How to create momentum for change in cities?

Milota Sidorova looks for the intersections of common interests among diverse actors so that together they create more equitable, transparent and less conflicted cities. She has studied landscape architecture, human resource management, and urban design and planning. She has worked mainly in Central and Eastern Europe. She has worked at the Metropolitan Institute in Bratislava, and is currently Vice President for Urban Planning at the Office for Spatial Planning of the Slovak Republic. She practices the principles of fair urbanism. She does not specialise in one area; approximately every 3 – 4 years she moves on to a different, relevant topic, immerses herself intellectually and integrates it into the foundations of her work. She is a leading Slovak expert in urban planning and, among other things, a long-time contributor to Košice’s non-profit organisation Creative Industry Košice.

What makes a city a city, in what ways does a city define itself in relation to a village, but also in relation to another city?

It’s definitely size, density and connectivity. These are the things that separate the more successful cities or settlements from the less successful ones. The density of people, the density of services and the density of opportunities create the intersections of people, their lifestyles, their opinions, and their experiences. That’s ultimately what creates the character of a city, whether it’s outwardly manifested as commerce, education, or the way citizens spend their leisure time. Those things have to be connected. 

In successful cities we almost always see excellent public transport infrastructure, railways, motorways, airports. Such cities do extremely well. Let’s say Bratislava is partly like that, Košice as well. Connectivity is an essential success factor. There is a theory that says if a city has more than 250,000 inhabitants, it starts to have the parameters of a larger European city, a metropolis. It provides different opportunities for a more specific audience, for example, different types of culture – in larger cities we might find more interesting projects from the perspective of the global consumer, in small cities the programme is likely to be community-oriented. 
We can ask what functions of the city we want to develop in the most innovative, most metropolitan form. If we apply this to Slovakia, we have been in a transit model for a long time, because none of our cities is fully a city, nor are our villages fully villages. There is actually a metropolitanisation of two areas – Košice and Bratislava – with Košice extending almost as far as Poprad. This is defined by the daily commuting distance of the people and access to the city by motorway and railway. Those cities with good connectivity are doing very well. Trnava, Piešt’any, and Trenčín reap the benefits of Bratislava’s gravity. But then there is another player, and that is the grouping of villages in the hinterland of the metropolises. But these are villages that have essentially lost the character of rural villages because the population has increased in a very short time. These are mostly people who can no longer buy an apartment in Košice, it is too expensive for them. Or they prefer to buy a family house. But this is a paradoxical situation, because they belong in the village and at the same time they don’t belong there. They spend their whole day in Košice and come to the village just to sleep. There is, of course, a difference between a city in the hinterland and a village in the hinterland. The city will have all the necessary amenities, and if the city authorities are smart enough to target new people, then people who get tired of the daily commute will eventually settle in that city. They’ll put their kids in the local nursery, the kids will start to grow up as new residents and they’ll relate their identity to that place. But for a village in the hinterland the situation is different because there’s no infrastructure, there’s nowhere to put the children. And that’s just one of many examples.

Milota Sidorová, foto: Archív MS

How is what you’re talking about mirrored in the city itself and what does that mean for the sustainability of those cities?

Suburbs shouldn’t be built as dormitories, but as sub-centres to the main centre. You should be able to spend most of your time there, you shouldn’t be forced to go to the city centre for every single thing and only go there occasionally, maybe once a week. This is an example of a more sustainable suburb. 

If that’s not the case, what are we getting? If we don’t have rail networks, we get traffic jams of individuals in tens to hundreds of thousands of cars, creating huge frustration for everyone. But this is not just about transport – better suburbs enhance interpersonal relations as well. Very good work has been done by geographers Martin Šveda and Pavol Šuška in their study of the village of Chorvátsky Grob near Bratislava. What has happened is that a small village has more than doubled in size in a short time. Of course, the number of inhabitants as well as voters has increased. These people elected their own deputies, these deputies had problems cooperating with the deputies elected by the old village, so they actually fought against each other on a daily basis, and for some time they couldn’t even agree on when and where the village festival would be. The result was two festivals. That is a disruption from the point of view of the local government. It is an extreme situation, but it is actually happening when even in the spatial planning they do not think about the impact of rapid and massive development without amenities and the impact on people’s lives. This is a subject that is of cardinal interest to me at the moment. 

We are talking about the concept of a 15-minute city. How does it work in the satellites or suburbs of Slovak cities? 

Satellites mostly have no concept, we are following the de facto organic development of the market. I don’t even know if there is a concept of a 15-minute city, because for me a concept means that it is followed by regulations, some manual explaining how to achieve it. I see it more as a communication that actually your life works well when most of the things you need are within the maximum distance you’re willing to walk without difficulty – approximately 15 minutes. That’s a kilometre or a kilometre and a half, depending on how fit you are. 

What do you have in the neighbourhood? A school, a doctor, or a shop? A better neighbourhood is one that has all those things at hand without having to get in the car.

As a nation, we enjoyed a brief period where the first housing projects were built this way. In Nitra, for example, there is a beautiful housing estate by the River Nitra that is designed exactly like this. What defines success are the small apartment buildings organised in star-shaped forms to human scale. In this housing estate, there is everything except a high school. There’s even an athletics stadium and allotments. They’ve adopted an amazing approach to cars, which are restricted from many areas and are not allowed to drive across the estate. The cars have their entrances and spaces – everything else is for pedestrians and cyclists.

These are beautiful examples that have materialised the concept of a 15-minute city in the past, even during the socialist period. But then the regime encountered financial problems, buildings took on bulk and increased in size, and gradually took on the typical character of housing estates: tall towers and panelled walls of residential buildings, with low quality services in between. 

The best 15-minute cities can be seen in the historic centre of almost every Slovak town. You see it there because it works in terms of mass, function and aesthetics for passing pedestrians. The construction is harmonious, compact. One feels natural in it.

And is this being worked with strategically in spatial planning and construction in Slovakia today?

I should note that here spatial planning practically didn’t work as a discipline, it was perceived more like the architecture of individual houses. But I think we already have found the tip of the iceberg as a society. We haven’t yet dared to take major steps in planning, but at the level of many municipalities you hear mayors and governors talking about high quality public spaces for people. This is the basis from which the deeper transformation of cities will unfold, and this is what I am personally most interested in. 

In this context, there is also a lot of talk about innovation in cities. How do we actually understand innovation? How should cities or municipalities understand innovation?

The wheel came into being because people walked. They got tired while walking, and the rhythmic boredom of walking inspired thinking about how it could be better. The idea of the wheel was born. Sometimes we have to do something repetitively for so long until we realise that the thing can be done a little better and there is a technological shift.

On the ladder of EU innovation, Slovakia is in the last category, the so-called early innovator. One of the reasons why it is so low is that our system of public and state administration is similar to that of the 19th century. It means segregated departments and professions, an over-dependence on paper documentation, and vast hierarchies. 

Now at the Office for Spatial Planning and Construction we are working on quite a big shift in Slovakia. By changing the Building Act, the authorities in charge of development will be transferred from the towns to the state level. At first glance, this sounds ominous and centralistic. But it does not have to be when the office is digitised and turns into an online environment where processes are integrated, where documents and data are uploaded only once. At the moment, the only power for this innovation lies with the State, and after its implementation I can predict even better transparency and an efficient environment for the development of cities and municipalities. 

However, part of the law is not only the information system as a digital office, but also the creation of a digital model of the entire country. I am talking not only about spatial technical data, but also socio-demographic data that we can interpret in space. Making data accessible is the big mission that will have a huge impact on economics, improving planning, transforming the profession and education. It is absolutely key, perhaps the biggest innovation that needs to be delivered consistently and quickly.

The goal is to create this environment for those cities that chronically suffer from a lack of data and methodological ambiguity in what we study, and to provide them with a tool and a blueprint for how to interpret it and how to compare it to each other.

You are now working on a publication for the 10-year anniversary of the European Capital of Culture in Košice. What has been your experience of that work so far, is that project an example of where culture can take a city? 

It seems to me that in Košice, before it gained European Capital of Culture status, there were several stories of transformation that gained momentum at a certain point. It’s more than the fact that someone built some barracks. It is not at all surprising that our Bratislava-based office is cooperating on pilot projects for an information system with the Technical University in Košice. Also through the work of the ECC, a digital, creative ecosystem has been created in Košice that does not exist in Bratislava. That is, Košice does not go to Bratislava, but we now go to Košice. 

It turns out that there were moments in that project when circumstances came together and innovation was born. The model consists of a foreign carrier of the idea and a domestic host that allows it to operate. This is also found in the history of the city, when Košice was a city of modernism. This was in the 1920s. At that time, Košice became a city of exiles from Hungary and Romania, where rationalisation was hardening and left-wing artists decided to relocate to Košice. After all, Košice was a Hungarian city. From Bohemia at that time came a lawyer, Jozef Ucholák, who was appointed director of the East Slovak Museum. He started to organise residency programmes, international exhibitions and exchanges. He succeeded in following the modernist trends abroad and he brought what he could to Košice.

The ECC team did the same. But back to Ucholák. At a time when Slovakia was searching for its visual language as a nation, when there was nothing to fall back on, Košice created urban art. While the rest of Slovakia painted the Tatras, rural life and folklore, Košice had artists who created urban democratic art that added a new layer to that rural expression. The ECC achieved the same thing. It didn’t change the local culture, but it added to it a new dimension of international art.

Košice Modernism, the short period of eight years for which Polák was responsible, now defines an era that is today Slovakia’s most successful commodity. I was excited to find this moment that shared so much of its DNA with the ECC. It’s actually my favourite story.

Invisible Mag is supported using public funding by Slovak Arts Council. The Slovak Arts Council is the main partner of the project.

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