Will the Belgrade Waterfront scheme turn it into Serbia's answer to Dubai?

A Belgrade street scene. Image: Filipa Pajević.

In his bid to transform Belgrade into a global metropolis, Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s Prime Minister, set out to do what many are doing: regenerating and gentrifying the inner city.

Decay has long been seen as an opportunity for capital to benefit from an increase in rents, and, luckily for Prime Minister Vučić, Belgrade is full of it. Under the guise of infrastructure improvement and overall betterment of Belgrade’s quality of life, his newly elected government presented a project targeting the city’s waterfront, a significant chunk of the inner city. Dubbed Belgrade on the Water, and now officially Belgrade Watefront, the project is meant to be accepted as panacea for the city’s ills. The project is to be entirely financed by private capital.

With a price tag of €3.5bn, Emirati investors soony emerged as the generous donors supporting the project. The main investor, Abu Dhabi based Eagle Hills, already has a portfolio of Dubai models which it's used to build new towns, or economic hubs, in the Middle East and Central Africa.

Although initially greeted with the usual dose of skepticism and indifference, the project eventually penetrated the public mind, when all sorts of images and other marketing props popped up throughout Belgrade. But despite the glitz and glamour of said images, not everyone was keen on the karaoke architecture that is meant to replace the decaying, but beautiful, buildings that echo the city’s complex and diverse history.

More opponents surfaced once the full scale of the project emerged. The 30-year scheme will cover 1.8m m2 of central Belgrade, and include a 140,000 m2 shopping mall, the largest in the Balkans. The most vocal opponens have been the local art, design and music venues in Savamala, Belgrade’s bustling cultural district, and a part of the waterfront itself. Some are asking what will happen to the small businesses that have been booming there.

Local residents, too, face a tough situation. Many have used this space without official endorsement – but that also gives the authorities the right to kick them to the curb without providing suitable alternatives. Essentially, Belgrade on the Water, is a case of accumulation by devaluation – not just of property, but of any urban activity taking place on these grounds.

Practitioners and students of architecture and urbanism have questioned why they were not included in any stages of the project’s conception. They've asked why there was no public consultation, and no competition to showcase local knowledge or talent. The government's response was that it wouldn’t have minded a competition, had there been someone local to contribute at least €2bn. But since there wasn't, the project, therefore, was devised entirely by its investors.

A year into the controversy, all that's happened is that the marking of territory. The maquette in one of the city’s most beautiful neo-classical buildings in Savamala was renovated by Eagle Hills as a sign of good faith – yet it soon emerged that the building would be used only for purposes related to the Belgrade Waterfront. Train tracks have been removed, without any apparent alternative for the central rail route, too.

Belgrade Waterfront was envisioned as a high-end residential and commercial district with property values that are well beyond Serbia’s economic capacity per capita. It's an unrealistic megaproject, designed to generate profit and the opportunity to sweep Belgrade’s many issues under the rug. In a city whose population is already heavily in debt, luxury condos and shopping malls are already selling at €400,000; the average salary is €450 per month.     

Meanwhile, local policing strategies are changing, with occasional arrests for tampering with promotional material, and unwarranted raids of cultural establishments. Public opinion, expert and otherwise, is still being ignored, contracts remain hush hush, and the authorities continue to dance around financial arrangements. It's a very expensive facelift that threatens to push the city, if not the country, further into debt.   

Belgrade’s volatile political climate, and the absence of long term urban planning, makes it particularly susceptible to the whims of investors. The dangers of megaprojects such as this one have already been discussed by the likes of David Harvey, Neil Smith and Thierry Paquot. Nonetheless, the allure of becoming a global city remains potent enough to overshadow pressing needs and address real problems. As Europe as a whole deals with its financial and social crisis, perhaps it's time for Serbia to focus on investing where it counts: in its own human capital.

Filipa Pajević is studying for a PhD in urban planning, policy & design at McGill University, Montréal. She tweets as @Filipouris.


The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.