It’s not enough to plant more trees…

Economics and politics

It’s not enough to plant more trees…

19. 08. 2019 15:55

Bratislava is Slovakia's largest city and a fast developing one. With this June the hottest on record in Slovakia, the capital's inhabitants - especially those living in the communist era style tall concrete blocks of flats spread all over the city - have struggled to manage the hot summer days and nights. Many locals took refuge in parks, some under the trees in front of their apartment buildings, while others discovered that there are no trees in front of their building or even on their street. Many people boiled in the public transport with no air conditioning and windows too small for proper ventilation. While gasping for some fresh air many locals are asking the question: How prepared is Bratislava for the changes in climate? Andrej Kovarik has been Bratislava's plenipotentiary for the environment since the end of last year, and the right person to answer such a question.

Andrej Kovarik: No, at the moment the city is not ready for the changes in climate. That's why we need not only to take some concrete steps but also to introduce new long term policies concerning for example land planning, the management of streets and other public spaces. It's important to see which streets become very hot and stay like this for a longer time - for example because there are many buildings and not enough greenery there. It's important to see how streets manage to allow some retention of rainwater or not. And here we run into the current legislation which must be changed in order to deal with climate change. To give you an example, the law requires that rain water be directed to the public drainage system. It's enough to have a few hours of intensive rain and the drainage system can't cope, and streets like Gagarinova, Ružinovska and Račanska are flooded. We want to make better use of the rain water, for example by building some so-called rain gardens instead of sending it into the drainage system. Those rain gardens which can be placed near areas with a lot of pavement - including parking lots - can allow the rain water to be retained and gradually released into the ground not only in order to avoid flash floods but also to manage the dry days better. The same should be applied to rain water collected from the roofs of buildings.

Anca Dragu: Can you give some examples of concrete measures that can be introduced right now?

We have already marked 60 places in the city where we will not cut the grass but let it develop into meadows. Of course there have been voices saying that we are doing this because we are lazy or want to save money. In reality if you cut the grass 5 to 6 times a year, what you get are those dry patches with yellowish bits of grass because in hot weather those little plants struggle to survive. If you do it only once or twice per year, as we want to do, then the grass not only fares better but new plants may appear there, new flowers and with them butterflies, and suddenly it will look different. But what's more important, such areas will become cooler and will be better at retaining humidity and water. Our measurements have shown that temperatures in those areas where the grass is cut regularly can be as much as 20 degrees C higher than in those where the grass was not cut. It's clear that these meadows are a measure against climate change that's easy to apply, especially in the densely built and populated areas such as in between our panel blocks of flats, areas which become so hot in the summer.

kosenie_Anca Dragu.jpgAn attempt to create a meadow near a block of flats in the borough of Karlova Ves with explanations attached

Right now I bet that if there is an empty plot somewhere and you ask people what they want to have there those asking for a parking lot might pose a serious challenge to those who want a park….

We have communicated the new parking policy through numbers that clearly show that the number of cars used in the city has increased dramatically and there is no way it can simply go on like this, because traffic will collapse. Our clear goal is to reduce the number of cars in the city and increase the use of public transport. Of course we need to improve the quality and efficiency of public transport but we are working on it. We must change people's mentality because this city cannot expand indefinitely. Especially in the centre, you can't enlarge its streets to accommodate cars, to say nothing of air pollution. Traffic is the main source of pollution in Bratislava.

When I started working for the public radio almost 15 years ago I could see green hills from my office window all the way behind the railway station. Now I see villas and expensive looking apartment buildings. Bratislava has developed chaotically in terms of new real estate projects and often to the detriment of green spaces. How do you plan to balance city's economic development with the need to protect its environment?

I'm very glad that we have mapped all the brownfields we have in the city. Some of them need special attention because of some ecological issues inherited from the past, but these brownfields, and there are many of them, are places for development, be it for parks, apartment or office buildings, or a parking garage. We want to take control over the chaotic development of Bratislava so that the city does not have to grow on the periphery, which will then of course have an impact on transport. Then we can use land planning tools for the new projects because we have areas which are densely built. The new projects in the Nivy area, for example, are not seen positively by some people, but personally I am glad that those buildings grow in terms of altitude, so to say, because this way they save ground. I can also say that we have managed to push them to increase the space allocated to greenery too. Land planning is a very important tool in the hands of the city to regulate construction.

rekonstrukcia_Anca Dragu.jpgA small park created on Svoradova Street in Staré Mesto in 2017 as a step to adapt to climate change

The city hall wants to plant 10,000 trees in Bratislava by 2022. How do you plan to do it given the fact that the city with densely built areas is not an easy place to do so?

We are in such an absurd situation at the moment. Bratislava does have a complete inventory of its trees and other elements of greenery. We do not know how many trees we have, where they are and what state they are in. To make things even worse, Bratislava is divided into 17 boroughs, each with their own authorities managing the greenery, and on top of this the greenery itself is divided into that located on the streets and that located elsewhere. As a consequence, in your neighbourhood you can have a nice patch of grass and flowers here, and only a few meters away another spot that is not well kept simply because they are managed by different bodies. That's why I am glad that we have begun counting all the trees and other greenery in cooperation with the boroughs, and that we will be trying to simplify the management of greenery in the city. We will plant new trees, but we have to do it wisely. I do not want to plant new trees in what I call cement sarcophaguses like it was done in the past- they surrounded them with pavement and didn't care how their roots would manage to find water or whether they would come in contact with the underground network of pipes, cables and canals, and the tree would not last longer than 30 years. We will use new technologies that allow the roots to stay healthy naturally and the tree to outlive us. We need to put the underground in order too - all those pipes and cables and sewage canals that were built chaotically can in time be rerouted more efficiently, which is an expensive and complicated process but necessary if we want to have more trees and reduce the heat in the city.

In Bratislava many older buildings have inner courtyards and even communist era style block of flats have some empty spaces behind them where local residents want to have some greenery some even create little gardens there. What kind of support can residents of such areas get from the city?

At the moment there is the possibility to adopt some spaces and take care of the greenery there. I know that not all boroughs offer this and that we need to work more in this field so that we have a clear strategy on how to help the residents who want to get involved in taking care of the greenery. I know there are many residents who are very much into building community gardens and many retired locals who love gardening in front of their block of flats. That's good but they have to do it under the supervision of some expert from the local town hall so that they do not unintentionally damage some trees or other plants.

zahrada_Anca Dragu.jpgThe community garden run by residents on Hany Meličkovej Street in Dlhé Diely

What about panelaky- these three to four decade old communist era style tall concrete blocks of flats that accumulate so much heat in the summer? Can they be adjusted to face the climate change?

Panelaky can also to some degree be adjusted to fight climate change. Many have seen their thermic isolation improved, and the roof can be put to better use by installing solar panels or covering it with materials that retain rain water better so it helps to cool the building. Some even have roof gardens.

Concludes Andrej Kovarik Bratislava's plenipotentiary for the environment adding that the city hall will openly and intensively discuss all the issues related to environment protection with city's residents.

Bratislava vs climate change
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Anca Dragu, Photo: Anca Dragu, TASR

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