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Praguescape: Island redesigned

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Just as companies all over the world are cutting budgets in an effort to survive the economic crisis, Prague City Hall is preparing to spend CZK 40 million on the reconstruction of an island on the Vltava. It’s not so much an investment as a makeover that will involve cutting down all the island’s trees and replanting some new ones, putting in a nicer lawn, an elevator and perhaps a cafe, although that’s likely to be nixed by the heritage office.

Střelecký ostrov, dubbed Střelák by locals, is spanned by the Bridge of Legions, which provides access the the island via an ornate stone stairway. It has a rich history and some 90 mature trees to match its age. In the summer, especially, it becomes a quiet, cool oasis that offers immediate escape from the parched, traffic-ridden city. The island also offers one of the best views of the Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle; on New Year’s it’s an ideal place to watch the fireworks; in autumn, the best place for rustling strolls through piles of brown leaves.

On a sun-drenched afternoon two weeks ago, a mix of local students, tourists, homeless people and a couple of pensioners sat around on benches and on the grass, quietly taking in the view, shaded by prematurely leafy trees – the very definition of a democratic public place. I can’t help but wonder how this will change once City Hall reconstructs this narrow strip of land.

Aside from providing wheelchair access to the island (a good thing) and putting in paths, so that the island can be used by rollerbladers (nice, but is it necessary?), the planned changes, based on a landscaping design by the company Zahrada nad Metují, can hardly increase the value of the island. City Hall says it wants to transform the island into a “modern relaxation zone”, but isn’t it that already? Why cut down all of the trees – City Hall admits that only a few of them are dead or diseased and truly warrant removal – and replace them with new ones that will take at least 20 years to mature? Why redesign the landscaping when all it would take to make the place fresher and greener would be to replant the lawn?

Part of City Hall’s argument is that the place will then be able to be used for various cultural events and will cease to be a popular hangout for homeless people, who sometimes sleep under bridge. But Střelák is already used for cultural events. During the summer, it becomes a venue for outdoor concerts, as well as the city’s biggest outdoor cinema. According to the cinema operators, there is a good chance that after the reconstruction, the city will no longer allow screenings to take place on the island.

The civic group Arnica, as well as some of the city’s preservationists, are protesting the planned changes, saying the reconstruction will be too intensive and will destroy the island’s character. I can’t help but agree.

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