Reimagining the Right of Way

In Bratislava, empathy and play help planners reclaim an urban landscape for young walkers

It's education. It’s democracy. It has so many layers. It's an amazing project and the kids love the fact that somebody listens to them.

Sandra Štasselová, project coordinator for the Metropolitan Institute of Bratislava (MIB)

On weekday mornings in Bratislava, Slovakia, parents face a difficult choice. Most live within a fifteen-minute walk to their local primary school. Yet, due to missing crosswalks, unclear pedestrian signs, and unsafe traffic patterns, a quarter of all parents won’t let their child walk to school. Instead, they drive them, further deteriorating air quality and diminishing street safety. It’s “a cyclical effect,” Sandra Štasselová, project coordinator for the Metropolitan Institute of Bratislava (MIB), said in a video chat. Inside vehicles, children join the growing traffic jam and miss out on the health and psychological benefits of outdoor play.

The problem reflects a city-wide trend of diminishing walkability. According to a study by MIB, children in 1927 routinely wandered six kilometres from home without a parent. Over the next seventy years, that range decreased exponentially. By 1997, most children only played in their gardens under adult supervision. Since then, youth access to public space has continued to dwindle. Yet even with limited access to outdoor space, traffic accidents have increased.In 2022, a car struck a child on their walk to Nevädzová Primary School, nearly killing them. For Štasselová, who has two children under eight, the loss of safety and free reign is devastating. Both kids enjoy biking and her son, who is seven, longs to walk to school alone, a goal she wishes she could safely support. Everyone, she believes, has a right to public space.


Inspired by Tim Gill’s book Urban Playground,Štasselová helped launch City for Children, a multifaceted MIB programme that aims to make streets around primary schools safer. In 2022, to kickstart their efforts, Štasselová and two colleagues attended the Urban95 Academy, an executive education programme by the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Van Leer Foundation focused on making cities more child friendly. The training they received, Štasselová said, “pushed us to be more ambitious.”

That same year, MIB launched City for Children’s pilot programme at Nevädzová Primary School. Based on feedback from parents, students, and community members, the city tested temporary, low cost “tactical urbanism” interventions to improve public space and prioritise pedestrian safety and outdoor play. The school’s main street was closed to cars during the busy school drop off between 7.30 and 8.00am, to ease traffic a dead-end road became a roundabout traffic, and student-designed art decorated asphalt to signal child-friendly spaces. The city instituted socio-cultural interventions as well. On weekdays, adults led “walking school buses,” safely escorting groups of students to and from school. And, as part of their community outreach, the city occasionally closed streets to traffic for weekend street festivals. Reimagined as “play streets,” MIB set up outdoor games, including a mobile play pavilion, and created opportunities for community feedback. Štasselová said that being a mother herself helped her build trust with other parents. “I'm there to understand their needs and find ways that they can help their kids have a better life.” The programme had an immediate impact. MIB found that within a year, 51 more children were regularly walking to school, an increase of 5%.

Walking Schoolbus

When ten more primary schools joined MIB’s City for Children programme in 2023, urban planners discovered that scaling up required coordination across various levels of government and substantial neighbourhood outreach. Bratislava comprises five districts and seventeen boroughs with some streets owned by the city, some owned by boroughs or districts, and some maintained by a conglomerate of Slovakian cities. Attitudes towards public space varied widely.  “Each neighbourhood has a different atmosphere and level of community engagement,” MIB’s community manager Dorota Šaríková told me. “We're still learning how to bring people on board.”

At Vazovova Primary in Bratislava’s city center, teacher and community liaison Zuzana Szalaiová solicits student input through street safety workshops for eight- and thirteen-year-olds. This autumn, after identifying where they felt unsafe on their own walk to school, Szalaiová led groups on “empathy walks,” inviting students to try wheelchairs, push strollers, or imagine having visual or hearing impairments. Afterwards, students noted safety concerns, marking impediments on pavement, uneven sidewalks, and traffic lights without audio signals on maps which were submitted to MIB. “They could see that everyday life can be pretty challenging,” said Szalaiová. “This was like a wake-up moment for them.”

Across the city at Biskupická Primary, the majority of students already walk to school, so MIB’s focus is less on reducing school traffic and more about encouraging outdoor play. The student body, which includes Romani children, Ukrainian refugees, and orphans from a nearby housing programme, drew comics and used legos to create designs for a new playground. “It's education. It’s democracy. It’s getting the data. It has so many layers,” said Štasselová when asked about the emphasis on youth feedback. This spring MIB plans to implement student suggestions at both primary schools. “It's an amazing project,” Szalaiová told me. “The kids…love the fact that somebody listens to them.”

Tactical Urbanism 747x560

Yet despite the programme’s successes, not everyone welcomes changes to the city’s infrastructure. Since declaring independence in 1992, Slovakia has built up its roads and highways, neglected under the Soviet regime. Car ownership grew increasingly accessible, creating an entrenched driving culture. Over the last fifteen years, cars in Bratislava have doubled, straining the city’s capacity, and inciting political tensions. Wealthy neighbourhoods with the greatest reliance on cars pushed back hard against City of Children’s tactical urbanism, slowing and even shutting down programming. “In Slovakia and especially in Bratislava, traffic is really a topic that divides society,” Štasselová reflected. “It’s very sensitive to tell people that they should give up their cars for something else.”

For Bratislava mayor Matúš Vallo, promoting City for Children requires political savvy, balancing the safety needs of drivers and walkers. “We want to adapt the street design for all users according to their needs, equitably,” Vallo reflected in an email. “Pedestrians need protection and attention more than people protected by their metal cars with various safety systems.” 

To date City for Children has worked with school communities serving high numbers of Ukrainian refugees. “We had a lot of good feedback from the teachers,” said Šaríková. “Those activities really helped [Ukrainian children] feel like they're part of their community.” Meeting that need also qualified Bratislava for UNICEF funding, essential for a government with limited finances. Yet as the programme expands, MIB plans to work with neighbourhoods that seek them out. “This way,” said Štasselová, “you can ensure there is a local community who wants to invest their resources, their capacities, into defending why we need more safe space for pedestrians.” 

At its inception, City for Children modelled itself on similar programmes in Prague, Paris, Barcelona, and Auckland. Already, Bratislava’s success is inspiring other cities. Last year during European Mobility Week, the Slovakian town of Vráble hosted exercise classes, games, face painting, and reading stations at street fair while city officials and residents conversed about who public space is for and how the city can best serve its youngest and most vulnerable residents.

This is the first in a series of city stories that the Urban95 Academy has commissioned from writer Anya Groner to continue a dialogue with cities that have taken part in the programme. The stories investigate the specific urban challenges brought by cities to the Urban95 Academy and explore how solutions are subsequently being developed and put into practice. 
To find out more about the Urban95 Academy and to register to join a future cohort of the programme Visit the Urban95 Academy website.


 All images courtesy of Metropolitain Institute of Bratislava.