The Voice of the Trees Városliget, Budapest, Hungary. Civil groups protest against the Liget Project on 28 March, 2016, Easter Monday. Photo: Elekes Andor/Wikimedia, under CC4.0 license

The Voice of the Trees

Local people and civil society groups have stood in protest against construction at the historic City Park of Budapest. The project is one of several that the government has declared legally “important” but that also involve the cutting of thousands of trees in Hungary’s capital.

The Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere) is a well-known and emblematic location, a must-see for the crowds of tourists who visit Budapest. Together with Andrássy Avenue, it is part of one of the World Heritage sites of the city. What few tourists learn is that City Park (“Városliget” in Hungarian), which lies behind the square, is one of the oldest public parks on Earth.

A former marshland, the area was gradually converted into a park from 1794 until 1840. The oldest trees that survive there today are maple-leaved planes planted around 1810—meaning these huge trees are now more than 200 years old. Today the area of City Park, including the Budapest Zoo and the Circus, is 1.2 km2, equal to 168 football pitches.

Heroes’ Square, with City Park in the background. Photo: Bálint Bajomi.

The park is part of the World Heritage Site’s buffer zone and is home to 11 separate tourist attractions, including Gundel Restaurant, the Budapest Zoological & Botanical Garden and Széchenyi Thermal Baths, among others (see the map and caption below). Over 4.5 million people visit the park annually to see these attractions or just to take a stroll, relax or take a dip in the famous waters. Many people living in the surrounding districts come here to walk their dog(s), go boating on the lake, cycle and run on the avenues or enjoy a beer or “fröccs” (spritzer).

Map of Budapest City Park before planned reconstruction and museum building works: 1. Gundel Restaurant; 2. Municipal Zoological and Botanical Garden; 3: Municipal Grand Circus; 4. Former Amusement Park; 5. Széchenyi Medicinal Baths and Swimming Pool; 6. Vajdahunyad Castle; 7. Petőfi Hall; 8. Transport Museum of Budapest; 9. Heroes’ Square; 10. Museum of Fine Arts; and 11. Palace of Art. Source: Devil_m25, CC-BY-SA-3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

In 2011 the Hungarian government launched the “Liget Project”, intended to renovate the park and construct more art facilities. One part of the complex work intended is the revival of the green surfaces of the City Park. Another goal of the project is to create a new “Museum District”, with new buildings, sport facilities and other constructed areas.

It seems that under Hungarian law, the Liget Project could not be implemented, so a new regulation was written.

When the plans were made public, a considerable civil protest started against them. This ongoing protest has mainly been organised by “Ligetvédők“, Park Protectors, an informal grassroots organisation. The Hungarian Society for Urban Planning, the landscape architect section of the Chamber of Hungarian Architects, the Hungarian Association of Landscape Architects and the environmentalist section of Budapest City Protection Association also raised objections to the Museum District plans. This community is trying to stop the Liget Project with the help of petitions, demonstrations, and conferences as well as by providing arguments against the project through mass media.

Construction in the park

Eszter Sebestyén, member of the Ligetvédők (Park Protectors) activist group informed BlueLink Stories that the plans are regularly subject to changes. Dávis Zubreczki, journalist at index.hu summarised the current situation in May 2018. According to his article, the complex to be built and renovated in and nearby the park would include 17+1 elements shown on the caption of the visualisation below.

The Budapest City Park Project. New or reconstructed buildings: New Museum of Ethnography; New National Gallery; House of Hungarian Innovation; City Park Theatre; House of Hungarian Music; Millennium House (the renovated Olof Palme House); and reconstruction of the Museum of Fine Arts. Park items: reconstruction of the whole City Park; Garden of Blind People; dog amusement park; Olof Palme promenade; a new bridge and a new island; Kós Károly Promenade; and Pannon Park (a large-scale enlargement of the Budapest Zoo). Other items: three new pavilions; a parking garage; two underground garages; and the National Museum Restoration and Storage centre, which will be built at another location not far from City Park. Image: visualisation of the new Museum of Ethnography. Source: ligetbudapest.hu.

László Baán, a ministerial commissioner, stated that the full cost of the Liget Project is estimated at 250 billion Hungarian Forint (773 million Euro). The company Városliget Zrt. (City Park Ltd.) is in charge of the investment. After the harsh civil protest started, six percent of the budget, 15 billion HUF was redirected towards the renewal of the park itself.

Since the regime change in 1990, this is the first time that a design competition was advertised in Hungary. The implementation of some elements has already been started: e.g. the Museum of Ethnography and the dog amusement park.

The Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum in Hungarian) is a well-known tourist attraction neighbouring the City Park. In 2017 its director general László Baán  was named ministerial commissioner in charge of the whole City Park project. Prof. Dr. Miklós Persányi has been the director of Budapest Zoo for a long time, and between 2003 and 2007 he was the environmental minister in the Hungarian government. As harsh controversy was developing between greens and the government around the City Park issues, Persányi was named ministerial commissioner coordinating the landscape architecture duties of the project.

Construction works of the Pannon Park, an extension of Budapest Zoo. Photo: Bálint Bajomi.

Both commissioners refused to comment for the purpose of this report, in spite of the fact that communication duties were included in the official departmental order of their nomination. László Baán gave a long interview to Klubrádió, an opposition radio station, and both commissioners run a very detailed website. The Park Protectors have their own websites as well, and together with a large amount of media coverage, a lot of information is available on the project in Hungarian, was used for this current article.

Agreement on some elements of the project

The park has suffered from recent developments. The condition of some old buildings inside the park that have been out of use for decades has deteriorated. Car traffic arriving from the east of Hungary along the M3 motorway is flowing towards the city centre through the Károly Kós promenade, cutting across the middle of the park. Most Budapest inhabitants would agree that the park needs improvement. And spending on culture, e.g.  building new museums, is also a positive goal.

So even Sándor Bardóczi, a landscape architect and one of the main characters at Park Protectors, is happy with some elements of the project: renewal of the green surfaces; demolition of the buildings that do not fit the area; banning of vehicles from Károly Kós promenade; discontinuing the use of Felvonulási square as a P+R parking; the reconstruction of the lake, the playgrounds; and the reconstruction  of the Olof Palme House.

Zoom.hu wrote in the spring of 2018 about the changes foreseen for the traffic in the area. According to officers of Városliget Zrt., Károly Kós promenade—which currently sees traffic of 10-15,000 cars per day—will be closed to motorised vehicles. In order to relieve the park and the city centre of traffic, park and ride (P + R) facilities are planned further out  in order to allow commuters to leave their vehicles outside the centre and the park and transfer to public transport.

Too large to construct

Klára Garay, leader of the environmentalist section of Budapest City Protection Association, was one of the first persons opposing the Liget Budapest Project. She is still playing a leading role. Here she showed me the government plans of the new museums. Photo: Bálint Bajomi.

The most important concern of Park Protectors is that the planned buildings would be too large for the City Park. According to the plans, the New National Gallery would have a maximum height of 25 m, the same size as a seven-floor residential building. Park Protectors is saying that this would be too big to be built in a park. However, the highest tower of the nearby, already existing Vajdahunyad Castle is 50 m high.

There is also a debate between civil society activists and the Városliget Zrt. about the calculation of green area and green surface. The latter includes the roof-gardens and makes the project seem more environmentally friendly, protesters argue. They are concerned that the park is full of high-value old trees, some of which would be cut and others transplanted during implementation of the project.

City park’s tree registry from 2016 includes 7,105 trees. Városliget Zrt. informed the NGOs and the media that 226 trees (3.2%) are on the area to be occupied by the future buildings. They want to cut 44 trees (0.6%) because of their bad health condition and transplant 182 (2.6%). The large trees are to be relocated by the German company Opitz International Großbaumverpflanzung which seems to have a long track record of transplanting large trees, but Park Protectors worries that many transplants will not be successful.

The Ligetvédők (Park Protectors) activist group organised a public demonstration at the site “Kertem”, which was occupied for a long time and is now set to be demolished by Városliget Zrt. Photo: Bálint Bajomi.

The Olof Palme promenade in the City Park is currently an important element of Budapest’s bike-infrastructure network. According to Áron Halász, the spokesman of the Hungarian Cyclists’ Club, “one of the most important bike paths of Budapest is in danger. The planned capacities are not enough to fulfil neither the current, neither the presumably bigger future bike traffic, but would cause conflicts with the other park users”.

Park Protectors claims that there is no real dialogue between the construction organisation and local inhabitants.

There are several old and currently unused industrial zones in Budapest that need to be rehabilitated and would be good candidates for the new Museum District. One of them is not far from City Park, in the backyard of Nyugati (Western) Railway Station. So it is not clear why the government is forcing the use of the City Park site.

Fractured dialogue

Garten Studio Ltd. developed the landscape architecture plans for the rehabilitation of the park. In the end of 2016, with the guidance of ministerial commissioner Miklós Persányi, the company organised 17 focused consultations where they invited organisations such as environmental NGOs, nearby schools and associations of blind people. Six other, more general forums were organised in 2016 and 2017. Miklós Persányi stated at one of the meetings that “the debate is organised in accordance with the English BREEAM certificate system of environmentally conscious building  (…) and will be transparent and public”. According to the commissioner’s website, during this time 118 organisations, institutions and communities made a total of 558 comments, proposals and questions. “Almost 90% of the proposals had the potential to be used in the renewal programme of the park; most of them will be in fact included”, states the press release of Miklós Persányi.

A family of ducks next to the lake. Photo: Bálint Bajomi.

However Park Protectors claims that there is no real dialogue between the construction organisation and local inhabitants. The main concern (whether new buildings would be constructed or not) of the Park Protectors could not be discussed at the above-mentioned consultations and forums. This is why Park Protectors, Greenpeace Hungary and Clean Air Action Group (Levegő Munkacsoport) did not participate in these events.

An old tree cut as part of the City Park renovation. In the background some low-value buildings can be seen which have been demolished. Photo: Bálint Bajomi.There are also problems around the legal background of the constructions. Bardóczi writes that with the special City Park law, the government withdrew the area from the scope of the state and city building regulations. It seems that under Hungarian law, the Liget Project could not be implemented, so a new regulation was written: the City Park Building Regulation (Városligeti Építési Szabályzat, VÉSZ).

Park Protectors is occupying several sites in City Park in an attempt to block the building operations. They regularly have conflicts with security guards of Valton-Sec Kft. and policemen, which are widely covered in Hungarian media. Park Protectors has several tent camps, which they have been running them since 18 March 2016. At the time of writing this article, they have been doing this 816 days.

Apart from City Park, official building plans have sparked environmental concerns on the Római bank of the Danube river, the Orczy garden, and the Normafa hills as well.

Buda Castle District and Kossuth Square in front of the Parliament are both in the very centre of Budapest and play a strong symbolic role in the history of Hungary. Under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, both have been renovated to appear as they were in 1944.

Orbán is planning to settle his offices in the Castle District. The National Gallery in the Castle Palace and the Museum of Ethnography at Kossuth Square are being moved from their original locations. This reorganisation can be seen as a symbolic and nostalgic gesture towards the era of right-winged Miklós Horthy, regent of Hungary between 1920 and 1945 and the man who entered Hungary into World War II.

Viktor Orbán on Kossuth Square giving a speech in memory of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Photo: Bálint Bajomi.

The final outcome of the debate around City Park is still unknown. But recent protests against tree cuttings across Budapest, including in City Park, have shown the city council that the inhabitants of Budapest value green areas and are ready to stand in their defence. So authorities need to comply.

On 27 October, 2016, commissioner Miklós Persányi and István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest gave speech in the vicinity of the City Park and announced together that the municipality will plant 10,000 trees in the forthcoming years. Many of these trees have already been planted.

More BlueLink stories about civil initiates 

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