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Brave green world not yet in sight

Sustainable buildings are appearing in Budapest, but critics say an apparent lack of commitment at the city decision-making level is holding back more marked progress.

Sándor Bardóczi.

“Green washing. That’s what’s going on, on a large scale,” says Sándor Bardóczi, a landscape achitect and board member of the Hungarian Chamber of Architects who is a vocal critic of local green planning. “It’s when you put an eco stamp on your project, sell it as environmentally friendly, but at its core, it has nothing to with cutting energy consumption. In fact, often in cases where green rooftops are set up that require very intensive care, it even increases it.” 

The pre-recession era did witness some ambitious efforts, as a result of which “A”-class office developments and larger residential areas were planned with lush vegetation around them. The financial crisis, however, broke this promising pattern and ever since such leafy aspects have carried far less weight.

“Like the bulk of market-based developments, the government and the municipalities stick to green field projects, which lead to the felling trees. Their financing stems from EU funds, and the only reason why the environment is taken into account at all is because it is required by the relevant tenders,” Bardóczi tells the Budapest Business Journal.

András Lukács, president of Levegő Munkacsoport (Clear Air Action Group), says he, too, finds this lack of eco-sensitivity hard to understand, as it is also in the best interests of property developers to maximize green surfaces. “The value of such premises goes up and selling or renting out also gets a lot easier,” he reasons.

There are positive role models out there, as many companies from Western Europe and further away aspire to lead by example. And there are, too, examples of local firms that demonstrate exemplary commitment to the environment.

The latter case is duly underlined by the Kopaszi dam investment by the Danube. The investor spent HUF 10 billion just to clear up the bay area and to build a public park, even before getting its project started. “This resembles a fully Western approach where, even before you break ground, an assessment is made to what extent the place needs to be green,” Bardóczi says.

The trouble is though that is no dedicated system of government incentives, coupled with which the relevant laws, not to mention the engagement of authorities, are often inadequate. Bardóczi has been calling for a landscape development network to be set up that works closely together with the capital’s city development department.

Words vs. action

Such cooperation could also bring about better compliance with the current regulations. Bardóczi acknowledges that environmental restrictions are provided for, but complains that enforcement is a whole different issue. “You don’t hear about many cases where builders were obliged to tear something down just because it violated some eco regulation,” he points out.

The degree of room for improvement is shown by the results of the European Green City Index. Some 30 cities across the continent were evaluated by the Economist Intelligence Unit for eco-factors ranging from air quality to transport; the Hungarian capital ranks only 17th on that list, scoring 57.55 out 100. That compares with neighboring Vienna’s score of 83.45, which was still only enough to be ranked in fourth place.

Lukács agrees that a lack of resources and careful planning form a large obstacle here. “Even though the Budapest general assembly adopted a comprehensive environmental protection program back in 2011, no funds, no deadlines and no people in charge have been assigned to the goals laid down therein,” he points out. Lukács himself handed over a complex blueprint on how to turn Budapest into a sustainable city – drawn up by the Clear Air Action Group – to city mayor István Tarlós in 2014, but to date he hasn’t received any feedback.

Involving stakeholders in the conversation

Engaging stakeholders in decision-making about the city’s future would tie in well with current trends elsewhere in Europe for process-centered planning. This means that businesses, residents and civil organizations are all asked to share their views about how they imagine shaping their place of operation and living. “We are lagging 30-40 years behind in this respect. Instead of embracing a bottom-up approach, here it is still a top-down principle that rules. As a result, developments are executed not along market needs, but rather the interests of a small group of insiders,” Bardóczi claims.

András Ekés, a mobility expert and managing director of Mobilissimus Kft., confirms that in the West a planning-for-people approach is thriving and infrastructure-based planning is of secondary relevance. “As it turns out, if you get to know what residents really want, on many occasions you end up finding more cost-effective solutions,” he tells the BBJ. He says the problem in Budapest is that senior city decision makers have for too long been trying to satisfy the car driving population. But measures that may temporarily trigger tension, such as London’s congestion fee or the re-occupation of the Rhône bank for the sake of nature are great examples of ideas that, in the long run, pay off.

But there are other best practices nearer to home. The main pillar of planning in Vienna, Ekés explains, was to keep developments within the city boundaries so that they could be accessed via train, subway or tram. “Take Aspern, which at first counted as the middle of nowhere, but is now a booming urban area with workplaces and residential neighborhoods. The U2 Metro line was extended expressly for the purpose of making the quarter an integral part of the city. The rehabilitation of the Hauptbahnhof district further reflects this concept.” Berlin hits similar chords, with developments only allowed in the first place along S-Bahn lines.

“These are all cases where the city communicates with its surroundings. By contrast, in Budapest it is a practice unheard of,” Ekés says. “In suburb areas huge commercial and residential developments were completed, which have grown many fold since, but rail infrastructure and high capacity public transport building didn’t keep pace. It was never an issue to make transport sustainable. The conscious planning Vienna is characterized by cannot be found here even in traces.”

Turning rust into gold

One logical development path is to revitalize urban rustbelts under brown field investments. A working paper by the mayor’s office called “Budapest 2030” does contain a detailed concept to capitalize on this potential, but it when that might begin to materialize is another question. The City Park Project, under which a new museum district is being created, is a good example. For a long time the run-down area behind Nyugati Railway Station was agreed to be the ideal location. The change of venue caused huge uproar and protests, not least because it involved the felling of healthy trees.

“Such rust sites are extremely contaminated and without public funds they cannot be rehabilitated profitably,” Bardóczi said of the original host area for the museum quarter.

The London Olympics showed, however, that by applying a clear-cut long-term concept, run-down zones could be brought back to live (including the development of a public park of some 250 acres). Now that plans for Hungary’s Olympic bid are on the table, it would be an ideal time to seize the momentum to embrace such a long-term approach. But many of the selected venues, such as Margit-sziget, Hajógyári Sziget and Népliget, seem to indicate that even if the Olympics do take place in Budapest in 2024, it might largely be as a result of green field investments.

The mayor’s city development department was asked to comment for this article, but declined to do so.

Green light at the end of the tunnel

In spite of the obstacles eco-friendly approaches often face, some market players are taking serious steps towards a brave green world in Budapest. The aim of the Hungary Green Building Council (HuGBC), a non-profit organization, is to campaign for a radical transformation of the locally built environment by providing information on sustainable practices and facilitating learning and communication on the subject. HuGBC’s Green Building Week takes place from September 26 to October 2, and includes the Green Walk 2016 event where 20 buildings erected in an eco-friendly fashion can be visited, among them eight new venues like CEUʼs freshly completed campus and Váci Corners. Participants are invited to take photos of these innovative premises and enter them in a competition in the hopes of winning an award. But the key highlight will be the #BETTERBUILDGREEN conference on October 4 in which architects, property developers and managers, and green building specialists will gather to discuss how to improve and get the most out of the sustainability business model.