Mental health as determining factor of urban district’s character: Case study Bratislava – the Pentagon

Barbora Šimkovičová, Katarína Smatanová


The topic of mental health is on the fringe of the interest of architects and urban planners. But the physical environment in which we live is one of the strongest determinants of our health (United Nations, 2015). Sometimes, we overlook these issues – or they remain unobserved behind more visible phenomena. On a case study of the urban district Medzi Jarkami in Bratislava, Slovakia, particularly a block called the Pentagon, this article argues that drug addiction, as a mental health disorder, determines the character of a whole spatial entity, according to which a locality is hugely stigmatised and segregated.

Mental health as a factor defining the architectural characteristics of a building or space is a topic viewed mainly through the lenses of health institutions. Extending the topic to a urban scale to provide guidelines on designing a space that supports good mental health is a relatively new research focus, yet without a robust base for architectural and urban design approaches.

On the other hand, the literature is solid in environmental psychology determining environmental factors affecting mental health, known as environmental stressors. Research suggests that the environment a person lives in can protect from or catalyse the development of a mental disorder. Its direct or indirect influence depends on the exact environmental stressor. These factors, or stressors of a place, affect mental health both at the psychological and physical level. The psychological level is affected by raising or lowering stress levels (Helbich, 2018); while the physical level is demonstrated through changes in brain structure and function (Bick, Nelson, 2016).

Based on these theories, the goal of our study is to understand the connection between and the impact of the mental health of residents and the urban structure they live in through the identification of particular physical aspects representing these stressors. The complexity of the situation required continuous data collection. Apart from the literature review, the analysis of the case study of the Pentagon was elaborated at two levels: on-site participant observations in three phases during 2022 and 2023 in parallel with structured interviews.

The Medzi Jarkami housing estate lies on the Bratislava’s outskirts. The entire locality is deeply rooted in the minds of many Slovaks as a drug ghetto. The infamous reputation is also underlined by the data on the crime rate, which annually show the highest figures within the city in these parts of the capital. The stigmatisation and reputation of the locality has several underlying effects, including notably lower real estate values as compared to any other Bratislava’s urban districts and diminished educational opportunities and possible achievements.

As an experimental residential complex, Medzi Jarkami was built in the 1970s. The smallest unit of the complex, the Pentagon, comprises five objects connected through vertical cores based on an initial intention to provide temporary housing for employees of large state-owned companies. The social intention led to filling all five objects with only two types of small apartments (a total of 450 flats) with an overall size of an apartment of 38 square meters (Varga, Kvitkovský, 2023). The lack of diversity of the flats predestined the locality to only be interesting to specific social-income groups, mainly with low economic status. After 1989 when the flats became owned by individuals, drug activity gained its place, and the locality started to be seen as problematic.

Through complex research, several environmental stressors were detected in the area. The most evident proved to be the acoustics of the Pentagon’s inner block. The internal facades of the building’s half-circle-like composition reflect all the sounds from the inner block causing acoustic pollution, which is reinforced by other elements (e. g. absence of doorbells).

The second environmental stressor present here was characterised by low social control. This is caused by the low utilisation of the parterre floors, but also by the material base of the lower floors, which does not allow visual connections. Other elements lowering the social control are neglected greenery and ruined elements of public spaces.

Lastly observed are the dark and “invisible” corners referring mainly to the built-in staircase in the terrain break. All these are supported by the evident need of residents to address these problems through self-help solutions, such as to protect themselves using CCTV cameras or covering spaces or openings with metal sheets.

Overall, the research proved that there is a direct correlation between a urban structure and the mental status of its residents. A number of environmental stressors were detected to be still present in the built structure. Furthermore, there is the stigmatisation of whole urban districts caused by high incidence of drug addictions as a mental disorder that, in the bigger terms, influence the “image” of the area. The drug problem in the Pentagon marked the whole urban district of Vrakuňa, reducing the resident’s quality of life significantly over the years.

Even though many measures to prevent drug activity in the locality have been taken, the situation in the area did not improve radically. In this urban district, behind the high crime rate lies drug addiction as a mental disorder that has its direct connections with the surrounding built environment. So, to propose a sustainable solution, parallel to “soft” interventions (medical, social help), the above-mentioned environmental features must also be addressed in an architectural way.

Keywords: drugs, addiction, segregated urban areas, urban design, design for health, crime prevention, mental health