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Why does Gdansk have the best water policy?

Wiktor Bochenek
01 of February '23

Invariably, for several years now, Gdansk has taken first place in the Water City Index, a report created by the GAP Foundation, Open Eyes Economy and the Cracow University of Economics. Why exactly does the capital of the Pomeranian Voivodeship stand out from other cities in Poland?

In 2022, the Foundation for Economy and Public Administration again published an index that evaluated Polish cities in terms of water policy. The index's methodology took into account not only domestic and industrial water use, but also in the context of threats such as flooding or drought or recreational potential. What is the reason for Gdansk's success? First of all, from the adopted water policy and all the documents that shape the space of this Hanseatic city.

How does Gdansk create its local spaces? What is the Authority's share in this, and what is the residents' share? Why should we rely on drawings instead of visualization? Finally, what is the Gdansk Water Policy and its "hydro-success"? This is what we are discussing with Gdansk Development Office director Edyta Damszel-Turek and head of the Public Spaces and Landscape Team Anna Fikus Wójcik.

Wiktor Bochenek: Let's start with the basics. What are the most important documents on the development of Gdansk and what does the office do?

Edyta Damszel-Turek: The Gdansk Development Office deals with spatial planning. We prepare strategic documents for the entire city, which create a vision of city development, such as a study or city-wide policies, or make it more precise, detailed through thematic studies and local plans.

Our policies are created on the basis of several important documents; I will cite a few of them. In 2018, the current "Study of the Conditions and Directions of Spatial Development of Gdańsk" was adopted, which defines the vision of the city's development over the next thirty years. The document indicates, among other things, the need to provide residents with better access to greenery, and also draws attention to the need to change thinking about the shape of planned roads - they should have an urban character: wide sidewalks, bicycle routes, tall greenery and first floor services.

A year later, the "Climate Change Adaptation Plan for the City of Gdansk" was created. The third step was the update of the city's strategy "Gdańsk 2030 Plus City Development Strategy"; it is in this document that the functional-spatial model appears for the first time. It reproduces the strategic objectives identified in the strategy, which respond to the changes taking place in space, but also responds to the needs of residents, enabling sustainable development of the city. In response to the identified conditions and needs, the strategy identifies four development goals, among which is the Green City.

The goals identified in the above documents are detailed in subsequent studies, such as the "Gdańsk Water Policy" or the "Gdańsk Greening Policy" (currently under development), which contain comprehensive recommendations for, among other things, adaptation to climate change, and the "Gdańsk Local Spaces," which contain guidelines for the design or modernization of publicly accessible local spaces. City-wide policies and other thematic studies form the basis for spatial settlements, which are eventually mapped in local plans.

Hierarchia dokumentów strategicznych i polityk miejskich opracowanych w BRG

Hierarchy of strategic documents and urban policies developed in BRG

© Gdańsk Development Bureau

Anna Fikus-Wójcik: We are pursuing four strategic goals - a green, shared, accessible and innovative city. The green city focuses on providing universal access to greenery, including blue-green infrastructure, as well as investments, which include, for example, the South Park, ultimately 77 hectares in size. A key aspect is also the protection of the natural assets of Gdansk, and to this end we have designated blue-green bands along the valleys of streams and rivers, which are natural corridors for the ventilation of the city and at the same time attractive recreational areas.

Another important document is the "Gdansk Urban Street Standard," prepared to improve the quality of newly created urban spaces. The main purpose of its creation was the need to improve spaces along streets so that they have an urban character and become green arteries.

Wiktor: What does "Gdansk Local Spaces" consist of?

Anna Fikus-Wójcik: "Gdansk Local Spaces," or GPL for short, is a study we have been conducting since 2016. It is a unique endeavor in which we work closely with local communities, at every stage of its implementation. The locations for which we are developing solutions were selected in cooperation with local residents. The aim of the study is to improve the spatial and functional improvement of spaces in individual neighborhoods and districts.

Gdańskie przestrzenie lokalne powstają na terenie całego miasta

gdansk local spaces are created throughout the city

© Gdansk Development Office

We worked with local communities primarily through an online survey addressed to residents; thanks to their votes, we were able to identify spaces that needed changes. Residents placed pictograms on the map in places where they live, shop or meet in their free time.

The second stage of work in drawing up guidelines for each location is workshops with residents, during which we are able to learn about the needs of local communities and work together to develop the best solutions.

The result of this process are cards that build a catalog of Gdansk Local Spaces. Each project contains the location, potential, as well as project guidelines, which form the basis for communities and city institutions in implementing the next steps. The cards are also a ready starting point for the implementation of investments in urban space.

Przykład szkicu wykorzystanego w GPL - ulica Słowackiego

Impression sketch of the local space at Slowackiego street in Wrzeszcz, Gdansk.

© Gdansk Development Office | drawing by Anna Fikus-Wójcik

Wiktor: Youmentioned that when creating such a charter, specific solutions are also suggested. Are such measures consulted with the various departments of the City Hall?

Anna Fikus-Wójcik: The charters include, among other things, guidelines for shaping the organization of traffic, which we absolutely consult with the Gdańsk Roads and Greenery Board. Similarly, in the case of ideas to introduce a woonerf - this is also agreed with this entity. If we talk about water retention, specific proposals are agreed upon jointly with Gdańskie Woda. We consult with the Department of Social Development on matters related to social functions . All charters undergo extensive consultations among specialists.

Edyta Damszel-Turek: At the end, when specific solutions are already worked out, the designers invite the neighborhood council - the local representative of the residents, which accepts the site charter in the form of a resolution, although it also happens that it has objections to it. Then the dialogue continues, the proposals are verified and a compromise is sought. The site card, containing ready proposals for developing a part of the city, is posted on the website of the Gdansk Development Bureau; residents can use it, for example, when submitting projects for the Civic Budget or Green Budget.

The most important goal, which guided us at the beginning of our work on Gdansk Local Spaces, was to cooperate with neighborhood councils, to involve them in co-determining the development of local spaces. I think that after several years of working together on this project, we know more about the needs and expectations of local communities regarding the development of places for the integration of residents.

Wiktor: Who is implementing the projects proposed in the site cards?

Edyta Damszel-Turek: We work at the urban planning level. Specific investment projects are carried out by individual city units, such as the Directorate of Urban Development of Gdansk. This already takes place without our involvement. We work on a visionary and strategic level. We do not have in the scope of our activities the preparation of concrete implementations.

Anna Fikus-Wójcik: We do not make projects, but at later stages of their implementation we verify their compliance with GPL guidelines. Besides, each charter includes a development proposal in the form of a hand-drawn sketch, which is what we prepare. These are examples of visions of spaces, showing their unique character. They are not meant to suggest exact solutions, but to suggest ideas. We intentionally abandoned the 3D visualization technique and photorealism, because we see that residents are more willing to discuss, knowing that it is a concept and not a finished project. The finished 3D visualization is often perceived by residents as the final project, where all decisions have already been made - this discourages dialogue.

Szkic wrażeniowy skweru sąsiedzkiego przy ul. Jednorożca w Osowej w Gdańsku

An impression sketch of the neighborhood square at Unicorn Street in Osowa, Gdansk.

© Gdansk Development Office | drawing by Anna Fikus-Wójcik

Wiktor: I would also like to talk about the "Gdansk Water Policy", which is very successful and unique in Poland. This is evidenced by Gdańsk's domination of several years in the Water City INDEX, a ranking conducted by the Foundation for Economy and Public Administration. What is the phenomenon of Gdansk in this regard?

Edyta Damszel-Turek: Gdansk's high position in the ranking is the result of many activities on various levels. "The GdanskWater Policy" is the overarching document, while Gdansk has been recognized, among other things, also for activities related to small and large retention affecting the city's flood safety.

Główne wyzwania i założenia Gdańskiej Polityki Wodnej

The main challenges and assumptions of the Gdansk Water Policy

© Gdańsk Development Office

Currently, no one in Poland, except Wrocław, has such a detailed water policy. In Gdansk we have a water system that is more than 160 kilometers long. It is formed not only by streams, but also by the Vistula River and the entire coastal strip. This is a unique asset of Gdansk, but also a source of flood risk. In the WSE, we have set our sights on sustainable development of waterfront areas - we want to bring residents closer to water and make them attractive spaces; at the same time, we try to preserve their natural character, not forgetting about flood protection and what role water plays in mitigating climate change.

The slogan "blue-green bands" appeared in the strategy. Under the WSE, we want to create a common natural network, improve water retention, and create recreational space. These are the main assumptions of the Gdansk Water Policy. Gdansk's water system is very diverse, it offers great opportunities, but also brings challenges - that's why the WSE is divided into four policies: Policy of the Vistula River, which is the water backbone of the city, Policy of the Motlawa River, which is the "water heart" of Gdansk, Policy of the Gdansk Bay, and Policy of streams and small rivers that flow through residential neighborhoods and have great recreational potential.

The WSE also includes proposals for solutions in response to the need to adapt to climate change and combat its negative effects. This is served by building and strengthening a natural system based on an extensive water network, which should be surrounded by greenery. In the event of excess water, these spaces will be able to serve as a safety net in an emergency situation. This will help solve Gdansk's big problem, which is the difference in ground level between the lower and upper terraces of the city. Thanks to the greenery, we will be able to slow down water runoff, which will reduce flooding of the lower terrace.

Idea błękitno-zielonych pasm wzdłuż dolin potoków i rzek oraz pasma nadmorskiego w Gdańsku

The idea of blue-green bands along the valleys of streams and rivers and the coastal band in Gdansk

© Gdansk Development Office

Anna Fikus-Wójcik: The Gdansk Water Policy also signals the need to combat urban heat islands. They arise primarily in places where sealed pavements appear and the waters of streams are channelized; we want to open up such streams and surround them with greenery.

Another important challenge is to return the city to water, not only in the Downtown. We want there to be access to it in all the city's neighborhoods, by properly arranging and using all the assets of the waterfront areas.

Wytyczne Gdańskiej Polityki Wodnej zagospodarowania brzegów rekreacyjnych służących codziennej rekreacji mieszkańców

Guidelines of the Gdańsk Water Policy for the development of recreational shores for daily recreation of residents

© Gdańsk Development Office

More than 160 kilometers of Danzig's waterfront system are already developed; the site cards include information on greenery, access to waterfront areas or landscape layers. Designers can, of course, add their own elements, but already the basic information contained in the WSE makes it possible to identify spaces to stay safely by the water, places indicated for flood protection or areas where nature should be especially protected.

All these documents are intended to coordinate not only the activities of city units, but also grassroots initiatives.

Victor: Thank you for the interview!

elaboration Wiktor Bochenek

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