23. 3. 2009

What expats in Brno say: What a dirty train station

Benjamin Vail is a native of Maine, USA. He moved to the Czech Republic in 2004 with his wife, who is from Prague. Living in Prague, Vail commuted to Brno almost weekly to work as an e-learning developer and then doctoral student in the Environmental Studies Department at Masaryk University. The Vail family moved to Brno in the spring of 2008 so he could accept a position as Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department, where he does research and teaches about environmental issues in the Czech Republic and internationally.

What was your first impression of Brno?

I came to Brno for the first time by train, in late 2004. While I don’t remember my first impression exactly, it was probably something like, “What a dirty train station!” The original Brno station itself is a grand building, but some of the things you notice on the platforms are rusty metal, gray concrete, broken windows, unswept corners, and people smoking cigarettes directly below signs that say “No Smoking.”

What do you like about Brno?

Brno is a livable city. The farmer’s market at Zelny Trh is great! Public transportation is comprehensive and affordable. There is beautiful architecture and a sense of history throughout the city. The pace of life here is generally relaxed. In my neighborhood, people drop by the local vinarna and enjoy sipping wine and chilling out with friends. When all the students are in town, there is a feeling of youthful energy and activity. When the students are away on vacation, the city breathes deeply and takes a rest.

What you don't like about Brno?

There are things about Brno that can be improved. Better recreational opportunities in the green spaces that surround the city would be nice. Better handicapped access in public spaces – including on sidewalks, at tram stops, railway and bus stations, etc. – would benefit not only those in wheelchairs but also the elderly and parents pushing prams. More parts of the city center should be converted either to pedestrian zones, or made “pedestrian priority” which means that private car access is limited and walkers have the right of way. This would make the city friendlier for families and everyone else.

Where do you see the biggest potential of Brno?

There is great cultural and natural heritage in Brno. The city was founded at the confluence of two of the important rivers of South Moravia: the Svitava and the Svratka. Yet neither river seems to play much of a role in the life of the city. I think Brno should capitalize on this special environmental feature and develop the riverbanks into multi-use areas with public access. The rivers could form a “green necklace” of parks, educational and recreation centers, housing and commercial spaces surrounding the city center. I am involved in a long-term project aimed at doing just this along the Old Ponavka River, which flows through an industrial neighborhood near the downtown and connects the two main rivers.

What do you think is its advantage compared with other cities?

I think the city’s location is valuable – it is close to Vienna, Prague, Olomouc, Cracow, and Bratislava, with good road and rail links. One of the great things about Southern Moravia is the network of bicycle paths connecting Brno with other cities all around Europe, giving locals and visitors the chance to tour the countryside and visit the vineyards of the region. With some creative urban design and infrastructure investments, Brno can offer a high quality of life as a historic and green urban center with good tech and industrial jobs integrated with the surrounding towns and environment.

Where do you see the way how to make Brno more attractive for foreigners?

Foreigners want a nice place to live. They will compare Brno with their hometowns, and for many European expats the center of Brno lacks amenities they expect, for example bicycle lanes and easy access to playgrounds for kids. Also, Brno – like many American cities including New York – should enact a city-wide ban on smoking in enclosed places like restaurants, bars, cafes, etc. Many foreigners expect such spaces to be smoke-free, and experience in other cities shows that a smoking ban is good for business.

What are your favorite places in Brno, that you would recommend for a visit?

Some places downtown that offer good views of the city include Spilberk Castle, and also the park called Denisovy Sady around the Cathedral. You can climb up the Cathedral bell towers and get nice views looking north and south. The aquarium, located next to the Old Town Hall, is very small but still a delight for small kids. It can be peaceful to walk along the Svitava River and the Bystrc reservoir in the northern part of the city. I recommend Zelny Trh on Saturday mornings, especially during burčák season!

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