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A healthy city is a green city

30 of December '22

Article from A&B issue 10|2022


Health depends on the body's resilience and ability to regenerate. So what is a "healthy city"? A city is an organism in which socio-economic processes take place that enable the development of investment capacity, maintenance of infrastructure, enhancement of quality of life and preservation of cultural identity, as well as efficient management of social and natural capital.

A healthy city is an environment for healthy and safe living of residents. And I mean not only people, but also many species of plants and animals, living in the soil, water and air, whose presence in the city determines the sustainability of natural processes - ecological and hydrological cycles and the possibility of regeneration of not only people, but also ecosystems. This is very often forgotten, focusing on shaping buildings and spaces that are aesthetically pleasing and functional, but... biologically dead.

Opad nawalny w Kołobrzegu w lipcu 2021

Heavy rainfall in Kolobrzeg in July 2021

photo: A. Januchta-Szostak

cities in the face of climate change and environmental degradation

Today's cities face serious demographic and economic challenges, including climate and environmental challenges. Of the Earth's 7.8 billion inhabitants, 56 percent live in cities (more than 60 percent in Poland), and by 2050 this percentage is expected to rise to 75 percent. This means that a huge amount of human and economic capital is concentrated in a relatively small area of urbanized land (about 3 percent of land), benefiting from increasingly slim natural resources and exposed to increasingly intense weather extremes as a result of anthropogenic climate change (IPCC, 2021).

Most Polish cities experience flash floods1, caused by rapid rainfall under conditions of heavy surface sealing. Torrential rains (more than 30 millimeters per square meter) cause overloading of drainage systems that were not designed for such a high volume and intensity of rainfall. And increasingly, daily rainfall exceeding the average monthly rainfall of 50 millimeters or more is occurring (for example, the September 8, 2022 rainfall in Gorzow Wielkopolski, where daily rainfall exceeded 131 millimeters). The result is not only flooded streets, waterlogged buildings and cars, i.e. significant property damage and traffic difficulties, but also an increase in flood risk from rivers and surface water pollution due to storm discharges from overloaded combined sewer systems. Between precipitation episodes, prolonged droughts occur, causing water withdrawal restrictions in many cities and worsening already difficult vegetation conditions. Lack of water retention and infiltration into the ground causes new plantings to dry out and die.

A strongly felt phenomenon in cities is the rise in temperature and the frequency of heat waves, during which temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celsius for three days or more. Such heat waves in 2003 in Europe and 2010 in Russia caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people. In Poland, they also occurred in 1994, 2013, 2015, 2018, and recent years - from 2019 onward - have broken consecutive heat records in the history of measurements. Data from the Climada 2.0 project shows that back in the 1980s such hot days were sporadic, and now several or even a dozen a year occur. In 2022, we had as many as three heat waves: in June, July and August. The number of tropical nights with temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius is also increasing. In addition, heat waves are amplified by the urban heat island (MWC), a phenomenon of elevated temperatures in cities by several to several (!) degrees compared to the open environment. The intensity of MWC is influenced by the city's geometry, building coverage and density, as well as the materials of construction (concrete, asphalt), with high heat capacity and low albedo. Also, the scarcity of greenery, especially tall greenery, and water bodies cause air circulation disorders, hindering ventilation and cooling. In cities we also have high anthropogenic heat emissions - we ourselves heat the environment, not only in winter through leaky buildings, but also in summer, for example, through air conditioners.

Air quality has a major impact on the health of residents and the local climate. This is because dustiness causes not only an increase in human morbidity and mortality, but also, among other things, an increase in precipitation intensity due to more condensation nuclei in cities. Poland is one of the infamous leaders of the European Union countries in terms of air pollution, especially repeatedly exceeding the standards for concentrations of benzo[a]pyrene and PM10 and PM2.5 particulate matter. This is fostered by the number and emissivity of cars, but above all by the large share of local heating systems (individual, residential, urban) based on burning coal, especially in small and medium-sized cities. The main sources of PM10 and PM2.5 emissions are home heating systems using solid fuels (coal and wood). The current crisis in the fossil fuel market could be an opportunity to increase the use of clean energy sources. Unfortunately, the government's actions support a return to traditional stoves and fireplaces (including the threat of burning toxic waste) rather than a rapid energy transition directed toward the use of RES.

In the communication 04/2021 of the Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel on the Climate Crisis to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences on the risks of cities in the face of the climate crisis2, we emphasize the need for two-way action: on the one hand, mitigation, i.e. stopping climate change by radically reducing emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and on the other hand, rapid and multi-directional adaptation measures to increase the resilience of cities to climate extremes (resilience). It is necessary to have a systemic and combined approach to the management of rainwater and surface water in urban catchments, and to link the shaping of development with the protection of greenery in cities to reduce urban flooding, drought and water pollution, and the urban heat island phenomenon. Natural capital, including blue-green infrastructure, is key to both mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Deklaracje na temat zrównoważonego miasta gąbki znikają pod presją zabudowy, tak jak ostatnie mokradła w dolinie Bogdanki w Poznaniu

Declarations of a sustainable sponge city are disappearing under the pressure of development,
Like the recent wetlands in the Bogdanka valley in Poznań

Photo: A. Januchta-Szostak

state of natural capital

Polish cities still have a large potential of green areas3, but their share in relation to the area of cities is declining, especially in downtown areas. In addition, green areas are generally not used for ecosystem enhancement (lack of connectivity) and rainwater retention. Among the main reasons cited in the PAN's communiqué4 are shortcomings in greenery planning and management, including ineffective protection of areas with high natural and retention potential, as well as existing trees and biologically active areas on urban and private land. This situation is fostered by the lack of coverage of these areas by local plans or their vague provisions, sectoral approaches in greenery management, deficiencies in inventories and inconsistent databases, and the lack of greenery protection standards in investment activities, especially in smaller cities.

In downtown areas, there are strict conservation guidelines that are inadequate to modern climate risks, resulting in the removal of trees. Also, road, water, sewer and electricity infrastructure upgrade projects result in the loss of street trees and their ecosystem services, which cannot be compensated for by new plantings. Moreover, the compensation requirement of 1 sapling per 1 adult tree cut is incompatible with economic calculation5, and the fines for cutting are too low and easily remitted. Also, development projects are not required to be varied to protect existing trees. Not surprisingly, during heat waves, the cutting down of healthy, mature trees raises understandable public protests - compensatory plantings wither and have little chance of living to the age of the trees cut down. Their loss causes deterioration of living conditions in city centers and leads to depopulation of downtowns. Thus, it increases urbanization pressure on suburban areas and accelerates the processes of urban sprawl (suburbanization and exurbanization). These processes, in addition to negative functional, spatial and economic consequences, contribute to the weakening of the natural system around cities and changes in drainage conditions in catchments (exacerbating the risk of floods and droughts). They also cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions (due to the extension of communication and transmission networks), environmental pollution, loss of wildlife habitat and ecosystem connectivity.

The ineffectiveness of existing planning and design tools

Passed in June this year. National Urban Policy 20306 responds to the new challenges formulated in the Amsterdam Pact (2016), the EU Territorial Agenda 2030 (2020) and the New Leipzig Charter (2020). It emphasizes the adaptation of cities to climate change ("resilient city") and the introduction of standards for the protection and shaping of greenery in investment processes ("green city"), and stresses the need to integrate actions taken under various sectoral policies (integrated approach) and the importance of environmental and climate education. Also, the Municipal Climate Change Adaptation Plans (MPAs) developed in 2019, although prepared only for forty-four major cities7, provide a basis for shaping water-environmental policies. However, there is a lack of significant changes in urban-building regulations, financial mechanisms and an institutional system to support the integration of water management with spatial and environmental management in urbanized areas8.
An April 20, 2022 NIK report9 shows that green areas in cities are not effectively protected from development.The municipal spatial development study (SUiKZPG) is not a binding legal act, and moreover, these documents need to be updated in the face of new climate and environmental challenges. Analyses of the spatial development study records of municipalities in the Poznań Metropolitan Area have shown a planned increase in the area of urbanized areas by 154 percent, which is due to pressure to convert agricultural areas into building land, rather than to real demographic needs. Such studies enable the development of "patch urbanism," i.e., the creation of settlements in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, local development plans (LDPs) are fragmented (the national plan coverage rate is only 31 percent) and often do not cover open areas. Even in the areas covered by local plans, their provisions have low effectiveness in protecting greenery and rainwater retention in urban development, as the biologically active surface ratio (PBC) is an anachronistic tool that does not take into account the biomass of existing trees, the required ecohydrological efficiency and biodiversity. There is also no way to mandate the management of rainwater on the project site10. The only effective tools for local retention are currently restrictions on the ability to connect developments to sewer networks.

Wielofunkcyjne wykorzystanie błękitno-zielonej infrastruktury

multifunctional use of blue-green infrastructure

Photo: A. Januchta-Szostak

In turn, the lack of plans deprives the city of control over the development of environmentally valuable areas and forces the issuance of decisions on development conditions (WZ), which do not have binding provisions on the shaping of greenery, and do not even have to include a ratio of biologically active space (PBC). More than 53 percent of the 180 WZ decisions audited by the Supreme Audit Office11 allowed for the development of areas with natural functions, despite the fact that according to the study they were excluded from development precisely because of these functions. Most of the decisions concerned the construction of single-family and multi-family residential buildings. What's more, on green areas, it was possible to build settlements on the basis of WZ decisions without assessing the environmental impact of such projects. The scale of the problem is evidenced by the fact that in Poland more than half of residential developments are built on the basis of WZ decisions, and many of them contribute to the degradation of the landscape and natural resources in suburban areas. The situation is exacerbated by speculative laws, such as the 2020 Law on Preventing, Counteracting and Combating COVID-19, which allowed development (including of natural areas) in disregard of planning and zoning laws and even building regulations. At least 585 such developments were carried out nationwide (incomplete data), and almost half of them were inconsistent with the goals of the COVID-19 Law. According to the NIK, in the case of areas with natural functions, the issuance of zoning decisions should be suspended until they are covered by a local plan (currently, it is only possible to postpone them for nine months).

In the absence of relevant provisions in the Law on Spatial Planning and Development and nationwide standards for the protection of green structures and rainwater management in cities, the demands for sustainable development and the shaping of healthy cities in Poland remain in the declarative sphere.

Sometimes local governments take the initiative, although overriding regulations do not favor local modifications of development and land use rules. Many cities have already developed blue-green infrastructure catalogs and standards for rainwater management (Bydgoszcz, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Lodz, Krakow, Warsaw, Poznan and others) and are working on creating integrated strategies for rainwater management and climate change adaptation (like Poznan). The Municipal Urban Planning Laboratory in Lodz has prepared and is trying to implement a "green index, or PBC in 3D "12 based on analyses of ecological and spatial indicators in effect in other cities around theworld, for example, the Biotope Area Factor (BAF), in effect since 1994 in Berlin, the Green Space Factor (GSF - 2001) in Malmö, the Green Provision (GnP), introduced in 2005 in Singapore, or the Seattle Green Factor (SGF - 2007). The introduction of an expanded index, modeled on the above examples, can improve the city's greenery and microclimate, and thus the living conditions of residents and the city's biodiversity.

It is necessary to introduce planning and economic tools to support the implementation of blue-green infrastructure and incentivize the protection of greenery and the unsealing of pavement and water retention at the site of rainfall (especially green surface retention, such as green roofs, rain gardens). Although the number of green roofs in Poland is growing, no Polish city has an obligation to use them on all newly built flat roofs, as is the case, for example, in Switzerland. In Wrocław, however, there are incentives in the form of exemption from part of the property tax. In Gdansk, rain gardens are being popularized in residential developments and public spaces thanks to institutional cooperation between Gdansk Water and the city.

Tworzenie siedlisk i odnowa ekosystemów w Parku Królowej Elżbiety w Londynie

Habitat creation and ecosystem restoration in Queen Elizabeth Park in London

Photo: A. Januchta-Szostak

Public investments should perform demonstration and educational functions13, meeting high ecological standards. By shaping public facilities and urban spaces, local governments bear witness to their priorities. The widespread criticism of "Polish concretization "14 in the form of numerous examples of "revitalization" of town squares and markets, testifies to the fact that urban investments on keep up with the increase in ecological and climate awareness of society. The implementation of the "POZNAŃ-CENTRUM OD NOWA" program is a good example of the inertia of investment processes. The program was launched in 2014 with public consultations. In 2015, an urban planning and architectural competition was announced, but already after the commissioning of the 1st stage, i.e. Św. Marcin Street in 2019, the investment was criticized for an excess of concrete and a shortage of greenery. This was a clear signal that social priorities and the severity of climate problems were changing, and so plans for the next stages of downtown redevelopment had to be revised. Today, little can be changed without incurring the high costs of redesign and the risk of losing EU funds, but the costs of abandonment and the risk of continuing investments that do not fully respond to modern challenges must also be considered. It is worth noting, however, that the terms of the competition were formulated seven years ago and did not provide for effective protection of existing trees and rainwater retention and infiltration. Climate-environmental aspects should therefore be taken into account already at the stage of preparing the conditions of the competition or the description of the subject of public procurement (OPD). All urban investments should be reviewed for their environmental impact and compliance with the climate change adaptation plan. It is also necessary to variate and evaluate the development and zoning concepts, taking into account the preservation or loss of ecosystem benefits of urban greenery.

Spontaniczna, rodzima roślinność jako tworzywo krajobrazu - Park Królowej Elżbiety w Londynie

Spontaneous native vegetation as a landscape feature - Queen Elizabeth Park in London

Photo: A. Januchta-Szostak

standards and certificates

The ambitious European standards and certifications associated with the "New European Bauhaus" initiative can help realize the commitments of the European Green Deal and direct contemporary architecture toward the realization of three inseparable values, which are:

  • sustainable development, geared toward climate goals, circular economy, pollution reduction and biodiversity enhancement,
  • Aesthetics of development and quality of space beyond functionality, and
  • inclusion (inclusiveness) that encourages an appreciation of diversity, but also ensures that space is accessible and affordable.

The direction of pro-environmental activities is set by the standards of environmental certificates such as BREEAM, DGNB, HQE, LEED or WELL (in Poland also the Green House certificate). Data from the Polish Green Building Council (PLGBC)15 shows that Poland is the leader in Central and Eastern Europe in green certification. In 2022, the number of certified green buildings rose to 1,359, but is still a drop in the ocean of needs. Among residential buildings, only 118 are certified, and 234,700 apartments were put into use in 2021 (CSO 2021). Unfortunately, most of the certifications used in Poland pay little attention to water management (ranging from 2 percent scoring in HQE to 10 in LEED) and protection of existing greenery. Most, more than 80 percent of buildings have earned BREEAM certification, in which a maximum of 6 percent of points can be earned for the "water" category, and this without the need for natural surface retention. The most demanding certification, unfortunately not used in Poland, is the international green building certification program The Living Building Challenge (LBC), which promotes the creation of buildings: self-sufficient and circular, plus-energy, water-collecting and purifying, user-friendly, healthy and beautiful.

Kanał rzeki Lea w Londynie - postindustrialna tożsamość i renaturyzacja

London's River Lea canal - post-industrial identity and restoration

Photo: A. Januchta-Szostak

recommendations - blue-green critical infrastructure

Cities are environments of very strong anthropogenic pressure, but we must not forget that the vitality and productivity of ecosystems determine the safety and quality of life in urban areas and beyond. The environmental disaster on the Oder River exposed the shortcomings of environmental monitoring and emergency management. The Government Security Center takes into account a number of critical infrastructure systems16 (energy supply, raw materials, water, food, communications, transportation, health care, among others), the destruction or damage of which can cause threats to the lives and property of citizens. But blue-green infrastructure is not among them. And yet, the wanton destruction of nature in the city exposes us to the loss of access to clean water and air, opportunities for regeneration, and risks associated with weather extremes. It is therefore worth considering that a city's natural capital is its critical infrastructure! Without greenery and water, urban survival is not possible. Implementing near-nature-based solutions(NbS - Nature-based Solutions) is key to regenerating and improving well-being in urban areas (EC, 2015). It helps protect and restore natural resources, improve urban resilience and ecosystem vitality, mitigate hydro-meteorological extremes and better manage urban catchments, as well as reduce emissions and increase carbon sequestration ofCO2, i.e. reduce our contribution to the causes of global warming17.

Architecture and infrastructure are the basic plastics of urban space. For the formation of healthy cities, green architecture and blue-green infrastructure are necessary to implement energy-efficient, carbon-free and circular solutions, solutions close to nature, while shaping spaces that are beautiful, multifunctional, inclusive and build local identity.

Investment pressure in urban areas is inevitable in view of the need to realize the concept of compact cities. However, it must be properly directed and compensated to ensure the priority of the common good over private interests. From the point of view of environmental and climate protection, it is important18:

  • protect from development areas with the greatest natural-retention potential (forests, river valleys, wetlands, bogs), which should be treated as the natural capital of cities, their "lungs," "sponge" and "air conditioner."
  • urban green areas and "wastelands" should form a multi-scale, biodiverse and continuous system, attractive in landscape and accessible to residents, and used for retention, infiltration and purification of rainwater;
    ensure more effective protection of existing greenery (especially trees) in the planning, design, construction and operation process, and increase the biologically active area and its ecological efficiency within and around buildings (ecological and spatial indicators instead of PBC);
  • limit surface sealing and enforce compensation for the loss of natural retention by all those who contribute to it, both on the public and private side, and implement development and land-use standards withtaking into account the need to manage rainwater and snowmelt on the project site (for example, requirements for adequate retention capacity for 30-60 millimeters of precipitation, provision for rainwater infiltration and groundwater recharge). Legislative changes are needed at the national level to enable effective provisions in local zoning acts;
  • promote green certification of buildings and building materials and technologies with low carbon and water footprints, and consider costs and benefits throughout the life cycle of buildings, includingincluding the dissemination of technological and economic solutions that incentivize the conservation of potable water and the use of systems for retention, purification and reuse of rainwater and gray water in buildings;
  • Increase the share of near-nature solutions(NbS - Nature-based Solutions) and include valuation of ecosystem services19 in economic calculations. Implement retention and ecological solutions in all public facilities (especially schools and kindergartens), taking into account relevant provisions already at the stage of OPZ (description of the subject of the contract);
  • Intensify climate-environmental education among planners, designers, decision-makers and users, and disseminate the principles of responsible production and consumption (not only in terms of responsible use of environmental resources, but also of water and sewage networks).

The health of Polish cities and the effectiveness of their adaptation to climate change depends on the systemic introduction of solutions close to nature, integrated spatial and water management and effective protection of nature in cities20. The condition for success is widespread climate-environmental education, awareness of the value of ecosystem services, and the responsibility of architects and urban planners for spatial decisions.

Anna Januchta-Szostak

Illustrations courtesy of the author

Prof. Anna Januchta-Szostak - researcher and academic teacher at the Faculty of Architecture, Poznan University of Technology, member of the University Council. An expert on urban adaptation to climate change, planning and design of resilient and green cities, and integrated water management. She is a member of, among others, the Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel on Climate Crisis to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Climate Council of the UN Global Compact Network Poland, the Open Eyes Economy (OEE) and WaterLab water expert team, and Retencja.pl. In Poznań, he is active in the Committee on Climatology, Water Resources and Air Protection of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Consultative Council for Environment and Climate Protection at the President of the City of Poznań, and the team for the development of the Warta River.


1 The occurrence of storms, hailstorms, windstorms, flooding and downpours from January to August 2021 caused the number of catastrophic damages in Poland to increase by 41 percent compared to the same period in 2020 (analysis by insurance company Compensa https://www.compensa.pl/potezny-wzrost-liczby-szkod-katastroficznych-w-2021-roku/).
2. PAN Communiqué 04/2021 on Urban Risks to the Climate Crisis, https://klimat.pan.pl/komunikaty/.
3. for example, Poznań has a wedge-ring structure of greenery, which is very beneficial for the city's ventilation and cooling capabilities. The wedges, created on the basis of river valleys, also provide water retention, are ecological corridors and the backbone of recreational structures.
4 PAN Communiqué 04/2021, op. cit.
5 The ecosystem services of one adult tree are equivalent to the services provided by about 1,700 ten-year-old seedlings! More extensively on the value of ecosystem services of trees: H.B. Szczepanowska, Trees in the City - Green Value Capital and Ecosystem Services, "Man and the Environment" 2015, 39 (2), pp. 5-28; Regional Directorate of State Forests in Poznań, https://www.poznan.lasy.gov.pl/swieto-drzewa.
6 Ministry of Funds and Regional Policy, https://www.gov.pl/web/fundusze-regiony/polityka-miejska.
7. Ministry of Climate and Environment, MPA 44, https://www.gov.pl/web/klimat/mpa-44. A. Rzeńca, A. Sobol, P. Ogórek, Report on the State of Polish Cities. Environment and adaptation to climate change, Warsaw-Kraków 2021.
9. NIK, Green areas in cities without protection from development, 20.04.2022, https://www.nik.gov.pl/aktualnosci/tereny-zielone-w-miastach.html.
10. § 28 of the Ordinance on technical conditions to be met by buildings and their location still contains an order to discharge rainwater to collective sewage systems.
11. NIK, Green areas in cities without protection from development, 20.04.2022, https://www.nik.gov.pl/aktualnosci/tereny-zielone-w-miastach.html.
12. MPU Łódź - Greenery Index, https://mpu.lodz.pl/opracowania/wskaznik-zieleni/.
13. For example, in Poznań, 193 green demonstrators were installed in 46 kindergarten institutions in the city as part of the international project "Connecting Nature" (2018-2022).
14. more extensively: J. Mencwel, Betonosis. How Polish cities are being destroyed, Warsaw 2020.
15. PLGBC: https://plgbc.org.pl/zrownowazone-budownictwo/publikacje/.
16. Government Security Center. Critical Infrastructure Systems, https://www.gov.pl/web/rcb/infrastruktura-krytyczna.
17. foreword to the guide: Solutions to Support Nature in the City. A guide and inspiration. Connecting Nature Project Team, Poznan 2022, https://www.poznan.pl/mim/public/wos/attachments.att?co=show&instance=1017&parent=114096&lang=pl&id=379218.
18. A. Januchta-Szostak, Water management in cities and buildings in the face of climate change (in:) Global Compact Network Poland Report, Necessity of transformation of current urban models of cities - towards resilience to climate change, 2022, pp. 46-50, https://ungc.org.pl/raport-un-gcnp-koniecznosc-transformacji-obecnych-modeli-urbanistycznych-miast/.
19. ecosystem services should be valued not only in terms of raw materials (for example, water abstraction), but primarily in terms of regulation (regulation of hydrological cycles, water and air purification, water retention and mitigation of extreme weather events), habitat (biodiversity, ecosystem viability) and culture (including aesthetic, recreational and educational values of ecosystems).
20 A. Januchta-Szostak, River-friendly cities, Poznań 2019.

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