Bratislava, Slovakia – As elsewhere in the world, Slovakia too is seeing its share of people living in cities constantly increasing, rising from 42% in the early 1970s to approximately 54% today. In addition to the economic impact of urbanisation on the labour market – which is usually the most debated – the turnaround will have direct consequences on the physical space of Slovak cities, especially its capital Bratislava: what the city should look like and what functions it should fulfill are issues more urgent than ever before. Is Bratislava really aiming for the ideal?
High-tech office buildings vs. decrepit hospitals
But what does an ideal city look like, in theory? The answer may be simpler than expected and should reckon with the fact that everyone – male or female, young or old, rich or poor, healthy, sick or disabled – has the same right and desire to live there: in its ideal form, the city should be made for everyone and provide for all these groups in an equal, albeit sometimes differentiated, manner.
To take the most relatable and mundane examples: playgrounds where parents and children could go and play; benches where older people can sit during a walk through the city; spaces where people from disadvantaged backgrounds are given the same opportunities to benefit from the joys and perks of the city, including its cultural and economic potential.
Such requirements may seem logical and intuitively obvious, but Bratislava – as many other cities – sadly do not meet such requirements. While building new roads for cars and parking lots seems to be a priority, sidewalks used mainly by women with prams, the elderly, or children tend to remain in a disastrous state for years. Equally forgotten are the residential areas or playgrounds and parks where these groups – which some economists like to describe as “non-productive” – spend most of their time.
On the opposite, the office buildings in the city centre are springing up like mushrooms despite the fact that many company offices remain empty and unused. What is the reason behind such a disproportional construction and re-building of the city?
New offices come with a modern interior, equipped with the latest technologies; terraces on the highest floors, magnificent meeting rooms, a work of art on the wall behind the secretary at the reception, or unnecessarily large toilets. The empire of working men. The same cannot be said about moldy and under-equipped hospitals, old retirement homes, prison-like looking schools and kindergartens, places where women and children spend most of their productive hours.
It appears hard to believe that the quality of the physical working environment changing with gender is a mere coincidence. As the material world gives visual and physical expression to power structures, architecture, urbanism and construction remain encoded in patriarchal dynamics.
Bratislava and patriarchal urbanism
The distinct quality of working environments accurately illustrates the essence of the problem: offices built for men were built by men. Urban development projects in Bratislava and Slovakia in general are rarely non-private and funded by the city itself. Since they are not communal, cities are not built, developed or improved for people according to their needs. Instead, they are mainly built for the purpose of the developer´s economic profit, where the profitability of a building becomes the most important criterion at the expense of quality and social purpose. Even today, developers are mostly men, as are the “consumers” of such spaces, like luxurious apartments or hyper-modern offices overlooking the Danube.
An example of such tendencies is the Riverpark complex built on the Danube embankment in Bratislava. Instead of turning the promenade into a relaxing place for everyone to enjoy, similar to Náplavka in Prague or Alte Donau in Vienna for instance, the exclusive location was usurped by developers. The entire complex, disrespectfully higher than urban planning allows, consists of luxury apartments for the wealthy, office spaces rented by corporations, and an empty hotel.
The stories of Twin City, Zuckermandel, Panorama City or Vydrica, all built in the old town of Bratislava, are remarkably similar, and sad. Although the atmosphere in Bratislava appears to be changing, mainly due to the new management of the city behind the establishment of the Metropolitan Institute, its control over urban planning remains grossly insufficient. Bratislava is ranked only 20th out of 30 in the European Green City Index, another criterion to determine to what extent cities are built and designed for the purpose of all.
One would hope that architects, at the very least, would have the ability to navigate the development projects and construct buildings for all residents, not for a specific category. Surveys show that approximately 70% of all architects worldwide are men, and Slovakia is no exception. Even if architects did – as they sometimes do – place communal interest above the short-term economics, they draw inspiration from their male experience and perspective.
Showing a kind of “architectural empathy” and sensitivity to other groups of people’s needs is not enough: they barely initiate a dialogue with either women, the elderly, or the disadvantaged. Architecture and urbanism lack a diversity of opinion, and this is reflected in the city’s landscape. The rules of the game are still dominated by subconscious patriarchal dynamics.
In this respect, it might be useful to look at the all-too familiar problem of the lack of toilets for women. Why are there always queues for female toilets in shopping malls or at airports? Is it so architecturally difficult and urbanistically unthinkable to make women’s toilets bigger? Why there are no public toilets in Bratislava? While men have a clear advantage in that area, women have to ask in random bars or restaurants for a favour. It seems to be such a small and mundane thing. But no one ever complains about it, and no one realises it can be a problem. This is how patriarchal structures endure.
We seem to have accepted the idea that the city looks and works in a certain way: the city is perceived as an accelerated, all-encompassing place where the most productive, educated, and independent people benefit from the environment. And it is no coincidence that such people are mostly working men.
Bratislava may not be the singular worst-case example – it is ranked 29th in the world for social inclusion. But such a perception of the city has become so conventional that no one feels the need for a change, and conventions can be very dangerous: they limit our expectations, govern our understanding of reality and make us forget about our needs. Everyone’s needs.
By Lenka Hanulová
Originally from Bratislava, Lenka studied politics at King’s College and UCL in London, with a special focus on Russian and post-Soviet politics. She cooperated with several Slovak media and currently lives in Prague. Check out her latest articles right here!