The Evolving Urban Form: Prague


Prague is the capital of Czechia, a nation most readers have probably never heard of. Last year, the Czech Republic adopted a new name that does not reveal its governance structure (republic). The new name has not enjoyed widespread acclaim. The union of Czechoslovakia, which dates from the end of World War I, split peacefully in 1993, resulting in the creation of Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Prague, like its central and eastern European cousins, Warsaw, Budapest and Bucharest, has experienced substantial decentralization of its population following the collapse of communism. As economies improved and more housing choices opened up, many residents opted to move to outer parts of the core cities or even beyond to suburban and exurban areas.

Today, the municipality of Prague has approximately 100,000 more residents than in 1980. Yet, the distribution of the population is quite different than before. Then, the central and inner districts of the city had a population of approximately 980,000, while the outer districts were home to 200,000. The latest Czech Statistical Office estimates (for January 1, 2017) show the center and inner districts have declined to approximately 785,000 residents. The city's outer districts have experienced all of the population increase, more than doubling to above 460,000.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the growth (Graphic 1) has been in the suburbs of the Středočeský region (Central Bohemia), which surrounds Prague (Graphic 2).

The Historic Inner District

Prague's central district (District 1) comprises the pre-transit walking core of the city. It stretches across the Vltava River (Smetana's "The Moldau") from Wenceslaus Square across the Charles Bridge to Prague Castle, the site of St. Vitus Cathedral. The district also includes the Old Town Square. The population of District 1 dropped from 53,000 in 1980 to 29,000 in 2017, a decline of 44 percent.

The most recent historic events have virtually all taken place in District 1. The 1968 revolt against Soviet control occurred in Wenceslaus Square and was put down by Warsaw Pact military action and tanks, with a loss of 500 Czechoslovakian citizens.

This was the end of Alexander Dubček's "Prague Spring" attempt to liberalize communism. Dubček rose from head of the Slovak communist party to leader of the Czechoslovakian communist government. Dubček, however, was luckier than Imre Nagy of Hungary, the communist leader who paid for his liberalizing tendencies by being executed after the 1956 rebellion.

Wenceslaus Square, named after St. Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia, was also the center of the "Velvet Revolution". Led by Václav Havel, he became Czechoslovakia's first president following the fall of communism. The communist parliament building (Graphic 3) played a major role, as described by

"This Communist eyesore, loathed by many, loved by few was built after the old Exchange building was destroyed from 1966 – 1973. This glass monstrosity with its two giant pillars is still complete with nuclear shelters. The demands of the Velvet Revolution were accepted here in 1989 and the building was once home to Radio Free Europe who rented the location from former president Vaclav Havel for a very small fee per year (rumor has it that the fee was 1 CZK).”

I watched Dubček, an unsurprising supporter of the Velvet Revolution, from the building’s gallery in his role as chairman of the national parliament in 1991. Soon after, the national parliament relocated from the building, which is now part of the National Museum. The main building is shown in the top photograph (my photo was not used because of the present scaffolding being used in its refurbishment).

There is a memorial to victims of the 1968 Warsaw Pact action in front of the main building (Graphic 4), with a barbed wire wreath. Graphics 5 to 7 are also of Wenceslaus Square, which some travel guide books point out is more of a boulevard than a square.

Old Town Square is shown in Graphics 8 to 12. Charles Bridge is illustrated in Graphics 13 to 16. This historic bridge was built between 1357 and 1402. The approach to Prague Castle and related views are in Graphics 17 to 21. Other views of the inner district are in Graphic 22 (the National Theatre) and Graphic 23.

Inner and Outer Districts of Prague

The inner districts (2 through 10) were mainly developed during the mass transit area. The outer districts, where all the city's growth has occurred, have generally lower population densities. There are some detached houses in the outer districts. Besides the historical buildings, Prague, like other European cities, is in many ways spatially dominated by the automobile, with its narrow, crowded streets and parking on sidewalks. (Graphics 24 to 27).

The Suburbs

The Středočeský region surrounds Prague and contains both suburban and exurban development (Graphics 28 to 36), including new construction (Graphics 30 to 36). The Středočeský suburbs exhibit a high quality of suburban infrastructure for eastern Europe, including sidewalks in most cases and curbs. However, the quality of the visible suburban infrastructure falls considerably short of that enjoyed by suburban residents of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where for decades nearly all suburban development has included these features, as well as streets wide enough for parking and cars to pass one-another in opposite directions.

The Prague Area: Dominating Czechia's Population Growth

As is occurring in Tokyo-Yokohama and Budapest, the Prague area is capturing nearly all the national growth, at 86 percent. This includes 58 percent in the suburbs and 28 percent in the outer districts. This is a far greater percentage than Prague's 25 percent of the population in 1980. (Graphic 37).

Prague's Popularity

For nearly three decades, Prague has been the capital of a nation free to set its own course, the longest period since the 1918 establishment of Czechoslovakia. Prague has become particularly popular among foreign tourists. Trip Advisor ranked Prague 5th among the cities of Europe last year, trailing London, Paris, Rome and Barcelona and ninth in the world. It is no minor accomplishment to edge out cities like Vienna, Amsterdam, and Budapest.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Top photograph: National Museum. Main building. By Jorge Láscar [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons