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A challenge worth taking

07 of March '24

The interview is from A&B issue 11|23

PawelHałat, geographer and president of the Cracow Association of Space-People-City, member of the Coalition of Cracow Movements "Together for the City" and co-author of the report "Strengthening the Social and Substantive Factor in the Shaping of Urban Space," talks about the elements of the urban design perspective and a sensible approach to thinking about the interests of city creators and residents.

Paweł Hałat

Pawel Halat - Geographer, graduate of the Jagiellonian University. Co-founder and president of the Cracow association Spaces-People-City. As an expert, he participated in the preparation of numerous local and regional development strategies, feasibility studies, revitalization programs, and socio-economic and spatial analyses. Author and co-author of studies and publications on space, urban and regional policy

© Author's Archive

Ania Diduch:You are the co-author of the aforementioned report. How did it happen that you became involved in the creation of this document and how did the work on the report proceed?

Paweł Hałat:The initiator was Rafał Matyja, currently a professor at the University of Economics. The report was created under circumstances of long group and individual conversations. Rafal then wrote down our reflections and we continued to work on the conclusions in written form, in order to more fully weave together the different perspectives. Here we have two architects Marek Kaszynski and Bartek Kisielewski, Malgorzata Tomczak, who is an art historian and editor-in-chief of A&B, Rafal Matyja, who is a representative of the social sciences, and me - a geographer. With this lineup, we were able to confront different perspectives on what is happening in Polish cities. We worked for about a year. We honed the various elements of the report, including a proposal for certain measures within the existing legal order. At the end, we were found by an amendment to the Law on Spatial Planning, which changed the field of legal regulations.

Photo: © Tumisu / Pixabay

Ania:What is the most important change of this amendment?

Paul:First of all, the elimination of the study of conditions and directions of development. We are returning to general plans - they are supposed to be more general than the study, which was often quite detailed. Secondly, a significant reduction in the role of zoning decisions in urban land management. The changes are in the process of arriving, so it remains to be seen how they will affect the subject of zoning. I think our conclusions from the report remain valid, because they are not strictly about regulations or making development plans, but rather about building institutions for a better debate about the city, for better shaping of urban space, not just in the sense of passing development plans, because that's what all cities do, but it doesn't always result in creating the space we would like to have in cities.

w planowaniu często do głosu dochodzą resentymenty i wspomnienia czasów PRL-u, w których demiurg-urbanista planował ogromne osiedla, a państwo budowało je na wywłaszczonych terenach

In planning, resentment and memories of the communist era, in which the demiurg-urbanist planned huge settlements and the state built them on expropriated land, often come to the fore

Photo: © Markéta Klimešová / Pixabay

Ania: One of the main thoughts coming out of the report is that the change the report calls for is first and foremost about mentality, from this mentality new administrative structures can then flow.

Paul: Administrative structures are important, but first and foremost we believe that there is a lack of institutions independent of current politics to moderate the debate about the city and the shaping of space, although we potentially have such bodies in cities. At the moment, virtually all large cities have the institution of a city architect, but it operates very differently. This position has a very different rank: sometimes quite large, as in Warsaw, and sometimes quite small, as in Cracow. I'm talking about both the formal rank, where in the governance structure the architect may have both the status of the mayor's plenipotentiary or the director of the department responsible for urban planning, or he may be one of the officials in the planning department, which does not necessarily favor his independence and position as an advocate for the quality of space. The second issue is whether the architect is vocal and active, what his role is in creating the city's spatial policy, defining a vision for its development and mediating between its participants. During our work on the report, we noted that he often does not fulfill this role. It also seems to be a problem that the position is tied to the tenure of the authorities and the political calendar, and that there are no competitions for it. The city architect thus becomes a spokesman for the city government rather than the public interest.

Photo: © Markus Winkler / Pixabay

The second institution that could act as a moderator of the debate on urban planning is the Municipal Urban Planning and Architectural Commission (MKUA). Its functioning is regulated by law (although not all cities have established an MKUA), but its findings are not currently publicly presented. The commission serves as an expert advisory body to the mayor or president, but not to the community of residents. The entity publishes no official reports, its activities are not transparent. In the course of working on the report, we came to the conclusion that we see the MKUA as an institution that is an intermediary between the government and the urban community, advising not only the mayor, but also councilors, a participant in debates with residents. This process can be fostered by MKUA opening up more to different communities, including substantive ones. In the report, we clearly signal that the commission should include in its composition, in addition to architects, representatives of other specialties dealing with the city, for example, economists, representatives of social sciences, transportation engineers or natural scientists [the new law on urban planning excludes experts other than architects or urban planners in the composition of the MKUA - editor's note].

Ania: What is the structure of MKUA committees today?

Paul: Unfortunately, often unrepresentative of the urban structure both in gender and age. This is not particularly surprising, as very many PFM structures suffer from the same problem, and perhaps paradoxically this sustains an undeveloped status quo. But modern thinking about the city needs different perspectives. This interdisciplinary approach does not, of course, undermine the leading role of urban planners and architects, but it does support the thinking that only from diversity can a responsible creation emerge, which is a city you want to live in.

zmiana mentalności w planowaniu miast powinna dotyczyć między innymi rozumienia terenów zielonych; bez precyzyjnej analizy myślenie o przyrodzie w mieście jest dysfunkcyjne, sprowadza ją do elementu dekoracyjnego

The change of mentality in city planning should concern, among other things, the understanding of green areas; without a precise analysis, thinking about nature in the city is dysfunctional, reducing it to a decorative element

Photo: © Alexander Fox | PlaNet / Fox Pixabay

Ania: I wonder if the demands proposed in the report are indirectly related to the fact that the education of architects and urban planners themselves should change. If we want these committees and groups of people who decide on the direction of cities to be as inclusive as possible, to look as broadly as possible and later know how to apply this broad view to very particular situations - you need people who have the tools to create solutions in groups.

Paul: I don't have an architectural background, so I don't feel competent to evaluate the education of architects, but from the perspective of a participant in the discussion on urban space, I think it's crucial to have experts from different specialties working together and changing the perception of the role of public consultation. Therefore, one of the theses of the report is the need to strengthen the substantive and social factor. Today, consultations often consist of experts or city authorities teaching residents with a certain sense of superiority and paternalism, treating public consultations instrumentally, as a way to justify decisions already made. In the report, we point out that they should be an opportunity for the city authorities to gain knowledge as well, with the participation of professional bodies, and above all they should be based on the recognition and attempt to balance the interests of various social actors. One of the problems is the underestimation of the city's ecological complexity and biodiversity: in development plans, green is green, all the same whether a fresh, dry or wet meadow, or perhaps a nesting forest. This leads, for example, to ideas of planting trees or arranging urban parks in naturally valuable meadow areas.

The second overlooked aspect is the perspective of peripheral social groups, that is, for example, the very young or the oldest residents of the city, people with disabilities, or even overlooking the needs of women, who are just a bit different from men. The underestimation of transportation infrastructure, especially for individual transportation, in the shaping, including often degradation, of urban space is an unfavorable phenomenon. Discussions about transportation and space tend to be conducted separately, which often leads to contradictory findings and conclusions, and in practice - to the dictates of road infrastructure designers and the overlooking of other functions of streets other than transportation.

Photo: © Dariusz Staniszewski / Pixabay

Ania: One of the most important demands of the report is the one that says that planning should take place at different scales. This is a very realistic approach to the issue. In your opinion, should city planning take place on a very partisan basis, or should it move toward systems that support very classical and multidimensional thinking?

Paul: The social dimension is also the different spatial scales in the city. We have both the scale of the city, the neighborhood, and the scale of the settlement or the neighborhood. Designing is done at the scale of the city, the neighborhood, and sometimes a random part of the city covered by a local plan, while the neighborhood scale and the processes that happen there escape.

Here we can ask the question: where does the city end? In the report, we point out that cities as organisms and communities long ago overflowed administrative boundaries, forming large functional areas. Meanwhile, we fail to plan for their outskirts, the areas beyond the borders. The largest cities are eager to discuss their metropolitanity, metropolitan spaces, airports or foreign ties, while there is less willingness to talk about sustainable transportation in suburban areas, rational space management in functional areas, nature conservation, because these topics impose limitations on individual municipalities and their authorities.

The municipalities that surround Krakow, Warsaw, Poznan or Wroclaw, but also medium-sized cities, are part of this single organism. Their residents benefit from the city, from its benefits, on the other hand they create this city, because they are employees in it, customers of various services, so this external perspective is worth understanding. Here we also touch on the topic of housing. Some people move to suburbs to live in a nicer, greener area, without considering the cost of daily commutes. However, many do it to meet basic needs, to provide slightly better housing in increasingly expensive metropolitan areas. The uncontrolled development of suburban zones also causes all sorts of problems in the central city, an example being the number of cars entering Krakow every day. It was once calculated that it was more than 200,000 cars a day - a huge portion of which are cars of commuters. For some of them, commuting by car is simply a choice and a convenience - but many of the suburban areas lack efficient public transportation, and with dispersing development, it becomes costly and inefficient. This significantly affects the design of space, and creates pressure for the development of automobile infrastructure that passes through existing settlement structures, often changing the lives of residents. The explanation is that residents should understand that large clusters have their inconveniences. This is not development thinking, it generates conflicts between "us", the residents of the city, and "them", the visitors.

zmiana jakości projektowania przestrzennego nie jest możliwa bez przewartościowania roli konsultacji społecznych; dzisiaj mentalność osób prowadzących konsultacje jest moralizująco-pouczająca, zamiast wypływać z pozycji zapraszania do dialogu

A change in the quality of spatial design is not possible without reevaluating the role of public consultation; today the mentality of those conducting consultations is moralistic and preachy, instead of coming from a position of inviting dialogue

photo: © StockSnap / Pixabay

Ania: It seems to me that one of the main problems of pushing for a change in mentality is that city planners lack the proper time perspective and understanding that operating with old methods doesn't pay off for anyone in the next decade, for example. Would you agree with the question posed in this way?

Paul: When it comes to planning, resentments and memories of the communist era, in which the demiurg-urbanist planned huge housing estates and the state built them on expropriated land, often come to the fore. In urban design, every actor has some interest: not only residents and developers, but also municipal authorities, who like to see themselves as impartial guardians of the public interest. Today we need a design that takes into account dialogue with multiple actors and social groups and takes into account their often divergent interests and needs. We don't like to talk openly in discussions about space about the interests of different groups, including property owners, how to reconcile or prioritize them - because not every need or interest can or should be met. Only a frank conversation about the multifaceted nature of interests leads to satisfactory solutions. This is a challenge worth taking on.

pomijanym aspektem planowania przestrzennego jest perspektywa peryferyjnych grup społecznych, czyli na przykład osób bardzo młodych lub najstarszych mieszkańców miasta

An overlooked aspect of urban planning is the perspective of peripheral social groups, such as the very young or the oldest residents of the city

photo: © Ron Porter / Pixabay

Ania: This misunderstanding again stems from a lack of education.

Paul: These are long-term processes, patience is needed. Inertia in design thinking does not help. A trivial reason is also that our planning system at one point imposed a chase to protect "what can still be protected." Urban planning was often seen as something that was a last resort, to protect the last bit of green space from development. And it often turned out that the plan was created two weeks before the building permit was issued. On the plan we have a green area, in the real space we have a development. The level of trust in planning institutions drops dramatically if it turns out that months and sometimes years of consultation processes, several years of planning fail. One of the problems is to regain the trust of residents.

Ania: Why is the conversation about urban planning important today, in 2023?

Paul: First of all, because how we plan space in the year twenty-three, four, five, will affect future residents and future generations and the environment for the next fifty and a hundred years. Development is the most durable part of a city, so it should be created responsibly. Bad decisions will resonate for decades.

Photo: © Sum2000 / Pixabay

Ania: So we owe it to ourselves and we are worth it.

Paul: To put it a bit loftily, we owe it to future generations. We should first of all merge what is planned and what is actually built, because today they are two different things.

Ania: Thank you for the interview.

interviewed by Ania DIDUCH

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