Bumping Forward

Where once there was asphalt, cobblestones are returning to Czech cities

Every time Jiří Seman reaches his hometown's main square, he feels like swearing. Over the years he had grown used to the black asphalt surface here in Ústí nad Labem. It wasn't an inspiring sight but, for a young man who's been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident 12 years ago, it made getting around relatively easy.

Not any more. The city hall has had the main square and surrounding streets renovated and the new pavement consists of small bumpy cobblestones made from basalt. Aesthetically, it's a huge improvement but, for Jiří, any trip to the center of town has become dramatically more complicated. "It's crazy now," says the young man, who has to invest all his energy in avoiding the gaps between the stones so his wheels don't get stuck. "Every time I go there, I have to mentally prepare myself for it."

He's been struggling for two years now and still hasn't got used to it. And he's not the only one. The facelift undergone by Ústí's main square has attracted more and more complaints from locals. Women are breaking their high heels on the demanding terrain and parents have to watch their kids more closely so they don't fall over.

In its defense, the city council points out that prior to the reconstruction they laid cobblestones on around twenty square meters of the square as a trial. In a follow-up survey, 80 percent of respondents backed the new surface. "The public had their say, and we added a few lines of smooth granite inbetween to make walking easier," says Radek Vonka, the former Ústí mayor who was responsible for the reconstruction. "I don't understand the resistance to it now. To me, it looks like an artificially created affair."

The cube is back
The cobblestone trend began around thirty years ago in the West and a decade later in the Czech Republic. National heritage office experts recall the anger that greeted the original stone surface being replaced by asphalt by the Communists in the 1980s, when historical cobblestones were smuggled into West Germany in return for hard currency.

But it's not just nostalgia for the good old days or the aesthetic appeal of these stone cubes that make them so popular today. Cobblestones are practical too. Surface water drains away into the gaps between them, no complicated machinery is needed to replace a few broken cobblestones, and, above all else, they're recyclable. According to experts, a well-preserved cobblestone street lasts for 300 years. And if it has to be dug up, the cobblestones can be removed, stored in a warehouse and then replaced. Asphalt or concrete, on the other hand, must be destroyed and a new layer put down.

"That was another reason why we chose cobblestones," says Vonka, and most other Czech cities are taking the same route, for both aestethetic and practical reasons. "If for no other reason than for the sake of historical heritage, city centers should be cobbled," says Petra Nacu, an architect with the city of Pardubice. "They provide for more variable space, which has a much more pleasant impact on inhabitants than an intact cover."

For all the good reasons for using cobblestones, however, there's still the major problem mentioned above -- cobblestones make it harder to get around. For some simple but convincing evidence of this, one need only look at tourists and residensts walking by the river in Prague. Both banks are covered with large, late 19th century-style cobbles, but there are also two smooth stone strips for cyclists. If you want to ride this trail at weekends, however, you'll have to share it with the dozens of pedestrians who prefer walking on the smooth strips because it's easier on their feet.

Polish and plan
"It's always like this," says Tomáš Zach of Prague city hall's cycling commission. "You put rough and smooth surfaces next to each other and everybody walks on the smooth one. But, he adds, that doesn't mean the city should stop replacing asphalt with cobblestones. Lessons learned in the West -- in Bern, Switzerland for example -- suggest that bumpy surfaces don't necessarily have to be unappealing to pedestrians, cyclists or people in wheelchairs.

The solution is simple: the cobblestones must be polished and each stone set as close to the other as possible. "With that type of construction we don't get any complaints when the new surface is laid, even if it's still less comfortable," says Anita Wenger, a member of a pro-cycling lobby group in Bern which, like Prague, is on UNESCO's World Heritage List and makes extensive use of cobblestones.

Experts are in agreement that outside the historic center, streets and roads must meet the demands of modern travel, even if they looks less elegant. "This is our strategy too," says Nacu of Pardubice, "but it needs careful planning." The city is consulting with the Czech paralympic committee, to avoid the problems that can sometimes stem from a simple oversight. This is precisely what happened in the case of Ústí nad Labem's main square, where the smooth granite paths designed to make access easier only cross the square diagonally. As a result, anyone who follows the edges of the square must go over the cobblestones. From his wheelchair, Jiří Seman agrees: "It would have been completely different if they'd laid a path along the perimeter of the square."

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