Savamala is only half a mile from Belgrade´s city center. It has a colorful history as port and center of trade and commerce and was once the most modern and urbane quarter of the city. Today, Savamala shows a rich heritage of valuable historical buildings from the 19th and early 20th century and a few relics from the Ottoman Empire. Many historical buildings were lost in the Second World War when Belgrade, in 1941 and 1944, suffered under air raids – first by the German and later by allied forces.
Savamala also hosts major city infrastructure, including the nearby main train station, the bus terminal and two of the city’s main bridges, connecting the city center to New Belgrade over the River Sava. However, Savamala is economically underdeveloped and socially disadvantaged, and has a reputation as a home to outcasts, prostitution, and criminality. Many buildings are vacated and in a state of dilapidation. The former Sava port is used as a cemetery for abandoned hulks. Karadjodjeva Street, in days gone by one of Belgrade´s most glamorous streets, today serves as a main traffic artery, used by heavy trucks –a constant source of noise and pollution– on route to the new Danube port and destinations across the River Danube.
The reasons for the poor condition in which Savamala is now found reach back into the era of socialist Yugoslavia, when the quarter was disregarded as the legacy of feudal and capitalist eras.
More than thirty years after Marshal Tito’s death and more than ten years after the Balkan wars of the 1990 have ended, the sad state of Savamala has hardly improved. However, the city authorities and private investors are aware of the untapped potential of Savamala. The prospect of a future “creative quarter” of Belgrade as a business and tourist attraction exits the imagination of planners and decision-makers alike. Cultural Initiatives such as the Cultural Center Grad (KC GRAD), Mikser Festival, or the Design Incubator Nova Iskra are forerunners of this development.
However, due to economic and political circumstances, the promising future of new master plans seem a distant prospect. Many property issues are still unsolved and further complicated by difficult legal procedures. Due to limited public resources, urgent investment in infrastructure and public spaces has been put on hold. The combined impact of these challenges and the current financial crisis has effectively resulted in the collapse of the real estate market and investor economy.
Savamala´s future prospects seem unclear. The post-war experience, however, shows that a combination of weak public authorities and influential tycoons would leave very little room for socially and culturally sustainable development in Savamala. But perhaps, the times of crises are times of opportunity, too. Liberated from the economic and bureaucratic restraints of a prospering real estate market, Savamala currently offers ideal conditions to put alternative forms and approaches of city quarter development to the test.