A Tale of Two Cities

-- told by an urban observer in Vienna and Bratislava

Once the capital of an empire, loaded with the wealth and the culture of former ages. Vienna. And some 80 kilometers to the east, the capital of a new nation (1993) growing in prosperity but nearly everything here still reminds the visitor of the communist era. Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. We are in the heart of 19th century Europe. Budapest, at a few hours car distance, is part of these great European cities.

Vienna is located in the east of Austria and Bratislava almost on the western border of Slovakia, twin cities they are, with a refinery, an airport and some small villages in between the two million (Vienna) and the half a million (Bratislava) city. The differences between these two can’t be bigger. We are here with a group of Dutch urban professionals in a so-called field trip (short but intensive exploration) also giving us the chance to broaden our European network.

In the language of travel guides, it’s easy to make a “rough guide” for Bratislava. The city is vibrant but still unpolished. You can’t imagine a rough guide for Vienna. This city is too sophisticated for that. It seems as if Vienna is completed, everything is in good shape and well organized and maintained; the bike lanes, the parks, the monuments, public transport, the housing stock and much more. Bratislava has a huge “bucket list”. Oh yeah, they’re making progress. Take for instance the tramline system. It’s state of the art. But if we look at the quality of the public domain or the bike lanes it’s obvious that there’s a lot to be done. Vienna has a well equipped local government, performing perfectly in all sectors of the many tasks a modern city has to face. No wonder that the Austrian capital is permanently high on every Quality of life index. It’s not only private wealth but also public wealth what we can discover in this great 19th-century metropolis. Take for instance the social housing in Vienna. Every block well kept, with high architectural quality, stemming from a long tradition of involvement of the city. Bratislava on the other hand, is a city with a steadily growing economy. But private wealth doesn’t mean public spending. And that is precisely the difference with Vienna. The Slovakian capital can’t beat the richness of Vienna’s public domain.

How about the performance of the city governments, the role of citizen’s action and the interaction between the city and its citizens? In earlier field trips we concluded that the level of citizen action is higher when there’s much to be done yet at the same time the city government stays inactive. We also saw that in these types of situation citizen action is not always successful. Our assumptions were confirmed. In Bratislava, there is more bottom-up initiative to be seen than in Vienna. It’s not always successful but on the whole, the picture is positive. And that is because the Bratislava city government recognize the need of bottom-up initiatives, support them regularly, sometimes setting conditions for citizen’s action and/or absorbing the results into formal policy. Take for instance the case of citizen action in the field of biking. There’s a lot to be done in that field in Bratislava: bike lanes and other facilities, repair shops, collective user arrangements. It’s done by a bunch of civil enthousiasts. But in doing that they gradually became the experts in the field. Now the city not only “translates” their initiatives into city policy but also use their professional knowledge and skills while implementing their proposals.

So, talking about the interaction between top-down and bottom-up in this postsocialist city the picture is not negative. In Vienna, on the other end of the twin city system, there is not too much left for citizen action in the fields the Bratislavians are active on. It feels like the Scandinavian capitals we visited earlier. The state is active in every field of the “collective goods” that have to be produced in the city and they are performing so good there is not too much to wish for. But sometimes the governance system can perform so good that it is not easy to react on unknown demands. That seems to be the case in the efforts Vienna has to make in the field of fugitive shelter. Here we should make a distinction between recent newcomers and older cases. The newcomers are not only covered by Austrian law but also under te policy of the European Union. The real problem is the people that came before. A lot of them are considered as illegal and here we see that the governance system is not able to handle these cases. Luckily for them (at least for a part of this group) there is bottom-up support. We had the chance to meet some of the citizens of Vienna who care for their fellow creatures. It’s not only warm but also professional, the way they help these people with no legal status. Here we saw a paradox, a city government that is very professional in all sort of fields but hasn’t the flexibility to “manage” problems that don’t fit in their usual formats.

Two cities next to each other, and so different. It’s not only fascinating but also confusing. Bratislava lagging behind in city performance but at the same time “challenging” their inhabitants (without asking) to take initiatives to improve the quality of the city. Not bad, these checks and balances. On the other side, the perfect city of Vienna, private wealth and public wealth at the same time. Always high on the lists of global Quality of life indexes. But on the other hand not really able to handle the (complex) cases of foreign people with no clear status. A nearly perfect operating bureaucratic system is not always able to deal with issues that don’t fit in the usual formats.

Where would you choose to live? Bratislava, the rough city, or Vienna, the well tempered and polished city? Somebody in Vienna said to me: for a real party I go to Bratislava. See? The rough guide for the unpolished city.

And what can we, in the Netherlands, learn from these twin cities in the heart of Europe? First, we cannot compare ourselves with either of them. Bratislava has a low profile city government and Vienna a high profile in that respect. We’re somewhere in between in the Netherlands. There is room for citizens’ action but on vital issues, the city performs well. The key issue has to do with the scale of “renovating” the urban fabric. Bratislava teaches us that much progress comes from the bottom but the “upswing thing” is rather thin, marginal. The real challenge for bottom-up initiatives is their ability to upscale or better to multiplicate these actions. Maybe that element makes the better city. A city that leaves something to be done by citizens and is able to multiplicate the successful urban innovations. Not only for us but also for Bratislava and Vienna there is something to do in the urban field.


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