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.


Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.


Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 

“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL