Bratislava's building boom - do developers have too much freedom?

Bratislava

There's a building boom going on across much of Central Europe. In capitals like Prague, Warsaw and Bratislava cranes dominate the skyline as builders try to keep up with demand created by rapid economic growth. That growth is creating jobs and wealth and new architectural gems. But it's also bringing problems including traffic chaos and fears for the urban environment. Our special program this week begins on a building site in Bratislava.

The sound of construction. If you stand anywhere in Bratislava, you are bound to spot several new developments sprouting up around you. The city’s skyline is changing rapidly and radically. Landmarks such as the castle are being dwarfed by larger, high-rise buildings, while the tree line on the surrounding hills, is being pushed back by new villas. For some, the new high-rise office buildings symbolize economic development and Slovakia’s progress since the collapse of communism. But, it is already clear that there are negative aspects to this construction boom. And it seems like more and more people are not only feeling these effects in their daily lives, but are also speaking out against them. Traffic jams, green areas disappearing, residential developments too expensive for most – Bratislava’s residents seem to have finally had enough. Katarina Simoncicova represents the „Bratislava Openly“ civic organisation, which is fighting for greater levels of citizen participation in Urban planning. She summarizes a common concern.

"The most frightening thing is that for us the buildings will stay here, regardless of whether they were a mistake or not. The investors can always decide to leave. No-one is going to remove these buildings in the near future."

But it is not just the activists who have decided to take a critical view to the long awaited construction boom. Stefan Slachta is Bratislava’s new Chief Architect, and he openly admits that the construction boom has in some respects gone too far. His personal bugbear is traffic and the transport infrastructure.

"I think the biggest impact is on the city’s infrastructure, which is not able to sustain the demands placed on it by the new developments. This is especially the case with transport, whether dynamic or static. Each new high-rise office building brings with it a massive influx of new road users. This means that the solutions which have been implemented over the last couple of years, such as the new bridge across the river Danube, are simply not enough."

Mr Slachta is also quite clear about what has so far been responsible for the badly planned, or unplanned development. While in public meetings broad and sweeping claims such as „lack of conceptual planning“ or often made, Mr slachta admits that it is not just a legislative failure, but a failure in the implementation of policy and available legislation by the authorities responsible for urban development.

"Legislation governing the processes of urban development is not ideal. But I have to say that often the problem was that the individuals in charge would back down to the developers and investors. And, unfortunately, public interests were often ignored. But I believe there are some levers that the authorities could use to pressure the investors into developing new public spaces."

Strong words from a man who is very much a part of the structures he is criticising. Marcel Slavik is the Deputy director of an association which represents the administration of residential buildings in the Petrzalka district of Bratislava. His disenchantment with elected representatives is clear.

"The current understanding of democracy in Bratislava can perhaps best be labeled as voting a tyrant into power for 4 years. Planning is currently done within a closed group of a few people, who usually do it to further their own interests, and activists have to fight hard just to find out what is being planned. Democracy should be about the continual involvement of citizens in decision-making about the city’s future, and this is presupposed in international as well as domestic law. The problem is that the authorities have decided not to adhere to the law."

While there are certainly more than enough issues related to urban development to occupy public meetings, today it seems that it is the fact that more and more of these meetings between residents and representatives are being held, that is worth celebrating. If many of the failures in the construction boom can be traced to inefficient or non-representative decisions by the relevant authorities, then direct public scrutiny of their work seems to be one vision that Slovakia’s capital should hold on to. It’s chief architect is after all well aware of what is at stake.

"The capacity of a given location is of course limited, and needs to be taken into account. And today, whether it is the crowding of residential areas at the expense of open spaces, or the construction of High-rise office buildings in locations which simply lack the capacity to expand their transport infrastructure; I believe we are creating problems which will be very difficult to solve in the future."