Bratislava borders with Austria. Part of the border runs along the Danube but the rest was delineated purely politically, not naturally. Even without boundary posts it is not hard to check where it runs: all you have to do is find satellite images in Google Maps, or walk or bike along it. In the first case you can see the difference between small fields on one side of the border, and vast monoculture fields, vestiges of the time of state-owned agricultural enterprises, on the other. In close-up you can see ravages left over by the communist system, which have not been completely removed even during the twenty-three years since it fell. Before the war the boundary was almost indiscernible, all the more so since areas on both sides were inhabited by ethnically related people. What is to blame: the historical gap or disastrous post-revolution development? Perhaps both; and anyway it is observable elsewhere, as well. Similar ugly views can be seen all over Slovakia: remnants of decades of social engineering when decision makers could not envision other ways to feed starving valleys than to construct giant factories. It was simply the easiest solution in communist and capitalist times. Factories supplied work for thousands of people but it was necessary to transport workers to them or to build new housing estates. It began with intervention into the social structures of local communities, followed by exploitation of the surrounding natural environment. The majority of factories gradually went bankrupt, leaving behind dilapidated torsos of factory floors, ownerless waste dumps, glum, identical, sprawling blocks of flats, and an army of jobless people who are still not rooted in the local community. It seems that nobody has drawn any conclusions. All post-revolution governments have shown a marked preference for big investors (beginning from the form of investment), to a clear disadvantage of small and medium enterprises. The logic of election cycles makes them choose short-term solutions, particularly at a time when unemployment figures are record high. Yet the reasons of this situation are even more complex.
The velvet revolution in Slovakia was partly triggered by ecological issues. The semi-official publication Bratislava Aloud (1987), whose authors dealt with environmental issues in the broadest sense of the word (the publication was compiled by eighty-four authors and reviewers) had resonance with the public: the first edition consisted of 1,000 copies but unofficial data reveals that within a month about 60,000 copies were made on different mediums. The people of Bratislava, where the major industry were chemical plants, particularly at the time when it was under surveillance of the communist security service, were particularly sensitive to environmental issues.
It is not surprising, then, that the velvet revolution elevated the authors of the publication to positions of power, though not necessarily connected with environmental issues. This is why some energetic activists ceased to be concerned with these problems. Also, economic transformation led to a partial or complete closure of many big factories, which, incidentally, were some of the major pollutants. Impoverished in the new economic system, farmers were forced to reduce the amount of chemical fertilisers, protective sprayings etc. Gradual elimination of liquid or solid fuel heating, vehicle replacement and the like contributed to a fast and visible ‘natural’ improvement of the quality of the environment. Nothing could henceforth hinder the development of a consumer society. In any case, at the time when the society was completely preoccupied with the economic transformation (part of the reform was the mantra that we had to fix our economy before we fixed anything else), dissolution of Czechoslovakia, building the republic of Slovakia and complete devastation of public space, which was soon to be seized by various private enterprises, there was no other way but economic violation. In addition, media space was early taken over by young right-wing know-it-alls, whose only intellectual asset was superficial familiarity with a few ideas of Friedrich von Hayek’s.
Further political development did not foster sustainable development. Within twenty-three years there emerged no significant green party which would deal with these problems. Although Bratislava has traditionally been ruled by ‘right-wing’ coalitions – quite an extraordinary thing for a European capital, which proves how immature the political scene has been – at the state level, paradoxically, right-wing parties have been closer to ecological concerns than the ‘social democracy’ in power at present. The latter consists of entrepreneurs mixed with nationalists, a far cry from a modern left wing party. One example will suffice to illustrate the point: when the former coalition promoted the idea of small dykes as an antiflood measure, the other aim of which was to retain as much water as possible in the forest – a low budget project, fostering in addition employment growth among unskilled workers – the new ‘social-democratic’ government immediately halted it for the sake of concrete-based solutions.
The state of sustainable development in Slovakia is best illustrated by the case of Bratislava. Following World War I the nationality structure began to change dramatically (to the disadvantage of the German and Hungarian minorities), and after WWII the same happened to the social structure. To increase working class representation, new factories were built and existing ones were (also) enlarged. As a result, since 1945 the population of the capital increased over threefold. To provide sufficient accommodation, new housing estates were built, including the allegedly biggest one in central Europe with 115,000 residents. The city sprawled in all directions allowed by the geographic location and the proximity to the border, extending over an enormous area. For comparison, nearby Vienna, which is four times bigger, covers the area that is less than 10% larger than that of Bratislava. In the meantime, the majority of factories went bankrupt, leaving behind vast brownfields (postindustrial areas), some of them stretching as far as the city centre. Despite abundant unused land, the city authorities did not impose any restrictions on building development of quality farmlands on the outskirts of the city. As a result, the situation deteriorated. In addition, due to bombings during WWII and the destruction of historic castle grounds, vast undeveloped stretches of land are generally regarded as an integral part of Bratislava’s genius loci. If any available land gets built over, typically another development takes place in the vicinity, usually replacing some postindustrial facilities. In this way, the city is permanently scarred (overgrown with weeds, cluttered as a result of wrong space management, and ultimately defaced). Both legislation and daily practice contribute to the relatively easy demolition of industrial heritage. It is often said that the worst that could happen to a building is for it to be entered in the National Register of Historic Places.
Vast city space requires proper maintenance of public space, transportation services and the like. The authorities are merely paying lip service to the idea that public transport should take priority. No new tram line has been constructed; on the contrary, one of them has been out of order for ages, and the other ones are under threat. Building the underground has been a leitmotif of all election campaigns. No wonder that, driven by a post-revolution euphoria, residents tend to rely on private transport – mainly cars (the number of cars in proportion to the population is higher in Bratislava than in many metropolises in Western Europe; moreover, Slovakia is the biggest car manufacturer in proportion to the population). No wonder that the Car-Free Day remains an unknown concept in Bratislava. The situation reflects the local politicians’ approach. According to an interpretation of the long expected and finally accepted urban development plan, the only building which can be situated anywhere (including parks) is a subterranean garage. By the way, as to greenery: existing parks are usually not properly kept, if not downright neglected, so that they could be replaced with brand new, modest buildings. Setting up new parks is out of the question. And it happens that in their public speeches successful local politicians speak against greenery in the city at every possible opportunity.
Traditional market places where local farmers sell their agricultural produce are progressively disappearing (market places survived communism, only to be destroyed by market economy), and that is happening with the city’s consent as it gives priority to developers who are eager to get lucrative land, rather than to citizens in need of high quality fresh local products – all this at a time when market places prosper spectacularly in other places in the world. Moreover, virtually unregulated construction of super- and hypermarkets has contributed to the disappearance of smaller shops, especially in the city centre and hence to its depopulation, and to the reduction of the variety of locally grown produce. Once a rural country, today’s Slovakia is no longer self-sufficient in the food sector and most foodstuffs, produced in Slovakia until recently, have to be imported. It is not only a problem of foodstuffs but mainly of domestic production for the citizens of the country. For example, wooden houses, once immensely popular in Slovakia (as it is one of the most afforested countries in Europe), are very slowly and tentatively coming back into fashion.
Municipal recycling policies are equally irrational. Although it has become possible to sort waste, this activity has been left up to the residents’ enthusiasm, with no financial or legal regulations (such as obligatory waste segregation). The author of this text dutifully sorts out rubbish, and regularly puts out a practically empty waste container in front of his house, for which he pays as if it were full to the brim and as if the waste were not segregated. In addition, allocated ‘public’ rubbish dumps and the price of their disposal have resulted in the situation that illegal dumps are scattered all over the city, just like in the whole country. The counterweight for the government and municipal policies (i.e. lobbyists’ tools) are two powers: on the one hand, the European Environmental Agency (EEA), with legislature and finance related to its activities at its desposal, and on the other hand, municipal activism. The former may have a great impact on sustainable development but it is less conspicuous, especially with regard to legal norms. What does catch the eye are mindless excesses of the Agency (for instance, hectares of quality farmland covered by solar panels). From this perspective, the approach to sustainable development resembles a sickly adopted child who is kept alive by drip infusions from Brussels. Thus, we tend to repeat all mistakes made by our more mature neighbours, without employing at least any mechanisms to rectify them.
Activism, based on more or less formal associations, may bring more benefits than millions of subsidies. When cycling to work, I personally appreciate ‘illegal’ repairs of pavements and patched holes in asphalt – an initiative carried out by some anonymous activists at night – much more than municipal designs of cycle lanes. Not to mention the fact that the authorities’ interest in bicycle transport ends with cycle lanes, so the majority of users find it challenging to park their vehicles in the city and outside it. In general, I consider activism to be Slovakia’s greatest hope. Not because it might solve all problems related to sustainable development but because it seems to be the only power which is able to turn officials’ inertia into something perceptible, tangible, concrete and sensible.
The words in this article express my criticism of sustainable development in Bratislava. Each of the above mentioned problems is tackled by activism; activists can also resensitise the Slovak society to some questions concerning the natural environment as soon as the post-communist consumerist euphoria evaporates. Only then will we realise that our development lacks sustainability. Without it, it is impossible to think of the future, while the question of sustainable development remains just another obligatory slogan when applying for grants.
Translation from Slovak into Polish by Emiliano Ranocchi
English translation by Anna Mirosławska-Olszewska