‘We are living in a well-tempered, well-functioning welfare city, where activism becomes redundant’, say the Viennese. ‘We have to fight for basic structures in the municipality that would represent the needs of this city’, is the tenor amongst City Makers in Bratislava. The Metropolitan Field Trip between the 17th and 20th of November was an exploration of urban life and active citizens in Vienna and Bratislava. While meeting different people, initiatives and districts one can feel like a little boat in a storm of perspectives. Yet, especially the contrast of these two cities helped to understand the different challenges and stages of city development.
Economically speaking, Bratislava is the most important area of Slovakia. Despite its often shabby appeal, it is not a poor city. It is a massively privatised one – 95% of the real estate and ground is in private hands. Alongside comes something that could be expressed by ‘private wealth, public poverty’. There is a lack of responsibility to invest into the maintenance and visual quality of the city environment.
Small groups of dissatisfied people, however, are stimulated by this negligence. Matúš Čupka started on a small scale, collecting garbage in public space with his family. After a mix of throwbacks and micro-successes, it became obvious that the Municipality would not support them and volunteers got demotivated. Due to the former socialist structures, collective voluntary work and civic engagement became unattractive. Citizens, as well as civil servants, are used to a rigid system where hierarchical structures would decide and determine direction. Still, Matúš continued and his activities grew into a movement called Zelená Hliadka (Green Patrol). Despite its success, Zelená Hliadka faces the limits of impact created by bottom-up activism. Matúš will now move towards a more strategical level – the politics. He is representing a growing group of young professionals working in bottom-up initiatives in Bratislava, choosing for this shift.
‘I wasn’t aware that riding a bike can be an activist act‘, said one of the Dutch participants during the Metropolitan Field Trip. What is self-evident for the Dutch with a strong bike culture, is charged with a different atmosphere in Bratislava. Biking through Bratislava demonstrates the lack of safe infrastructure for pedestrians and bikes. This fact brought to life the Cyklokuchyňa (BikeKitchen) and the Cyklokoalícia (BikeCoalition). They offer a DIY bike workshop, an open source bike sharing system and infrastructure research – teaching love for bicycles. Their motto: ‘If you can’t fix it – you don’t own it’. What counts on a small scale for the bike, goes for the whole city structure. By now, their association grew to an expert organ for the municipality.
‘If you can’t fix it – you don’t own it’
— Bike Manifesto
Yet, shifting the whole system is a slow process. The current lack of leadership and infrastructure stimulates a brain drain towards the well-organised city of Vienna, just an hour away. The Austrian capital is young, lively, growing rapidly, and scores well on safety, social housing, and investment climate. The generally high quality of life in Vienna sets a base for themes as upscaling inclusive alternatives and implementing smart city elements into daily life. In contrast to Bratislava, where for example community gardening is struggling with acceptance on a basic level, Vienna experienced a boom of over 60 urban gardening projects in the past three years. One of the pioneers was the Karlsgarten in the city centre. Aiming at up-to-date relevance they set new mottos and research aspects for every season. Their collaboration with the agricultural and technical universities brought in smart beds, fine dust research in city grown vegetables, and the possibilities of a large-scale food supply within the city.
A big shortcoming was revealed in the political system fanned by the refugee crisis, starting one and a half years ago. It highlighted the inflexibility of the bureaucratic system. Viennese citizens were pushed to action. Under guidance of Daniela Patti and Levente Polyak from wonderland and Eutropian, we spent one whole day in Vienna on the exploration of these actions. Projects like Bockwerk or Magdas Hotel are innovative social businesses that operate on a highly professional level for the integration of (former) refugees. ‘Klar lungerns’ nur herum, die dürfen ja nicht arbeiten‘, says Ute Bock about the problematic state of refugees in Austria. The 80 Ute Bock houses provide shelter for 400 refugees that were rejected during the asylum procedure without the means to return. Christian Penz, working at a Ute Bock house, created an additional value to their life structure: a wood-workshop called Bockwerk, offering work, and communal activity. The collaboration with architects and designers takes it to a level of meaningfulness and professionalism. The challenge how to create a legal format for their work remains. Yet, this project enables the employees to make steps out of their illegal state. The association Purple Sheep provides shelter for refugees and advises them in legal matters. They seek to continue the disclosure of governmental deficits. ‘Many families that come to us can sleep without feeling in danger for the first time in a long while’, says Karin Klaric, the founder of this association. ‘After fleeing from their home countries, they fled the rigor of the Austrian government. That’s absurd.’ This day of exploration was flowing into a public discussion among the Dutch group members, citizen initiatives, municipal officers and public program leaders as well as urban professionals. Das Packhaus – an experimental breeding place for shared space initiatives – was facilitating this conversation addressing the issue of refugee support, discussing the possibilities and modalities of cooperation.
Vienna, being the well-structured city, portrays an illusion of overall perfection. Bratislava in contrast apparently struggles with their drawbacks, where innovation would currently mean linking the NGO’s to a strategic political level. In both cases the necessity of bottom-up and institutional layer listening to each other is obvious. ‘We must work both ways – connecting to the community and working towards the decision makers’, adds Dominika Belanská, placemaker and our vibrant host in Bratislava. And something else I personally take with me from this Field Trip: where there is a big bureaucratic machinery, whether well or whether badly functioning, there is a need for creative bureaucrats!
Merci! to all of our vibrant partners —
A4 – space for contemporary culture
Matúš Čupka of Zelená Hliadka (Green Patrol)
Stará tržnica / Old Market Hall
Dominika Belanská of Obchodná Ulica a Okolie and POD PYRAMÍDOU
CykloKuchyňa / BikeKitchen
Cyklokoalicia / BikeCoalition