The Belgrade Waterfront:
Creation of the city of the future1?

by Katalin Kósza (History) and Sophie Harper (Elitestudiengang Osteuropastudien)

Photo by Katalin Kósza and Sophie Harper

During the summer term 2022, students of the University of Regensburg had the opportunity to take part in a week-long excursion to Serbia. They visited the capital Belgrade, as well as Novi Pazar in the South and Novi Sad in the North of the country. During the research trip, Katalin and Sophie studied the construction of the Belgrade Waterfront, a colossal construction project in the centre of Serbia’s capital. This topic has been discussed a lot and certainly polarizes the population of Belgrade.

Za vreme ekskurzije u leto 2022. godine dve studentkinje iz Regenzburga bavile su se Beogradom na vodi, graditeljskim projektom u Savamaloj, jednom od delova Beograda. Ovaj graditeljski projekat počeo je 2014. godine u partnerstvu Vlade Republike Srbije i kompanije Igl Hils iz Ujedinjenih Arapskih Emirata, kao top-down poduhvat koji je tokom procesa planiranja potpuno isključio lokalnu zajednicu. Kao znak protesta protiv rušenja Savamale i planova za izgradnju Beograda na vodi nastao je politički pokret Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd. Iako projekat još nije završen, naše istraživanje je pokazalo da je Beograd na vodi i njegova promenada prazna, da nedostaje zelenih oaza kao i da nedostaje veza sa lokalnim stanovništvom i istorijom.

Building the Belgrade Waterfront

At the banks of the river Sava in Belgrade, the Serbian government is erecting an entirely new district in the country’s capital. Belgrade Waterfront was firstly introduced in 2014 and is a real estate project implemented in a public-private partnership between the Serbian government and the Emirati real-estate company Eagle Hills. According to former Prime Minister and current President Aleksandar Vučić the project´s aim is to revitalize the scarcely used district and make it into a pulsating new centre of Belgrade. Belgrade Waterfront marks this part of the city as a centre of consumption, as foreign, global, and not rooted in local history and population. Thus, a new global gentrification project will replace the formerly impoverished quarter Savamala. The project is being criticized for being a top-down endeavour instead of including the local population. Apartments in the newly constructed building are being listed as luxury-flats costing about 3,000€ per square foot – unaffordable for the majority of Serbia’s population. The once publicly used land is now only accessible for certain groups like the upper-middle class, while the broad public is excluded from using the land. This unfair distribution of resources reinforces polarisation and social injustice in Belgrade´s society.

Protesting the Project

In a cloak-and-dagger operation Savamala was destroyed April 2016 by masked men in bulldozers. Siniša Mali, the presidents close associate, former Mayor of Belgrade and now Minister of Finance, is believed to be involved in the planning of the destruction. In response to the demolition and the plans for Waterfront the political movement Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd (=Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own 2) emerged to protest the incident and the city district planning project. Since then, Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd transformed into an organization with wider political aims and a focus on democracy and citizen ‘s engagement.

Photo by Katalin Kósza and Sophie Harper
Field study: The ambience at Belgrade Waterfront

The first thing we noticed during our visit was the difficult accessibility of Belgrade Waterfront from the city centre: Savska street is separated from Belgrade Waterfront by a long strip of construction sites. This means the approach is not as easy and might explain why the promenade was rather empty and lifeless. Even though a riverside promenade invites one to stroll on a sunny day and have a break from the city, the place was not overflown. Apart from single walkers and some guests in a restaurant, the only one’s present were a couple of tourists – like us. At the banks of the Save a couple of food trucks offered snacks and drinks to the few local strollers. Areas for public usage were limited to the promenade with several playgrounds, the mall and residential buildings. Other than that, the riverside offered little space to enjoy without having to purchase something and even fewer spheres to mingle and relax.

As the project is not finished yet, the laid-back and relaxing, maybe even green ambience was missing. Instead of being an oasis of vividness and exchange the restaurant Savanova proved to be of an unwelcoming, rather distanced and formal atmosphere. The restaurant’s interior can be best described as a mirage of hipster and urban lifestyle; the prices were comparable to large cities in Germany. It seemed like the aim was to create a cosmopolitan, hip location on the riverside. However, this remained an illusion, as the food options and spirit did not match the image the site attempted to generate. Because of the effort to appear international, the restaurant´s experience became somewhat interchangeable with any other diner in a global urban space.

Notable was the intense background noise, composed of lorries, cars and the Belgrade tram rattling across the Stari Savski bridge, at times even making conversation impossible. The vast construction site, large cranes and bulky piles of shingles revealed the clash of the government’s project with the reality of Belgrade’s city-life.

Conclusion

It is difficult to judge the success of a construction project before its´ completion, but numerous critiques from the local population, opposing political movements and obscure partners definitely do not help in establishing Belgrade Waterfront as a positive project. What might be even more important is to question the target audience – which surely is not the general Serbian population. Does the project encourage social inclusion and integrated urban development, or is it contributing to a major social exclusion and polarization?

  1. On Belgrade Waterfront´s official website, the project is advertised as „monumental urban revitalization project worth US$ 3 billion, creating a new city centre and a new international destination“ and as „the city of the future“, see https://www.belgradewaterfront.com/en/about/belgrade-waterfront/, last access: 26/9/22.
  2. https://nedavimobeograd.rs/english/, last access: 26/9/22.

If you are interested in this topic we recommend for further reading:

Dragojlo, Saša (24/7/22): Grassroots Group Eyes Belgrade on Route to Toppling Serbian President https://balkaninsight.com/2020/07/24/grassroots-group-eyes-belgrade-on-route-to-toppling-serbian-president/, last access: 26/9/22.

Eror, Aleks (10/12/15): Belgrade’s ‘top-down’ gentrification is far worse than any cereal café, in: The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/dec/10/belgrade-top-down-gentrification-worse-than-cereal-cafe, last access: 26/9/22.

Koelemaij, Jorn (2021): Dubaification in practice: an inter-scalar analysis of Belgrade Waterfront. In: Urban Geography 42 (4), pp. 439–457.

Krsmanovic, Ksenija (2020): Two faces of Belgrade waterfront: The contradictory creation of new urban identity. In: Ciudades (23), pp. 137–157.

Lalovic, Kseniјa; Radosavljevic, Uros; Djukanovic, Zoran (2015): Reframing public interest in the implementation of large urban projects in Serbia: The case of Belgrade Waterfront Project. In: Facta Univ Arch Civ Enge 13 (1), pp. 35–46.

Rudic, Filip; Zivanovic, Maja; Jeremic, Ivana (24/4/2019): Serbians Protest as Controversial Demolitions Remain Unexplained in, Balkan Insight, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/04/24/serbians-protest-as-controversial-demolitions-remain-unexplained/, last access: 26/9/22.

  1. On Belgrade Waterfront´s official website, the project is advertised as „monumental urban revitalization project worth US$ 3 billion, creating a new city centre and a new international destination“ and as „the city of the future“, see https://www.belgradewaterfront.com/en/about/belgrade-waterfront/, last access: 26/9/22.
  2. https://nedavimobeograd.rs/english/, last access: 26/9/22.
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