2007-2008: Research Year in Belgrade, Serbia
Exhibition of aerial photography – Kalemegdan (fortress and park)
I spent my sabbatical from UIUC in Belgrade, Serbia, Southeast Europe, under sponsorship of IREX and Fulbright. Belgrade is a gold mine of urban issues (read “problems”), but is also charming and unique in its own chaotic, somewhat untamed and polluted ways (more on Belgrade here). In line with my main research interests, I was studying the seeds of Serbian spatial data infrastructure (on the information technology track) and the evolution of planning legislation (on the planning practice track).
A view from my apartment window
My institutional affiliation was with the Institute of Architecture and Urbanism of Serbia (IAUS) and Department of Spatial Planning at the Faculty of Geography (University of Belgrade). In addition to academic networking, I also had an opportunity to follow the main events and issues with regard to planning and urban development in Belgrade. I encountered a diversity of challenging and complex projects, some of them of vital importance to the future functioning of Belgrade as a major population center (of close to 2 million people) where most of economic, cultural and political activities of Serbia are concentrated.
Some of these projects included:
- Infrastructural projects funded from the National Investment Plan and European Union sources, mainly pertaining to the reconstruction of major bridges and internal and external ring roads; there are debates with respect to the conceptualization of those projects, selection of routes, environmental impact, and implementation. (One of the controversial proposed inner ring trajectories ran next to my building and raised complaints from the local community.)
- Ongoing discussions with regard to the main public transport options for Belgrade – light rail versus metro, including the issue of re-locating the main railway station.
- Continuous plan making activity, focused on the updates of the 2003 Master Plan (Belgrade 2021) and current work on the city’s strategy.
- Restitution of private property nationalized after the Second World War by the communist government;
- Illegal construction or misuse and adaptation of laws and plans to benefit private initiatives, with politics and corruption underlying those activities.
- Attempts to modernize the country’s and city’s information base with Digital Cadastre (partially funded by the World Bank) and E-government initiatives.
- Efforts to revise the 2003 Law on Planning and Construction by a consulting group from Vienna; continued controversy with respect to planning legislation.
Pedestrian zone (Knez Mihajlova Street)
My impression is that Belgrade offers a wealth of material that is fascinating to explore and share with other countries/cities and that is also valuable source of potential contributions to the social sciences. The experiences were unique, yet relevant and useful to learn about, given the many challenges that the country and its urban environments have gone through and may face in future. Against many obstacles of economic, social, cultural, and political nature, I encountered extraordinarily creative efforts to advance the quality of life and functionality of a dense urban environment.
During the 2007-2008 academic year, I participated in and attended numerous events. Following are the monthly highlights:
||Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) XXI Conference, Naples, Italy
||GISDATA ESRI User Conference, Opatija, Croatia (Keynote)
||METRO – Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, presentation by Professor Mihajlo Maletin, Serbian Academy of Engineering
||Strategy for Development of Belgrade – workshop with stakeholders and the international consultancy Team, City of Belgrade Town Hall, organized by the Commission for the preparation of the Strategic plan for the City of Belgrade and PALGO Center
||GIS in Urban Planning, seminar organized by the Executive Body of the Independent Province of Vojvodina, Provincial Secretariat for Architecture, Urbanism and Construction and the Local Section of Urbanists of the Engineering Chamber of Serbia, Novi Sad
||International Scientific Conference Sustainable Spatial Development of Towns and Cities, Belgrade, Serbia. Presentations: Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Metropolitan Structure: Case Study of Washington, DC, USA; Spatial Data Infrastructure and Its Initiation in Serbia (paper with Vesna Jokic, Omiljena Dželebdžic and Nama Raj Budhathoki)
||International Academic Forum on Planning, Law and Property Rights, Second Symposium, Warsaw. Presentation and paper: Serbian Planning Legislation in the Context of Communism and Post-Communism (with Dejan Djordjevic and Tijana Dabovic, University of Belgrade)
||NEURUS Seminar, organized by Humboldt University, Geography Department, Berlin, Germany
||Wageningen University, Department of Geo-informatics, Research Visit, Wageningen, The Netherlands
||AGILE Conference on GI-Science, Pre-conference workshop Multi- and Interdisciplinary Research on Spatial Data Infrastructure Development, Girona, Spain; Presentation: The Missing Links
Advanced Regional Spatial Data Infrastructures Workshop, Joint Research Centre, Ispra (Varese), Italy; Presentation: Non-European Experiences - USA
||Visit to ITC, Enschede, the Netherlands (International Institute for Geoinformation Sciences and Earth Observation), Division for Urban Planning & Geo-information Management; Lecture at the Master’s course, Module on Managing Geo-Information Systems in the Public Sector (Instructor: Dr. Diego Navarra): SDI – A Path to Information Society
||Seminar “GIS and Urban Indicator Analysis – Infrastructure”, Institute of Architecture and Urban and Spatial Planning of Serbia (Institut za arhitekturu i urbanizam Srbije – IAUS)
Faculty of Architecture and Civil Engineering: Institute of Architecture and Urbanism of Serbia (IAUS) located here
As suggested above, there were many opportunities to travel, locally and internationally. In addition to conference travels, I went to the Netherlands for a doctoral dissertation final exam and project visits (Wageningen University and International Institute for Geoinformation Science and Earth Observation --ITC); made short private trips to Montenegro (my land of ancestry), Egypt, India, Italy, and Greece; and visited mountain Tara’s nature park Mecavnik and ethno village Drvengrad (“Wood City”) constructed and owned by a renowned film director Emir Kusturica (check out “Underground” and many other of his superb movies), located in southwest Serbia (see http://www.mecavnik.info/wsw/index.php?p=196).
Pekara (bakery) in Cyrillic alphabet
I also spent a lot of time traveling (i.e., driving) in town – trying to master the zen of not reacting to Balkan macho drivers and perfecting my parallel parking skills (I managed once while talking on the mobile phone – realizing at that point that I was fully adjusted to the local environment). These endless in town back and forth trips were mostly undertaken in my “soccer mom” role. I must report that, although the traffic had worsened since I left in 1987, parking in Belgrade was improved. It was well regulated, with 3 differently priced zones (red, orange and green), and the payment for most of street parking handled by mobile phones.
A shopper in front of a local mini-mart
Politics I would not want to talk much about – not much change there – it was dynamic as always. I was there for one of the most significant events in the recent history of Serbia – the proclamation of independence of Kosovo (see my personal commentary in the UIUC Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Center News here).
However, regardless of the political tensions and economic hardships, Belgrade was rich with exciting urban life, cultural and sport events of all types, and sometimes rough but warm and generous Serbian people. With these wonderful experiences and memories, I was happy to return to my home and friends in Illinois who welcomed me with their kindness and made my transition back to the U.S. easy and smooth.