Black Box East: The Politics of Logistics Centers in Czech Bohemia

The logistics centers in Czech Bohemia are located far away from urban centers, warehouses, truck parks, and highway connections. The architects Kateřina Frejlachová and Tadeáš Říha explain that only a bird's-eye view shows that the aim here is to provide a seamless connection to the sales markets of the West. And that taking local people and logistics workers into account is not part of the plan.

In his book “The Birth of Territory” Stuart Elden notes that “territory is generated from space, through the actions of an actor who territorializes space." Thus, territory is not simply an object, the outcome of actions conducted toward it or some previously supposedly neutral area. Territory is itself a process, made and remade, shaped and shaping, active and reactive.

Eastern Europe’s role as the “New Europe,” or the “Black Box” for Western imagination and theatre for its economic expansion has been, if not exhaustively, already described and problematised. The cultural, political and economic forces at play in shaping the imaginary CEE territory require more attention but are not the primary subject of this text. In this text we focus on different kind of forces and different kind of actors shaping the CEE into a more or less homogenous economic unit: the mundane infrastructures of private logistics networks. 

Logistics reshapes territory in a specific way. Borders are crossed and redrawn, remote lands populated, certain places randomly ascribed a continental significance, others passed over and forgotten. Networks of logistics centres established by logistics developer corporations illustrate how these private networks bypass the cultural and topographical realities of the CEE. 

"Seamless" connection to Western Europe

Logistics is ‘territorializing’ the CEE territory in a hardly perceptible, smooth, and efficient manner. The logistics industry's utilitarian nature is disguised as unideological and neutral, merely a practical network of transportation. Yet it is through the fast expansion and densifying of these logistics networks that the logistics corporations ‘territorializing’ forces are active in reshaping the CEE into a flat and vague terrain, that can be turned into a projection platform for the entrepreneurial phantasies of the Western capital. Configured as a flat web of universal nods, only such a platform can best exploit the fabled ‘cheapness’ of the CEE and only such a platform can be seamlessly plugged into the Western European supply chains. 

We observe the developer’s maps on a continental scale, focusing on a case study of North-West Bohemia. The main developers focusing on logistics are Prologis, CTP, VGP, Panatonni and P3. CTP is owned by a Dutch national, it operates predominantly in the V4 countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) as well as Romania and Bulgaria.  VGP was founded in 1998 by Jan Van Geet in the Czech Republic. Based in Antwerp, Belgium, it operates in Central and Eastern Europe as well as Germany, Belgium and Spain. P3 is a company founded in Czechia, now 100% owned by GIC, the sovereign wealth fund of the Government of Singapore. Panattoni is a multinational American developer operating globally, in Europe it focuses on Germany, Czechia and Poland but has warehouses in Spain, Slovakia and the Netherlands. 

The Panattoni corporate map may serve as an interesting introduction. The many locations of its warehouse facilities and industrial parks in Western Europe concentrate in the large population centres of the notorious ‘Blue Banana.’ What has been built to suit specific industrial developments largely outnumbers the universal generic logistics sheds. Meanwhile, the locations of Panattoni-built infrastructure in Czechia and Poland seem rather accidental and the warehouses outnumber the industrial halls in turn.

In Czechia, Panattoni’s presence is heavily focused on Western and Northwestern Bohemia. Of its about 15 sites just one is next to Prague, the others are wrapping the Czech Western Border. Regularly spread in the mountainous regions of the Northwest, they appear on the continental map as a series of outposts protecting an insecure border. The Northwest of Czechia is similar to, for instance, Eastern Poland, Northeastern Slovakia but also Eastern Germany in that it is characterised by the lowest relative GDP per capita, the lowest productivity, the worst-ranking governance, the lowest innovation prospects, and the worst educational possibilities. It is no coincidence, that these areas also attract a large portion of the logistics parks for foreign markets. 

“Excellent highway connectivity”

Most of the freight transport within the EU is carried out by camion traffic. Hence it is the highway, rather than the railroad traffic, which is a key infrastructure element of logistics.  In the CEE more than elsewhere the vast majority of logistics hubs, warehouses and truck centres are linked-up by highways only. Routes marked as D5 and D8, part of the EU TEN-T core network corridors, which connect Prague with Germany in the West and the Northwest, were finished after 2000. Together with the accession of Czech Republic to the EU these connections foreshadowed the expansion of a global market further east. In “post-communist” Central Europe this was perceived as the starting signal for a new inflow of Western capital.

While the impetus came from outside, most of the particular planning decisions related to the logistics boom in Czechia happened initially at the level of local governments and private entrepreneurs. In the 1990s and early 2000s municipalities and individuals saw an opportunity to valorise suddenly lucrative land and also to create new jobs. Encouraged by the state, the largely agricultural lands around highway exits were gradually turned into industrial and warehousing zones. First on drafts, later in reality.

Today, from Northwest Bohemia a market of about 150 million people in the economic heart of continental Europe can be reached within a nine-hour truck ride. Each of the aforementioned developers (Panattoni, CTP, P3, VGP, and Prologis) have their base here. 

“Excellent highway connectivity,” “Strategically located in Western Bohemia,” “Best location in Czechia” and similar slogans sell acres of storage area in this Czech periphery. The location, seemingly nonsensical in the local scale, is following the much larger territorial logic of continental logistics: accidental results of private entrepreneurship gain international significance; remote lands are populated, etc.

The remoteness of the logistics park is comparable to the remoteness of a military base, placed from a great distance onto the geopolitical world map. In the case of logistics-industrial parks, and with the exception of those that directly supply some of the few CEE “consumption centres,” their exact location is, in any case, largely irrelevant. Since their operational context overwhelmingly transcends their immediate context, these parks are often built in remote, island-like locations.

When the "Steel City" clashes with the village

The biggest regional urban centres of the Northwest are cities with populations of ten to hundred thousands such as Pilsen, Cheb, Ústí nad Labem. Some of them are even included in the name of a particular logistic park, perhaps for a better orientation within the map of Europe. The real logistics grounds however are built aside, often at significant distances from these towns, ignoring the existing meanings and hierarchies. Bor, Český Újezd, Nýřany, Štěnovice, Úžice all small towns and villages – suddenly play an important role in becoming an international hub for goods transport. 

A good example of such a remote continental base is one of the biggest logistics centres in Bohemia located at the D5 highway exit nearby Bor u Tachova just 15 km from the German border. It is an entrepôt of many companies that serve the German/Western markets such as the fast-fashion brand Primark, which had no branch in the Czech Republic until very recently but only a remote warehouse in Northwest Bohemia that was servicing shops in Germany and the Netherlands. 

In Bor, a cluster of huge warehouse sheds stands right next to a couple of petty depopulated villages. The scale is such that the whole village could fit into just a single metal clad shed. Some of the locals call the place “Steel City” a nickname which reflects not only the unified visage and raw materiality of the buildings but also the alienation produced by both the scale and the closedness of this compound. The clash of such areas and the local conditions plays out on various levels. Firstly, the size and function, which are disproportionate to the surroundings. Secondly, the thousands of people working in the warehouses who create a mass of people which is seen with great distrust by the local populations. 

The remoteness that results from certain occasionalism of placement has severe consequences especially for the workers who inhabit the Steel Cities. The relative continental proximity to Germany, for instance, often corresponds to the relative local distance to everything else and to whatever is meaningful in everyday life. Lack of common infrastructure is recklessly and often informally dealt with, which leads to semi-legal business e. g. with accommodation. Single family houses are transformed into dormitories, farmsteads are converted into short-term accommodation. 

It is only in recent years that these developments are no longer hailed as a success of public negotiation and incentives but considered problematic and unwanted neighbours. Municipalities face problems they have unwittingly summoned. Additional compensation agreements between the local government and private company or developer, including public transport, security or investments into local infrastructure are sometimes made to address the drawbacks. These actions however depend on the initiative, skills, and agendas of particular people in charge of township management and tackle just the small urgent practical matters of the local government. The long-term social, economic and environmental impact is not the issue yet. A neglected social tension between the locals and the often foreign temporary workers unhelpfully shifts the discussion to fears for security or even plain xenophobia while the real culprits escape unchallenged. 

However, both the proactive approach of municipalities and the resistance of citizens illustrate the fundamentally unequal battle between the transnational corporations and the everyday reality they enter. The struggle is uneven by definition, because it is uneven in scales. The regional can only scarcely resist the continental and outright global.

***

This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German translation is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more texts, artworks, and conference information on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de

Kateřina Frejlachová
Kateřina Frejlachová works as an architect in Prague. Co-author of the book “Steel Cities. The Architecture of Logistics in Central and Eastern Europe.

Tadeáš Říha
Tadeáš Říha works as an architect in Prague and London. Co-author of the book “Steel Cities. The Architecture of Logistics in Central and Eastern Europe.

Le Club est l'espace de libre expression des abonnés de Mediapart. Ses contenus n'engagent pas la rédaction.