This paper looks at factors of urban identity forming in a contemporary city. It studies diversity as one of the characteristics of the city and its relation to
identity as the other side of diversity. It explores urban strategies that focus on the regeneration of historic city centres and revitalisation of urban life and urban identities as well as on attracting visitors and investors to the city.
This emphasis on cultural planning is an important part of urban development strategies that aim at the support and growth of local economies. This paper presents a case study of the middle-size city of Banska Bystrica (Central
Slovakia). It identifies and analyses six factors that contribute to urban identity construction in the city and examines hetero-images – reflections of the image of the city in the minds and memories of visitors. In the final part
the paper focuses on studying the local government approach to revitalisation of urban life in Banska Bystrica.
city, identity, Europe, Banská Bystrica
"What is the city but the people?" This sentence written by William Shakespeare
remains true throughout the whole long history of the city and can be
taken as a starting point for a social anthropological study of the city. The city
is home for millions of people who choose to live in this open and diversified
society. It is understood in many, often contradictory ways: it may be loved, celebrated
and glorifi ed, or hated and damned. The main characteristics of each
city can be summarised in three words expressed in 1938 by one of the classics
of urban theory, Louis Wirth: size, density and heterogeneity (Wirth, 1938).
The city is also a physical environment with specific forms of social, economic
and institutional organisation and with a complex system of public and private
spaces. It is an urban setting where diverse identities meet and collide. The
challenge for each city is to create inclusive spaces that can address different
identities and fulfi ll the needs of all the segments of a heterogeneous population.
As Socrates said, "Our purpose in founding the city was not to make any
one class in it surpassingly happy, but to make the city as a whole as happy
as possible." (Plato, translated by Lindsay, 1957) The question for an urban
anthropologist is what is it that makes people happy in one city and unhappy in
another; why do people prefer one place to another; what is hidden behind the
soul of a city and love for a particular city. Are the objects of a positive relation
to a city and identity-forming elements streets, squares, buildings, institutions,
shops, parks, a river, festivals, customs, theatres, universities, smells, sounds
(silence), rhythm, memories...? A positive relation of the inhabitants to their
city and positive identifi cation with the city refl ect the health, energy, dynamics
and vitality of the city. However, one should never forget that both the people
who love their city and the objects of their love change in the course of time.
Streets and buildings change; the structure of the population changes; memories
and collective memory - the reservoir of knowledge, experience, images,
feelings and attitudes (Kilianova, 1996) - change, too. It is in memory that history
and the present meet. This element of memory is an important factor of
identity construction Urban identity-forming is influenced by numerous factors
of a material and spiritual nature. The city is a colourful mosaic of people,
cultures, subcultures and diverse lifestyles that have an impact on the attitude
of each individual towards his/her city. Urban inhabitants form their identity
through various pictures, images and symbols. Since the 1980s the development
in many contemporary cities has led to revitalisation of urban identities,
initiated by local governments and private enterprises. The characteristic feature
of this process is the shift from the focus on material and symbolic aspects
of the city to the support of urban culture, diversity and creativity organised in
numerous public spaces. Movement for rediscovery and revitalisation of urban
traditions and rituals, organisation of urban festivals and parades, reconstruction
of historic city centres - these are activities that create space for collective identity
construction of the urban inhabitants and at the same time aim at
attracting tourists and investors (De la Pradelle, 1996).
Revitalisation of cities, city cultures and identities and creation of new
urban images and symbols as the means of marketing the city have developed
in two ways described by Bianchini and Schwengel (1991) as "Americanisation"
and "Europeanisation". Americanisation means reconstruction and
transformation of redundant, decaying urban sites into spectacular spaces with
theme-park entertainment, markets, restaurants and leisure shopping, usually
located on a waterfront (e.g. Boston, New York's South Street Seaport, London
- Docklands or Sydney - Darling Harbour; Stevenson, 2003: 100-101).
Europeanisation has been developing since the 1980s. It focuses on urban cultural
planning and cultural policy and its main objective is local cultural development
and support for local creativity as a basis for strategies to revive local economies
(Stevenson 2003: 104). The key element of this approach is the rhetoric of local
difference and diversity. Initiatives focus on identifi cation and promotion of
local distinctiveness, specifi c features of the city and through creative practice
the nurturing of a positive image and a sense of place and belonging (Stevenson
2003: 104). The process of cultural revitalisation and revival of collective urban
identities in European cities is a top-down process influenced and managed by
policies of cities, regions, nations and European transnational institutions. The
Council of Europe and the European Union initiate many activities to promote
the process. The most famous one is the European Union competition for the
European City of Culture that has been organised since 1985 as a result of an
agreement by the Council of Ministers of Culture. Following its results it is evident
that a number of cities that were awarded this title profi ted from the initiative.
They not only transformed and revitalised physical spaces in the city, but
they also had an impact on the relation of urban inhabitants to their city, their
identity, responsibility and interest in participation in the governance.
The city can be understood as a complex of identities and diversities.
Identity and diversity play an important role in contemporary urban strategies.
While in the 1970s-1990s urban studies emphasised mainly inequalities, differences
and spatial segregation from the point of view of different categories
(ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social stratifi cation, etc.),
since the 1990s terminology has shifted to the issues of diversity and differentiation
where diverse identities meet and mix and create a multilevel environment
leading either to polarisation and fragmentation or to inclusion and integration.
According to Stevenson it is the urban setting that is the place where diversity
is most evident and where the biggest freedom to be "different" exists. Cities
are places where difference is both created and most likely to be tolerated (Stevenson
2003: 41). As Landry suggests, diversity in its many forms and broad
understanding is the primary element of vibrant urban spaces and activities
leading to visual stimulation (Landry 2006: 253). This fact is used in numerous
development strategies of contemporary cities that build upon the rhetoric
of local differences and celebration of urban diversity. Diversity is becoming
a slave of urban marketing. Several urban-anthropological studies (e.g. Zukin,
1997; Marcuse, 2000; Davis, 1990) criticise neoliberal use and manipulation of
the term diversity which is often presented by city representatives as an exotic
and aesthetically attractive feature of the city and which is positively accepted
unless it stands against free market or it points at inequality. On the one hand,
urban authorities face pressure from minorities asking for support and promotion
of their cultural needs (e.g. minority schools, clubs, media, festivals,
political parties etc.). On the other hand, they feel pressure from investors and
cultural tourism to create an image of the city as a centre of innovation, diversity
and cultural activities and festivities for all. Urban diversity policies include
creation of public spaces that are meeting points and places of social interaction
for various groups. Following Worpole and Greenhalgh (1996, quoted by
Shaw and MacLeod; 2000: 165), "the best public spaces have rhythms and patterns
of use of their own, being occupied at different times by quite different
groups, occasionally by almost everybody. Their attractiveness, fl exibility, and
pluralist sense of ownership make them very valuable features of urban life."
Building of good quality urban public spaces that are places of integration and
inclusion, create conditions for meeting of diverse identities and address often
contradictory needs of different segments of the population remains a big challenge
for contemporary cities (Beall, 1997).
"Alive in Banská Bystrica, after death in heaven": Factors of identity-forming
in the city of Banská Bystrica
The following case study raises some issues concerning mechanisms that have
an impact on identity-forming among the inhabitants of the city of
Banská Bystrica (Slovakia). It has been based on the results of qualitative research
(face-to-face interviews and participant observation), and an analysis of archival
documents, contemporary regional press and memoirs.
Urban life can be characterised by dynamics, openness, heterogeneity,
diversity, greater tolerance, anonymity, mobility and more freedom that is well
expressed in a German proverb "Stadt Luft macht frei" (Urban air makes you
feel free). All these characteristics contribute to the creation of the image of the
city as the basis for construction of urban identity. The concept of urban identity
includes both identity of the city itself as well as local identity of its inhabitants.
Images of the city are formed either as auto-images (auto-stereotypes)
that are created in memory and mental maps of urban inhabitants or as hetero-images
(hetero-stereotypes) described as reflections of the city in the memory of visitors.
Auto-images of the city
Each inhabitant of the city forms and remembers his/her own unique image of
the city, which can differ from the one existing in the memory of visitors. The
way people look at their city may be influenced by their social status, ethnic
and religious affi liation, gender, age, physical and mental abilities, etc. From
the results of the research in the city of Banská Bystrica we can say that auto-images
that are the means and the result of the process of identification of each
inhabitant with his/ her city are formed by different factors:
1. Urban symbols (especially the coat-of-arms and its use at various official
celebrations with local officials present.
2. Architecture, and urban structures and spaces (dominant architectural
structures, buildings, streets, squares, neighbourhoods and other public
objects and spaces) are among the most important phenomena of urban identity-
forming. In Banská Bystrica, it is mainly the old architecture of the city
centre that is the main aspect of identifi cation of the inhabitants with their city.
Following interviews with local residents, the reconstructed central square
(The Square of the Slovak National Uprising) is considered the most significant
public space. Its transformation in the 1990s contributed to the revitalisation
of urban life and local identity. Ethnological research confi rmed the
importance of the central square in the life of the inhabitants in the past and at
present (Bitušíková, 1995; 1998), but it is particularly after the reconstruction
in 1994 that the square became the real space of social integration attracting
a diverse urban population. The inhabitants themselves feel that "the square is
a place that belongs to all" (J. M., 1922). Its regeneration has reinforced local
identity and pride among both young and old people. At the same time, it has
become a symbol of internationalisation and a "return to Europe", especially
for the younger generation, who compare the transformed city with other cities
in Europe, as expressed by a respondent:
"I am proud of our city now. When I sit on the terrace of the cafe on the
square, it feels like being in Paris" (J. B., 1974).
In addition to its integration and identifi cation functions, the square
with its several signifi cant and most popular meeting points (the leaning tower,
the statue of Virgin Mary, the fountain and the obelisk) is even considered by
individual inhabitants a "magic" place, using the words of Pawlowska (1998).
She describes as magic all urban spaces or objects that have a special, often
emotional meaning for each or some inhabitants. These places may be insignifi
cant from an outsider's view and usually differ from the ones celebrated in
the tour-guides. They are genia loci, attracting residents by their atmosphere
and promoting positive memories and emotions (Pawlowska, 1998: 31). These
can be squares, parks, buildings, memorials, cafés, pubs, cemeteries, trees,
etc. - places with a soul, taste, smell, light, sound or silence, favourite spaces
for social contacts and communication. Every city resident has his/ her own
"magic places" that play an important role in the memory (either individual or
collective) and contribute to the creation of the individual unique image of the
city and identity building.
3. Geographical and landscape features
Geography plays a strong identifi cation function in the Banská Bystrica
image. The city is situated in the picturesque valley of the Hron River, surrounded
by several mountain ranges. For the inhabitants, it is mainly Urpín
hill, the Hron River and the region of the Hron valley (Pohronie) that are part of
local identity. All old and present tour guides describe the city as "the pearl of
the Hron valley", "the city on the banks of the Hron River" or "the city under
Urpín". During the period of the Slovak National Revival (19th century), Urp ín
hill was a meeting point of Slovak students who used to sing patriotic songs
there (Hronské noviny, 13. 9. 1924). Urpín and the Hron are often mentioned
in memoirs as places for romantic walks and first rendezvous.
„For us students, Urpín was the hill of love. It was nicely lighted with won
derful paths; it is where we used to have rendezvous. We also used to walk on the
promenade along the banks of the Hron River" (J. M., 1922).
Geographical names are now refl ected in names of institutions or products
representing or characterising the city (Urpín beer, the Urpín cinema,
the Urpín and Hronka folklore ensembles, the Hron choir, the Hronka cheese
4. Language (urban dialect; specific intonation; words that are characteristic
of only one particular city; and frequent surnames and place names)
The Banská Bystrica language is a factor of identifi cation both within the
urban society itself and in communication situations outside the city. Words
that are known only among the city inhabitants (e.g. krepý, which means dull,
stupid), specific use of word endings and intonation that reminds one of singing
are clear identification features of an inhabitant of Banská Bystrica. Local, often
unofficial names of city quarters, spaces and objects reinforce a common sense
of belonging to the city. They can be names of places or objects that no longer
exist (or places with a new function) which live in collective memory even after
long years (in Banská Bystrica e.g., places like "u Kemov" - a former pre1939
Jewish department store, "pri Leninovi" - the space of a former statue of Lenin
that was destroyed in 1990, "pri KPŠ" - a former political school, etc.).
5. Urban cultural and social events, festivals and rituals
Urban events and festivals play a signifi cant role in identityforming
as well as in the creation of hetero-images. Since the 17th century the most
famous event in Banská Bystrica has been the Radvaň market (Radvanský
jarmok) that used to take place in the nearby neighbourhood of Radvaň (now
part of the city). In 2007 it celebrated its 350th anniversary. Other events which
are also well known outside the city have been the Bystrica Bells song contest;
the Banská Bystrica Bar sports competition; the Finex financial fair, The City
Days that celebrate the famous medieval mining history of the city (The Copper
Banská Bystrica) and the celebration to commemorate the Slovak National
Uprising (1944), the largest anti-Nazi uprising in Central Europe (The Insurgent
6. Memories, emotions, fantasies, passions, images and stereotypes
Memories, emotions, fantasies, passions, images and stereotypes are
among the most vivid and strongest means of urban identifi cation. The city is
lived and experienced in the imagination of each individual in a different way.
Stevenson (2003) describes it as the "imaginary city" which is the place of memory,
culture, literature or anecdote compared to the real "physical" city consisting
of streets, buildings and footpaths (Stevenson, 2003: 113). Each individua connects the
imaginary city with categories such as the place of birth, childhood,
first love, family, home, happiness, security etc. Verbalisation of these
feelings and emotions often refl ects a positive relationship of the inhabitants to
their city, pride, passion or nostalgic memory. Auto-images can be marked by
overestimation of positives of the city when comparing it to other cities. Local
patriotism of Banská Bystrica inhabitants is evident from their descriptions of
the city as "the pearl of Slovakia", "the heart of Slovakia" and in an old proverb
"Alive in Banská Bystrica, and after death in heaven."
Hetero-images of the city
Compared to auto-images of the city, created and often glorifi ed by the inhabitants
themselves, hetero-images may reflect different or contradictory characteristics.
Banská Bystrica and its inhabitants are often described by outsiders
as proud and haughty, and strong local patriotism is seen as superiority, as
expressed in pejorative phrases: "genteel Bystrica" or "noble Bystrica" meant
ironically, "haughty Bystricians" (die stolzen Neusohler"), "greedy Bystrica"
or "the greedy one near Zvolen". These hetero-images reflect not only the
outside view of the city and its inhabitants, but also the position of the city in
a wider regional and national context and rival relations between the neighbouring
cities of Banská Bystrica and Zvolen.
Hetero-images are created by visitors and inhabitants of other cities on
the basis of a visit to the city or via information from media, guide books or
other secondary sources. Good or bad media or a tour-guide image can have
a significant impact on the development of tourism or investment flows.
It can often differ from objective reality. If it becomes stereotyped, it can take years
to improve the image of the city. When searching through online tour-guides,
we can read: "Connected to the outlying districts by some of the country‘s most
precipitous railways, Banská Bystrica is also a handsome historic town in its own
right - once you‘ve made it through the tangled suburbs of the burgeoning cement
and logging industries" (www.travelotica.com). Reviews of visitors commenting
on their visit to the city mention most often the main square as the place to
remember ("With the most attractive town square in the whole of Slovakia, and
with lots to see and do, Banska Bystrica is one of the highlights of any visit to the
region." [www.heartofeurope.co.uk]) and the Museum of the Slovak National
Uprising, which attracts on the one hand with its exhibits explaining the most
important event in modern Slovak history and on the other hand with its
impressive architecture ("it is unique architecturally - it looks a bit like a deep
pan pizza sliced down the middle" [www.ivebeenthere.co.uk]; or "looking something
like an intergalactic mushroom chopped in half " [www.travelotica.com]).
Opinions of foreign visitors sometimes refl ect different views on the reconstruction
of the historic centre from the ones of home residents. An American
guide who used to come to Banská Bystrica with tourist groups before 1989
"I am sure that Banská Bystrica inhabitants are proud of their square now,
but I am not very excited. It is nice that there are no cars there, but the space
around the fountain looks like a subway stop. And why do shop-keepers hang
clothes outside on the streets? It looks like the cheapest part of New York. I loved
your old medieval square; it certainly needed reconstruction and some details now
are lovely, but I am not sure I will ever bring tourists there - it looks like being at
home, in the US" (H.C., 1937).
This example shows that what the local people embrace as beautiful, alive,
diverse and "western-like" after years of the grey homogeneous looks of the
square, some outside visitors mainly from the "West" may find it ordinary and
no longer interesting.
Local government: creating and marketing the image of the city
Urban government, local authorities, institutions, travel agencies and other
subjects representing the city inside and outside are crucial actors in forming
the image and identity of the city. Through "place marketing" and various
activities and practices they brand the city and present, sell and offer it to
local residents and to visitors, tourists and investors. The policy of local cultural
development plays an increasingly important role in many cities of the
world. Emphasis is put on the support of an active and creative involvement
of citizens in urban activities and their participation in the governance as the
basis for the revival and diversifi cation of local economies. Transformation of
physical and symbolic urban spaces into places of interaction, integration and
inclusion attracting diverse groups of population goes hand in hand with these
Regeneration of the city centre in Banská Bystrica started from the
initiative of the mayor (an architect) in 1994 with the reconstruction of the main
square (Bitušíková, 1995; 1998). Transformation of the physical space of the
square from the former busy traffi c zone into a vivid pedestrian zone also
meant a radical transformation of the relation of the inhabitants to their city,
and growth of their pride and interest in the city. It contributed to revitalisation
of pluralistic and diversifi ed urban life that was for almost half a century
frozen under the communist ideology and socialist urbanism serving it. The
efforts of the local government did not end with the transformation of the
square. In 2006, reconstruction of the castle area (Barbakan) was finalised,
which resulted in opening a spacious pedestrian zone connecting the square
with the castle and offering many opportunities for relaxation and social interaction.
Numerous urban newsletters and bulletins that are distributed to every
household regularly publish articles on historic monuments, buildings, streets
and other places of interest in order to revive the interest of each citizen in his/
her city. They describe important spiritual places known as terra sana maxima,
which are supposed to be a source of positive energy. According to geophysical
surveys published in the journal Bystrický permon (March 2007), the
most significant place of this kind in Banská Bystrica is the main square. It is
described as genium loci - a space of local memory and collective information
that has been for centuries the main area for gatherings and rallies and the witness
of all important historic turning points including the fall of communism in
November 1989. Whether one believes in such "scientific" explanations or not,
the articles bringing information about the city landmarks make identification
of the inhabitants with their city easier and stronger.
In addition to transition of physical structures, urban authorities put much
effort into the revival of urban life in public places. They regularly organise
and support dozens of cultural festivals and celebrations for local residents and
outside visitors. The City Days are among the most important ones. They take
place at the beginning of September together with the Radvaň market. The
programme includes a historic parade in medieval costumes, a market with traditional
handcrafts, and a number of cultural activities. In 2007, The City Days
were organised in the spirit of the competition for the title "European City of
Culture" in 2013. Each project competing for this title has to focus on a vision
of sustainable revitalisation of the city; presentation of its historic, cultural
and spiritual heritage; involvement of the city in European culture and close
cooperation with various European partners; empowerment of citizens and
their participation in urban governance; and support of regionalism by closer
collaboration between the city and the region. The Banská Bystrica project
called "Banská Bystrica - BaBy born in Europe" should become an integral
part of the strategy for social and cultural sustainable development of the city.
Following the speeches of the mayor, the city chose the method of active and
creative involvement of all citizens and cultural institutions as well as private
businesses in the process (V Bystrici zaživa, October 2007). Both the mayor
and the president of the region (VÚC Banská Bystrica) stated that joining the
European competition has been a priority for the city and the region. The 2007
City Days were a rehearsal for the fi nal stage of the project. The programme
under the umbrella of the "European City of Culture" logo included a living
picture of the famous painting "The market in Banská Bystrica" by Dominik
Skutecky from the 19th century; revival of the coat-of-arms; concerts, theatres,
artistic performances, and an international conference "Cultural policies of
European cities for the next decade". In the press release the mayor said: "The
most important thing is that each inhabitant of Banská Bystrica identifies positively
with the city and will be proud of it. The ambition to receive the title of
the European City of Culture has to be the ambition of every citizen of Banská
Bystrica" (www.sme.sk/c/3463609, 31. 8. 2007).
In addition to the effort to compete for the title of the European City of
Culture, urban authorities started the initiative to add Banská Bystrica to the
UNESCO heritage list as a part of world industrial heritage.
This study examines mechanisms that have an impact on the construction of
identity of urban inhabitants. Six factors are identified and analysed: urban
symbols; architecture and urban structures and spaces; geographical and landscape
features; language; urban festivals and rituals; and emotions, memories,
images and stereotypes. Auto-images as reflections of local inhabitants and
hetero-images as reflections of outsiders are part of the image-making of each
city. The developments towards reinforcement of urban identities and at the
same time support for tolerance of diversity are an integral component of the
trend towards regeneration of cities and their creative and economic potential.
Globalisation is the main engine behind this trend. It stimulates competition
in all spheres of life from economic to social and cultural ones, and - despite
the opinions of all opponents - it makes cities invest in preservation and promotion
of their own specifi cities and cultural heritage if they want to be winners
in global competition. The process of revitalisation of cities is supported
by European, national, regional and local institutions and self-governments.
The middle-sized Central European city of Banská Bystrica joined the process
in an active, dynamic way, expressed mainly through its effort to win the title
of The European City of Culture in 2013. The local self-government is the main
initiator of the new urban strategy that built upon the promotion of urban culture
and its unique features as a crucial part of urban planning. This strategy
corresponds with the development in other European cities in which cultural
policy meets urban planning with the objective of creating cities where inhabitants
will feel safe and happy, and of attracting visitors, investors and highly
qualified and skilled professionals (knowledge workers) who look for dynamic
centres of creativity and innovation. Urban cultural heritage, architecture, arts,
cultural activities and vivid and diversifi ed urban life - these are domains that
play a crucial role in the renaissance of the city, and in strategies of the economic,
social and cultural sustainability of the city. It is important to balance
the top-down process led by policy-makers and influenced by global forces with
the bottom-up process that aims at strengthening the local identity of urban
citizens and involving them in the governance. Managed and "soft" integration
of local and global processes, practices and influences can lead to growth and
prosperity of the city and contribute to better coexistence and a good quality of
life for all segments of the urban population.
This work was supported by the EU 6th Framework Programme project of the Network of
Excellence Sustainable Development in a Diverse World (acronym SUS.DIV, No of contract CIT3-
Banská Bystrica is situated in the middle of Central Slovakia in the Hron Valley, surrounded by
several mountain ranges. It has almost 85,000 inhabitants (up to 100,000 in wider agglomeration) and
it ranks among medium-sized cities (fifth largest city in Slovakia).
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Zvolen is the nearest city to Banská Bystrica. Both cities have always been rivals and competitors,
which is most evident at mutual sports matches or in anecdotes.
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