Dec 15 2014

Belgrade Waterfront: when Sultanism enters city planning

Jorn KolemaijBarend WindBelgrade Waterfront – Beograd na Vodi: top-notch urban design or glossy but shady façade? Two young urbanists, Jorn Koelemaij and Barend Wind, take us through the many layers of this controversial project. This blog post has been kindly provided by The ProtoCity as part of a blog exchange. You can read LSEE’s contribution to ProtoCity, “Brand Old Skopje”, here

Serbia’s capital Belgrade is about to become an integral part of the glitzing scene of ‘world cities’ as soon as its new Waterfront development will be established in 2019. At least, this is what the project’s founding father, prime minister Aleksandar Vučić, seems to be convinced of. The media report that his personal contacts account for 3 billion euros of Arab investments in this project. Many active citizens are sceptical and wonder whether the project will ever be realized and what its actual costs will be. What is behind this remarkable urban mega-project?

The Belgrade Waterfront Gallery/ 3D Model presented at the ‘1905 Belgrade’. Picture by Jorn Koelemaij

The Belgrade Waterfront Gallery/ 3D Model presented at the ‘1905 Belgrade’. Photo: Jorn Koelemaij

Since the 1980s, deindustrialisation urged many Western cities to reinvent themselves. Revitalising formerly industrial waterfronts is one of the ways in which policy makers of the world’s biggest cities are trying to turn their cities into successful cognitive-cultural economies. Public-private ventures are set up to transform polluted, abandoned areas into attractive spots combining work, living space and leisure. Examples of these practices are to be found worldwide – from Baltimore to Toronto, Amsterdam, London, Edinburgh and Mumbai. Notwithstanding general criticisms on such policies of city refurbishment, which often aims to desperately attract global capital firms and skilful workers, one could regard some waterfront projects more successful than others. Can we soon add Belgrade to the list of best practices? A look at early impressions of Belgrade Waterfront shows that the city’s plans are ambitious: the highest tower and the biggest shopping mall of South East Europe are the main eye catchers, surrounded by a park as well as numerous high rise buildings, lush offices, hotels and luxury apartments. However, the Belgrade Waterfront is fundamentally different from its Western counterparts. It is planned in a country with one of Europe’s lowest standards of living, known for having a strongly clientelistic political system.

A capital that needs to reinvent itself

After a period of economic troubles and years of civil war, ended by the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999, the city was in great need to reinvent itself. Belgrade (2,5 million inhabitants) had been the capital of Yugoslavia since its inception, and it now lost much of its hinterland as a result of the federation’s breakup. Many companies went bankrupt or scaled down their business to Serbia and as a result Zagreb took over Belgrade’s role as the primary financial centre of the Balkans. In recent times, Belgrade increasingly managed to take up its role of regional capital again. Its attractiveness as a financial stronghold increases. Travel guide Lonely Planet rated the city among the world´s ultimate party cities, and some of the nineteenth century neighbourhoods are gradually gentrifying due to the influx of higher educated youngsters. However, Belgrade remains a poor city with low housing quality, a large number of vacant buildings due to undefined property rights and a largely developed grey economy. Since the housing on the market is unaffordable, most households acquire shelter via the grey market or the family.

The site along the Sava River that is destined for the Belgrade Waterfront development. Photo: Jorn Koelemaij

The site along the Sava River that is destined for the Belgrade Waterfront development. Photo: Jorn Koelemaij


Urban design or glossy façade?

At first glance, a three billion euro – “Belgrade Waterfront” project does not quite seem to fit the urban-economic context of Belgrade, let alone the urgent needs and demands of its citizens. It is not clear how luxury apartments (with an average price of 400.000 Euro) will be attractive for a cross-section of the city’s current population. While this apparent mismatch could perhaps be defended by framing the project as a unique opportunity to boost the city’s development, none of this is used to legitimise the project. Underlying studies and urban plans are simply lacking. The model that’s being presented is nothing more than a mere graphical visualisation. The riverside spot on which the project should arise, which has been inspiring politicians with ambitious renewal plans for decades already, consists of old railway tracks and small businesses. The developers involved with the current project apparently seem to consider this zone – and along with it the whole cityscape of Belgrade – as tabula rasa that can be built upon without any constraints. Examining the glossy impressions of the presented model, it is moreover remarkable that the existing city of Belgrade in the background seems to radically change along with the Waterfront developments: the view from the Belgrade fortress, with its steep slopes and unusual perspectives, is going to be dramatically altered. The same holds true for existing historical houses from the Austro-Hungarian era, which would suddenly be enclosed with plenty of modern high rise structures, without any contextual references. This raises many questions about the appropriateness of Belgrade Waterfront within the central urban tissue of the City of Belgrade. To what extent will it be integrated, also in terms of reachability? All in all, it seems that Belgrade Waterfront currently still consists of an image rather than an actual urban development plan. Fancy-looking skyscrapers are certainly not a guarantee for sufficient urban development.

Belgrade’s existing railways that lead to the main railway station will be relocated. Photo: Jorn Koelemaij

Belgrade’s existing railways that lead to the main railway station will be relocated. Photo: Jorn Koelemaij


Arab influence

Do the responsible policy makers in Belgrade actually believe that the Waterfront development will be a “game changer” for the future of Serbia? Many suggest that there are other mechanisms at play in Serbia’s political economy that make the realisation of this project of crucial importance. These speculations seem plausible, although it proves to be very difficult to demonstrate the (geo-) political power games that lie behind it. Interestingly, the plans for Belgrade’s waterfront are interwoven with Prime Minister Vučić’s career. When he ran for mayor in 2008, he announced his plans for the redevelopment of the railway site right on the waterfront. The first concrete visions for this very area came up in the 2012 political campaign. Vučić claimed that no public money would be spent on this development and his friendship with Abu Dhabi sheikh Mohammed is given as explanation behind this private investment promise of 3 billion dollars. The personal contacts of the Prime Minister already resulted in large investments in a semiconductor factory, a lending programme for farmers, and an aircraft-component plant. Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates bought a significant stake of Serbia’s airline (creating Air Serbia), a vast amount of Serbian agricultural land, and are now investing to develop Serbia’s army industry, some say, to be able to distribute weapons across the Middle East. The real motives behind Serbia’s political elite as well as the Emirati investors’ actions regarding Belgrade Waterfront are thus still unclear.

Lack of transparency

As the story unfolded, it appeared that all of a sudden a deal had been struck which implied that the city council of Belgrade will provide the necessary infrastructure for the plan (estimated costs: one billion dollar), while a private Emirates-based firm (Eagle Hills) will generate the construction of the buildings out of the plan. Public spending on the project is not being taken in consideration in the public sphere and citizens are not really informed about the whole deal. Neither the agreements nor the parties’ obligations are transparent: it is unclear whether it is possible for Eagle Hills to withdraw from the project, which would leave the city with large financial debts. It is also unclear how much public money will exactly be engaged, and how possible revenues will benefit the citizens of Serbia. These questions worry a section of Belgrade citizens, but many are left indifferent since they doubt whether the Waterfront will actually be built. Although the planning process seems to be highly insecure, stakes are high for the political elite. Under the header of a ‘project of national interest’, existing legislations and planning policies are being changed to facilitate the realisation of the project. Furthermore, mainstream political parties avoid discussing the initiative. The government decided to realise the project via the emirates-based firm, without any public tender or procedure. “The rules of this game are unknown” and “they are legalising wild-planning” are examples of remarks that we often heard during the interviews we conducted when we were in Belgrade. Why are fundamental planning conditions changed to attract such a high risk investment? While daily life is harsh for many, for the politicians a mega project of this kind is an attractive way of showing vigour and optimism. This utopian urbanism  enrages many Serbs, worried about the consequences of global speculation.

Civic participation, which is widely advocated among urban planners and academics in the Western world nowadays, is thus lacking – or even blocked – in Serbia. There are citizens movements, like Ne da(vi)mo Beograd, that raise important questions, while engaging media, experts, planners and NGOs. In times of rapidly changing visions for the city’s development, they have organized several panel discussions, debates and performances raising attention on the highly problematic background of the Waterfront project. At the same time, they are generating alternative solutions. These are confronting the current government’s surreal visual show-offs, aspiring to engage both general and professional public toward more participatory thinking and inclusive engagement. Unfortunately, in contemporary Serbia, the logic of showing off with prestige projects wins from a socially and economically just spatial development. For Prime Minister Vučić, it is about time to shed full light on the financial implications of his urban dream to the people of Serbia. Without accountability, Belgrade’s Waterfront is nothing more than a Sultans’ fantasy. One that can possibly take citizens of Serbia into a long-lasting debt bondage.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSEE Research on SEE, nor of the London School of Economics.


Jorn Koelemaij holds a MSc in Urban Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Currently he is a PhD Candidate in Social and Economic Geography at Ghent University (Belgium).

Barend Wind holds a MSc in Social Geography and Sociology from the University of Amsterdam. Currently, he is a PhD Candidate in Housing Studies at Tilburg University (The Netherlands).

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12 Responses to Belgrade Waterfront: when Sultanism enters city planning

  1. Стефан says:

    I have only one remark – There are NO “historical houses from the Austro-Hungarian era” on the Sava’s right bank, because these houses were built in the Principality, and later Kingdom of Serbia. After that came State of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes i.e. Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Austria did control part of Old Belgrade for almost 20 years in the 18th century, but left almost no trace, because the Turks destroyed much of it’s efforts. And I say Austria – Austro-Hungary was created in 1867!

    Besides denying Serbia’s independance, for which we actively fought more than two hundred years, all the other aforementioned things are at place.


    • Petar Pan says:

      Stotine i stotine kuća u Beogradu su podizane pod snažnim uticajem austrougarske arhitekture. To se prvenstveno odnosi na administrativne, vojne, industrijske i školske ustanove. Te zgrade NIJE gradila Austro-Ugarska, dabome, već Srbija, pod uticajem onovremenih ideja koje su dolazile iz Austro-Ugarske. U nabrajanju takvih tvorevina ispunio bih nekoliko stranica. Brkati ono što su ili nisu gradili austro-ugari sa onim što se gradilo po Beogradu, i ne samo po Beogradu, pod veoma izrazitim ili, da kažem, očiglednim uticajem austro-ugarskih arhitektonskih i modnih ideja, jeste puki amaterizam ili rodoljubivo slepilo.

      • Стефан says:

        Do 1880. i naglog zaokreta kralja Milana ka Austro-Ugarskoj, nasi naucnici(Srbijanci) su mahom bili na skolovanju u Nemackoj i Francuskoj, manji deo u Svajcarskoj, a svega nekoliko njih u Rusiji.

        Najveci uticaj Austro-Ugarske osetio se u periodu od 1880. godine i prve naprednjacke vlade do otprilike Ustava iz 1888/9, mada i kasnije.

        Priznajem, nisam arhitekta, nego istoricar, ali ne postoji austro-ugarska era u arhitekturi. Postoji becka secesija, madjarska secesija itd. U tekstu, na nacin na koji je napisano, stice se utisak da su sve sto valja u Beogradu izgradili Austrougari.

        I sam zivim na prostorima koji su nekada pripadali Austro-Ugarskoj i doprinos Habsburske monarhije prosvecivanju Srba je nemerljiv, ali cinjenice se moraju istaci na pravilan nacin, kako bi stranci, koji citaju ovaj tekst, mogli da shvate o cemu se radi. Izgradjivanje Starog Beograda je neverovatan poduhvat jednog neprosvecenog, seljackog naroda koji je pokusao da nadje svoje mesto u geopolitickoj stvarnosti onog vremena, saljuci svoje najbolje sinove na skolovanje u inostranstvo, kako bi izvukli svoju otadzbinu iz tamnog vilajeta visevekovnog osmanskog gospodarstva…


  2. Mirko Grujicic says:

    The point is we don’t know who’s the architect/author of this project. The other thing is we don’t know who would be responsible if business “plan” fall apart. At the moment there is bunch of empty and unfinished office buildings in Belgrade. In big shopping malls, at least every fifth shop is toy store or child clothing store. Belgrade should organize its waterfront slowly, transparently and oriented towards its citizens, not Arabs or Russians or whoever…

  3. nemanja says:

    You have mentioned the investments that didn’t happen (loans for farmers, semi conductors etc).

  4. Domacin says:

    While London is building cross rail, and increasing the availability of public transport, in Belgrade there is destroying half of railway system. Without new or redesigned railway system in this area, existing traffic jams will be worse than ever with no alternative! We will have totally unfunctional city, and ecological disaster. That is far away from sustainable and livable cities, and I don’t understand why someone would by flat in Belgrade Waterfront? There is to much sustainable and functionally planned places for business and fun, with developed railway/subway/tram and bicycle transport, and limited car accessability, like Amsterdam…

    • Michael Thomad says:

      Quite right, it is madness to remove the railway station from this project. The main railway station can be moved to Prokop, as planned, but a local railway station is essential.

  5. Michael Thomas says:

    I have been following this project since it was announced and I am increasingly suspicious that it is another fake project, like the “world’s largest solar park” plan.

    Who are the architects for this project? Who will project manage this? Who will be the main contractor? I can’t find any news of contract awards. If contracts haven’t been awarded then there can be no project.

    Personally I hope this Arab invest is fake and that the current project collapses. The development of the Sava riverside should be done as a series of smaller developments. Serbia should clear the land (which I believe it is now doing) and it should install Infrastructure like sewers, roads, a new smaller railway station, and parks. The remaining land should be divided into 20 blocks which should be offered to investors. This way Serbia keeps control of town planning and Belgrade gets a diverse development which should better serve the needs of the city and it’s people.

    • Alex says:

      Absolutely objective comment indeed.

    • Zozon says:

      I know a bit about the location called Savamala. it’s located along the main railway entrance to the main station. The second large feature are docks. Both are a large pollutants so, in order to get the land ready for the new development a huge environmental cleaning should take place first.
      Infrastructure in this are is non-existing including sewer, water, stormsewer as well as proper roads and streets. It could an advatage to have a such blank spot and develop infrastructure for future needs.
      Anyway, the largest issue is how this thing fits in current master plan for the City… or people on power simply ignore legislation? it could be simply that planners are slow, ignoring requests for faster development and on the other side the political establishment trying to gain some points by pushing things forward.

  6. Uki says:

    don’t agree about the ’20 blocks which should be offered to investors’, first, the breakdown of our former country had rised a number of so called investors that are buying the land and investing through corruption with politics for years now, Belgrade is, and has been, the bridge between the East and the West, as well as the symbol of freedom of many nations that fought their freedom from the terror and captive influence of both the East and the West. This should be carefully planned having in mind the historical and the urban context, its pioneer modern architectural era as well as the public good, not merrily the interest of capital, especially not the local one, Belgrade is the world, as well as a home, it should be treated likewise

    • Michael Thomas says:

      A decent development of the Sava amphitheatre can only be assured if the government, both local and central, takes a leading role in it. You are right, 20 blocks probably should not be sold to developers, but some certainly could be. I think a development that grows over the next 20 years which would be a mixed public/private development could produce a good outcome for Belgrade. Parks, public squares, public buildings (hospitals, schools, etc) could be set-out and built. Private developers could also be given permission to build on condition that they also build cheap flats for locals. I don’t have a blue-print for this development and I am sure others have better ideas than mine, but of one thing I am certain, there is no reason to rush this project.

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