Q&A: Landscape Architect Martin Barry on Urban Planning in Prague and Beyond

Martin Barry is a landscape architect who chose to leave New York City for Prague, a city with "so much potential." His platform reSITE aims to bring international perspectives and expertise concerning contemporary, resilient, and sustainable cities by organizing an annual conference, among other activities. What was the path to creating such a platform from scratch, one of the most respected in Europe today? Barry discussed his vision of the city, the future of architecture and planning, and reSITE's projects with Petra Jansová for Aktualne.cz, a Czech leading online news media.

You have first come to Prague in 2011 as a Fulbright fellow. You taught at the Czech Technical University and simultaneously founded reSITE. But why did you decide, as a New York landscape architect, to stay in Prague?

It's a complicated answer, I hope you're ready for it. I am currently flying back to Prague from New Orleans, where I just attended the 2016 American Society of Landscape Architecture (ASLA) conference where I was one of 8 individuals, in an association with 15,000 members, to receive the President’s award —  based on my work for reSITE. The biggest question I was asked by my American colleagues and friends was "why did you stay in Prague?" The truth is, I didn't. After my Fulbright was over in June 2012, I went back to N.Y.C. For over three years, I managed reSITE on nights, weekends and holidays after my full-time job as a landscape architect and associate at W Architecture. I was flying across North America to western Canada every two weeks for 2.5 years, designing and managing three large public projects in the City of Calgary that we won in international competitions. I was using the money I saved to fly to Prague every 2-3 months on weekends to meet with my team at reSITE and fundraise. It was totally exhausting. One of my goals of going back to NYC at that time was to help rebuild W, the firm I was working at, after we lost most of our projects and team during the recession. I did that and felt satisfied. It wasn’t until August 2015 when I decided to move back to Prague to work on reSITE full-time, turning down a partnership offer at the firm. Most people thought I was crazy. Working your way into a partnership at a mid-size NYC-based architecture studio is a nice offer, and doesn’t usually happen at the age of 35. At that time last summer, I was managing 13 design and construction projects worth many millions of USD across three countries. My energy and focus was split and I wasn't able to really give any of my projects, including reSITE, the attention they deserved. My heart was more with reSITE and my team in Prague.

I can be a perfectionist. It's tough to do that when your thoughts and energy are constantly spread across many projects, ideas and countries. I realized that I couldn't keep going like that. It was killing me to split time between Prague, N.Y.C, and Calgary. I barely slept at my own home in Brooklyn, I didn't see much of my family or girlfriend at the time. I loved the energy of it all, but last summer I started to feel exhausted and intellectually unsatisfied. I was having a tough time personally and professionally, not really focusing enough. I needed to make some personal and professional changes to get some balance back in my life. Prague and reSITE was the answer.

Old Town Square

Basically, I realized that the work we were doing at reSITE to raise awareness and conversations about making urban planning and development more sustainable was ultimately more satisfying (at this time in my life) than design projects. reSITE is my baby. I've volunteered over 7,000 hours and donated quite a lot of my own money to get it off the ground. My team has become my family  —  and I wanted to work and sweat with them, win or lose with them and spend my time building the organization, which I am in love with. If I didn't move to Prague, I am afraid we would not have been able to grow at all, because it takes a lot of effort, for eight of us now, to fundraise and work on the programs we do. It also helps that I really like living in Prague. I have grown to love my second city.

What does Prague have that N.Y.C does not?

My talented and committed team. And, there seems to be a greater need for an organization like reSITE. Cities everywhere have similar problems about how to spend public money to improve public infrastructure or public space. How to invest in architecture, or make parks safer. How much to develop riverfronts, how to make large buildings more friendly to the city and where to put bike lanes and parking lots. There are many similar problems in the former Soviet Bloc cities that we know how to solve. We present examples from abroad and talk about how they can be modified to improve the design of a particular place, or to inspire politicians and investors to think bigger, or differently about how to improve public spaces. We look at examples from cities like Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, Singapore, New York, or Nice, to see how cities can ask citizens for their input on how to develop the city.

There are also personal things that I like about Prague. Housing is still relatively affordable, so I rent a lovely flat designed and owned by the architect Pavel Zverina in Prague 7-Letna that I just love. It is a very pleasant city to live in compared to N.Y.C. It takes about 12 minutes to ride my bike to our office in the center of the city every morning. People say that N.Y.C is tough to live in. That is an understatement. Every moment, from the minute you leave your flat in the morning to the moment you arrive home late at night from work is an epic battle. I happen to love the energy there and grew used to the battle, but it is a constant fight for sure. Prague is the opposite. Comparatively, there are relatively few of those battles . Except riding a bike… that is quite tough and dangerous in Prague, and way easier and safer in N.Y.C.

And is there anything in N.Y.C that is missing in Prague?

I was able to stop in New York this weekend for two days to see my family. I have three sisters who are all married, two of them have kids. We are second generation Irish Americans. It is shocking for my sisters that I moved away from them. So, N.Y.C has my family, which I miss a lot. I don't really feel comfortable comparing the cultural or physical or economic characteristics of N.Y.C to Prague because the history is so different. But, maybe Prague needs a great food hall with tons of small, local food purveyors (like food trucks or stalls) selling international food, street food, and stuff like that. Culinary diversity was one of the highlights of my life in New York and it’s missing for me in Prague.

And, of course it would be great to see the City of Prague have nicer parks and public spaces along the Vltava riverbanks, like the City of New York has done over the last 15-20 years.

West Harlem Piers Park in N.Y.C by W Architecture

You are a landscape architect. What is the situation in Prague from that perspective, I mean the presence of nature in the city, in comparison with other cities in the world?

One of my missions at reSITE when we started in late 2011 was to encourage the City of Prague to launch more international tenders for public space or cultural architecture projects, and hopefully to build a few, specifically the riverfront and related islands. My first focus was the Vltava riverbanks. We launched a major international ideas competition to redesign the riverbanks to be more friendly for pedestrians with parks, recreational space and restaurants. The competition attracted over 700 registrations and 130 submissions from dozens of countries. An international and local jury judged the results and picked one Canadian and two Czech teams as the top three winners. It was so exciting. The city said they would support the project and look at the ideas, but at that time, in 2012, they didn’t do anything with them. That was disappointing.

I was recently thinking about whether reSITE has been successful in getting the city to do more projects like this, and to even build one or two. I have to say — we have failed in that respect. Thanks now to the mayor's focus on urbanism and the good work at the Institute for Planning and Development, the city is talking more seriously about these kinds of projects, but nothing has been built yet. It takes time. There is so much potential though. And, the fact that the mayor is talking about urbanism, development and trying to do projects is a big step. I think Prague can learn from cities large and small, like Amsterdam, Nice, Bordeaux, Seoul, New York, Paris, Vienna, Barcelona, Singapore  —  who have all invested heavily in public parks, playgrounds, riverfronts, bike lanes, creative, and innovation hubs as a way to attract and retain more talented people and families in their cities.

Vltava River

You advocate for a dense urban built environment. Isn't it in contrast with your domain — landscape architecture? Isn't a goal of landscape architecture to bring more nature to cities?

Well, landscape architecture isn't just about "nature." I can put it in context for a Central European audience who might understand the slavic language, because that is where some of the distinction or misunderstanding will be. The Czech word, krajina, means "region outside of the city." So, I can imagine that many Czechs don't understand how a landscape architect could advocate for landscape inside the city — or, for more density as you are surprised by. It might seem, as you say, counterintuitive or in contrast to my professional training. It is not. I was trained as a landscape urbanist  —  where landscape inside the city does not look the same as it does outside in "first" nature as most people know it, outside of the city. Landscape inside the city is basically the space between the buildings. Public squares, streets and sidewalks, riverfronts, and infrastructure like bridges can be considered part of the urban landscape for me. It is true that my core interest is in a "green" city with a good balance of green parks and utilizing green infrastructure, but that doesn't necessarily mean more "green" space, just higher quality and only with the right density of buildings around. It is density and people that make cities vibrant and alive, and green landscapes, public spaces and parks that make them more resilient and livable. But, it requires a balance of density and open space  —  which is hard for some people to understand. I often get criticized for supporting development projects, particularly in Central Europe. Greens think I'm crazy. But, I support projects as long as I think they will make the city more dynamic, fun, resilient and alive, and add economic development, which in turn provides more funding for creative, cultural and green projects that I care deeply about. And, as long as they provide some public benefits be it in public space, culture, or transport.

Can you explain what exactly landscape urbanism mean?

To be more clear, it is about using underused urban space like brownfields and riverfronts in dense urban environments and planning them with a balance of urban development and naturalistic parks. Landscape urbanists like me see the parks as a kind of "green infrastructure" that can be used to retain and clean storm water, mitigate flooding of rivers, and to clean brownfield sites. The green sites aren't just for beauty or enjoyment, they are also vital parts of the infrastructure by cleaning rain water from dirty streets, and so on.

St. Patrick’s Island in Calgary, Canada, by W Architecture and CIVITAS

You have worked on redevelopment of many waterfronts all over the globe. What about Prague's riverfront that was unused, latent, for many years?

It is still one of the biggest opportunities in Prague. Whoever decides to take it as a project will be rewarded just like the visionary mayors of Seoul and Barcelona in the 1990s, Madrid, New York, Singapore, Nice, Paris, Hamburg, or London in the past few years. I would like to see the riverfront designed for recreational, passive, flood protection and entertainment use. Like in Hamburg, the river can be used for all of these while still accommodating potential floods. Today, there is nowhere to really sit unless you are drinking at a pub or cafe. There is no shade, or gardens. You can't do anything with a young family there other than walk unless you leave Naplavka  —  the former wharft and only public space on the Prague riverfront  —  for one of the islands for a playground. Naplavka is fun, but it is one-dimensional. You can only go there to drink, or an events like the weekend farmer’s market or food festivals. The markets are great and I support them for sure, but fairly one-dimensional when you compare to other cities who have recreational, active and working waterfronts. The great cities of the world have figured out how to make their riverfronts more diverse, with beaches, interesting furniture, natural gardens, shade trees, cool buildings, galleries and lots of restaurant options  —  in addition to being vital working waterfronts for transporting goods and people. We can do that in Prague. We just need to be committed to it and inspire everyone about what is possible, even if we can't yet see it.

To you, what is the most urgent issue of Prague and of the Czech cities in general when it comes to building?

There is a serious problem regarding urban planning and development in Prague. Deloitte did a survey in Spring 2016, where over 90 percent of the expert respondents thought there was no vision for development in Prague. IPR is basically stalled because the director was recently removed and the Metropolitan Plan is stopped. So developers don't know what the future will be. Uncertainty is the biggest deterrent for development. Already, the cost of living is rising because of the lack of construction and new flats on the market, with rental prices climbing as much as 14-15 percent since the same time in 2014. In cities with strong economies like Prague, there should be a boom in construction. But, in Prague not much is happening. There are many reasons for it  —  but generally I think we are all looking and waiting for something positive to happen. And, for there to be some continuity from one city council to the next, no matter who is elected. If the city is a train, keep the train moving forward, even if it changes tracks a little. That's how great cities have always developed.

You mentioned in one of your interviews that a dumb city is a city that doesn't use data for its urban planning process and doesn't utilize participation, including small businesses, land owners, institutions. Isn't this also the case of Prague?

Mayor Krnacova has identified that the city needs to start utilizing technology and recently launched the Smart Prague initiative, which is about starting "smart city" projects with tech companies. It is a step in the right direction as long as the public good is at the center, which it seems to be. IPR is developing guidelines and protocols for participation and this is also a very positive step. But generally, we need more data from businesses and citizens to better understand what works and what doesn't when making improvements to the public space, transport, or other urban developments in Prague.

Link N.Y.C by Google Sidewalk Labs

What should Prague and other Czech towns do to become "smart cities"?

If Prague and other Czech towns can use technology to make government services more accessible and transparent, that would be great. Or, utilize digital apps for more participation in budgeting, tendering or planning  —  that would be a big step. We can also use technology to integrate a comprehensive transport system that utilizes shared cars, shared bikes, walking, trams, metros, and buses. It would be great to have one place to go for all your transportation needs, like the city of Helsinki currently has. Or, in London where you can even pay for the bus with your contactless credit card if you forgot your Oyster (metro) card at home, or are a tourist. (Prague is testing it as well.) Having open data is very important in this goal, because it gives the tech community a chance to utilize the data to make services even more accessible and efficient.

The architecture community often points out that Czechs are not interested in architecture or public space. Do you feel it the same way?

Well, I don't know. Historically, that's not true. Some of the best historic public spaces and streets in the world are right in the center of Prague. Many were influenced by European events and culture, by what was happening in Italy and France. But, I think contemporary Czech architects have a tendency to be a little insulated, not open to dialogue about their projects especially with the general public. Maybe if there was more public conversation about the work, citizens would be more interested. And, it can be more human. I think the city could support this, like in Berlin where the city is supporting World Architecture Festival, recently moved from Singapore where it had massive government support. We have found that the public is very interested in topics of public space, because it directly affects their lives and lifestyle in the city. The 21st century architect or landscape architect needs to find a way to be relevant in the everyday life of the everyday urban citizen. Those people care about what their street looks like, or whether their park is safe and clean, or well designed. Our organization reSITE is trying to start conversations that regular people care about. That’s one of our strengths I think. To make information about architecture and public space more accessible for people and not so "elitist" or disconnected from people. We want to live in a human-centered city and therefore believe in human-centered design.

Prague is known for historic architecture. And, if you look at the tourism advertisements  —  this is naturally what is promoted. And, this is where most of the funds from regional planning and development go  —  to attract tourists to see this great history we have. But, that is very limiting. Rome tried that in the first few centuries of the millennia and collapsed. Cities are most powerful when they attract new and diverse citizens to share information, innovate, and produce new products or knowledge. A city can't rest. Look at the tourist scene in Prague. Everyone local  —  citizens  — hate it. It's kind of low quality tourism. People on Segways everywhere. Low quality street performers. It feels very different than other cities. Focusing so much on just the historical legacy of the architecture will do this. If we can shift a bit and develop a cultural hub or innovative district, and invest in social business and tech startups, develop cool public spaces like along the riverfront and invest in interesting cultural festivals we can change the way people see Prague. It has so much potential. So much. We just aren't taking advantage and building on the great gifts we have right in front of us. It's kind of easy and complacent with no perceived risk to not disturb the status quo. But, I think that is really risky to not plan our own future with yes, more contemporary architecture and public space.

Prague Old Town Square

If so, where this lack of interest comes from?

I think I answered that?

Prague is full of beautiful historical architecture and monuments. But I have an impression that there's no modern and contemporary, quality architecture being built. Do you agree? And why is it so?

I do. There are some good examples, but generally I think it is because there is no clearly stated ambition for Prague to be a contemporary city. Investors follow what the city wants and in many cases historic regulations stifle ambition for contemporary architecture. There is (and by the way — understandable) comfort with the way things are. It's the old adage; if it's not broken, don't fix it. Adam Gebrian says it differently: "nothing risked, nothing lost." But, if we want contemporary architecture mixed with the gorgeous historical architecture, we need tell everyone why it's important and then build it like in Vilnius or Nice or Oslo or Vienna or Graz.

Oslo Opera House by Snøhetta

Let's stop being critical. What place in Prague or elsewhere in the Czech Republic would you praise?

Listen, I often think that I'm being too critical because I am always asked about what we can improve. It's almost like a setup. So, I hope that I don't come off sounding like everything is bad. It is not. It is my job to identify ways to improve cities with good design. I have spent a decade doing so, and at least another decade thinking about how to do that. And, I truly feel I was born to do this work. I can't walk anywhere without thinking of how to improve a place, even those that I have designed. It is in my blood.

Prague and Czech Republic is in the geographic center of Europe and the developed world — depending on how you orient the map of course. It's kind of amazing how well placed the city is. I have some really wonderful and inspiring Czech friends and because Prague isn't so crazy and busy like N.Y.C, there is time to really enjoy and build those friendships. This is a special quality in the city and another great bonus of living here. I love running across the Railroad Bridge from Smichov toward Vyserad and back to Letna. And, love riding my 1962 Czech Favorit bike to work everyday, or along the river toward Karlstejn. I try to see most exhibitions at DOX, because I feel the museum is one of the best in the region, and I like the mission there. And, I love visiting the art house cinemas like Kino Svetozor or Bio Oko in my neighborhood. The program is always interesting. For a relatively small city, Prague has a full cultural calendar and that is one of its biggest gifts. We need to highlight that more. And, focus on the creative and smart people in Prague —  it is really the biggest resource and inspiration even if the architecture is more visible.

Meet Barry at In/visible City, which focuses on infrastructure, architecture, and everything that makes cities functional while being invisible.The event will take place on June 22-23 in Prague with 50+ globally renowned experts. 

All photos courtesy of reSITE

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