I wanted to do something concrete, says Hungarian activist about the Danube embankment project

Cecilia Lohasz is Alumni of the international program ViabilityNet 3.0. Since graduating in geography, Cecilia has worked for an environmental NGO addressing energy policy in Hungary. “Energy policy can often be very abstract. I felt I wanted to do something in my free time that reflects issues that are important for me like climate change, sustainable living and community life and I wanted to see concrete changes in the city,” says Cecilia. Seven years ago, she and a group of friends founded an association called Valyo, the city and the river, which aims to transform the Danube embankment in Budapest into a livelier public space.

Anna Batistová talked to her about her work.

Cili, what led your group to found the Valyo, the city and river association?

My friends and I founded it about seven years ago because we wanted to change the Danube embankment.

We felt that we would have to improve the city by ourselves because politicians weren’t representing our view of how should things look. So we knew we had to do something first, create the idea in reality, a public space that looks the way we imagine it.

I personally didn’t want to write any grant applications or do any administrative work. I just wanted to do something on the street – to paint, organize parties and have fun. Of course, seven years later, we have administrative work, it’s the natural cycle of all organizations.

Given that there are many similar activities in European cities, for example in Prague we have quite a lively public space along the banks of the Vltava River, I wonder whether you have looked for inspiration from other places?

The president of our organization went to Vienna for inspiration, but the argument usually is: ‘If it works in Vienna, it won’t necessarily work in Hungary’, so we searched other cities for inspiration. We went to Belgrade, Serbia and were inspired by their super lively embankment. Western European examples often don’t work in our context, so we said alright, let’s see Eastern European examples. Then we could also believe it is not just a matter of money and that it could work in Hungary as well.

How did people react to your idea of transforming the Danube embankment? I assume you have a lot of support from people who live nearby, but what about the municipality? 

The point is that there is consent in Budapest that something has to be done with the Danube embankment. There is not a very strong political will to make substantial changes, but even the city government cannot say anything against the main message to improve the embankment.

When it comes to concrete ideas and changes, you do have different opinions though. At this very moment we have two big projects. In one project we are going absolutely against the municipality. It wants to build a dam in North Budapest and we oppose that idea because we think it would destroy the embankment that many people use.

On the contrary, when it comes to the other project, the municipality was supportive. Last year, they closed Liberty Bridge to traffic for two months because of tram line reconstruction. People occupied the bridge and it worked as a public space for the whole summer. We thought it went very well and that we should close it down this year as well because people liked it. So we closed it down for four weekends this summer, too, with the permission of the municipality.

Some of the activities you organize are rather official but some of them are more guerrilla-like. Could you tell me something about the guerrilla events?

We are not intentionally aiming for guerrilla events but sometimes, when you see it’s a very good idea and you know you are never going to get permission, you have to choose guerrilla action. One example was when we installed stairs in some places where you can sit down along the steep concrete wall that lines the Danube.

“Chairs” in Danube embankment

I know you have done plenty of events there already, but if you were to choose just one that you are proud of, which one would it be?

I think the sauna is one of the most sustainable projects. The idea was to do something to increase winter usage of the Danube embankment, because in the summer it’s used a lot – people go drinking, fishing, grilling, etc. there, but in winter usually nobody goes to the Danube as it’s very cold. So we came up with the idea of a sauna. We put a sauna in a small bus and we have been doing it for four years now and we get donations for it. It’s also good for community building. Our organization wants to show that you can do a lot of things in public spaces, for example you can stand in a bikini in the middle of the city and enjoy yourself.

Mobile sauna

What are your plans for the next few months?

We are waiting to receive permission to use one area along the Danube where we would like to build a community area next summer (update: they managed to get permission and opened seasonal community space with the bar called Kikötő). We have also an idea for a big new project. When you picture there is the Danube and there is the steep concrete wall protecting the city from floods, then in between there is a part that is sometimes under water but most of the year it’s not. It is totally flat and there are different kinds of stones and plants there. This part is not walkable now. You can go there if you have good shoes and enough courage, but it’s not a place where a lot of people would promenade. Our idea is to develop a path there.

Do you feel that you have you learned something new about yourself through this kind of work?

I used to give up much more easily. Often, when you have an idea, you immediately make a list of reasons why it is not possible, and then usually you stop doing it. We did not make any lists like that for any of our projects – we were always solution-oriented. It is alright to fail when you are trying and trying and trying. I would say I am more relaxed about failing now.

What has the ViabilityNet 3.0 program meant to you?

It helped me realize that we have to think about the community context and how to be more tolerant of people. Sometimes I get radical but in the long term it’s better to choose a softer way. It also taught me to be much more conscious about the balance between pulling too much and not running too far from them.

And what would your message be to all potential participants?

Community work is painful and difficult, but it brings much better and more complex solutions than if you try to do it alone.

Cecilia Lohasz (*1979) is Hungarian activist volunteering for Valyo, the city and the river association (‘Város és a Folyó Egyesület’) which is working to transform the Danube embankment in Budapest into a livelier public space. She studied biology and chemistry and graduated as a high school teacher. Her studies of geography led her to her job in an environmental NGO dealing with energy policy in Hungary.