Learning Moments


Category: European City of the Year Award 2011
Assessor: David Rudlin
Date of Visit: 2010

Learning Moments

1. After years of population loss following the fall of communism, Budapest is now a growing, lively, youthful and thriving city

2. Through a structured plan, the city was extended in Haussmanian fashion, led by Barron Podmaniczky – the modern urban strategy named after Barron Podmaniczky shares a similar level of ambition and scope

3. The last 20 years has seen much investment in the city’s building stock, reinstating confidence and slowly increasing the population after the scars left by the soviet era

4. Budapest is turning its attention back towards the river Danube, which has played a major part in the city’s various regeneration plans such as the Urban Development Concept in 2003, the Podmaniczky Programme and Structure Plan in 2005, and the Investment Strategy implemented in 2008 – it is now at the forefront of ambitious regeneration schemes that aims to vertically regenerate the city

5. With a complex city administration comprised of 23 district councils, wherein the city-wide municipal administration plays a coordinating role, Budapest has been planned through negotiation and partnership between the different layers of government and the public and private sectors – this democratic and localised structure of government creates a diversity and bustle to the city

Assessment Summary

Walking through the noise and traffic of the city on our first morning with its crowded pavements, grime and graffiti was both a shock to the system and a yet also familiar. This could be Paris or Rome, a noisy, sometimes riotous European city. With a population of 1.7 Million Budapest, like Glasgow and Helsinki, is a large city in a small country. It houses 17% of Hungary’s population and accounts for 35% of its GDP. It is a city that after years of population loss after the fall of communism, is now growing and with a thriving economy. It is a lively city full of young people from across Europe having a good time. As Imre Ikvai-Szabo, the Deputy Mayor at the time of the visit told us, ‘if Rome is a woman, and London a teenager, Budapest is still a kid’. None of us quite understood what he meant but it seemed to contain a truth about the exuberant city.

It is of course two cities, the royal city of Buda perched on a series of hills overlooking the Danube and the fortified city of Pest on the flat eastern banks of the river. The city has ancient roots and has been a Roman capital, a major centre in the Ottoman Empire and one of the two great cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The two cities merged in 1873 and the last quarter of the 19th century saw its greatest period of prosperity when many of its finest buildings were completed. It was this period of growth that shaped the city. It had originally been predominantly two storeys and was rebuilt with buildings of five and six storeys on the same footprints creating canyon-like streets in the heart of the town. The city was also extended through a plan of the Capital Council of Public Works chaired by Barron Podmaniczky, Budapest’s Haussmann and has its fair share of grand boulevards and a set piece squares (the grandest being Hero’s Square). It is telling that the modern strategy for the renewal of the city is called the Podmaniczky Program, because it shares the ambition and scope of its 19th century predecessor.

After the Second World War Hungary spent just over 45 years as a soviet-type “people’s republic” and was scarred by the 1956 revolution when the overthrow of the government prompted a Soviet invasion of the city in which 2,500 Hungarians were killed. Hungary was subsequently to play a key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union when it opened its boarders to Austria in 1989 setting in train a sequence of events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The scars of the communist era are particularly evident on the outskirts of the city, many parts of which are dominated by large grey apartment blocks. These state-owned blocks were sold off to residents in the early 1990s for a third of their value in the hope that the surplus value would be used to fund improvements. This however only partly worked, because many families sold up and moved out of the city causing its population to fall from its peak of just over 2 Million (this is because the families were replaced by smaller households, vacant flats are almost unknown in the city). A condominium program funded jointly by residents, the municipality and the districts (we explain below the complex government structure) is slowly improving these blocks including energy efficiency.

The scars of the soviet era on the central part of the city are less evident. It had become run-down and dilapidated and the last 20 years has seen enormous investment in the city’s building stock. There is still much to be done but confidence has returned and while the city’s population is yet to return to pre-1989 levels it has stopped shrinking and started growing. The last decade has seen a new focus on planning the city. The long term Urban Development Concept in 2003 was followed in 2005 by the mid-term Podmaniczky Programme, and Structure Plan and in 2008 by an Investment Strategy. Like Glasgow, a central part of the plan is the regeneration of the banks of the Danube as they are no longer required for industry and docks. The city is turning back towards the river and there are ambitious schemes for development along the banks and one of the large islands in the river. That is the ‘vertical’ regeneration of the city, the ‘horizontal’ regeneration runs east/west along the new Metro 4 line that runs deep under the city. This is yet to open but has cost €2.1 Billion with 7.4km of track and 10 stations. The city is also creating a series of public spaces around the old city walls and commissioning a major extension to its City Hall by the Dutch Architect Erick Van Egeraat.

The city’s administration is either a text-book example of localism or a hopelessly complex system. There are 23 district councils covering the city, which run many aspects of its administration. The City-wide Municipality has a coordinating role, meaning that it tends to take the blame for things that go wrong without having the powers to make sure that they don’t. We visited 9th District that had developed a fantastic regeneration program for an inner city residential district (described under the Governance section below) that was exemplary. However the variation in districts in terms of their character and demography makes consistency and coordination difficult.

Unlike the centrally controlled, city-run planning system of Helsinki, Budapest was planned through negotiation and partnership between the different layers of government and the public and private sectors. In telling phrase, Richard Ongjerth, director of the Hungarian Urban Knowledge Centre, told us that in Budapest the public sector buries its money. By this he meant that public money is spent on infrastructure, public transport, roads, public realm etc… Having buried this investment the rewards are the growth of private sector investment and the building of the city is thus guided and shaped by the city but not really controlled by it. In this respect Budapest may be a more relevant example in the UK context that the rather unattainable perfection that we saw in Helsinki.