September 14 saw the launch of a unique festival Riverbank Is Alive (Nabřeží žije) planned across five Saturdays from the second half of September to the first half of October. The festival will transform one of the most beautiful riverbanks in Prague, Smetanovo nábřeží, into a traffic-free pedestrian zone made lively by food and culture.
For each of the five Saturdays, the passage between the National Theatre and Rudolfinum will be closed to cars from 10:00-20:00, inviting cyclists and pedestrians to explore the neighborhood pearls (from local cafes to Czech Philharmonic open air concerts) and stroll around a lovely, though normally car-clogged, location.
(The only transport allowed to make its way through the riverbank will include trams, police cars, ambulances, other security cars, and catering.)
A dangerous passage goes car-free
The first thought that crossed my mind at that first Saturday event was of how natural it felt without cars – as if this place were simply meant to be a pedestrian zone. Particularly right next to the Charles Bridge, where you would normally be forced to cut through the crowded souvenirs passage when heading in the direction of the National Theatre, or carefully squeeze between the speeding vehicles and the passage – an extremely inconvenient, not to mention dangerous, route. What a big a difference it would make for cyclists, if this major thoroughfare next to the bridge would disappear.
Vit Masare from the Auto*mat civic association, who organized the event in cooperation with city officials, says that 90 percent of the over 20,000 cars in transit daily through the Smetanovo riverbank are not connected to the city center. The neighboring offices do not really rely on cars as much, which means neighborhood pedestrians and cyclists – not to mention the rest of the walking and cycling Prague – would clearly benefit from better conditions.
Past attempts have failed
The idea of making this side of the Vltava riverbank car-free first originated back in the late 90s, but Prague’s mayor at the time, Jan Kasl, didn’t succeed in pushing the idea through. Later on, the new mayor Pavel Bem promised car-free weekends, but none materialized. The activists from Auto-mat managed, at long last, to return to the issue a couple of years ago, when Bem left office.
The unifying idea of the program for this festival of five Saturdays is to bring visibility to Prague’s urban development. Everyone is welcome to participate in the discussions and presentations taking place that will touch on sensitive topics of security, public participation in urban development, and transportation. The presentations vary every week.
Drawing attention to urban development
An Urban Walks event will be organized for each of the weekly car-free days at Smetanovo riverbank. Urbanists and architects will lead these hour-long walks several times a day in an effort to showcase the urban development and history of the iconic buildings located in this storied neighborhood.
Every new Saturday will also have a special theme. The one on September 14th was a feast of local cafes and restaurants opening stands all along the riverbank. You could sip a cappuccino from Standard Café or nibble a vegetarian snack from Estrella, enjoy ravioli from Pasta Art, or a cupcake from Cakeland.
The café stands were interspersed with children’s playgrounds, there was an exhibition on community gardening by Kokoza, a free-standing piano for anyone to play, and a chill-out zone with deck-chairs facing the sunlit Castle.
A host of activities and events scheduled
It seems like Auto*mat have achieved at least one of the goals already on this first Saturday – of attracting all sorts of people to come and enjoy the riverbank. There were young and old people, kids and dogs, people who just wanted to have fun or those who came to discuss their civic position.
The next four Saturdays promise to be no less interesting with the annual event Zažít Město Jinak (Different City Experience) on September 21, and then 3 more Saturdays centered around music, dance, architecture, literature, painting, theatre, design, and film.
The cultural organizations who will present are again native to the Smetanovo riverbank: Divadlo na Zabradli, FAMU, the Academy of Applied Arts (VSUP), a graphic art Galerie Hollar, the National Theater, and the Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University. Although the arts collective Containall plans to recreate another riverbank, opposite Smetanovo Nabřeží. David Skala of Containall believes that the area between Manesuv and Charles bridges should be taken better care of as well. To this end, Containall will organize a riverbank clean-up. The day will end with a Containall party on the river.
It is only symbolic that Zažít Město Jinak– the festival which works on making neighborhoods more friendly for their locals – started in 2004 exactly here, on Smetanovo riverbank. In these 9 years the number of locations around Prague participating in the Different City Experience day has increased up to 35, and stretched to other Czech cities, including Ostrava and Olomouc.
Looking back at Náplavka’s success, it seems only certain that Prague locals will love every minute of this glimpse into a future that could be if and when another riverbank is given back to them.