Is Belgrade a “livable city”?

The view of the Sava Danube confleucne from Kalemegdan fortress. One of the many city parks and gree spaces in Belgrade.

The view of the Sava Danube confleucne from Kalemegdan fortress. One of the many city parks and gree spaces in Belgrade.

Musician David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) wrote a great piece in the Wall Street Journal last week called “A Talking Head Dreams of a Perfect City “. In it he uses his long experience of touring global cities to define his perfect, “livable” city.

I decided to see how Belgrade compares with his vision of a perfect city.

Size

Byrne points out that…

A city can’t be too small. Size guarantees anonymity—if you make an embarrassing mistake in a large city, and it’s not on the cover of the Post, you can probably try again. The generous attitude towards failure that big cities afford is invaluable—it’s how things get created. In a small town everyone knows about your failures, so you are more careful about what you might attempt.

In this sense Belgrade offers a different experience to foreigners than locals.

Locals complain that everyone knows everyone in Belgrade, that they know your past (“mistakes”) and that you can never escape your history here. I used to joke that there is a Big Red Book of Belgrade lore where everyone’s activities are transcribed and recorded. This was my experience of Dublin too and the leading reason I moved to London, which offered true liberation.

As a foreigner one tends to have left behind ones network of old friends – the guardians of your status quo – and initially this can be quite liberating. Many people use the opportunity of foreign postings to reinvent themselves or try out new character traits. The longer one stays in Belgrade, the more people one gets to know, and very soon you are no different from a local. Your business is public knowledge and you start to hear absurd rumours about yourself.

Belgrade’s size score: 7 out of 10 . Its big not not quite big enough, yet.

Density

Byrne on density:

If a city doesn’t have sufficient density, as in L.A., then strange things happen. It’s human nature for us to look at one another— we’re social animals after all. But when the urban situation causes the distance between us to increase and our interactions to be less frequent we have to use novel means to attract attention: big hair, skimpy clothes and plastic surgery. We become walking billboards.

Belgrade has perfect density in my opinion (my ideal is ancient Rome). It is compact enough to make travel relatively easy and fast. One can walk from one end to the other (east-west) in half a day. Neighbourhoods are compact but not crowded and there are distinct areas with their own character. It has well positioned landmarks and the rivers make wonderful orienteering guides. I also love the fact that you can actually get out to the countryside easily. A short cycle along the river path at Block 45 and you are in the country, with Ada opposite you and gorgeous meadows on all sides.

Density score: 9 out of 10.

Sensibility and attitude

Byrne on sensibility and attitude:

New Yorkers are viewed as being tough as nails, no-nonsense but with hearts of gold—or maybe just gold-plated….The people of Glasgow, where most of my relatives live, are working class, blunt and free of pretenses. (They see their sister city Edinburgh as putting on airs). Their sense of humor can be scathing, though I find it hilarious. There’s a wicked sense of humor associated with Berlin as well…New Orleans is a city where people make eye contact. There’s a more open sensuality there as well. I’d take that in my perfect city…

Belgrade has major pluses and minuses in this category. Levels of petty anti-social behaviour such bad driving, noise pollution, queue jumping and aggression are way too high. But people can also be extremely polite and considerate – especially the older patrician Belgraders you still find in the old town. One experiences the contrasts every day. Some shop assistants are a study of disdain and rudeness, others are brilliantly charming and attentive. Waiters and other servers are some of the best in the word, yet public servants and their services are uniformly dire. There is open war on the streets between motor vehicles on the one and and pedestrians on the other. The trams at war with everyone.

What is the “attitude” in Belgrade? Its a mixed blend.

On the plus side, Belgrade is undeniably a great party town. Very alive and energetic and beautifully sociable. There are people on the streets and in parks chatting and walking even during early hours. Bars, clubs and cafes are thronged all day. This is not a city of isolated lonely people. People break bread with their friends and family in real life, not via Facebook. There is a lovely sense of general positivity, of things getting better, of optimism. Yes, people gripe and complain – this is core Serbian trait – but there is an atmosphere of thriving positive development everywhere. Belgraders are also extremely welcoming and kind to foreigners, who in turn so often fall deeply in love with the place within days (like my South African pal Paul who came from Johannesburg with the African Village exhibition, but who now wants to come back and live here).

On the down side we have the endemic “poseyness” of Belgrade – the worship of the superficial – the triumph of the apparent over the substantial. By “posey” I mean the the showmanship, posing and general showing off one sees everywhere Belgrade. One sees it in the overdressed and over made up girls, the macho antics of boy racers, the bored clubbers all rubbernecking each other and not actually having fun. The American’s describe people like this as “being all hat and no cattle”. There are a lot of BIG hats in Belgrade and very few cattle.

There is also phenomenal bitchiness in Belgrade, which is itself a consequence of the city’s weird gender relations. In many ways Belgrade resembles 1950’s America more than than 21st century Europe ( I am an authority now thanks to two and a bit seasons of Mad Men). The stereotype is that women are expected to be pretty and brainless and compete with each other for the attention of men – macho men.

On balance the positive and charming sides of the city and its people trounce the negative sides. The sincerity of Serbian hospitality, friendship and love completely overwhelm and eradicate the nuisance that is the superficiality and immaturity of some.

Sensibility and Attitude score: 7 out of 10

Security

Byrne on security:

Travelers return from Japan with tales of someone having left their phone or bag on the subway or even on the street and then returning to find the phone or bag exactly where they left it, sometimes the next day. I’d like to live in a city where the citizens trust one another that much- though I suspect that’s the result of Japan being a more or less homogenized society, which has its drawbacks as well. But security can exist in the West. For example in parts of New York’s West Village, as author Jane Jacobs pointed out, the streets are rarely abandoned and there are almost always some locals hanging out, so everyone sees a little bit of what’s going on. The community has eyes and ears, and everyone behaves accordingly. In my perfect city I’d feel that sense of neighborliness—that people weren’t in my business, but that I would be a familiar sight, as they would be to me.

Belgrade is without any doubt the safest and most secure city I have ever lived in (and I have lived in MANY cities). There are decent people on the streets and in the parks all the time. Stranger rape and mugging are unheard of. Women and girls can walk safely unescorted through any part of the city, any time of the day or night. Burglary is again almost unheard of. even petty crime is rare. Like Japan, people are also reflexively honest here. I have left phones in taxis, wallets on restaurant tables and jackets in bars and clubs. I have always had them returned with nothing at all missing.

Security score: 10 out of 10

Chaos and danger

Byrne on chaos and danger…

To some, security means rigid order and strict rules. I do believe we do need some laws and rules to guide and reign us in a bit, and I don’t just mean traffic lights and pooper scooper mandates. But there’s a certain attractiveness to New Orleans, Mexico City or Naples—where you get the sense that though some order exists, it’s an order of a fluid and flexible nature. Sometimes too flexible, but a little bit of that sense of excitement and possibility is something I’d wish for in a city. A little touch of chaos and danger makes a city sexy.

I know exactly what he means by this, and Belgrade absolutely meets this criterion. It may be safe, but this is no Vienna. This is a post-war city, full of chaos and serious life-or-death battles. Human rights are still being fought for, it is civil society versus neo-fascism, the citizenry versus organized crime and corruption. Mafia blow up each other’s cars. Gunfights break out in city cafes. “Hang on”, I hear you say, “how can that be safe”? It is safe because even though there is chaos and danger in Belgrade, it next to never affects those who are not directly involved.

Chaos and danger score: 9 out of 10 (The perfect amount – enough to be interesting but still safe).

Human scale

Byrne on scale…

Scale is important. In London people hang out in Soho, Covent Garden, Mayfair and other areas of mostly low buildings packed closely together. The City (their financial district), like the downtown in many American cities, is full of tall offices and it empties out at night. It isn’t that bustling in the daytime either. Some sort of compromise might be more ideal—the tall towers mixed in with the modest-sized shops and restaurants.

Belgrade has great human scale. The cluttered and dense old town is balanced by the wide open expanses of New Belgrade. There are a few large buildings, but no forest of dwarfing skyscraper, reminding you of your insignificance. The rivers are perfectly sized too. The Sava, which splits the city, is narrow enough to cross comfortably on foot. The beautiful Danube is  a might body of ancient water that connects us with the heart of Europe. The confluence gives Belgrade its unique microclimate and the tranquillity that water-masses give to a place.

Human Scale score: 8 out of 10

Parking

Byrne on parking…

Parking lots and structures are dead real estate—they bring no life into a city…lots and parking structures are simply dead zones, which hurt the businesses around them. In Japan parking structures are skinny, no wider than a large car, and a robotic system files the cars away. The Italian cities of Florence, Modena, Ferrara, where parking is pretty much relegated to the fringes of the town, are vibrant, though their appeal to pedestrians has turned some of them into tourist hubs.

The parking situation in Belgrade is somewhere between emergency and utter chaos. The huge credit driven upsurge in car ownership, combined with decades of poor urban planning and narrow city centre streets makes for a parking nightmare in Belgrade. There are. however ,very positive signs. The Urban Planning team is strongly in favour of underground facilities – like the one about to be built under Studenski Trg and they want to pedestrianize large areas of the old city, in particular the areas around Knew Mihailova and into Dorcol. The ring road will also ease the traffic nightmare, especially the massive truck traffic that comes in off the motorway at the Gazella bridge spaghetti junction, in past the train and bus stations, around Kalemegdan and on to Pancevo or the port.

Parking score: 3 out of 10

Boulevards

Byrne on boulevards…

If boulevards aren’t too wide, like 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires, they can serve to break the monotonous pattern of streets and blocks, let sunlight in, and function as a landmark (so you know where you are). And if they are lined with trees and beautiful buildings of different types, they can even be pleasant. …Berlin has some great boulevards. Karl Marx Allee, a massive boulevard in former East Germany, has outdoor cafes, wide sidewalks and weird Soviet era fountains and movie theaters. It threatens to go beyond a comfortable scale, but the business in the little shops along the street helps hold that in check.

New Belgrade is like some parts of East Berlin and has exactly the same charms. Wide airy streets and boulevards, but lined with varied bustling shops, business and homes. Even the old city has some lovely boulevards like Bulevar Kralja Alexandra.

Boulevards score: 8 out of 10

Mixed use

Byrne on “mixed use”…

This is a Jane Jacobs phrase. A perfect city is where different things are going on, relatively close to each other, at different times of the day. A city isn’t a strip of hotels and restaurants on a glorious beach; it’s a place where there are restaurants and hotels, but also little stores, fashion boutiques, schools, houses, offices, temples and banks. The healthy neighborhood doesn’t empty out at 6 p.m., as most of downtown L.A. does. In my perfect city there would always be something going on nearby.

This described Stari Grad (Old Town) perfectly. One of the great things about Belgrade is the small little neighbourhood stores and stall, the fact that most areas are very much mixed use (office, housing, commercial. schools). There are no dead zones that I know of in the old city and very few in the Belgrade metropolitan area.

Mixed use score: 8 out of 10.

Public spaces

Byrne on “Public spaces”…

In my perfect city there are ample public spaces—parks (not just vacant land, but common areas that people pass through and use), plazas (not just slabs in front of corporate towers) and, if possible, public access to the waterfront (if there is one)….In my perfect city there would be public access to all these areas.

In Belgrade we are blessed with an abundance of public space gifts. We have a large number of major city parks (Kalamegdan, Tasmajdan, Topcider, Avala etc), and hundreds of smaller green space . We have the two rivers, with the river walks connecting 25th May with Ada and Zemun with Usce. We have Ada, we have the river walks on the New Belgrade side of the Sava and we have numerous squares, markets, and pedestrianized streets all thronged and actively used by the citizenry. I could go on.
One of my greatest regrets is that Belgraders squanders its gifts by polluting and ruining so much of the city’s natural beauty. Allowing hundreds of rusting hulks to be abandoned along the Sava ruins what could be a prime feature – the 25th may to Ada city walk. Currently it is a walk through the set of Mad Max 6 – Beyond Siam. It could be one of the city’s most beautiful features.

Public spaces score: 9 out of 10.

Finally, is it alive…

“The perfect city isn’t static. It’s evolving and ever changing, and its laws and structure allow that to happen. Neighborhoods change, clubs close and others open, yuppies move in and move out—as long as there is a mix of some sort, then business districts and neighborhoods stay healthy even if they’re not what they once were. My perfect city isn’t fixed, it doesn’t actually exist, and I like it that way.”

Belgrade is a city in transition and its future is looking extremely good. It is and always will be the only real Balkan metropolis. The other regional capitals feel like what they are in essence – provincial cities that accentually became capitals. Belgrade is an ancient city, a world renowned metropolis and you can sense its history and future everywhere in the city.

There is a hard to describe but almost tangible spirit to the place that makes it more than a mere livable city, but an indomitable living city.

We foreigners are blessed to live in this extraordinary and fascinating place amongst these extraordinary and fascinating people. This is my perfect city.

Aliveness score: 10 out of 10 (because it cannot be destroyed)

Belgrade’s Perfect City Score: 76 out of 100

9 Comments Is Belgrade a “livable city”?

  1. Danica Radisic

    To begin with, it would seem you have truly and irrevocably fallen in love with Belgrade. Subsequently, I don’t think that qualifies you to make objective critisisms anymore. 🙂 I am (somewhat) joking, of course, but your love for and knowledge of the city is palpable in this post.
    I would just have to point out one thing about the first point in this post – size. It’s true that most Belgraders will tell you Belgrade isn’t that large and I have often proved them wrong. I believe this may be beacuse people here are used to roaming in one familliar circle of friends or part of the city. In that case, it’s pretty much like living in a village really and that can be nice because everyone knows you at your local store or restaurant. I have had the privilege of moving here from another country and have found at least 16 cities in one here. I have several groups of friends that rarely, if ever, connect even when I try to make them. When I tell one Belgrader of an experience in Belgrade I had with another (where I’ve been, with whom and what was there) they look at me in bewilderment and ask me where I found this place, person, event and are surprised it even exists here. My son gets the same reaction from friends in school when he tells them of an outing ours in the city. You mentioned the typical complaining of people here and I think that may be what’s keeping most from discovering their own city.
    That being said, I once again salute the time and effort you are putting into sharing your experiences with everyone on this blog. Should you need any pointers, you know where to find me. 🙂

    Reply
  2. NYCBG65

    Excellent observation……At times it does seem that everyone in Belgrade knows each other. But on the other hand you have to realize that people in Belgrade do NOT move as much as they do in other large western cities.
    People usually own/inherit their apartments from their parents, grandparents etc. For instance, (only in rare situations) will a person living in Stari Grad sell his/her apartment to go and live on the outskirts of town. So basically if you grew up in a certain area, went to school, made friends etc chances are you ar bound to stay there for the rest of your life, so in a sense its like a little village within a big city!

    Reply
  3. Maja

    What a lovely post!
    Excellent observation in all aspects and it is true that it’s a never quiet city in any aspect. As Byrne says it doesn’t really exist! As a foreigner visiting BG almost every, one can be rather confused as one way streets change directions, streets change names, your favourite coffee place is gone and another one open. I love it! There are always and always new things to experience.

    Regarding the Parking issues – I was quite amazed several years ago when parking fees were paid by cellphones. Excellent move, even though that doesn’t really ease the heavy traffic and horrible parking, but this sort of system is being introduced in Sweden the last year. So for one thing, belgraders were in advance! Halelulja! =)

    Living or visiting BG, one most be openminded as surprises will overwhelm you but as mentioned there are many options to survive =)

    Once again, excellent Jonathan!

    Reply
  4. David

    Great piece – thanks. I have been living here for coming up to 4 years now, but like so many others, I think I fell in love with the city within hours. And like all lovers, there are things about her which sometimes drive me completely crazy. Belgrade is the most incredible, impossible, frustrating, gorgeous, contradictory, maddening, irrational, serene mistress imaginable. Sometimes difficult to live with. Impossible to live without. Home is where the heart is!

    Reply
  5. David

    Sorry, just wanted to add a question for people here.. if there was a way, a magic wand, to take away some of the small but worst things about Belgrade; litter and dog crap, blatantly inconsiderate parking, needless spitting in the street, suicidal motorbikers and other macho silliness, and so on, would that take away a part of the soul of the city? Or just make a great place even better?

    Reply

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