Grzegorz Puda, Polish Minister of Development Funds and Regional Policy, writes on how Polish cities have managed to transform into friendly metropolises bustling with city life. What were the development paths, how did they learn to capitalise on their advantages? Those questions will certainly be among the topics that Poland will be presenting at the World Urban Forum (WUF) in Katowice
Data tell the truth: over half of Poles are city dwellers. This fact shows just how important cities are for Poland as centres of economy, science, culture, or technology, yet it also reveals the need for every city to define its strong points and find its own unique “brand”. Governmental policy also plays a crucial role in this process, supporting urban development.
In the Long Shadow of History
A short overview of Poland’s recent history is useful here to better explain the fate of Polish cities. In the year 1945, Poland and its cities lay in ruins. First plundered and intentionally devastated by Nazi Germany, our cities were also mercilessly treated by the Red Army, whose military offensives were particularly brutal on the so-called “former German territories” awarded to Poland following Yalta and Potsdam conferences. In Warsaw alone, 75 per cent of its pre-war buildings were destroyed. It took Polish cities many years to recover and reconstruct their urban substance.
When World War II ended, Poland found itself on the unfortunate side of the Iron Curtain as a satellite state of the Soviet Union. The rule of post-war Communist governments left its gloomy mark on every aspect of Polish life. The Communists favoured heavy industry, so they added steelworks and industrial plants to urban landscapes. The ultimate aim was to increase production, and this aim was pursued at the cost of degradation of the natural environment. Information about pollution was kept away from the general public until the 1980s.
The 1980s left Poland in a massive economic crisis. The economic effects of 1989 political transformation, when the Communist government was overthrown and the trade exchange with the former Soviet bloc countries collapsed, overlapped with new trends emerging in the world economy, such as globalisation, the advance of information technology, emergence of new supply chains and the increasing role of international corporations. The situation was not made easier by shortages in infrastructure.
It took Poland over a decade to cope with those difficulties. After 2004 (which is also the year of Poland’s accession to the EU) the development of Poland and Polish cities finally gathered momentum.
Searching for New Paths
Communism was gone for good, leaving Polish cities facing various challenges. Those situated in the historically less industrialised eastern part of Poland, such as Lublin or Rzeszów, were gravely affected by unemployment and poverty typical for the times of political transformations. On the other hand, former mining centres such as Katowice or Wałbrzych had to face economic collapse and redefine their identity.
In short: Polish cities had to reinvent themselves.
The city of Katowice, the host of this year’s WUF, is an excellent example of such successful reinvention. In its development, the city draws upon its industrial past but enters into a new era with a new hand of cards, concentrating on services, innovations, entertainment, and culture, also on congress and exhibition activities. One of the symbols of that transformation is the Culture Zone, the venue of this year’s WUF11. Created on the site of a former coal mine, it is now one of Katowice’s highlights. Yet the city’s new image is not its only success – Katowice notes one of the lowest unemployment rates in Poland.
The path taken by Rzeszów, the main city of south-eastern Poland that now aspires to the title of smart city, is summarised in its promotional slogan: “Rzeszów – Capital of Innovation”. It all began with clusters, first in the aerospace industry (the famous Aviation Valley is operating here) and then in other branches: renewable energy, IT, or processing of plastics. Science and technology parks were also created. Today, Rzeszów is successful in attracting investors, workforce, and young people – in 2020 it noted the highest birth rate among all Polish cities!
Lublin, the largest city of eastern Poland, concentrated on the broadly understood service sector, including educational services. It is one of Poland’s biggest academic centres, also for Belorussian and Ukrainian students. Economic revival was also brought about by a large-scale revitalisation programme. It began with the beautiful Old Town, supporting local entrepreneurship. The historic streets have become vibrant again. Lublin also supports traditional crafts and artists. At the same time, it does not forget its historical role and continues to be a kind of bridge between the East and the West.
New Challenges, New Solutions
Obviously, historical determinants specific for Poland co-occur with a number of more general, global challenges that Polish cities also have to face.
Poznań, a city in western Poland, is a pioneer in tackling the issue of demographic change. As its senior population is growing, Poznań has to think about its development with that particular group in mind. A special municipal unit was set up, called the Centre for Senior Citizens Initiatives. The Centre fights stereotypes, for instance by staging the “Senioralni. Poznań” event that mirrors the traditional student festival Juwenalia, but also certifies and promotes senior-oriented places and organises various community campaigns.
Meanwhile, the seaside city of Gdynia puts its stakes on social innovations, in which it is a true leader. The source of new ideas is the Social Innovations Laboratory that develops, supports, and popularises innovative social solutions. Its numerous success stories include the Gdynia OdNowa programme, a broadly planned revitalisation programme, or the creation of neighbourhood centres. The latest project of the Social Innovations Lab is called UrbanLab Gdynia and it is a forum for holding discussions about the city and innovative solutions dedicated to it.
Wrocław, a city in south-western Poland, improves access to green areas by creating pocket parks in the city centre and greening tram tracks. Meanwhile Wałbrzych, situated less than a hundred kilometres to the south of Wrocław, actively includes its citizens in revitalisation processes, strengthening the citizen-neighbourhood-city link by walks along historical routes or citizen cafés where inhabitants can meet with officials over coffee. Bydgoszcz is returning the Brda river to its citizens, revitalising riverside areas, and the Silesian town of Tychy concentrates on eco-innovation, building Poland’s first passive sewage treatment plant.
Better Cities, Better Future
Despite their historical hardships, Polish cities underwent impressive transformation. Needless to say, they still face a great number of challenges, the biggest of which is simply the achievement of sustainable development. Management of cities and their development must take into account the needs of both contemporary and future generations. Progressing demographic changes, climatic crisis, negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, humanitarian crisis connected with the war in Ukraine – these are the circumstances that city authorities have to take into account. The role of the government is to back them up with concepts, funds, and legal assistance.
The vehicle for assessing the needs and directions, offering tools and finding solutions for Polish cities is to be the National Urban Policy 2030 prepared by the Polish government. It is the second edition of the first strategic document for cities in Poland. The document will be presented during WUF11.
Another outcome of WUF11 for Polish cities will be the “Roadmap for Cities”, a programme that is unique on a European scale. Over a hundred cities announced their willingness to join and committed to undertake a specific action in support of one of the Sustainable Development Goals. Programme participants can count on individual assistance thanks to the involvement of experts from one of the WUF11 partners, the Institute of Urban and Regional Development. All the experience gained in the process will then be used to prepare the Roadmap for Cities that will be adopted during WUF11.
The Eleventh World Urban Forum will gather urban government leaders from Poland and all over the world. WUF is an excellent opportunity for talking to them and getting inspired by their activity. Therefore, we encourage you to register for participation in WUF11 and join the community that is set on “Transforming our cities for the better future”. The registration is open until 22 June and is free of charge.