Drawing Together: Winning Second Prize By Putting Connections First in an International Design Competition


Aerial view of lake matilda design

One of Civitas’ core tenets is to participate in projects—and only in projects—that will build better communities and cities.

Create a better balance between the built environment and nature. Improve health and wellbeing. Improve connections between people and the land, and each other. And improve natural ecosystems. This is exactly why we were drawn to the Lake Milada International Landscape, Urban and Architectural Design Competition, hosted by Palivový kombinát Ústí, s.p. (PKU) in the Czech Republic. This is an innovative group doing important work in a special region of the world, so we knew this competition would (and will) have the kind of impact that has always motivated us. Fast forward through more than a year of intense planning and design, and complex collaboration with a global team that Civitas co-led with 4ct, and we are incredibly proud that our submittal recently won the competition’s second prize. Though we didn’t win the overall first prize, we know our work will have long-lasting impact on Lake Milada and its surrounding communities, and on us at Civitas.

Reclaiming and Revitalizing

PKU is a state-owned enterprise tasked with the remediation and reclamation of former lignite coal mines in the Czech Republic, and with the revitalization of the affected landscapes and communities. Lake Milada is the former site of the Chabařovické mine, which closed in 1998 and soon began its transformation into a 250-hectare (618-acre) lake—the region’s second largest, and the first that PKU is seeking to redevelop in such a comprehensive way. The area around Lake Milada has a long, and fascinating history that provokes today’s prioritization. Quoting PKU’s competition brief:

“The area around Lake Milada, as well as the entire North Bohemian Basin (also called Most Basin), underwent rapid changes, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. What was originally densely populated farmland began to transform at the end of the 18th century into a prosperous mining and industrial area with numerous underground mines, industrial enterprises, and transport structures. World War II ended the region’s period of growth and prosperity, which caused, among other things, a radical twofold population change. Consequently, the region saw a significant reduction in the population.

“In the 1970s, the Chabařovice surface mine was established between Ústí nad Labem and Chabařovice. It gradually covered almost 9 km2 of landscape and 6 municipalities. After twenty-four years, quarry mining came to an end. The comprehensive reclamation turned the landscape into something completely new, with Lake Milada opening up and bringing in residents to begin the process of reinhabiting and reorienting themselves in an unfamiliar place.”

Reinhabiting and Reorienting

Lake Milada deserves to be much more than “an unfamiliar place.” It deserves a rebrand that helps to reverse the region’s demographic decline and social challenges caused by the mining industry’s departure. It deserves smart design and a strategic plan that guides its way forward into a better, healthier future.

This is where we came in.

We could help turn the lake into an amenity for residents and an asset for the region, restoring growth and prosperity. We could also ensure that PKU gets a return on the significant resources they have already invested into the creation of Lake Milada. In fact, this commitment that PKU has already shown—for decades—brought a seriousness to this project. This is real life, not just pie-in-the-sky dreaming that some design competitions promote. The region is already taking positive steps forward and making good progress. With our competition submittal, we needed to ensure this progress continues for the long-term. Lake Milada’s transformation has the power to be a very influential project that not only improves the land and the lives of thousands of people. It can also become the template for PKU’s revitalization of many other former coal mines, throughout northern Czechia and beyond.

Planning and Preparing

Lake Milada has the potential to draw people from all over the region, the country, and the continent; and tourism can be a powerful economic driver. But for long-term sustainability and success, we knew we needed to develop a plan that was focused on the goal of creating better, more livable communities first with better access to Lake Milada. Then, with a strong, locally focused foundation, tourism could follow more organically. We developed a comprehensive master plan that recommended a phased approach to development over the course of five, ten, and twenty years. This approach would help to mitigate the pace of change—to let local towns and villages dictate their own growth.

Our submittal covered everything from the architectural details of structures, a detailed grading and planting strategy, all the way up to the kind of governmental transitions and policies that would be required over the long term. We advised on the formation of regional state enterprise ownership and management to the formation of local clusters that would empower local residents, stakeholders, and experts to have a say in their community’s development. And, knowing that residents would want quiet places to be in nature, we were very strategic about where and how we designed access to the lake, in order to balance residents’ daily use versus weekend recreation and tourism.

We dug into the details, but we were not overly prescriptive. Each detail would need the opportunity to evolve over time, so built-in flexibility and adaptability would be a critical component of our plan. For example, in the early phase we recommended that each of the lake’s beaches would have space for mobile food vendors, while later phases would develop infrastructure for more established restaurants.

People walking around a designed space at Lake Milada

We also recommended ways to integrate retail shops—for example, paddleboard shops on the lake front—with specific places and processes to manufacture the products being sold. This integrated approach would leverage the long-established manufacturing base in the region and create jobs for local residents, while also bringing a sense of branding to the towns that could ultimately become known as sources of unique locally manufactured products. This kind of strategic vision helps to bolster a community’s long-term resilience by giving local residents a sense of purpose and pride, and a livelihood.

With a cohesive master plan, we sought to create a new brand for Lake Milada that would be simultaneously subtle and memorable. There wouldn’t be any grand gestures—the lake is already that gesture. But small design interventions such as signage and paving patterns would come together in a way that would enhance the natural environment rather than compete with it, and would turn Lake Milada into an appealing place to live, work and play.

Connecting (virtually) and Collaborating

I’m very proud of our team’s thoughtful approach to creating long-lasting connections between people and the lake, and the strategic framework laid out to guide the region toward a prosperous future. I’m proud that our hard work was recognized with a second-place finish in this important international competition. But it didn’t come easily. With teammates, consultants and advisors spread out across the U.S., Czech Republic and Italy, we had to be just as intentional and sincere about the connections we created with each other. Global collaboration is not new to us. Global collaboration during a pandemic is.

COVID-19 eliminated our typical ability to travel, gather as a team, and charrette around a table for hours if not days. Because we could only meet virtually, it also exaggerated the usual learning curve of getting to know each other and the ways we work, think and design. But we worked through it, and ultimately the pandemic became a bigger opportunity than a challenge. Our virtual connections erased geographic boundaries and reduced costs. We’d all been working virtually for months and had adopted new habits by the time this competition was announced in June 2020, but bringing such a big global team together helped us push further into even more innovative ways of working.

We started using Miro, an online whiteboard platform, and this became a game changer. Layering Miro into our (many) Zoom meetings gave us the tools we needed to facilitate virtual charrettes and workshops, as well as continuous collaboration when we weren’t connected live. In fact, it turned our various time zones into an asset and enabled us to embrace the 24-hour work cycle as a global team. We could schedule meetings strategically so we were getting feedback at the start of our day and at the end of our European counterparts’ day, and vice versa. As we wrapped up our day, we would pass the baton back to them. This proved so effective that we are now using Miro for other Civitas projects and for virtual collaboration both internally as we strategize about our return to the workplace and externally as we connect with clients all over the world.

I’m proud of this process, and even more proud of the powerful impact we can have by participating in programs like this one at Lake Milada. The results give us the confidence to pursue other similar opportunities, and reinforce our belief that we—Civitas—can affect change at a global scale.

Congratulations to the entire team of collaborators, including: 4ctAtelier of Landscape Architecture Sendlercollcollmobility in chain, and Populous.

Whether you’re local or global, virtual or in-person; if you’d love to collaborate, we’d love to hear from you.