Opportunity-led Entrepreneurial City Using Industrial Heritage

Commercial-based cultural regeneration of brownfield areas in Ostrava

Gergely Olt, 2016

General data:

Ostrava, the 3rd city of the Czech Republic after Prague and Bruno, is a shrinking city that lost 7% of its population between 1990 and 2010. Economic regeneration of this former industrial city has been in progress since the 2000s with an increase in FDI and job opportunities in ICT and new technologies (results of a conscious policy).

Population of Ostrava: 295,653 inhabitants (2014),

Population of Vítkovice: 7,500 inhabitants (2001)

Ostrava is still an important heavy industry centre with the Arcelor Mittal plant.

The case of Lower Vítkovice Area:

150 hectares of unused contaminated land near the city centre. Former integrated heavy industry plant, now brownfield.

Owner: Vítkovice a.s.

Lower Vítkovice Area is the biggest regeneration plan in the Czech Republic with €2-2.5 billion investment, mostly by a private company.

The plans include a museum, other touristic investments and artistic production together with further (light) industrial and high tech production.

The city of Ostrava represents a special type of city in Central Eastern Europe: the settlements of former socialist heavy industry. The biggest difference between the heavy industry centres of Western Europe and the cities of the former communist bloc is that the abandonment of industrial sites and the emergence of brownfield areas started in the 70s in the West and only after the collapse of communism in the East (Martinat et al., 2014). Because of the planned economy and strong subsidies for the sector the industrial decline started to be visible later in the former communist countries. Nevertheless, the inner cities started to shrink earlier than heavy industry did.

In Ostrava, industrial development was sparked by the discovery of coal in the middle of the 19th century, and the industrial complex of the city was built on that raw material. The rapid growth of the city led to incorporation of the nearby villages, and Ostrava became a polycentric metropolitan area divided by industrial areas, rivers and train lines. Later, during the communist years, central planning neglected the inner city of Ostrava because of the coal deposits underneath the area and because housing policy prioritised the construction of prefabricated housing estates on the outskirts of the city. Poor environmental conditions in the city partially justified this policy and made green-field developments necessary (Rumpel et al., 2010a ).

Consequently, the population of the inner city began to decrease in the 1930s, dropping from about 47% of the total population at that time to only 20.8% in 1991 (Slach and Boruta, 2012, p.102).

After the collapse of communism, the whole city began to shrink as heavy industry jobs disappeared: in 1990 Ostrava had 331,466 inhabitants, in 2007, 308,374 (Rumpel et al., 2010a, p.9). Unemployment rates increased, and in spite of economic growth in the mid-2000s, the city continued to shrink after the millennium.

Other reasons for the decline were “significant social problems, e.g. socially excluded areas, the existence of brownfields and the negative image of a polluted industrial city” (Rumpel et al., 2010, p. 13). Ostrava became a declining city mostly because of its negative industrial image and the decline of heavy industry. Its brownfields remained unused after their industrial activities were shut down as part of the development strategy of the city and the region.

In order to stop decline and find new economic functions, Ostrava turned to the method of culture-led regeneration. This tool has been largely expanded in Western Europe since the 1990s, for example in Liverpool, Bilbao, etc., just to mention a few cases. Culture-led regeneration (Evans, 2005) is by now quite a debated notion mainly because of the often one-sided results of such policies. Abandoned industrial areas not only have a strong symbolical meaning, but their physical extension and location in cities (either close to the city centre with high potential value or on the outskirts with relatively good connections to the city and weaker planning restrictions) are attractive conditions for property development coupled with creative ideas. The results are often high-value developments, also known as ‘flagship projects’, which are “significant, high-profile and prestigious land and property developments which play an influential and catalytic role in urban regeneration” (Bianchini et al., 1992, p. 246).

‘Cultural’ and ‘creative projects’ are buzzwords used in regeneration, but the actual projects are often more commercial and consumption-oriented than cultural.

The priority of cultural rehabilitation on the level of the city of Ostrava was also demonstrated by the city’s application for the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) title – which in the end was awarded to Pilsen.

Two areas, two periods, two different concepts of industrial heritage: Karolina and Lower Vítkovice

The Lower Vítkovice Area and the adjacent Karolina are situated near the inner city of Ostrava; together they form a large brownfield axis along the Ostravice River. Lower Vítkovice Area is a large (150 hectares) industrial area with mines, industrial buildings and empty spaces. It is situated within the district of Vítkovice, which was a separate village in the 19th century before the growing city of Ostrava incorporated it. The rehabilitation process of the adjacent Karolina area is a good benchmark for the process that took place later in Lower Vítkovice, and the two sites can be connected so it might prove useful to compare the two brownfield projects.

In Karolina the demolition of the majority of industrial structures took place in the 1980s, and privatization of buildings started in the 1990s. As a result of this process, the area ended up in the hands of several owners. In Vítkovice demolition of selected industrial structures began at the start of industrial decline and careful remediation began in 1996. The plant operated until 1998. The area was not privatized until 2003, when it became the property of one man, Jan Svetlik, a major player in Czech industry who has strong political connections to Czech politics, and in particular to the current president Milos Zeman.

In the 2000s in Karolina “…there was nothing but an empty plain, prepared for the process of remediation in 2001. In 2012, an open shopping mall, a residential area and an administrative centre covered the area. In the case of the Lower Area of Vítkovice, on the grounds of an empty factory in 2001, in 2012, several projects for remediation and reconstruction to serve a wide spectrum of use were implemented” (Duzi and Jakubinsky 2013 pp57). Demolition of the industrial heritage in the Lower Vítkovice Area was already prevented by the fact that it had been declared a National Cultural Monument (2002), and later a European heritage site (2008): around 50 hectares of the area has been preserved in that way, exhibiting the whole technological flow of coal extracting and steel manufacturing. In Karolina the urban plan projected the use of the former brownfield as an enlargement of the city centre: offices, shopping area, residential area, culture, green spaces and parks were planned. In 2012 the New Karolina shopping mall opened (Duzi and Jakubinsky, 2013, p.62).

“The Lower Vítkovice Area represents the largest contemporary project of urban regeneration in the Czech Republic” (Slach and Boruta, 2012, p.106). The estimated investment for the project is approx. € 2-2.5 billion, with a third of the funding provided by the public sector and two-thirds by private stakeholders (ibid.). The first step of the rehabilitation took place in 2004 with the opening of the area for the public.

In 2009 the private owner announced an ambitious plan: educational and research functions but also residential, commercial and hotel developments were planned. The area can be divided into three parts: the northern, central and southern parts, with different planned functions. The southern part is focused on attracting high-technology companies. The central part is set to continue the industrial function with the creation of an industrial zone. The northern part, where cultural and touristic functions are planned, is at the most advanced stage (Rumpel et al, 2010b pp13). In 2010 it was clearly visible that “current projects include the removal of old ecological burdens, and the demolition of dozens of buildings in unsatisfactory technical state, as well as sanitation of the whole area” (Rumpel et al, 2010b pp15). The cultural function was strengthened by the fact that in 2012 the Colours of Ostrava festival was organised in the area (Slach and Boruta 2012, pp106). The new cultural function of the industrial cultural heritage is planned to “provide young alternative artists … a base for their production - the so-called FACTORY” (Slach and Boruta 2012, pp107). “It is important to note that although the private owner made a public call for partnership in the future use of this part of the Cultural Heritage Structure, other artistic or civic initiatives did not react, deterred either by the vagueness of the call, or by the requirement for the operation to be self-funding. … The Lower Vítkovice Area (LVA) association will take care of facility management, and will require operational economic self-sufficiency from the tenant, or tenants” (ibid.). So it is obvious that the Vítkovice Company’s top-down approach for artistic projects is somewhat problematic.

It can be interesting to compare this plan with the spontaneous rehabilitation of the Stodolni street area in the inner city of Ostrava. This low status neighbourhood had turned out to be an alternative area in the early 1990s through the emergence of alternative artistic and music clubs and festivals. During the 2000s the commercialisation of the Stodolni street scene was visible, for example an alternative club was turned into an Irish pub, and the number of hospitality venues increased dramatically. Rents increased to the level of the city core and the former alternative neighbourhood became gentrified (Slach and Boruta, 2012, p.103). “In terms of image, the street has changed during the last 15 years from “Ostrava’s Bronx” to the “trendiest place in the Czech Republic” (according to a survey of tourist actions in the years 1993–2010, Czech Tourism 2011)”.

In the case cited above, cultural rehabilitation happened spontaneously without any major public or private stakeholder but because of the ‘hands-on approach’ of the municipality the cultural function was not sustainable. How the cultural projects of Lower Vítkovice will turn out is still uncertain, but it is obvious that the effects of these investments on the whole city also depend on local politics and planning.

Brownfield regeneration and social exclusion

As in the case of any intervention and capital investment, gentrification and the exclusion of former lower status residents are of course the results of many brownfield regeneration projects as well. « In urban spaces, the reuse of brownfields, e.g., for housing, can make certain localities more attractive as well as raise real estate prices, and thus give rise to the process of gentrification that is replacing original low-income residents with higher status ones.” (Martinat et al, 2014, p.113).

Because of the industrial decline, shrinking of the urban population and the lack of refurbishment, there are several low status areas in Ostrava, one of them being the Vítkovice district (Rumpel et al., 2010a). Many parts of Ostrava are perceived as socially excluded areas, and the population loss of these neighbourhoods can be attributed partially to the tensions between lower status, socially excluded and mostly Roma populations and the higher status groups.

Though the brownfield rehabilitation sites described above are mostly located in areas without housing functions, it is obvious that the limited public budgets (of the city and other public stakeholders) are spent on ambitious projects rather than on improvement of the living conditions of the poorest residents. The effects of brownfield regeneration on local residents are indirect, and how the local authority will manage the problems of these excluded and segregated residents remains an issue. Parallel to this, revitalisation of Stodolni Street in the city centre is connected with the displacement of socially excluded groups to Vítkovice, among others (Rumpel et al., 2010 p.22). Ghettos of excluded, lowest-status Roma residents are also visible in several disadvantaged parts of the city, including the Vítkovice neighbourhood and especially Sirotčí Street (Rumpel et al., 2010a, p.30).

“The second half of the 20th century was not a good era for Vítkovice. This fact is reflected by a huge decline in population (1961 – 16,907 inhabitants, 2001 – 7,518 inhabitants)”. The district became a separate quarter in 1990 and when privatisation of the housing stock began, that also attracted new economic activity to the neighbourhood. Since the early 2000s, the new fashion of the industrial heritage has given a new boost to the area. “People started to appreciate the typical redbrick buildings built in 19th and early 20th century and many houses in ‘Štítová’ settlement and Josefinská Street have been reconstructed and now provide a high quality accommodation” (Rumpel et al, 2010a p.35).

But this also meant the exclusion of the lowest status residents from these areas to the borders of the brownfields like the example of the Sirotčí Street ghetto in Vítkovice. “The socially excluded localities suffer from strong residential separation, are bordered by industrial areas with high pollution … The poverty of living in deteriorated houses is coupled with the environmental pollution”( Rumpel et al, 2010a, p.38). There are agencies and NGOs to improve the situation of these excluded people and some projects like the Village of Cohabitation in Muglinov aim for cohabitation of the Roma and the majority population. However, the polarisation of residents is growing and the exclusion of the lowest status groups continues (ibid.). The brownfield regeneration projects of the city do not tackle the problem of low quality housing and segregation. Although most residents in a recent survey in Ostrava would like to see housing projects in these brownfields (Martinat et al., 2014) this is not part of the brownfield rehabilitation plans.

Brownfield rehabilitation and local politics

According to our sources and experiences in other Eastern-European countries the “so-called opportunity-led planning context” is a typical way of approaching urban intervention in the region (Slach and Boruta, 2012, p.110). Development of these brownfield sites is dictated by large private companies with sufficient capital, and the role of public stakeholders remains limited in Eastern-Europe, compared to the Western examples of public private partnerships. As a result brownfield regenerations in the former communist countries are more likely to be based on commercial projects, like shopping malls, high status housing or office developments, while in Western Europe similar interventions with public functions are more frequent (Martinat et al, 2014, p.110).

Still, in the planning documents the city expressed its needs and expectations to change « the former heavy industrial zones into light industry zones, or multipurpose zones (i.e. residences, services, commercial, re-greening) » (Duzi and Jakubinsky, 2013, p.58). The role of the city is also expressed through land use planning, and collecting ideas in field trips to other industrial cities. In general the city supports the developers with capital and its approach is not coloured by a strong interest in the processes (Slach and Boruta, 2012; Rumpel et al., 2010b).

In the case of the New Karolina project the city actively supported investment in a commercial area and also provided traffic connections and technical infrastructure for the developers to the value of €14 million in the period from 2008 to 2010 (Rumpel et al., 2010b, p.10).

In the case of the Lower Vítkovice Area the leverage of the city is even weaker. The owner of the site has strong connections to state-level politics and the aim of the Vítkovice project company is to gain subsidies from European and other funds like the €25 million grant from the Integrated Operational Programme allocated by the Czech Ministry of Culture. According to the experts, the owner’s « dominant position in Vítkovice, as the only owner of the land, and at the same time as a developer, concentrates the control over the whole area into his hands, while cooperation with the city and other public sector bodies is practically limited only to consultations, which was also confirmed by the mayor of the city. » (Rumpel, et al., 2010b, p.16). So it is a question of how the interests of the city as a whole can be served if the owner is completely free to put his own economic interests first. Both the Karolina and the Lower Vítkovice Area brownfield regenerations are typical property-led developments with the goal of increasing the real estate values of the city, a risky strategy after the global economic crisis.

Similar remarks could be made concerning details of the cultural aspects of the rehabilitation program. Cultural projects are used for image change and growth strategies. A good example of that is the ECoC candidacy. The idea came from the National Moravian- Silesian Theatre, after city representatives were brought to Essen to see a successful example of cultural rehabilitation. After losing the competition against Pilsen, the local authority stepped back from the support of cultural projects (Markova and Ticha, 2011). According to Slach and Boruta (2012) « as demonstrated by developments after the unsuccessful candidacy, the initiation of creating a cultural cluster was … [an example of] so-called opportunity-led planning … [rather] than a long-term and inten¬tional cultural strategy of the city ».

In the case of the Factory cultural cluster in the Lower Vítkovice Area the city was also rather passive about the definition of the project and helping possible users of the industrial heritage building.

Cultural rehabilitation is usually the provision of possible spaces for artistic activity, and top-down initiatives are usually less successful and authentic, however a complete lack of public intervention can lead to commercialisation of spontaneous projects as in the case of Stodolni Street, and the lack of real cultural potential in projects implemented by powerful private interests.

The role of the city can be defined as entrepreneurial, because in the difficult economic situation the city needs funding in any form. However simple property-led development and the support of private players can serve the interests of a few against the interests of the city as a whole. This is highly visible in the case of the ambitious brownfield regenerations: in close proximity to the development sites enclaves of the socially excluded still exist. The regeneration plans of the city are less concerned about the integration of the poor than about the prestigious and risky projects in the former brownfields.


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