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Block 45 - Unblocking a sustainable future for New Belgrade

In their main characteristics, urban peripheries designed and constructed in the socialist times might resemble throughout central and eastern Europe, most of them being mass building complexes placed onto over-dimensionally large open spaces. And so, the current challenges all these neighborhoods are facing could be broadly summarized as poor maintenance, social segregation, inhuman scale as well as the lack of integral development plans. However, looking in closer detail, many of these neighborhoods grew to true individuals over the past decades. Citizens living in these areas often develop a deep sense of belonging and ownership and spend their lifetimes here, supported through original architectural solutions, semi-public open spaces enhancing community activities and a family-friendly environment. Block 45 located at the Sava riverfront in New Belgrade, Serbia, is one of these highly dynamic and attractive neighborhoods and was the focus of an international joint studio with students from Belgrade University and from the University of Stuttgart taking place at the turn of 2019 and 2020. The aim of this project was to develop strategies for the neighborhood and suggested projects include topics such as environmental issues and the riverfront, public involvement in planning, activation of open spaces or heritage mapping.
Climate change, migration, growing inequality, new technologies, scarce resources, they all have large impact on human settlements and create a new context and purpose of urban professional education. These challenges ask for new knowledge and skills, but most of all they force us to change our perception of the future of cities and of our capabilities to shape it (Lalović, K., Živojinović, I., Sentić, I., 2019). The international collaboration between the Integrated Urbanism and Sustainable Design master program of the University of Stuttgart and the Integrated Urbanism study program of the University of Belgrade is seen as a possibility to reach a higher quality of learning outcomes on localizing the sustainable urban agenda.

Based on the previous collaborations and successful academic results the international workshop "Block 45 - Unblocking a sustainable future for New Belgrade" was organized in 2019 as an opportunity to elevate the collaborative teaching methodology to a new level by integrating theoretical, methodological and applicative level within the same research polygon - Block 45 in New Belgrade.

As a pre-given, overall working framework, the students had to consider the principles of integrated urban planning being rooted in 'The Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities' signed in 2007 by European urban development ministers, aiming among others to counteract the marginalization of disadvantaged urban areas (Deutscher Städtetag, 2013). Furthermore, the students were asked to incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted by the UN in 2015 and make particular reference to Goal 11, seeking a more sustainable urban future. Last but not least, the 'Sustainable and Integrated Urban Development Strategy of the Republic of Serbia until 2030' elaborated in 2018 and adopted in 2019 was another guiding document to base the proposals on.

A brief history of New Belgrade – Block 45 (Socialist legacy: planning at sub-municipality level)
Block 45 is one of seventy-eight blocks that comprise New Belgrade, part of the central zone of Belgrade located on the left riverbank of river Sava in the western part of Belgrade. It was planned and developed in the 1960's, during the socialist era of former Yugoslavia. It was developed since 1965 based on various competitions with regards to the General urban plan and the Detailed regulation plans (Glavički, 1974, p.4). Subsequently, in 1967, a general Yugoslav architectural competition was launched to obtain the preliminary designs of the buildings. Based on the first awarded project, further elaboration of the projects was undertaken and construction started in 1969.
Figure 1: Award-winning urban design solution for Block 45 (Mišković, 1974, p.25)
In the planning of residential areas, a block was treated as the spatial entity at the sub-municipality level. The characteristic of such urban planning approach was the application of urban standards for housing and accompanying services, green areas, transport and parking. The size of Block 45 is 56 hectars. It was planned to build about 4300 apartments for 15700 inhabitants. The achieved relations of built and free areas within the block provided favorable conditions for the organization of free space for sports, recreation, children play and rest, and were expressed at the standard of 22 m2 per inhabitant.

Block 45 is the centre of the ''Sava'' sub-municipality. It consists of two types of residential units. Close to the river in the south-eastern part of the block are 3-4 floor multi-family buildings, in the form of a semi-atrium houses. In the north-western part are towers of 6-14 floors in height. All buildings are grouped together and interconnected in the centre of the block with wide pedestrian zones in the form of a cross. The following cross-sections were grouped at the point of intersection: the sub-municipality centre, two primary schools and three kindergartens. In this way, a unique central space was formed as a place of gathering and access to commerce, catering, crafts, culture, mutual contacts and social life of the inhabitants of the ''block as a sub-municipality'' (Mišković, 1974, p.26). The traffic conception is based on the separation of pedestrian and road traffic in such a way that vehicles approach residential buildings from the main roads in the form of ''branches'', while the pedestrian paths navigate through the recreational areas within the block.

Block 45 also features the Sava Quay as an integral part of the residential area and the coastal fortification belt (Tošić, 1969, p.7). The hydro-technical elements of the coastal fortification are adapted to be architectural landscape elements. The wells were incorporated into the green massif. Central pedestrian penetrations between blocks cross the embankment. The checkpoints are intended for the development of river traffic as ports for tourist and sports boats.

Figure 2: Urban solution of a coastal fortification with a landscape (Tošić, 1969, p.6.)
Current developments and challenges
In the period of post-socialist transition in Serbia, urban changes occurred through the repression of the socialist character of cities. Sociologist Vujović (2002) emphasizes the most striking processes of urban change through the privatization of housing funds, the commercialization of urban historic centers, and the rise of socio-spatial segregation. In relation to the identified areas of spatial intervention in the national urban sustainable development policy (2018), the following challenges of Block 45 were recognized: disruption of urban structures, especially public spaces, insufficiently recognized value of architectural and urban heritage, informal construction, and affection by environmental protection and climate change (Trkulja et al, 2018). Additionally, the high level of corruption in Serbia (Rank 91 according to CPI 2019) undermines a society oriented urban governance and development.
The international workshop, vision and goals
As in most urban settlements in Serbia, Block 45 suffers from the effects of spontaneous and uncontrolled urban growth, diminished public spaces and poor maintenance (Vasilevska et al., 2020). The public areas are under threat of usurpation (Pušić, 2009) and should be preserved for public use (Trkulja et al, 2018, p. 46). Urban standards for green areas and public spaces that were once applied are now drastically reduced (Čolić & Nedović-Budić, 2019). Key housing problems are primarily recognized in the non-maintenance of multi-family buildings, low energy efficiency, etc. Most of the area along the Sava River is a zone of potential flood risk. Protection systems are in place, but they are usurped by illegal use and construction. Water sources are formally protected but control and protection measures are insufficient (Čolić et al., 2016; Čolić & Maruna, 2018). The architectural heritage of the 20th century is neglected in the planning and practice of culture heritage protection. This is especially true with regards to modernist architecture and urbanism that emerged during socialism after World War II (Trkulja et al., 2018; Čolić et al. 2019). The role of citizen participation is still mainly formal and ineffective (Čolić et al., 2013). In addition to all efforts to develop collaborative planning practices, fair and equal treatment of pluralistic interests remains questionable (Lalović et al., 2019). In the example of Block 45, the local NGOs are extremely active in attempts to protect the quay, to preserve the identity of the Block 45, to combat the illegally placed rafts on the river and the environmental consequences.

The following vision and goals were expressed:

By 2030, Block 45 will be vibrant and resilient place with an active self-governed community, well connected to the city but still preserving tight bonds with nature and environment and developing a recognizable identity due to its unique urban form, public space and people.

1. Support an/the active community in a way that Block 45 represents an example of the neighborhood where the past meets the future;
2. Create an integrated vibrant area with inclusive and attractive public space, protected urban heritage and maintained urban structures;
3. Enhance local economy and employment based on sustainable solutions to achieve vibrancy of the place;
4. Promote environmental protection, improvement of infrastructure and innovative urban mobility.
Unblocking Block 45 – the students' proposals
The task of the students was to develop strategies for a sustainable development of city structures that were created according to modernist principles during the socialist era. While the main spatial focus was on Block 45, the students were free to extend to a broader area. Thematically, the students had to develop their designs and strategies along identified topics that had been co-designed during the workshop in Belgrade, based on extended SWOT analysis and the current challenges. Back at their universities, the 25 students of both courses developed 20 manifold projects which are in the following summarized according to their main leading topic and illustrated by representative projects.1
There is no doubt about New Belgrade being an outstanding example of a modernist city extension of the socialist times. However, this heritage, both tangible and intangible, faces a dramatic lack of awareness concerning their architectural, historical and cultural value.

The authors of the project "Heritage Mapping _ Digital mapping as a participatory technique for heritage identification", Justyna Piasta and Simona Durovic, set up their main goal to rise awareness through the mapping of the existent heritage in a participatory, interactive way. The students propose, for the heritage mapping in New Belgrade, diverse categories such as architecture and urban structures as well as intangible heritage represented – by personal stories or historical events. The main product is an interactive webpage, but there shall also be some analogue elements to address different target groups such as the elderly population and to provide information and orientation on the spot. The activation of the inhabitants at an early stage of the project is seen as a first step for the raising awareness. In the long-term, the increased awareness should become the starting point for maintaining and protecting the heritage of New Belgrade.

From international to national—Zagreb to New Zagreb
Figure 3: First impressions of the proposed heritage mapping webpage (© Justyna Piasta, Simona Durovic, 2020)
Citizen participation in Serbia is still rather formal and an equal acknowledgement of diverse interests suffers from the threat of corruption and private interests. Lazaro Cardenas Promenade, connecting Block 45 with the Block 44 and 70, is currently undergoing one of these non-transparent renewal processes in which the residents were hardly involved and at best just informed about. As a consequence, the renewal process has led to the privatization of some of the public spaces. Now the residents as well as local civic organizations fear negative impacts on the socio-economical structure of the block, diminishing the sense of belonging as well as continuing the process of subtle privatization. In the project 'Saving the Center of Block 45 _ Proposing a participatory planning strategy', Jan Neflin and Robin Huck propose an actor-oriented empowerment strategy with three areas to be upgraded. In the first step, the existing central commercial structure should be improved in co-production with the community but still with the main organization and planning work on the side of professionals. This pilot project should serve as a community platform inspiring and teaching initiatives from within the community how to deal with such projects. The involvement of external planners and project managers should decrease within the work on areas two and three while the responsibility of the citizens increases and the projects become more and more community-led.

Besides the lacking participation in the rehabilitation of public spaces, the problem of regular and adequate maintenance of these spaces accounts for one of the biggest challenges residential areas of the socialist period are facing today. Avoiding to rely on municipal services only, Aleksandra Dzinic in her "Play for 45 _ Creative Games Festival" suggests to create a new mechanism for maintaining open public spaces by encouraging the participation of citizens and working together to not only improve public spaces, but also to promote healthy lifestyles and to preserve the environment.

Figure 4: Upgrading of the commercial structures in the Center (© Jan Neflin, Robin Huck, 2020)
Urban heat islands, the danger of floods and abusive winds usually bringing fresh air into the city are some of the climate related challenges Belgrade is facing today. Anna Jaggy tackles these problems in her "Blue Band for Belgrade" on a master plan level, connecting and improving Belgrade's open spaces alongside the Sava river. The project 'Green action' by Milica Bojanović acts on a smaller scale, enhancing citizens and raising their awareness on their role as "keepers" of the natural environment, empowering them to contribute to the rehabilitation of the Sava riverbank by releasing it from inadequate uses and through providing training on re-establishing, maintaining and public monitoring of the site-specific linear greenery along the coast.
Figure 5: Masterplan for the riverbanks of Sava (© Anna Jaggy, 2020)
The socialist city extensions originally did not provide for manifold employment opportunities, but were designed mainly as areas for living with the provision of necessary services only. With the rise of capitalism, this situation changed extensively and small local economic developments in re-used garages and ground floors have the potential to increase the attractiveness of these neighborhoods. The project 'The Craft Corner' developed by Sonja Nikolić promotes the establishment of artists, creative branches and traditional craftsmanship as part of the local identity by building social and organizational capacities and reusing existing abandoned spaces with the aim of achieving economic sustainability.
Raising awareness accounts for an indispensable requirement of community empowerment and thus truly sustainable development. And indeed, many students set their focus on educational activities within Block 45. Dragomir Ristanović elaborates in his 'Thinking outside of the block' the possibilities of acquiring practical experiences in sustainable strategic action and environmental protection by reaching out to young people through the involvement of local educational institutions and building up knowledge in the areas of energy efficiency, management and social sciences with an emphasis on action in the immediate community environment. The 'Community 45' project by Katarina Jolović focuses on the field of local culture and aims to strengthen the socialist cultural heritage and its transcendence into contemporary practices trough intergenerational integration.
New Belgrade is an outstanding example of a socialist city extension built according to modernist principles. However, it also shares some of the typical challenges such as a lack of recognition of its cultural value, lack of maintenance of both housing and public spaces, illegal constructions and ineffective participatory processes. These challenges translate into particular threads for the case of New Belgrade that have been identified as:
  • Vast open spaces in combination with existing infrastructure foster an urban densification process, which can have several negative impacts. The infrastructure may become overloaded, too high density might cause ecological damage, gentrification might take place and a loss of green spaces may weaken the livability and the resilience towards climate change. On the other hand, infrastructure and open spaces seem to still have some reserves left, so that controlled densifications seems reasonable to avoid the construction of new city districts on the greenfield causing even more ecological damage.
  • The invasion by the current investor-driven building projects without respect to the built context structures may weaken or even destroy the historical ensembles. On the other hand, the lack of private investment can increase the lack of maintenance to both buildings and public spaces finally leading to degradation.
  • The uncontrolled sprawl of floating houses along the riverfront is a cause of pollution and damage to the river's ecosystem. It privatizes the riverfront and makes it inaccessible for the inhabitants. The flood protection and water supply can collapse due to several activities connected to the floating houses.

It becomes obvious that New Belgrade - and with it Block 45 - is subject to some conflicting issues and interests. To understand these in more detail will become the basis to formulate the task for future urban planning strategies dealing with the area: To preserve the unique heritage of the area while offering space for a controlled densification and a sustainable development and renewal of existing built and natural structures. The student project proposals offer first ideas for future transformation and can be seen as catalysts for this process to take place. They share an emphasis on the empowerment of local communities instead of top-down spatial interventions. This process-oriented design includes ideas of how to build organizational capacities enabling governance transition towards more participatory and collaborative sustainable urban transformations. Unblocking Block 45 in the end will mean to lead to active, vibrant and resilient self-governed communities.

Astrid Ley is Chair of International Urbanism at the Institute for Urban Planning and Design and course director of the international master program Integrated Urbanism and Sustainable Design (IUSD), University of Stuttgart. She also works as an urban development consultant and trainer to bilateral and international development agencies (oikos human settlement research group).

Ksenija Lalović is Associate Professor in University of Belgrade, Faculty of Architecture, Department of Urbanism. Professionally focused on strategic urban design and planning. Participated in EU FP6 Sustainable Urban Transport, UN-HABITAT SIRP Program, International Interdisciplinary Program PaPs, Resilient Belgrade - 100 Resilient Cities. Program manager of Master academic study program of Integrated Urbanism.

Lenka Vojtová is lecturer and researcher at the University of Stuttgart at the Chair of International Urbanism. She also works as freelancer engaged in interdisciplinary aspects of cities, consults on public spaces and urban green, and is passionate to accompany groups and communities within participatory processes.

Raphael Dietz is a research associate at the Institute of urban planning, University of Stuttgart, and an architect and urban planner at 'asp' Architekten GmbH Stuttgart. His scientific work focuses on sustainable urban transformation, following a transdisciplinary approach.

Ratka Čolić is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Architecture at University of Belgrade. From 2014 she teaches Urban Policies and Integrated Urban Development Planning. She has been engaged in scientific research in the field of sustainable and integrated approach in urban development planning, citizen participation and stakeholder involvement.

1 A publication presenting all projects in greater detail is currently being prepared and will be free for download at from July 2020 on.

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