Malostranské náměstí to open up for the public

One of the initiators of a petition to take back the square discusses its future

There will be a big change on Malostranské náměstí as of July 1. For the first time since the 1970s, the area will not be a parking lot and instead will be opened up for public activity.

Eventually, the square at the center of the touristy Malá Strana neighborhood will be rebuilt and may include a restored 19th century statue and a new fountain.

The change is due in part to a petition initiated by Kateřina Jacques, a former Green Party politician who is currently a member of the Liberal Ecological Party (LES).

“Our activity to change the appearance of this wonderful square started in 2011 and became visible one year later when we launched our petition, which finally reached more then 5,000 signatures. We knew it would have been easier to collect signatures through the Internet, however, we based our activity on personal contact and focused on meeting and talking to people to explain why we believed cars should disappear from this wonderful and unique square,” Jacques said.

“Hundreds of hours on the streets delivered the first results: a positive response from the public. Different associations and institutions got involved, and the petition was available in cafes, pubs and restaurants across Malá Strana. …We have worked hard for five years and managed to mobilize lots of committed people,” she said, adding that efforts to change the square actually started 20 years ago but made no headway at that time.

“The square has been used as a parking place for so long that people simply got used to it and lost the ability to judge it objectively,” she added.

One big obstacle was that much of the parking lot is used by politicians as both houses of Parliament are nearby, as are politicians' offices. They were for keeping the status quo.“ To persuade the politicians to get rid of the parking place and to give the space a new chance in a modern city was actually the most challenging part of our campaign,” she said.

The petition included the phrase: “Would you put potatoes into a rare Baroque chest? And what about parking cars on one of the most beautiful places in Prague? Let's give this wonderful place in the heart of the city back to the people!”

“The people understood this message. The accomplishment shows how important activism is, and what kind of positive changes can be done if people stick together and don’t give up,” she said.

Some public events such as markets and dance courses should start taking place on the square already in July.

After that, there is a bit of uncertainty. A new design for the square came from an architectural competition won by the team of Martin Hájek, Václav Hájek, and Petr Horský. The head of the jury was architect Miroslav Šik.

The plan has a lot of open space, with a few trees and benches, and as a compromise a handful of parking spots on one side. A fountain is just off the center, and to the far side is the statue of Field Marshall Josef Radecký, which stood on the square from 1858 until 1921. It had been removed as part of First Republic effort to take down Austro-Hungarian monuments.

“We know the winning sketch was not really accepted by the public. No wonder, there had not been a serious debate ahead of the competition. … A lot of uncertainties remain and there’s been no consensus that the winning project is the right one. People are profoundly interested in the next steps, and they are worried that commercialization of the project will kill the cooperative atmosphere. They love to speak about the function and usage of the place, they are defending the only tree in the middle of the parking place, and residents are interested in a complete traffic solution. …. In general, it seems to me, that people want more green space than asphalt and more local activities than big events,” she said.

The opinion about Radecký statue is split, but in my opinion there is no reason for such a strong resistance against it. … The original still exists and it should be a part of our historical and cultural memory. It would be nice to have it back. But this is not so important as the fact that Malostranské náměstí should become a public space and as such it has to be understood, managed and protected from the pressure of the commercial activities,” Jacques said.

She is concerned that the square retains a positive character. “I do hope that the place will become a nice, calm and civilized space. Together with others I will use all my power and experience to avoid it becoming another souvenir center. That is not the target we were focused on, and I would consider it a big failure if it happens. I am absolutely convinced that the public has to be involved into the decision-making process about the future use as much as possible,” she said, adding that tourists also would rather see real local life than a “fake city.”

She also favors opening up more places in the city center for the public, as this has been a trend worldwide.

“Since 2012, I have been coordinating the event Zažít město jinak, www.zazitmestojinak.cz — a neighborhood gathering in the street. We use to be surrounded by cars and this September, for the first time, we will be enjoying the free space of Malostranské náměstí. It will be great. I am just very sorry, that one member of our petition committee and great friend, architect Bořek Šípek, died this winter and will not be together with us,” she said.

Malostranské náměstí has a long history going back the the 13th century. For many centuries it had a massive fountain as its main feature, before the military statue was added. From 1928 to '40 the square had a statue of French historian Ernest Denis. It was taken down during World War II. A plaque with his bust was put up in 2003.

The name of the square has changed over the years. The square has long been divided into two parts, and was called Horní rynk and Dolní rynk (Upper and Lower Marketplace), and Malostranský rynek. The upper part as also called Vlašský plac, as many Italian merchants were there.

In the first half of the 19th century it became Štepanské námestí (Stephan Square), and after 1869 it was officially Malostranské náměstí, but people called it náměstí Maršála Radeckého, or Radecký Square.

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