total destruction—being done to green spaces, much of which is replaced by new houses.

Although pollution in Prague is about the same as in the industrial city of Ostrava, North Moravia, Skalský said he thinks that the approach to trees, which absorb dust, is deplorable. In the Netherlands, cutting down healthy trees is almost unthinkable, while in the Czech Republic, it is a common phenomenon, and entire areas of trees are commonly leveled. The law allows the removal of trees for “grave reasons.” Authorities differ in how to interpret this vague term.

Karel Kerouš, head of the nature protection department at Czech Environmental Inspectorate (ČIŽP), said he fears that the situation in the capital regarding green spaces has become critical. “Prague is experiencing a massive construction boom, which creates great pressure to make use of its green spaces, but the negative approach to greenery can also be seen on streets that are losing full-grown trees on a wide scale,” he warned. 

Sneaking around quotas

Josef Pavlík, the head of the nature protection department at Prague’s City Hall, has a different opinion on the matter. “I am convinced that greenery in this city is being taken into account, if in no other aspect then in that if for some reason we are faced with the necessity to remove it, new areas are planted elsewhere,” he told CBW. “Whenever somebody wants to do away with any green space, he must moreover without exception receive a permit to do so.”

Pavlík conceded that from time to time, greenery must indeed go. “Some trees were cut down in [the neighborhood of] Pankrác where the Arkády shopping center is being built but only several dozen trees were actually involved and, what is most important, the trees were from natural seedlings. In other words nobody had planted them there, not talking about the fact that nearby, some new ones will soon appear,” he points out.

Skalský is also concerned that contractors are bypassing the quotas that state how much greenery must be preserved or newly planted when building houses by creating small gardens on their roofs that are not accessible to the public.

Pavlík said he does not think that this is negative. “We are, on the contrary, in favor of this procedure because the buildings do not get as warm [in the summer], not talking about the fact that such roofs have an optical function of sorts, too—people from the surrounding houses probably cannot visit them but at least they can look into the greenery,” he said, adding that the gardens can account for only 25 percent of the respective quota and therefore cannot be used as the only method to meet the greenery requirements.

One construction firm, according to Arnika’s Skalský, had almost eradicated a park in Prague 8 and 9. The company eventually accommodated the protesting public by at least making the building somewhat smaller.

Pavlík pointed to this as a positive outcome. “From my point of view, this was actually a great concession on the part of the company that should be appreciated,” Pavlik said. He also noted in some of the city’s outlying areas, for example Běchovice, the city transformed unused fields into forests. Forests account for as much as 10 percent of Prague’s overall territory, he added.

Better protection depending on jurisdiction?

The best preserved parks, according to Skalský, are in those that fall under the jurisdiction of City Hall, such as Stromovka in Prague 7, and Hvězda and Šárka in Prague 6. These are taken care of by city-operated organization Lesy hl.m. Prahy. “The situation is not that rosy in the case of less extensive green spaces, where the various districts are in charge, because these do not have a corresponding number of specialists and moreover do not sufficiently observe the principle of compensatory planting,” he explained.

Another organization that looks after greenery in the Czech capital is Technická správa komunikací (TSK) but the Arnika organization criticizes its philosophy as well. “The people there are technocrats, able to keep Prague’s streets in good shape as such but without the right approach to trees, viewing them as more or less a nuisance because they stand in the light of the lamps, for example, so when TSK itself plants some, the tendency is to go for smaller trees,” Skalský claimed. 

The problems in general are not denied by Petr Štěpánek, the City Hall councilor in charge of the environment. “The interests of the developers, speculation with land plots, growth of housing estates on the outskirts of Prague and requirements of car traffic all pose a threat to the greenery,” he conceded. “The authorities are unable to deal effectively with a number of harmful projects.”

ČIŽP’s Kerouš pointed out that the situation is worse in the capital’s outlying parts where greenery is being liquidated on a larger scale even though—or possibly because—it is present in greater numbers. “Large green spaces in the city center, for instance Petřín in Prague 5, Riegrovy sady in Prague 1, or Vyšehrad in Prague 2, are on the contrary quite well maintained,” he said.

All of the historical gardens, such as those below Prague Castle, in this part of the city are also well maintained.  The islands in the Vltava also have a significant amount of green space. A plan announced by City Hall in February to allow the construction of a café on the northern part of Střelecký ostrov has met with opposition from conservationists.

Skalský also commented on the current dispute between Prague 2 and conservationists over the park on Karlovo náměstí, which district officials want pruned because the parts behind the strip of greenery along its perimeter are a haven for drug addicts. “Doing away with these bushes, which absorb dust and noise, is not a solution to a problem that is of a social, not an environmental, character,” he said.

Looking to our neighbor

Skalský said he thinks that a model concerning approach to greenery for the Czech Republic could also be neighboring Germany. “In Dresden, for instance, a new office building went up on the very edge of a park, and to preserve all the overlapping trees, one of its sides is not straight but zigzag, in order to avoid them,” he said. In Germany it seems that it is simply harder to by-bass existing laws because the respective administration bodies there function better than in the Czech Republic, he said.

None of the sources contacted by CBW were able to say how Prague compared in terms of greenery with other European cities of similar size, such as in the surrounding countries Vienna, Austria, Munich, Germany, or Warsaw, Poland.

Source: Czech Business Weekly

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