The year is 2020. Kids, teenagers, and families are enjoying their Sunday afternoon, cycling along the 10-kilometer bike lane that connects three of the biggest parks in the Bulgarian capital. In the city center a cheerful crowd is slowly gathering around a new concert hall, which is hosting a jazz festival later that day.
After dark the guiding light of the Gates appears, kilometers away from the center. Located at the four main road entrances to the city, gigantic light-reflecting open portals welcome visitors.
That's how Sofia might look if some of the ideas presented by Architects for Sofia, an independent group of a dozen young architects, come to pass in 10 years. United around the notion of transforming the city into a greener and friendlier place to live, they have come up with 10 ideas for its long-term urban development.
Last autumn the concept was presented as an open exhibition under the name Sofia 2020. The architects also launched a website, www.sofia2020.bg, dedicated to the project, aiming to create an Internet portal where citizens of Sofia could comment on the proposals and add their own suggestions.
The project has been widely praised by local authorities and the public. Now the group is looking for the funds to make it a reality.
FREEDOM AND CONGESTION
Like many cities in post-communist countries, Sofia has experienced a dramatic transformation in the past 20 years.
Mammoth monuments that celebrate the glory of work, grand projects of concrete and steel, like the National Palace of Culture, and thousands of grim apartment complexes have given way to sleeker designs; communist imperatives surrendered to a freedom to explore.
But a lack of planning controls, corruption, and the absence of a long-term vision for the urban development of Sofia have created their own problems, including unchecked construction.
So, too has increasing prosperity, with an explosion of car ownership in Bulgaria. In 1998, the country recorded about 71,000 new registrations. Ten years later, that number was 350,000, according to EU statistics. As a result, Sofia is jam-packed with cars and suffers from a chronic shortage of parking spaces. Instead of people, most sidewalks are crammed with parked cars. Pedestrians must either navigate between the cars or walk on the street. Parents with baby strollers or disabled people find it almost impossible to move through downtown.
All those cars and scarce bike lanes also make Sofia a dangerous place for those who would bike to work.
In addition, the city lacks modern cultural venues, so people tend to congregate in malls.
That's where the ambitious plans of Architects for Sofia come in.
Most of the group are close friends who have traveled the world together. Trips abroad and a shared passion for architecture inspired an unusual hobby – collecting good ideas from every city they visited. They fancied that someday these ideas could be used to significantly transform the urban space in Sofia.
"We wanted to make our city a better place for living, for relaxation, for culture, for sport, all the things that Sofia misses and that nobody pays attention to," said Viktoria Velikova, deputy chairwoman of Architects for Sofia.
"As architects, we're professionally obliged to take care of our city and suggest ideas that could make it better. That's the purpose of the organization – combining our ideas and experience for a good cause," said Stefan Stefanov, a landscape architect from the organization.
For six years the architects accumulated a wide collection of ideas, but they were too busy to put them together. When the economic downturn came and business dropped off, they finally found the time to formulate their Sofia 2020 concept.
In an effort to stay independent, the architects are funding the project out of their own pockets.
"We endeavored to have no sponsors, so we can keep the whole idea pure," Velikova said.
FROM IDEA TO REALITY
The package of 10 ideas combines small- and large-scale projects, trying to address problems that the architects say have been neglected for years.
For example, a plant-a-tree tax for car owners, self-cleaning public lavatories, and grass-covered rights of way for trams are among the ideas that they say wouldn't cost much and could be easily implemented.
Some, like the concert hall complex of three multifunctional, modern halls with 3,500, 2,500, and 800 seats, the bike ring around the parks, and an underground museum of communism would obviously take more time and money.
Still others, like transforming the area around Sofia's central train station into a second city and administrative center, similar to La Défense in Paris, and turning a part of Sofia's city center into a pedestrian zone would take more than 10 years.
Adriana Andreeva, editor of Edno magazine, which organizes the annual Sofia Architecture Week forum, agrees that Sofia desperately needs a modern, well-equipped concert center. "A big capital like Sofia can't go without a decent concert hall, with so many events and concerts taking place here. Even the biggest existing hall has problems with acoustics," she said. Andreeva estimates a new hall would take eight or nine years to build.
The mayor of Sofia, Yordanka Fandakova, has also hailed the Sofia 2020 project. "Many of their ideas coincide with our plans for the development of the city. It's interesting that when people get involved in discussion, most of them think alike, searching for the same solution," she said. For example, the city has already started to build bike lanes in Mladost, a large residential district.
After talks between the organization and city officials, Sofia 2020 will evolve into a new portal integrated into the city's official website by the end of the year.
"We intended to further develop this project into a new one – to generate new ideas, to open it up for discussions, so everybody could have their say or suggest an idea," explained Petar Dikov, chief architect of Sofia. "I support the project because it exactly reflects my vision for an Internet platform that promotes public discussion," he said.
While generally supportive, Fandakova is careful not to make promises. "I would work to implement these good ideas, but it's a matter of money when they could be carried out. Let's not forget we're in recession now," she said.
Dikov is optimistic, but cagey, about finding funding, saying only, "Money can be found, as long as you have good ideas."
Architects for Sofia say rather than some institutional pat on the back, they'd like actual support and cooperation in turning some of the ideas into reality.
"City authorities could be much more proactive. They've pledged to support us, but practically nothing has been done yet," Velikova said. The group has begun to explore EU funding, although it has not worked up budget figures for the project.
AN OVERDUE DEBATE
So far green ideas have been most popular among those who have voted on the website. The bike lane around the city's parks is the current leader, supported by more than 1,200 people.
"Great idea! I've been riding a bike for 10 years now and I often bike around the parks. It would be awesome if the parks were connected with a cycling path. I would be thrilled to see it happen," one commenter, Aleksandar Mitev, wrote.
Architects and experts agree that Sofia 2020's most valuable contribution might be to get people talking about the city's future.
"There should much more openness and public debate about the urban development of the city. This way people would feel involved in solving the city's problems," Andreeva, the editor, said.
Stefanov said the project needs an initial success to clear a psychological hurdle. "If citizens see that some of these ideas are being accomplished, they would feel that something is finally happening and this would be a reward for their efforts. This would be a win-win situation for city authorities, for the city itself and for people," he said.
The group's Internet portal lets the city's people feel involved in the decision-making process, Velikova said. "After you have voted for something and then see it happening, you'll be much more committed to keeping it clean and taking care of it," Velikova said.
For now, Architects for Sofia is collecting some of the new ideas it has received and is preparing an exhibition of the next 10 proposals.
The group won't be short of input. In addition to praise for the bike lanes and a new concert hall, visitors to the project's website have offered criticism and a bit of blue-sky thinking.
On the subject of closing part of the downtown to cars, one visitor mused, "The problem here is very complicated. There will be sidewalks for pedestrians if the city authorities build underground parking lots. If there were no parked cars on the pavements, people could walk freely and the traffic would be redirected to the main boulevards. [But] I don't think the city center should be closed to cars, because it would block the capital."