Ask any Czech to explain the word sídliště and you are likely to hear about concrete pre-fab buildings, isolation, boredom and urban decay. It’s easy to forget that estate housing was originally a utopian concept aimed at helping replace slums with brighter, healthier housing for low-income families in the 1920s and 30s throughout the developed world. It’s especially easy to forget if you’re standing in the middle of Jižní Město, the Czech Republic’s biggest sídliště.
These negative associations aren’t likely to change anytime soon. Although sídliště revitalisation has been on the Czech government’s agenda for well over a decade, change has been slow.
Roughly a third of all Czechs and half of all Praguers live in paneláks. The country has some 750,000 panel apartments in total. Of those only about a fifth has been repaired, according to a January article in Hospodářské noviny. This means thousands of flats are currently awaiting reconstruction.
But making the sídliště a more liveable place isn’t just about revamping individual apartments. The problems that plague each sídliště are greater than the sum of its parts. Effecting any major change will need to involve converting vast tracts of concrete into something that resembles a city: creating natural meeting points where locals can socialize and bringing life into empty spaces.
Like all over the rest of Europe, in post-World War II Czechoslovakia, the housing estate concept became less about utopian living than about staving off a severe housing shortage as quickly and as cheaply as possible. By the time communist-era urban planners got around to designing Jižní Město in the 1970s, panel housing had become ruthlessly efficient and dehumanized, offering little else besides towering stacks of identical cramped apartments.
Situated south-east of Prague’s downtown, the sídliště sprawls over most of Prague 11 and spills into Prague 4. From its inception, Jižák, as locals call it, was a bleak, no-frills sort of place, essentially a giant housing factory, with no sidewalks, little greenery and few playgrounds and social amenities.
According to Václav Cílek, a geologist by training who happens to be one of the Czech Republic’s most respected urban theoreticians, the best way to revive the country’s panelák neighbourhoods is by filling in the existing dead spaces. This means introducing variety: building lower structures among the high rises, with high-end apartments to bring in younger people with money to spend, opening shops on the floor level of buildings to help create street life, and improving transportation options so that the sídliště wouldn’t be so cut off from the city centre.
“You need shops and people to make a place alive,” Cílek told me once in an interview when talking about revitalising Prague’s suburbs.
More than 30 years since its inception, Jižní Město remains conspicuously devoid of street life. Vast stretches of crumbling concrete buildings contain almost no shops. There are few places that could entice passers by to linger. A handful of children’s playgrounds, many in various states of disrepair. Cracked pavement paths between paneláks, in places lined with benches that no one seems to be using. A boarded up post-office and a forlorn looking pub, housed in a low bunker-like concrete building.
The nearest shopping complex is called Eden and to get there on foot usually means navigating a series of concrete under-passes and over-passes or crossing busy streets with few traffic lights. To reach this shopping paradise, most people just drive or take the bus.
In recent years, Prague 11 city authorities have made some efforts to revitalise the sídliště, and small signs of change are visible throughout the neighbourhood.
A grassy strip between metro stops Háje and Opatov metro has been recently planted with trees, creating sort of a park with a single paved path running down middle. It may not be living up to its overambitious name – Central Park – just yet but it does bring some life into the area. On a recent Sunday, the path was teeming with rollerblading kids, parents with strollers and pensioners taking a walk.
Prague 11 has also helped fund new cultural and sports centres. There are also plans to create a network of cycling trails and increase the number of green public parks, as well as creating more crosswalks to make the sídliště more pedestrian friendly. With decreased funding, however, many of these plans will doubtless turn into very long-term projects.
The most visible change for now is on the facades of the paneláks. Walls have been painted in warm hues of yellow, orange and pink, so the sídliště is no longer a mass of uniformly grey concrete. But there is something depressing about this forced cheerfulness. If not part of a lively community, a panelák remains just a panelák – no matter how many coats of pink paint it receives. Jižní Město still has a long way to go.