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Venture into Eastern Europe

Last week I went abroad on a ‘stag’ weekend. My sister is getting married in a few weeks and it seemed appropriate to join my future brother-in-law and his friends for a weekend to toast his ‘final days of freedom’.

On descent into the airport I looked down and scanned the areas around the airport; hmm, suffice to say, it didn’t look great! But hey, what airport is set in picturesque surroundings? The ‘best-man’ had arranged for taxis to take us to our hotel, which was one less thing to worry about and so I turned my attention to my surroundings as we were driven to our destination. The first thing that struck me was… not the historic Jugendstil architecture or influences of the catholic religion in their buildings… what struck me was the river! Frozen!

The taxi made a wrong turn about 400m from our destination and we found the car had driven down a makeshift dead-end. To each side the buildings rose to five storeys and higher and their uniform windows were all boarded. It was described by one of the group as graffiti city; to me it just screamed poverty. A quick de-tour and we were at our hotel, the recently renovated Hanza Hotel. What a difference a street makes!

The hotel was set on the edge of a grand courtyard with a cobbled road that housed a handsome church and foreign embassy. A short walk into the old town centre however only revealed what a mismatch the entire area was. There were modern buildings set alongside derelict wrecks, huge landmarks alongside car-parks that were empty (aside from the odd caravan). In planning terms it just didn’t fit.

There is a lot said about addressing social imbalance inEnglandand a powerful tool for achieving that and eliminating social exclusion can come through the planning system, decent design and proper planning. We see it all the time in policy documents produced by local Councils and to a certain extent we take it for granted. There is a fine balance to be met in all place-making and at the most basic level that equates to homes, jobs and services. When the balance slips, so does society, bit by bit.

I guess the constructive conclusion to this week’s blog would be to offer a solution to change. If given the choice, what would I implement to redress the balance of that area? As with our government, the first place I would start would be the economy. The disjointed market stalls all seemed to be selling the same produce and competing for the attention of the locals, our tour guide on the second night explained that she had been studying at university, but that her job now was showing groups like ours where to go on a Saturday night. If the economy is weak with no focus then quality of life and jobs inevitably suffer.

The town centre had a feel of once being ambitious; the wide roads, tram system and pedestrian crossing systems that counted down the wait for the ‘green man’. However, in the centre, occupied or not, were row after row of dark uninviting dead windows. Despite witnessing a fine fleet of cars parked on the roads, everyone seemed to be struggling.

I don’t claim to know enough, if anything, of the history of the town. It was just a first and lasting impression. Once there was great aspiration and hope, that seems to have gone and the result is a struggle; let’s just hope it is not an omen for the wedding! –

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