Urban identitites and diversities: a key to the renaissance of the city?

Alexandra Bitušíková


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.

Klíčová slova

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. [1]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

shop, etc.).

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).

Detailed analysis of identifi cation factors was published in: BITUŠÍKOVÁ, Alexandra. 2003. Čo

je mesto? (Mesto v predstavách jeho obyvateľov.) Český lid, 90 (3), s. 217-224.

Original old name of Banská Bystrica was Neosolium (Neusohl in German).

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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Alexandra Bitušíková

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