Activist Dobrica Veselinovic describes contemporary activism in Belgrade. Urban citizens have joined forces to tell city leaders Don’t drown Belgrade!
Words by Dobrica Veselinovic
[Edited by Stacey Hunter]
Belgrade’s ‘investor urbanism’ is taking place at various scales, and in the past 15 years we have witnessed the announcement of several flagship projects.
Iconic architecture and ‘urban renewals’ have been proposed for very attractive locations in the city, promising a big slice of the Bilbao effect.
The latest incarnation of this practice is Belgrade Waterfront project. More grandiose than any of its predecessors in scale and cost to tax payers, it brings both potential risks and violated regulations. The frightening social consensus is that for the first time the Serbian Government has become, not only an enabler of the project, but also its instigator.
Despite many attempts to push urban renewal through different megaprojects combining shiny pictures, big names, and even bigger promises of widespread benefits, the striking media attention and changes to urban legislation have not led to the realisation of these promises. The newest manifestation of this formula is “Belgrade Waterfront project”.
The project hit the fast lane with the appearance of an investor Eagle Hills Company (Abu Dhabi) who were declared to be financing the masterplan and the complete waterfront renewal. Until this point no legal contract had been signed… The legitimacy of Eagle Hills was never questioned, although leaders were involved in projects that have led to state debt (Abuja, Nigeria), continual postponement of construction (Erbil Downtown, Kurdistan), limited or partial realisation of projects (Crescent Bay, Karachi, Pakistan), and even selling land that the company does not own (with awareness of the local government) in Mohali, India. The first public presentation of the Belgrade Waterfront project came with a campaign for the municipal elections in 2012.
The project reappeared during the 2014 parliamentary election as the trump card of the current prime minister and the ruling party who were promoting a “better future”.
Branding started in March 2014 with the reconstruction of a dilapidated building – the former Geological Institute. This became Belgrade Waterfront’s promotional hub, featuring a permanent exhibition of the model of the project, including a ‘typical’ apartment and an elite restaurant. These processes created a reaction in the shape of Don’t drown Belgrade! The initiative was formed to stop further degradation and plundering of Belgrade in the name of colossal urban and architectural projects.
The first public actions the group organised were based on attempts to use existing democratic participatory tools – we demonstrated how these tools were merely a simulation without any real effective power.
The changes brought about by Belgrade’s General Plan produced a new legal framework that enabled occupation and privatization of public space owned by the city. It erased the obligatory architectural competition as a format for expert and public involvement allowing fragmentary planning and increasing the possibility of ignoring social aspects of city life.
Around 100 citizens, activists and experts wrote complaints together, and over 2000 filed them in a collective actions.
During public review, the Planning Commission rejected most of those complaints, accepting just few symbolic ones, in a vain attempt to keep up with the appearance of democratic procedure. Creating the new legal framework was the Spatial Plan of the economically “most valuable” part of Belgrade which transferred the investor’s model into the planning documentation – in contrary to the regulations of the Republic of Serbia. Don’t drown Belgrade again worked with collective complaints but this time having only one goal in mind – the complete rejection of the dubious plan and the creation of the new one. Complaints focused on spatial and social segregation, collapse of traffic and the disappearance of small economies.
During the public session Don’t drown Belgrade organized performance Operation Lifebelt (Operacija šlauf) by passing around beachballs and inflatable rings and singing songs celebrating Belgrade.
The behavior of commission members proved once more that public sessions of this kind are merely a simulation of citizen participation and that the profession in such process serve only the mere satisfaction of formalities.
One of the latest steps has been publishing and distributing 10,000 copies of our newspaper to all interested citizens in order to inform them about project.
The newest action reacted to a “special law” by placing a big yellow duck in front of the Serbian parliament before the official parliamentary session.
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