New suburban development in the Post-socialist city: the case of Prague

Martin Ouředníček, Charles University in Prague, Faculty of Science, Department of Social Geography and Regional Development, Albertov 6, Prague 2, 128 43, Czechia, e-mail:;


The paper describes the most intensive urbanisation process in post-socialist cities – suburbanisation. Prague, the capital of Czech Republic was chosen as a case study city. Prague is one of the strongest regions in East-Central Europe and can be seen as a laboratory of contemporary development of post-socialist city. Firstly, I would like to make a difference between suburban development and suburbanisation, which can be seen as only one specific form of suburban development. Next part of this paper gives an overview of suburban development in the Prague urban region, with particular stress on pre-war, socialist and post-socialist period. The last part is concerned with evaluation of changes in physical and social environment of suburban area of today’s Prague. The study seeks to recognize the negative and positive consequences of suburbanisation in Prague urban region and describes specific features of post-socialist suburban development in comparison with suburban development in Western countries.

Key words: Prague; suburbanisation; suburban development



The development of urban systems in European countries is currently relatively stable lacking clear dominance of one urbanisation process (Champion 2001). While during the period of industrialisation number of urban systems were characteristic by population concentration and during post-war years prevailed deconcentration (suburbanisation), spatial processes of population and their activities are nowadays less evident. However, there exists in the post-socialist cities of East-Central European countries one common feature of urban development, which is suburbanisation or more generally suburban development. The strongest migration flows from the cores of large cities to the adjacent suburban zones can be observed in many post-socialist countries. There is comparable (or even stronger) trend of the stretching commercial activities within suburban areas of large cities.

Since the fall of Iron Curtain there has been published big amount of works dealing with urbanisation processes in countries of East-Central Europe during the communist era (Enyedi 1996; Sjöberg 1999; Szelényi 1996; Tammaru 2001; Weclawowicz 1992 etc.). Recently prevail articles and books more concentrated on the study of transformation development in post-socialist cities (Kovács 1999; Musil, 1993, Ott 2001; Ruoppila/Kåhrik 2003; Sailer-Fliege 1999; Sýkora 1999; Sýkora/ Čermák 1998; Timár/Váradi 2001; Vendina 1997; Weclawowicz 1998; Wiegandt 2000 etc.). Publications directly dedicated to research of suburbanisation or suburban development are relatively scarce (Kok/Kovács 1999; Tammaru 2001; Timár/Váradi 2001) or are written in domicile languages (in Czech for example Mulíček 1999; Ouředníček 2003; Ptáček 1997; Sýkora ed. 2002 etc.).

The paper seeks to describe and evaluate processes changing the suburban zone of post-socialist cities on the case of Prague. Main stress is put on investigation of residential suburbanisation and on changes in social environment of suburban settlement. The paper first describes differences between processes of suburban growth and briefly outlines three periods of Prague’s urban development with particular stress on deconcentration processes, suburban development and suburbanisation. The paper concludes with discussion of negative and positive features, which can change physical and social environment of suburban zone of Prague Urban Region.


Suburbanisation and other xy-urbanisations

In the recent geographical literature four key processes of urban development are stated – urbanisation, suburbanisation, counterurbanisation and reurbanisation. These processes are thought as consequent stages of urban development and they are defined on the base of population growth/decline of core and periphery (suburban zone) of metropolitan regions. Theory associated with four stages of urban development was one of the most influential paradigms of urban studies in 1980s and 1990s (Hall/Hay 1980; van den Berg et al 1982; Cheshire/Hay 1989; Cheshire 1995, Champion 2001). Many other authors tried to describe phases or stages of urban development using similar or successive models. Among them we cannot omit Fielding’s (1982) urbanisation versus counter-urbanisation and Geyer’s and Kontuly’s theory of differential urbanisation (Geyer 1996; Geyer/Kontuly 1993, 1996, 2003; TESG 2003). Today it is clear, that theory of stages of urban development is insufficient for description of complexity of urban development in Europe. Firstly, it seems to be obvious that sequence of particular stages of urbanisation processes doesn’t fit well neither for description of current urban development nor generally for changes in urban systems in European countries in the past. Secondly, model of stages of urban development is acceptable for cities, which went through intensive industrial development but is less valuable for administrative, service and other non-industrial cities. It is apparent for example from empirical analysis of British authors (Cheshire/Hay 1989; Cheshire 1995), whose study covered more than 200 of metropolitan areas (functional urban regions – FUR). However, no single FUR went through complete cycle of consequent stages. Even more, only a small amount of FURs (18 per cent), all of them entirely industrial cities, went through at least half of defined cycle. Empirical verification of theoretical models is not persuasive enough in the case of 189 metropolitan regions from 14 countries investigated by van den Berg’s group (1982). Similarly, results of retrospective analyses (TESG 2003) aimed on verification of theory of differential urbanisation could be perceived rather in contradiction with theoretical model of proposed theory.

There is no doubt that xy-urbanisations mentioned by van den Berg and others are still the most important processes of urban development in Europe. On the other hand it must be noted, that these processes are not consequent stages but rather kinds of urban development. Although we are aware these particular urbanisation processes are mutually interrelated, two or more of them can (and they do) coexist within one urban system or urban region. In my opinion, seeking for new cycles of urban development or attempts to apply characteristics of any xy-urbanisation processes to the current situation is not a perspective approach. Suburbanisation is today dominant process in the East-Central European countries. However, it is obvious, that at the same time other (though less intensive) urbanisation processes also go on. To support this idea, we can bring wide evidence of scientific works dealing with processes of counterurbanisation, gentrification, reurbanisation and other shaping urban environment of post-socialist cities.

To summarize contribution of works dealing with stages of urban development it is right to say that either empirical analyses or description of reasons and consequences of xy-urbanisations are useful materials for deepening our knowledge about urbanisation processes. On the other hand, the main disadvantage of proposed theoretical models is narrow view on urbanisation processes concerned only relation of population growth of core and periphery of metropolitan regions. The substantial body of xy-urbanisations can be expressed only with use of additional qualitative characteristics. Among them there are of great importance migration characteristics such as structure of source destination, motivation or reasons of migration, social and demographic structure of migrants (Fisher 2003; Ford 1999; Halliday/Coombes 1995; Lindgren 2003; Tammaru 2001). Attempts toward categorization or purification of terminology (Halfacree 2001) in the case of xy-urbanisations are useful for understanding reasons and consequences of urbanisation processes. This paper doesn’t include accurate definitions of all urbanisation processes, but for the purpose of theme being discussed there will be presented basic approach to define urbanisation processes and deeper “purification” of suburbanisation process.

If we accept division of settlement (or environment) to the three different types – urban, suburban and rural – and overlooking blurred boundaries within rural-urban continuum, we can summarize migration directions in following table:



In-migration to




Out-migration from


Intra-urban or

Inter-city migration







Tangential migration

(Population retention)




Urbanisation or reurbanisation

Urbanisation or reurbanisation

(Centripetal migration)



Table 1 Types of migration processes (in brackets terms used by Fisher 2003)


The central point of my interest is suburban development (Tammaru 2001), which includes all the processes stated in second column of the table. As you can see, not all the processes of suburban development could be considered as suburbanisation. Different character has tangential migration – mobility of people within suburban zone and migration of population from areas outside metropolitan region. Investigation of source localities of suburban migration was one of differential factors for defining suburbanisation and other processes in peri-urban environment in the studies of Tania Fisher (Ford 1999; Fisher 2003). Fisher recognized four different processes of suburban development: centripetal migration from rural to suburban environment; population retention caused by increased period of residence and reduced out-migration from suburban environment; counter-urbanisation and suburbanisation. Among other differential characteristics Fisher mentioned the degree of economic and social connectivity with the metropolitan area maintained by migrants, migrants motivations and qualities of destinations chosen (accessibility, amenity value and location or site).

Regarding these added qualitative characteristics of urbanisation processes, we can define suburbanisation as process of population deconcentration from the core to the suburban zone of metropolitan regions. Main motivation for the migration is improving of residential condition of (young) households and at the same time the maintenance of urban lifestyle and strong connection with core city.


Development of Prague and suburbanisation

From the beginning of 1993, Prague (Praha) is capital of the independent Czech Republic. According to the latest population census held in March 2001 Prague has - within administrative boundaries of the city - 1,2 million people. Whole Prague urban region, consisting of Capital city of Prague and two adjacent administrative districts of Prague-East and Prague-West, covers area of 1.666 square km with more than 1,3 million inhabitants. Other major urban centres in Czechia are Brno (380), Ostrava (320) and Pilsen (170 thousand).


Figure 1 Position of Prague urban region in Czechia.

Source: Population census 2001, Czech Statistical Office


Prague grew quickly during the interwar period with annual net migration of 15-19 thousand people. Prague reached 1 million inhabitants in 1939, but during 1940s it lost 50 thousand people and one million regain in the beginning of 1960s. World War II and radical change of political and economic climate after communist coup resulted in state control of population growth of Prague and other big cities. Typical features of 1920s and 1930s - massive concentration of people (urbanisation) from countryside and residential deconcentration (suburbanisation) either in the periphery of Greater Prague or more remote localities alongside rail corridors – were replaced by stagnation of population development.  Although the restriction of natural growth of the capital was reappraised in 1960s and after, the character of development and distribution of new housing was in sharp contrast with urban development in Western countries and also with the past development of Prague. The consequent concentration of state investments to building of large housing estates and very limited individual construction of family houses (mainly in the countryside) led to complete non-existence of suburban development in Prague’s surroundings.

Socialism was time of development of large housing estates, which considerably changed previous patterns of suburban development from classical suburbanisation to development of New Towns of panel houses. Although the trend of population deconcentration from inner city and development of suburban zone had the same quantitative characteristics (using plus and minus in population changes of core and periphery), character of residential areas, motivations of migrants and social structure of migration were completely different from western style suburbanisation. The development beyond the city limits was restricted only to quite a few communities, which were established as centres. It has to be allowed to invest money for building infrastructure or housing only to these communities. The rest of small communities (noncentres) became depressed inner periphery with recreation and agriculture function, with high loses of people, aged and less educated population.

The change of political regime has brought significant changes in economy and society, which started to be gradually observable also in the spatial context. Economic restitutions of formerly private houses and agricultural land situated in urban and suburban areas were important preconditions of new urban development. This led directly to establishing of new functional land use of inner city and to partial changing from residential to commercial uses of buildings, but due to rent regulation also to stabilisation or occasionally trapping of original residents inside restituted property. Restitution wasn’t in progress in prefabricated housing estates built during socialist era, but instead privatisation became an important stabilisation factor of these areas. Apartments here retain relatively expensive and that is way they are inaccessible for population with low economic and social status. Restitution of land, on the other hand, was the key accelerator of suburban development in communities surrounding big cities.


Post-socialist suburbanisation

The process of new suburbanisation started in the beginning of 1990s. However, more intensive migration from core to suburban zone was observable from 1995. Forms of suburban development differ significantly from place to place and vary from greater and rather autonomous new settlements to individual projects of separate family houses. New construction is located either on empty lots within existing settlement or as new satellite villages more distant from former settlement. Distinctive aspect of suburban development in Prague urban region is realisation of small projects consisting of 20-50 family houses or quite widespread realisation of individually built houses. These individual projects are realised either on single lot or as a part of larger developed area but using own project and independent of other builders.


Figure 2 Net migration in Prague, suburban zone (districts of Prague-East and Prague-West) and entire Prague metropolitan area (PMR) 1988-2000

Source: Czech Statistical Office, own calculations


Suburban communities, which were during the communist regime neglected and restricted for investment, have today plans of large residential and commercial development. The extent of proposed development would exceed several times area and number of population of existing community. On the other hand, these large projects of uniform family houses typical for US or Western European suburbanisation are still missing in Prague’s suburban development.

It would be hard work to find out within the whole metropolitan area locality without newly constructed family house and in this context some analysts warn against urban sprawl. Indeed many builders don’t respect any regulative documents and spatial distribution of new housing therefore depends almost exclusively on activity of new restituents. On the other hand, it must be noted, that small communities have enormous underdeveloped potential for growth. Population of large cities and namely citizens of Prague got quickly reached and are able to spend relatively high amount of money for suburban housing. State support of mortgages and building savings contributes to growing number of people from middle strata, which can afford family house. It has clear impact in spatial spread of communities with net migration growth in suburban zone and in variety of costs and forms of construction in individual localities. In general we can assume that initially were developed houses of higher standard in attractive localities and later also more peripheral communities with cheaper lots and housing. The evidence of communities with migration increase supports this idea. Their number increased from 73 communities in 1991 to 135 in 1999. It is also obvious from table 2 that in 1995 suburban development was concentrated within the administrative boundaries of the city. Six years later the zone with higher rate of migration and total increase were districts Prague-East and Prague-West.






Natural increase

Net migration

Total increase

Natural increase

Net migration

Total increase


Per 1000 of inhabitants


(Historic city)







Inner city

(Pre-war city)







Outer city

(Housing estates)








(Prague´s villages)







Prague total







Suburban zone

(Prague-East and West)








Table 2 Components of population growth in zones of Prague urban region in 1995 and 2001

Source: Czech Statistical Office, own calculations


The theoretical section of this paper deals with differentiation of processes of suburban development. It is obvious from the investigation of Prague’s hinterland that deconcentration moves of population from Prague to the districts of Prague-East and Prague-West cover 61 per cent of in-migration to the suburban zone. Almost one quarter of newcomers originates from communities inside suburban zone (15 per cent) together with other localities within neighbouring districts of Central Bohemia (9 per cent). This short-distance migration (tangential migration) has increasing importance and its internal structure is quite complicated as suburban zone is not homogenous but consisting of small towns, developing and peripheral villages. Only small part of migrants comes from more remote areas of Czechia. The share of international migration is not accurate due to statistical deficiency. High proportions of „foreigners“ in suburban zone are Czech re-emigrants, while most of Western Europeans rather concentrate to the inner city. The autonomous locality of Americans in Malá Šárka on the north-western edge of the city is rare exception.


Figure 3 Structure of in-migration to Prague´s suburban zone by source destinations in 1997-1999.

Source: Czech Statistical Office


When we zoom out on the level of Czech administrative districts, we can recognize following general trends. Prague urban region (with absolute dominance of Prague) has positive migration balance with districts contained the largest Czech cities. On the other hand, Prague loses people with own hinterland and also with more remote small towns in neighbouring districts of Central Bohemia and country districts around Brno and Pilsen. We can see similar picture in the case of migration balance of suburban zone. Most important source areas of growth of suburban area belong again the largest Czech cities. Is migration out-flowing from Brno or Olomouc to the hinterland of Prague suburbanisation?


To identify suburbanisation and other urbanisation processes only on the base of source destination of in-migration is rather insufficient. There are also other very important characteristics of urbanisation processes, which include motivations of migrants and connectivity with the core city (Ford 1999). These characteristics are important for proper differentiation of particular migration flows and urbanisation processes (urbanisation – suburbanisation – counterurbanisation – tangential and centripetal migration etc.). In the case of Czech cities and namely Prague local conditions of urban-to-rural migration play an important role. For instance, among the communities with the fastest migration growth, there are all these with localised rest homes for elderly people. There is also another specific kind of suburban development - transformation of second homes in recreational areas to permanent or seasonal housing. On the other hand, in Prague there has not been recognized outflow of urban poor from the city, trend that is in progress in the South-East Europe. These residential moves have different character and they differ from suburbanisation in the right sense of this process. The low degree of connectivity of migrants from Brno, Olomouc and other more remote cities is than reason why these processes of suburban development would be considered as different from suburbanisation. However no research dealing with diversification of particular urban-to-suburban streams of migration has been done up to date.


Is suburbanisation negative or positive process?

Suburbanisation (and moreover urban sprawl) is traditionally perceived as a negative process. Suburbanisation or suburban development produces functionally homogenous zones. It raises requirements for traffic and technical infrastructure. Suburban buildings occupy formerly agricultural land; suburbanites bring alien features to architecture and social environment, and deepen socio-spatial polarisation and segregation. But are these postulates generated from long-time experiences from Western cities appropriate for suburban development in Czechia? I would like to advocate also some positive aspects of suburban development around Prague.

It was argued that virtually no development had to been allowed in most of communities around Prague during socialist era. Many of communities were in the beginning of 1990s underdeveloped and had big potential for residential (and commercial) growth. Appearance of first suburban pioneers started a new development of social and physical environment and it is obvious that suburban development has many positive consequences. Firstly, the construction of new housing (with noise and mood from heavy machines and strange workmen walking through the village) is not perceived as positive feature for local people. But builders often cover part of expenditures for the whole village in case of infrastructure, new lighting or roads. Construction of new buildings brings more opportunities for local firms. Activities in suburban zone pull in more people who use local services. Specific feature of Czech settlement is relatively dense distribution of small towns serving as centres with supply of all elementary goods and services. New suburbanites are not fully dependent on commuting to the core city and big amount of travels is realized in short distances. Suburban development therefore supports local firms. Secondly, to the suburban zone migrate rather more affluent people. Their homes are more luxurious, their cars more expensive, but they share common space with residents of former neighbourhood. Although in the first years after they coming the newcomers are rather separated, the co-existence of both social groups becomes tighter. Suburbanites start to participate in local governments, many of them use local firms during construction of family house, and all of them need local services and offices. The most intensive connections are soon done between parents of children and young people generally. Thirdly, suburbanites are more educated people and their social status and lifestyle is different from former inhabitants. Newcomers bring new activities and there is no doubt that their lifestyle has strong impact on social environment of villagers. They pay more attention for appropriate services and infrastructure and improved facilities serve equally for entire village. New lines of metropolitan buses were set up around Prague, many communities have own newspapers etc.

The special sorts of suburbanites are people, who move towards the cheaper and more remote or/and less accessible localities within metropolitan area. Many of them often don’t build new family houses but they purchase and renovate older houses or transform second homes into permanent housing. Typical trend of current suburban development is migration inflow of middle social strata. Many of newcomers are young people in childbearing age, who try to find an affordable housing. For many of them it was really shock therapy, when responsibility for housing was transferred at once from state to individual person. Housing of average standard in suburban zone and daily commuting are most reasonable solutions for numerous young families.



Suburbanisation and suburban development are not new processes in Prague urban region. Intensive suburban growth was traditional form of city enlargement in 19th century and in the era of First Republic. Current residential suburbanisation is relatively moderate process, up to now it has not bring big problems observed in the past development of Western cities. As certain threat we can consider growing number of cars per person, which is evenly consequence of increasing car ownership of firms and individuals within both inner and suburban zones of the city. Suburbanisation could be perceived not only as a negative trend but even as upgrading of social and physical environment of suburban localities, as revival of natural development of Czech cities. There is no doubt, that there exist plenty of threats of suburban development. What is believed to be positive in suburban area would have negative impact in other places of metropolitan area. For example selective migration of people with higher social status out from inner city or housing estates could lead to socio-spatial segregation. Concentration of poor people inside declining areas of the inner city would lead to physical or/and social downgrading of source destinations of suburban migrants. However, experiences from urban development of Western countries tell us that big problems are derived from rapid growth. The post-socialist residential suburbanisation is rather steady rehabilitation of natural urban development.



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