"We need to get rid of the seeds of fear!"
When you start to dive into the scene of active citizens in Bratislava, there are names that are popping up very frequently. Dominika Belanská, architect and placemaker, is one of them. The challenges Dominika is facing are closely linked to the challenges of the Slovak capital itself. Dominika chose to live there 10 years ago and since then developed strong visions for the cities’ living together and community — searching to realize them through cross-sectoral collaboration, participatory city planning, public space revitalisation and placemaking. Speaking to her you can sense the importance of a very human and philanthropic approach, although facing a corrupt and stuck political system.
One of her projects was in cooperation with the Slovak National Radio and Television. In summer 2014 a team working on voluntary basis started to revitalize the vacant outdoor space of this institution – an urban garden on the rooftop terraces under the iconic upside-down pyramid building.
What were your intentions within the community project >POD PYRAMÍDOU<?
We were a small team of young professionals driven by the love for the city, the community and a belief that we can make a positive change. We aimed to transform a vacant, unused public property into a meaningful place, where people would be able to encounter shared responsibility, difference and togetherness. We were full of curiosity, personal as well as professional, about how to unlock the potential we saw in this unique space. We brought in different disciplines and dived very ambitiously – but a bit naively – into a pioneer cross-sectoral collaboration between a small NGO and a big state institution.
We engaged the community around the area and beyond. Our main goal was to show people options for a healthy way of living and provide them simple tools to take part in a more commons-based and responsible lifestyle. They could come for a workshop, join the community garden, grow their own vegetables… or simply be around, enjoy the events and get in touch with their neighbors and fellows. Our decisions were well-thought-out and aimed to engage all members of the community.
How did the project evolve — what were the failures and successes?
Unfortunately, the management of the Radio didn’t see and understand what was going on beyond the visible elements we put into the place. People were coming for some reason, they were coming for the place and for the unique opportunities of interaction it provided.
We were very vulnerable, un-experienced, not having enough man- and woman-power. We didn’t get paid for the work, and the collaboration with the institution lacked clarity and openness in communication about what are the goals, how we will measure the outcomes and how to proceed so that both partners would feel good. In the end, the management of the Radio kept a quite controlling position. For them this space became something representative, so they wanted it under their influence. We know that already in May 2016 they had registered ‘POD PYRAMÍDOU’ as a trademark without us knowing. They never saw us as long-term partners. It felt like they were rather exploiting our volunteer power, goodwill and use the good atmosphere that we created around the place in order to build their public image. The internal conflict about how to continue the project lead to the cancellation of our contract.
However, I don’t want this to sound overly negative. I would rather highlight the successful part. We have transformed this vacant, abandoned place, which was literally full of pigeon shit, but has amazing architecture and potential, into a public place. It did become a place that people would understand as a destination and where they have meaningful encounters. It was magic.
What came next?
We moved away and donated the wooden raised beds to other emerging community garden. Still, we continued to seek a way to continue working with the community in that neighborhood. The team of the Nomadic Arts Festival 2016 that we organized this summer came out of the contacts and friends we met during the Pod Pyramídou project. At ‘Pod Pyramídou’ we were very much focused on that space under the pyramid. Being suddenly pushed out made us reflect again on the needs of the community, and on ways to engage them, using new tools. How can we work with the neighbors, how can we keep the goal of strengthening the community, when we don’t have a space? So we approached the existing cultural venues, organizations, NGOs, neighborhood initiatives and artists active in that area, that became active co-creators and hosts of the festival. We invited them to bring in what they usually do, not a lot of new activities. Through this event, we supported their connection and collaboration. And we created an opportunity for them to celebrate their neighborhood, without making too much show around it.
How do you experience the tension between the municipality, their power and money driven behavior versus an active and activistic approach in Bratislava?
I don’t see this as a tension but as a lack of leadership and structure. It is normal that developers want to construct, and it is normal that the local citizens feel ownership for their environment, want to protect it and take part in decision-making. They need to know how their life is going to be impacted. The problem in Bratislava is that the municipality and its organizational framework are dysfunctional. It neither acts enough to regulate nor facilitates the dialogue between those different or even conflicting needs. The people that should be doing change within the framework of a municipality are actually working in NGO’s or architectural studios or starting initiatives. They try to change the city bottom-up. So there is a big spin of citizen-driven change in Bratislava but I see it very much as a result of something not being right. It’s not always about loving the city why we are active here. My “activism” also came from a kind of frustration — I observed a lack of transparency, participation and collaboration. I remember the rage I had when industrial heritage has been demolished — and it is happening over and over again. The city loses its authentic assets in exchange for something very generic. And that, in the end, is not for every citizen, but only for the few that can afford it.
What comes after the frustration?
At some point, there are things that drag your will. It is these motivational moments, when you actually go to the discussion, when you are engaged, when you want to know more, when you want to change something. A story that gives many a lot of hope now is the one of ‘Cvernovka’ in Bratislava. It is a big association of artists, small entrepreneurs and creatives that have been pushed out their building. Now they started to renovate a huge abandoned school that they rent from the Region of Bratislava. Their creative hub in the old building grew very organically, without planning. Now their big challenge is to re-organize this very organic body in order to insert it into this new space. I am sure that for them it is not about frustration anymore. It is about having a connection already and understanding how important it is to stay together as a diverse community. They as a group have been through something and now can establish something new.
Yet, there is also good news coming from the city municipality: They have just allocated funding for the initial phase of the project Obchodná ulica a okolie that I’m a part of. We are starting a very ambitious participatory process in which local shopkeepers and building owners will be able to collaborate with the municipality on a new regulation of advertisement in the street. There will be an office that concerns heritage protection and at the same time will create a new branding for the neighborhood.
For you — what is the biggest beauty in connecting people?
I think ultimately it is about having the feeling that when you walk the street you are safe, that you know people around, that you have this kind of socially based security. Of course, it is a very speculative matter when applied to big cities – but from my own experience, the “eyes on the street” make me feel much safer than video surveillance.
It is also about getting to know the area where you live really profoundly – to know what is around, which choices you have. It makes you understand your own role in the society and embrace it. I think we play a certain role in each other’s life, we provide some kind of services to each other, including everyday courtesies. We exchange things, energies, vibes with each other. Understanding and supporting this can keep us away from things that are pathogenic in our society — we need to get rid of the seeds of fear.
I do understand the role of anonymity in a city, but we also need the opportunity to balance this by connection or love.
What kind of people do you find to be activist in Bratislava?
I don’t really use the word activist very much — I tend to refer to us as active citizens. The term activist was misused by the media a lot and has a bad connotation in the Slovak language. So I refer to us as active citizens to highlight the possibility for everybody to be active. If you live in a city, you are a citizen — whether you like it or not. What can change the way you experience it, is your approach to the city: It can also be active, proactive, positive, loving, caring, service providing and so forth.
So who do you find to be the most active citizens?
There is a generation of people that established the civic society after the communism. They were working on the citizen matters and establishing the NGO section here. By now they are around 50 years old. Some of them by now are recognized by the broader community as responsible and trustworthy. And some of them made it to the local municipal council — that is very positive, there are people that we can trust. Their constructive and love-driven approach has a chance to outrage the money-driven.
Then you have a younger generation which is quite active. I see people between 25 and 35, people just like me who really work on change. What makes them different from the older generation is obviously their perspective. They have insights in how it works outside the country. Many have had the possibility to study, work or travel abroad — in contrast to the older generation. We had this luxury to study and understand, how other cities work and how we want to live the city. I think that’s what makes this generation different — we have more choice. We can also leave. Or we can stay, having built a strong network already, friendships, families, and also on a professional level.
How do you want to continue your own journey? Are the politics an option?
Up until recently politics are something that had such a bad connotation in Slovakia. It is silly, but people are expected to get dirty and corrupt once they get there. However, the people that made it into the council from doing activist work understood that they could only change things if they get into the politics. It is a strategic level. Applying for an official position brings a lot more responsibility. I am aware of that and wouldn’t take it as something superficial. I would go there to help people and with no other intention. Things are getting better but there is still not enough people with enough motivation to make this sacrifice. I guess the way to do it, when you don’t have the resources is to form coalitions that are strong enough together, that have the power to attract enough people to be able to make a real change.
I’d like to continue to seek for opportunities where my work and experience can help establish good strategies, participatory processes and better living conditions for the people. It is a huge challenge to improve cities across different sectors and between different levels – and I see myself somewhere there in between, facilitating the much-needed collaboration.