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Bartosz Kazmierczak on MKUA's role in the public space debate

20 of February '24

The article is from A&B issue 11|23

A substantive voice in defense of the public interest. Do the urban planning and architectural commissions have it?

The state of Polish space has for many years been the subject of deliberations by scientific and professional bodies, and since the publication of the reports of the Polish Academy of Sciences "Studies on Spatial Chaos "1 and the Supreme Chamber of Control "Spatial Planning and Development in Poland on the Example of Selected Cities "2 also a wide public debate. The main source of spatial chaos is indicated as the erroneous spatial policy implemented at the local level, which is certainly a consequence of the regulations related to the current spatial planning system.

The undesirable consequences of such activity are: a gigantic oversupply of investment land for residential development, which involves, among other things, the de-agglomeration of huge tracts of open land, a significant fragmentation of the settlement structure or an increase in the need for technical infrastructure, including transportation. It is often the case that profits made through land use conversions are consumed by the private sector, while all costs are covered by local government budgets.

The domination of partisanship over the public interest is a complex and multi-layered problem, in addition to being the result of various factors. One hears about the arrangements of one or another official with investors. Of course, such situations can and probably do occur, with different standards required of different entities in the preparation of investments. Sometimes, however, the reason for such a state of affairs is not political will, but most simply the weak negotiating position of local officials resulting from poor substantive preparation. More often, however, it is due to the peculiar approach of office staff to blindly follow procedures and thus pursue legal interest to the exclusion of the essence of regulation in the form of public interest.

I read with interest the study prepared by the CPP "Strengthening the social and substantive factor in the shaping of urban space" treating the need to include in the recovery plan not only legal acts, but also the way in which institutions operating within the existing legal order, including the Urban Planning and Architectural Commissions, function. This is a very important voice in the discussion on improving the quality of space, as it indicates new fields of action involving bottom-up processes aimed at socializing local spatial policy.

In the text, the authors point out several important factors related to the functioning of the commission. The most important one is identified as the lack of transparency in the operation of such institutions, which is related to the procedure for the appointment of such committees by the mayor. The commission becomes a de facto group of "trusted persons" of the most important person in the municipality and, as is usually the case in such situations, is obliged to maintain discretion in matters discussed during the deliberations. The lack of review of minutes or the custom of publishing the committee's opinions is not surprising. In my opinion, the current role of the NCUA boils down to: safeguarding the office's interest in the substantive and formal correctness (compliance with regulations) of the planning documents under review; firming the proposed solutions with its authority, as well as that of the recommending institution; approving the submitted document with a positive opinion; proposing amendments to the documents under review.

However, it should be noted that the role of the commission varies from center to center, and the listed roles may be prioritized differently. Small cities and rural municipalities order planning studies from companies operating in the market, as they do not have their own planning studios. In such cases, substantive evaluation and proposals for change are more important from the authorities' point of view. In large cities, which are governed by municipal studios, this role is less important, and the formal aspect (issuing a positive opinion) and image (the position of independent experts) become more important.

An important aspect of the commission is its composition. In theory, everything looks good, as according to the analysis presented in the CPP report, architects are the most represented professional group. However, it should be realized that this is a group that is one of the main beneficiaries of the adopted solutions. Practicing architects - members of the commission - are often faced with a choice between "theoretical truth" derived from science and academic preparation and professional practice. Under such conditions, it is difficult to guarantee the objectivity of decisions and the protection of the public interest.

In conclusion, the proposal presented in the CPP study to introduce transparency in the operation of the NCUA and to increase the role of the commission in public debate or the formation of spatial awareness seems interesting. It can certainly be said that making the opinions of the commission public could have a positive impact not only on the planning decisions made by local authorities, but also on the way the commission operates, whose members would be held publicly accountable for their statements on the documents submitted.


1 A. Kowalewski, T. Markowski, P. Śleszyński, "Studies on spatial chaos," Report of the National Commission for Spatial Planning of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw 2018.
2. audit of the Supreme Audit Institution KIN.430.8.2022, Register No. 170/2022/P/22/023/KIN.

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