Shared Layers of History – Urban Phenomena of Post-Communist Cities #6

After the fall of communism, we had to learn how to shop and sell, how to build and how to lead an everyday life in a completely new realm. It does not matter if we are in Belgrade, Warsaw, Berlin or Bratislava – our cities are layered with history and scarred with the changes

One cannot understand the post-communist attitude towards sharing without knowing the twisted history and numerous transformations involved in the perspective. Presented here is our selection of socio-urban phenomena that helps explain – and hopefully offers a more detailed picture of – today’s public spaces.

RECLAIMING THE PUBLIC SPACE

One of the first public parks in the world, Városliget (City Park), the oldest and largest public park in Budapest, was created in the early decades of the 19th century. Yet, today, its future is uncertain.

The history of the park dates back as far as the 13th century and according to legend, the area served as a venue for national assemblies of medieval nobles arriving from all over the country. Fast-forward to the 18th century, trees were successfully planted here during Hungary’s era under Habsburg rule, and the first pedestrian path was built. By the mid-1800s, as Pest’s settled areas began expanding eastward, the park was thriving: it became the terminus of the first omnibus line of Pest; the Budapest Zoo, one of the first animal parks in Europe, opened in 1866. Then in 1896, City Park provided a home for the Millennium Exhibition with more than 200 pavilions to showcase all kinds of cultural attractions. City Park saw many rapid changes, including the construction of new buildings like the ornate Kunsthalle exhibition centre, the fairy-tale palace of Vajdahunyad Castle, and other novelties such as the Millennium Underground, the very first metro line of continental Europe.

Unfortunately, during World War II, bombs hit almost every building in the park. The following years of communism under Soviet occupation weren’t exactly kind to Városliget either. However, things got better as the end of the Soviet era drew closer, and a huge landscaping project in the 1970s brought back more trees to the park. Still today, there are parts of City Park that feel sort of haunted, including the communist-era buildings like the long-unused Hungexpo, and the PeCsa music hall.

After this long period of neglect, City Park is again at the centre of attention with a major new renovation project on the horizon. In the middle of 2013, the government announced plans to renovate and turn the park into a kind of “family cultural-recreational theme park” featuring a new museum quarter, as well as various botanical gardens and the like. The government plans have met with considerable hostility on the part of opposition leaders, urban planners and environmental protectionists alike. A group of prominent urban planners and architects called for a boycott of the international planning tender announced later that year.

Regardless of the boycott, the plans for “Liget Budapest” have not been cancelled and are being executed slowly having some palpable impacts on park life: since 1985, PeCsa was a popular venue for concerts, but last autumn the indoor-outdoor facility was forced to close to make way for the new National Gallery. However, the PeCsa Flea Market is still operating in the old PeCsa building. Although the Liget Budapest construction hasn’t started yet, some elements of City Park were already removed to make room for the new plans. This stirred a great deal of unrest among a lot of environmentalists and other locals, which led to the formation of the Liget Budapest protest group called “Ligetvédők” (translating as “Park Protectors”). The group organizes regular demonstrations in the park, including a recent one with Greenpeace. Although according to 2016 surveys, 81% of Budapest residents are opposed to having new buildings in the park. Still, it remains to be seen if the protest movement will have any impact on the Liget Budapest plans.


This article was published in Magazyn Miasta / Cities Magazine # 1/17  – our special international issue released as a part of Shared Cities: Creative Momentum (SCCM) project. You can read more about the project here. You can download PDF version of the issue for free here.


Main photo: Elekes Andor, Wikimedia Commons