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Urban chaos as a spatial problem

15 of September '23

The article is from A&B issue 7-8|23

Urban chaos is the biggest spatial problem in Poland. Marta Kulawik discusses this problem with Łukasz Drozda, who speaks from the perspective of a political scientist and author of several books on urban planning, Piotr Mazik, who answers questions as an art historian, high-altitude guide and, above all, a Zakopane resident, and Marek Kaszynski, recently Chairman of the Council of the Malopolska Regional Chamber of Architecture.

Łukasz Drozda

Łukasz Drozda - urban planner, political scientist and writer. Assistant professor at the Faculty of Applied Social Sciences and Social Reintegration at the UW and lecturer at the School of Ideas at SWPS University. Author of several books on urbanization, including "Holes in the Ground. Pathfinder in Poland," which was published by the Czarne publishing house in February this year.


Marta Kulawik:Let's talk about spatial chaos in Poland. This will not be a light and pleasant topic, but it is close to your areas of activity - is that right?

Lukasz Drozda:It may not be a light topic, but it is not entirely unpleasant either! I even feel an unhealthy fascination with various phenomena that occur in our urbanized space, even if we don't necessarily see them as something positive. Extreme cases are interesting, not functionally the best and not necessarily aesthetically pleasing. But I actually see them differently when I look at it as a researcher, and it's another matter whether I myself would want to live in such an environment permanently. I think thatboth the castle in Stobnica and the urbanism of the doe can be fascinating, although it is better viewed from the perspective of a person who only visits such places.

Marta:When did it come to pass that the gray concrete and soulless big-panel housing estates became an idyllic picture for many of us? Green, shady oases ideal for living, with state educational institutions, health centers or even a vegetable shop within a fifteen-minute walk.

Luke:I think it's impossible to define the year precisely. It depends on when, in what part of the country and in whom awareness of the issue began to awaken. I would say it was the unspecified 2000s: the extreme dislike of the People's Republic of Poland had already passed, and we began to see more and more of the flaws in the investments carried out after 1989. And then still Filip Springer convinced many people that it wasn't even that terribly ugly! It certainly wasn't the 1980s yet, because that was the worst moment in terms of how the space functioned. Not only a scarcity economy understood as a lack of products on the shelves, but also a lack of the very commercial pavilions that were supposed to equip the housing estates erected during this difficult period for housing construction. At the level of quantitative production indicators it was still not bad, but there were drastic deficiencies in terms of social infrastructure. Even if the projects of the time looked like coherent concepts, in reality the idea was to build as many apartments as possible, and other elements were spared. The time of the Third Republic shows that everything that didn't work was supplemented over time by private initiative or belated public investment. Besides, contrary to those fears that the large-panel blocks would crumble in a moment, they did not crumble after all. Instead, their modernization progressed. We can complain about pastelosis, but in terms of technical condition, there is a clear improvement. Well, and unlike Western housing estates, Polish block housing estates have not become social ghettos.

„wbrew strachom, że bloki z wielkiej płyty za chwilę się rozpadną, one się jednak nie rozpadły, za to ich modernizacja postępowała; możemy narzekać na pastelozę, ale jeśli chodzi o stan techniczny, widać wyraźną poprawę”

"In spite of fears that the large-panel blocks will crumble in a moment, they have not, however, crumbled, instead their modernization has progressed; we may complain about the pastelosis, but when it comes to the technical condition, one can see a marked improvement."

Photo: Henryk Niestrój © Pixabay

At the same time, we have theconstruction of the Third Republic, which is quickly disappointing. Postmodern architecture to this day does not find understanding, even in the case of more interesting investments. In the book, I try to emphasize that the disadvantage of modern construction is that it has less potential. In the one before 1989, there was negative space that could be redesigned and something could be completed. Today's pressure to use every square inch of land means that it is not easy to design flexibly. We can mainly create superstructures and demolish, which is environmentally irresponsible and difficult due to the fragmentation of ownership in multifamily developments.

Marta: In terms of concern for the planet, of course it's more advantageous to renovate, but many investors nevertheless try to push the idea of demolition, because it's definitely cheaper to build from scratch on the site of an old building than to renovate it and bring it up to current fire safety or accessibility regulations for people with disabilities. In the end, the buyer will pay anyway, and already housing prices are out of reach for many. Do you think it is possible to compromise the interests of the developer and the buyer? On the one hand we have the buyer, who would like to buy quickly and cheaply, and on the other hand the developer, who also wants to make a lot of money quickly.

Luke: I would say that the core of the problems is common in the context of most urban phenomena: it's the privatization of urban policy. That's what it comes down to, that housing is to be exclusively bought and many services catered to privately. We are currently experiencing a second wave of privatization of public services, as Lukasz Pawlowski of Liberal Culture aptly called this phenomenon. For example, health care, transportation or education. This affects the way settlements are designed. For can we think of classical standards for organizing neighborhood units when more and more children, especially from wealthier households, are taking advantage of private education? Their parents are making such decisions, fleeing poorly paid teachers or the ideologization pushed by the current education minister.

The role of the public sector is to force developers to create social infrastructure of adequate quality, or at least to force investors to co-fund it. Developers claim that the state does not support them, but this is not true. Someone built the roads on which construction machinery travels, someone guarantees property rights. However, since our state doesn't see a problem in the fact that with declining fertility rates the number of students in private educational institutions is increasing, I can't quite imagine how it would look after the interests of local communities. The latter think in a long-term horizon, and thus differently from developers, for whom apartments are projects to be built, sold and settled.

Osiedle Bliska Wola w Warszawie, blok pod adresem Kasprzaka 31A

Bliska Wola estate in Warsaw, block at Kasprzaka 31A.

Photo: © Panek CC BY-SA 4.0

The interests of residents and developers often conflict, so the role of the state at the central and local government levels is to reconcile these contradictions. And in the case of people with less purchasing power - to offer other housing options than the developers' offer. If housing is to be cheaper, it must be smaller, of lower quality or in a worse location. This is why developers should not build for representatives of all social groups. If I can only afford 30 square meters, I should not be prohibited from having children, but I must be able to take advantage of the rental housing offer. Someone would say: change the job to a better-paying one, but this is a bad idea, because it implies the abolition of the nursing profession in Poland.

Marta: If we're talking about inferior location, let's bring up the topic of swank settlements, which are a very harmful creation, because not only do they not create an urban fabric, but they kill the suburban and rural landscape. That is, neither do we have the nurturing of green spaces and recreational areas outside of the city, nor do we have easy access to infrastructure or services within walking distance (without a car), these places are even devoid of them. Is there a way to stop this phenomenon?

Luke: Local governments should prevent the creation of development in this formula by enforcing the procedure of amalgamation and subdivision, so it's first a matter of intervention in the field of urban planning and concerning this sphere of consciousness of decision-makers, which determines the direction of planning policy. As for legal changes, sometimes something can be written in the construction law. For example, we have such a regulation in the fire regulations, which prevents the creation of swales longer than a kilometer, when the entrance to a housing development built in this form is placed only from one side. Some things could be solved in a similar way.

However, there is always a risk that if we prohibit something at the level of building law, in some specific situation, on a specific site, this top-down scheme will not work. Inflexible regulations are difficult to apply, after all, it is impossible to foresee everything in universal regulations. Only the local government is able to understand the local problem and approach it flexibly enough. It's also a question of how much we think of urban planning as a strategy, and how much we putty it with special solutions, specs, such as lex developer. Examples of its application in my hometown of Warsaw are not so bad, but elsewhere it is sometimes different. In Katowice's Burowiec district, we have a scramble over the fact that someone is trying to build a housing development on a post-railroad site, which raises huge objections from local activists. The latter cite a number of very substantive arguments against this investment.

The disadvantages of acreage such as doe settlements are so obvious that they do not need to be explained, they can be seen with the naked eye and the problem can be understood even without specialized knowledge. I think, however, that only by pushing more and more people to outlying areas to multi-family developments, of which more and more are now being built in this mode, will awareness of this problem increase enough that some countermeasures will actually be taken. Well, unless some influential decision-maker on the basis of personal experience or persistence pays a lot of attention to this issue. Like Minister Buda in the context of balconies.

Osiedle Bliska Wola w Warszawie, w centrum dawna wieża ciśnień fabryki karabinów przy ulicy Kasprzaka 29

Bliska Wola housing development in Warsaw, in the center the former water tower of the rifle factory at Kasprzaka Street 29

Photo: © Panek CC BY-SA 4.0

Marta:Many laws, regulations and planning tools are already in place, but in their current form they have not kept up with urban development and are unable to respond to real problems. They arise or act late and, as in the case of the doe settlements, discussion only begins when the problem is not only diagnosed, but already very visible. Then new, poorly thought-out regulations are implemented on the fly, which put out this fire that has already arisen, rather than counteracting the next outbreak of problems.

Lukasz: Yes, in Polish urban planning it is responding to something that has already happened. Catch-all urbanism is the efflorescence of something that arises against strategic thinking. Or at the level of very imprecise strategic thinking, as shown by Lesznowola, a cluster of patch urbanism with planning coverage of 99 percent of the municipality's area. And similarly Zakopane.

Marta: You have to admit that we are a resourceful and clever nation, and it is our circumvention of established regulations and acting in accordance with the rules, but nevertheless on the edge of the law, that is doing well - and is harmful.

Luke: Sure, but if something is based on regulations of a general nature that don't cover most situations, rather than precise urban planning, it's easy to have such situations. In addition, if everything is geared toward private investment, too many pieces of the puzzle encourage people to maximize some regulation or not act in a way that fits their surroundings. The only architecture that has a chance to stand up in this situation is that of the premium class, which is meant to attract a wealthy client. Then you really don't have to commute to the limit of the norm in order to make the budget pile up for the investor at the lowest possible price, but you can realistically compete on the quality of the design - the wealthy client can afford it.

Well, exactly, but how many do we have? The latest analysis says that the level of the rent gap in society is about 70 percent of the population. That's how many people fall out of the system and can't take advantage of direct support, i.e. public housing, while not meeting the financial criteria to apply for a loan. Consequently, we are left with a very narrow group of people who operate in the real estate market in any way. So those who can afford to choose good quality things are not even 30 percent of Poles, but much less. Some, admittedly, can afford credit, but only for apartments that are too small and, in addition, of poor quality.
Now let's connect the dots: two-thirds of the country's land area has no planning coverage, and only considerably less than a third of people can freely shape their real estate purchase decisions. This must lead to a monstrosity. The resultant of all this cannot be spatial order; the infamous pat-development is the logical answer instead.

Marta: I get the shivers when I think about the fact that all this stuff that is now being built shoddily will someday start breaking down. Buildings that are less than ten years old can look terrible, many of the relatively new buildings are aging very ugly. And that's only part of the problem, because, for example, those narrow streets leading to estates on the outskirts and carelessly routed utilities will soon need repair. Someone will still have to live there, and someone will have to pay for this chaos and shoddiness. Again, it may turn out, as is now the case with the communist estates, that what is old will come at a price. You said that postmodernism to this day has no adherents and remains misunderstood - indeed, even such icons as Wroclaw's Solpol are disappearing before our eyes. The question is, will what we now call modern architecture ever be valued and understood, or will we want to demolish it all?

Lukasz: If the spaces are poorly designed, demolition will not be avoided. That's the depressing conclusion of this, because it's a pity about these destroyed areas and the costs of abandonment, as the expenses postponed to the future are called in public policy studies. I am glad that Poland, unlike Turkey, to which it is similar in many respects in the area of urban policy, has much less seismically active terrain and building disasters themselves are not as common. The punishment for our certain urbanistic sins will thus be less.

When we think about built-up areas, we often don't see them in the context of a changing world, which in the future will have differently shaped mobility, social composition or economic processes. Today, a huge problem of Polish settlements is the way vehicular traffic is organized. Fortunately, in the future there will be fewer cars: whether one likes it or not. It's not a matter of bans criticized as part of various conspiracy theories, but owning a private car will be so expensive and in many cases unnecessary that we'll be more likely to switch to electric bicycles, scooters and, if possible, use public transportation. Narrow streets or lack of parking spaces will then be less of a problem.

The advantage of what we are building now, compared to previous eras, is also greater architectural accessibility. Modern buildings do not create fourth-floor prisoners and are not so exclusionary for people with disabilities - an undoubted advantage. Modern architecture, despite all its drawbacks, is not as bad as traditional tenement buildings, which were even less energy efficient. Even a dense development estate is not the same as a small courtyard with a well in a 19th century tenement house. Although I sometimes use this figurative comparison for overly intensive development myself.

Is the current architecture phenomenal? The question is whether we are talking about average architecture or the most interesting projects. Riverview in Gdansk (proj. : APA Wojciechowski), Nowe Żerniki in Wroclaw (proj. : "Superbiuro", cooperation of nearly 40 studios), 19th District in Warsaw (proj.: JEMS Architekci) or Nowy Nikiszowiec in Katowice (proj.: ZZArchitekci) - these are all projects that will age well, fit well into the urban fabric and people will want to live there. These places will probably be perceived similarly to the communist-era Zoliborz Orchards and the interwar WSM, the one located in Warsaw's Zoliborz district. But these last two examples are outstanding exceptions, most do not match them. When writing a book on pat-development, I had more bad than good examples at my disposal.

centrum Otwocka - chaos przestrzenny

The center of Otwock - spatial chaos

Photo: © MOs810 CC BY-SA 4.0

Marta: You mentioned some really interesting developments, but on the other side we also have black spots on the map, such as the housing development in Wawer, where there is such an absurd address as 111ZZG Celulozy Street, because there were no more letters in the alphabet to designate the buildings. It's hard to imagine that something like this gets a building permit and there is general public approval for it. Someone buys it and lives in a copy-paste house. Even if owning and using cars, as you said, will be a luxury good, such urban sprawl and the creation of a completely uncontained urbanism will have disastrous consequences. After all, we should be densifying existing housing, using existing infrastructure and expanding it, but this is not possible on this scale. Today, the residents of these peripheral settlements are young people, often families with children, but they will someday grow old in these their end-of-the-world places far from city centers, services or medical care facilities. How will this make life more difficult for these people in the future, or what can save them?

Luke: Some things will be solved by technological advances. Imagine a residential biography of a woman who lands on maternity leave. Our heroine is chained for at least twelve months to a property on a gated estate, probably in some outlying location. There is a lack of services nearby, and transportation exclusion nags. One way to cope with daily life, therefore, is to order everything online. Some things are nationwide and, for example, remote work can be done almost anywhere, although it can't be done always and indefinitely either. Standard courier shipments will also arrive almost anywhere. But food for delivery or dark store services, that is, delivery of smaller purchases to the door, especially useful in the life of a young mother, is no longer necessarily something available in the suburbs. It simply doesn't pay for companies that provide such services to cover the net of their services to places that are harder to reach, with diluted settlements. Not only does living in the center give access to a park with an old-growth tree and a public nursery within walking distance, but even Internet services work better in such a place. Bottom line: spatial inequalities are mitigated by Zoom and parcels, but unfortunately they can't completely bridge such divides.

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