This is an extract from a Postcard case study written last year – this year’s riots in Budapest give a new twist to the tale.
Old Soviet heroes rust in peace in a statue park on the green edge of Budapest but in the heart of this city, capitalist business is booming. Hungarian trade is fast catching up with the rest of Europe. British tourists increased by a record 97% in the first few months of 2005 and they don’t come or go empty handed. Last year’s tourists tend to return as this year’s traders and they are learning that Hungarians can strike a hard bargain. Europe’s biggest Tesco hypermarket (run by astute Yorkshireman Paul Kennedy) stocks an astonishing 90% of local produce. Unlike a lot of the UK, Magyars seem to know the difference between good salami and a plastic sausage.
The equally entrepreneurial Mayor, Gábor Demzsky, has opened up public realm to stylish effect since his election in 1990. Café culture thrives on the pedestrianised shopping streets and squares where you can hear birds sing and musicians play among the global chain stores and local restaurants. (Not quite the view of Wikipedia but then I don’t recognise their city centre description from our visit there last year).
We were lucky to meet someone in the know in one of those cafes. Over tea and cake he gave us intriguing insight into the Westernisation of an old communist economy. It isn’t all good news. Corruption may take longer to shift than the old soviet statues. But there is something else Edinburgh could learn from Budapest where the combined legacies of Austro-Hungarian and Soviet empires provide an efficient and fully integrated transport system to speed shoppers, tourists and businessmen and women on their way. Trams, trolleys, buses and trains connect all parts of the city every two to three minutes by day. At night the service slows to no more than 8-minute intervals. Which means you can get to the centre from less picturesque parts within 20 minutes — and even the grimmest Soviet concrete tower blocks are surrounded by fresh fruit and veg stalls on the ground floor. Edinburgh master planners take note.
This is an edited version of the ‘Postcard case study’ published in The City Talks for Edinburgh City Centre Management Company in 2005.