N K / Shutterstock.com

As the city seeks to protect its historic districts, advertisers take to the very billboards that could be regulated to pitch dire predictions.

Could Prague’s skyline soon be spiked with flashy glass skyscrapers? The idea of what could be Europe’s most beautiful city turning into a Central European version of Pudong might seem ludicrous, but this is exactly the nightmare scenario now being splashed across billboards in the Czech capital. Above a banner shouting “Prague Under Hudeček” (the name of Prague’s mayor) a current advertising campaign show Charles Bridge cowering beneath a phalanx of pig-ugly towers, which seem to be slouching toward it like drunks at a urinal.

The campaign’s shock tactics have sprung up in opposition to Prague’s new *Building Regulations plan, a set of regulations that seem like a guided tour of standard anti-sprawl urban policies. In the Czech Republic, however, they’ve been causing a storm of complaints, pitting the city against central government and prying the lid off of a spaghetti-like mess of vested interests—a textbook case of the intricate clockwork that ticks behind many cities' public decision-making facades.

From the outside, the plan seems to check off whole list of the right boxes. Pushing densification over sprawl, new rules will prioritize in-fill and brownfield sites over city fringe development. High-rise buildings will be restricted to areas where they already exist, so towers would be banned anywhere near the Old Town or in low-rise neighborhoods such as the interwar villa district of Dejvice.

Prague’s somewhat ramshackle sidewalks and street furniture will also see stricter control. From now on, all roads newly constructed or widened to 12 meters (39.5 feet) or more must be tree-lined. Narrower sidewalks will gradually be swept of street lamps and traffic lights (to be suspended from buildings instead), and will have a minimum width of 1.5 meters (just under 5 feet).  Meanwhile big, shouty billboards of more that 6 square meters (65 square feet) will be banned the inner city.

Parking rules will also tighten. Central Prague will see its parking-space allowance shrivel by 10 to 20 percent, while the more spread-out suburbs will get a 40 percent increase. There’s one possible minor step backwards, however: Current regulations mean new apartments must have ceiling heights of at least 2.6 meters (8.5 feet).  This rule will remain, but as long as new apartments have one good-sized room at this height, secondary rooms can be built at a slightly lower height of 2.4 meters (about 8 feet). Barring that mild climb-down, this regulatory tightening up seems like a cautious step forward for a city that in recent years has been, if not exactly hit, then at least lightly tickled with the ugly stick.

That’s not how a big chunk of Prague’s media and business community sees it. The consortium against the city’s plans insists that the new guidelines could be a disaster. Encouraging in-fill could destroy the "genius loci" of some areas, critics say. If densification is the watchword, they ask, then what’s to stop the city from building on major squares? To drum this home, they’ve made another mock-up visual, of a squat glass cube dumped on the site of the popular farmer’s market in Jiřího z Poděbrad Square. They say the new ceiling-height laws will make new flats dingy, while parking restrictions will give spaces only to richer people with larger apartments. Worst of all, they say, the theory behind this push to wean the city center off cars comes from a U.S. study, making patriotic Praguers “victims of an American experiment."

Some of this is pure disingenuousness. Right now, the city has no height restrictions at all. Even if it fails to be effective, the plan can hardly be called a turn for the worse. Critics do have some fair points too. They note that some key restrictions hinge on the word “usually," making them about as watertight as a chocolate teapot.

But what’s arguably the real cause of the invective shows an ugly side to the campaign: It’s being bankrolled mainly by advertising company BigMedia, which makes its money from—you guessed it—the outsized billboards that the city wants to ban. BigMedia thinks the new rules are a stitch-up designed to give their slice of the advertising cake to another company specializing in smaller adverts—one that’s allegedly had closer contacts with City Hall. It’s not possible to discount this, as Czech politics are full of whispered tales of behind the scenes nepotism and hush-hush backscratching. Still, trying to persuade the public that their city will turn into a high-rise hell because you want to fight to hold on to something that actually makes the city uglier takes some gall.  

Oh, did I mention that it’s also election day in Prague today, one whose result is currently too close to call?  And that the press is treading on eggshells worrying about exactly which advertising giant it risks offending most? Things are currently getting soupier still. As I write, the country’s central government (dominated by a different party than Prague’s City Hall) has asked the city of Prague to *investigate the plan’s implementation for 60 days, to give time to see whether it’s even legal.

The fuss makes more sense when you realize it’s about much more than having less parking and more trees. This may be, to quote Neville Chamberlain’s notorious pro-appeasement speech a “quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." But it shows how, when urban politics turn sour, even smallish changes can end up being filtered through a deep, malodorous barrel of pork.

Top image: N K / Shutterstock.com

*This piece has been updated to reflect the correct name of the city's Building Regulations plan. The city is also investigating the plan's implementation rather than freezing it.

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