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Rzeszów. City experiment

03 of November '23

Ladies and gentlemen, today is a very special day, as we will take on a real super heavyweight contender in the category of Sto Lat Planowania, namely Rzeszów. I can already see some people's faces getting happy. You might say, well finally, why so late? I'll admit that this is not an easy subject to describe, although it would seem that a city that abounds even in urban planning and architectural antecedents is an excellent object to paste on. Such a one-sided perspective, based only on the numerous curiosities and eccentricities that the city has spawned, would undoubtedly be pleasantly creepy, but apart from the entertainment element it would unfortunately carry no deeper cognitive value. Not to mention the residents of Rzeszów themselves, on whom it would probably run off like a duck in general.

Rzeszów, nowa panorama miasta

Rzeszów, a new panorama of the city

Photo: FPW—Krzysztov

My goal is not just to entertain mockery, but to tell the story of a real city that has been tugged by the storms of development processes more than any other city in this country (at least when we talk about those cities that don't have to be searched at the bottom of the sea like Atlantis today).

While dynamic development for big aircraft carriers like Warsaw or Wrocław is a challenge they are obliged to deal with routinely, for the crew of this small ship like Rzeszów, the last decades in urban planning have been a veritable ocean's wrath. To realize what I'm talking about, it's worth confronting, for starters, one basic fact about this city that makes Rzeszów so special, and about which most of us probably have an absolute misconception.

Rzeszów, nowa deweloperka nad Wisłokiem.

Rzeszów, a new development on the Vistula River

photo: Jakub Szlachetko

Putting aside the fact that nowadays everyone associates Rzeszów with the main transit base for military aid to Ukraine, when hearing this name, probably most of us see with our eyes a small old, maybe a bit neglected town with a charming market square of the kind many in this part of Poland, located somewhere between the hills of picturesque Podkarpacie. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, Rzeszów historically on paper is an old city and has a market square, but this image with modern Rzeszów has little in common anymore. In practice, Rzeszów is Poland's youngest city, actually younger than Gdynia, which has grown from a small town of 20,000 inhabitants, which was not even the obvious capital of its own province at first, by almost tenfold since the war to its current population of almost 200,000, of which about 50,000 already after 1989. And counting now with all the immigrants, military and delegations of various organizations, it's probably even about 230,000 residents and growing further. Ladies and gentlemen, it is worthwhile in the face of these numbers to really stop and celebrate this with a minute of contemplation, because this is not a normal thing in our country. What we see today in Rzeszów is an avalanche of development, almost like in the times of industrialization in Europe, when cities swelled at a gigantic pace, only as if a hundred years late and thus already in the times of modern grandfatherism, unfortunately.

That'swhy I say that this city is an experiment. This is also because Rzeszów for several decades under legendary Mayor Tadeusz Ferenc (in office almost until his death in 2022) has developed—as if toeuphemistically put—" in isolation from Polish legislation and realities," so that through its isolated evolution it is today a habitat for various endemic species in the form of various architectural koala bears and urban kangaroos. At first glance, yes, the bizarre bizarre architecture, or the monumental real estate development springing up in the middle of an open field, are feats that perhaps do not seem to be any unusual against the background of our country. After all, let's not kid ourselves, we don't live in some urban idyll, but unfortunately in Poland. What is unique, however, is that while in the rest of the country these are incidents rather than the rule, in Rzeszów an entire model of city development has been based on such practices. And that's literally true.

Rzeszów, nowa deweloperka nad Wisłokiem.

Rzeszów, a new development on the Vistula River.

Photo: Jakub Szlachetko

Looking at this development, there is no denying that the sainted Tadeusz Ferenc counted himself among the great admirers of Mr. Leszek Balcerowicz and space planning on paper with skilful moves of a pencil held by the invisible hand of the market. I'm not going to do an in-depth analysis of the former mayor of this city here, because that's not what this text is about. I will simply share my opinion on the consequences of such policies. During his reign, ruthless economic freedom straight out of the Wild West was imposed in this city. At least to the extent that the authority could do so, that is, in spatial policy. Under this model, anyone who had a piece of land and a business idea could attack it with investment, in essence, as he wished. Mr. Ferenc was an economist, so from his point of view he did an exemplary job, because it was an unprecedented national boost to the city's economy, which to this day pumps the city with an abundance of investment and new residents, while most other agglomerations in Poland demographically flailed or floundered. If one were to judge his impact only in this respect, he is simply a genius, an Alexander the Great of city management.

But the truth is that this success of Rzeszów did not come from exploiting some brilliant development niches and natural resources. Yes, it was the result of very efficient acquisition of EU funds, but to a large extent it was also due to simply overeating the good that is common space in a chaotic, flamboyant and by-the-book manner. Priority was given to making a shoo-in, making publicity, showing ambition. Aggressive advertising, which was supposed to change the image of Rzeszów from the boarded-up hole of the 1990s, a city that, without special cosmetic treatments, could once have successfully served as a set for war movies, to a modern, thriving metropolis. With emphasis on „modern," and very seriously. "A modern metropolis in Podkarpacie” in a region of poverty? Everyone tapped their heads at the time, but President Ferenc chose this one point on the horizon and pursued it hard, disregarding adversities such as some zoning laws or beauty understood differently than through the prism of his own tastes subordinated to the overriding goal, achieving success.

Kompleks biurowy SkyRes w Rzeszowie.

SkyRes office complex in Rzeszów

photo: FPW- Krzysztov

It is an open secret that while in other cities, when someone comes to the magistrate with a crazy idea for an investment that fits the surroundings like a pig's saddle, even a very sympathetic authority tries to gently talk such an idea out of the investor's head and minimize the damage. In Rzeszów it was the other way around. The investor heard on good morning why the saddle on this pig is so small and does not flash lights. A coherent vision, green areas, urban planning competitions for the new city center? And what's the point of all that? In the eyes of an economist, it's just some unnecessary obstruction of investment processes. The building permit procedure had a very fast administrative path. That is, the opposite of the procedure of local plans, which were able to initiate only to then be suspended for a decade in this process of creation was a fiction. During this time, the area covered by them quietly and without unnecessary formalities was developed on the basis of development conditions issued on an ongoing basis and, for a change, very efficiently. It probably doesn't need to be explained that the idea was to create the appearance of being lege artis while having zero participation of residents in the spatial decision-making process, because with development conditions there is no such thing as consultation. So another economically nonsensical bureaucratic barrier out of the way. Isn't it beautiful?

If Rzeszów was able to do this and succeeded, one has to ask oneself why we in this country with strenuous effort and hardship try to build some sustainable development, consult things with residents, shed a tear over every tree? After all, you can turn the tables over, laugh it all off and go with the flow, and the spatial effect will be only slightly worse. For that, „oh lord,” what an economic gain! The analogy that explains this is very simple. It only paid off for Rzeszów for the same reason that it pays off to trade in the bazaar in contraband smugglers. That's because it's a limited good and not everyone can undertake such a business. Rzeszów attracted investment to itself, among other things, by building its competitiveness on „removing administrative barriers,” i.e., for example, pouring over the zoning law. If we all had access to such investment cigarettes without excise taxes then, one, we would go bankrupt, and two, we would probably die faster of cancer, not to mention that no cigarette stall in the Rzeszów bazaar would be right in such a situation. In this respect, Rzeszów's brilliant economic plan was unethical, because it was deliberately based on stretching the law. It took from the country, based on its level of development developed elsewhere in toil and drudgery, and it took mainly at the expense of its closest indigent neighborhoods and neighboring cities, for which it was in direct competition.

Podgrzewane przystanki w Rzeszowie

Heated bus stops in Rzeszów

© Rzeszów Public Transport Authority

It was not only private investments that left their mark on Rzeszów's image. Public investments followed a similar trend. Practicality was never their strong point, but they were supposed to make a big wow. For example, horrendously expensive heated bus stops that are heated as long as it's not too cold, instead of, for example, making buses run more frequently so that you don't have to wait for them. Unfortunately, it is terribly difficult to capture the effect of more frequent bus runs in a spectacular journalistic photograph, and at the sound of the words „the first heated bus stop in Poland” there is a chance that reporters from the big media will descend. Hundreds of thousands and then millions in a one-time cap just to get someone to write those two words: „First in Poland” in the context of Rzeszów.

Rzeszów - Wired Development

Rzeszów—Weird Development

© Pawel Mrozek—Artificial-intelligent collage made with the technique of murder on pixels.

There were many more such investments. „Poland's first pedestrian footbridge traffic circle” for 10 million built in 2011 over a street where it would have been quite easy to make an ordinary and much more convenient for pedestrians and cyclists a normal crossing. Well, but after all, again, who but the residents of Rzeszów would care about some pedestrian crossing, and a footbridge like from Hong Kong, boom, installment ta ta! Splendor and fame. Another capstone in the Bilbao microeffects gadget gallop.

And surprisingly it worked media-wise. Maybe not immediately on the big shots of Polish finance, but it worked on the region's residents, who believed in their own provincial capital. A very expensive way to advertise, but much more effective against the odds than hanging banners around other cities with slogans „City XY city of the future,” which everyone in this country has probably already done with zero effect. In such investments, however, it never mattered whether it would be useful to the residents, whether they really needed it, or whether it could be done better. All that mattered was that the recipient of information in Poland should be surprised every now and then with some exotic news from Rzeszów. As a consolation, I will say that other forms of city promotion used in this country also cost a good deal and were almost guaranteed to be of zero use to residents. Anyway, slowly, tap, tap with a hammer, a different, completely new image of this city was forged, albeit a bit stretched. More ideas were needed. What's next, what's more. Rzeszów will build a „monorail.” What will it build? Shit, what are you guys smoking in that Rzeszów? The monorail is no brilliant means of transport, it has no advantage over much more traditional solutions, but it has one basic advantage from the point of view of the authorities of Rzeszów at the time—"it would be the first in Poland". Well, and it is, above all, a strange idea, that is, an attention-getter, which is what it was all about. People were supposed to be curious, they were supposed to be surprised. They were supposed to talk about it among themselves over a beer, and potential investors were supposed to start thinking "Hey, and you've heard about this Rzeszów, it's really happening there, maybe it will be profitable there."

This, however, was a spiral in which Rzeszów had to run forward and upward all the time, lest it collapse under the weight of nonsensical and impractical gadgetry, which, after all, necessarily had to burden the city's budget in maintenance costs, if only. Therefore, he bid higher and higher, throwing up more and more abstract ideas. I have no idea how it all tied together to tell the truth, because it was, in my opinion, riding on the bandwagon, and I probably would never have written this text either, since watching Rzeszów's crazy adventures was a spectacle I always sat down to with popcorn and preferred not to disturb. However, that's all in the past now. Something that was an unwavering strategy that had no opponents and enjoyed (at least theoretically) the support of the residents practically turned on its head within two years. The pandemic, the death of Tadeusz Ferenc and the war in Ukraine were like launching Rzeszów into a completely different, alien dimension, in which this city must now find itself anew, and there is no going back to what was.

Rzeszów, nowa deweloperka nad Wisłokiem.

Rzeszów, a new development on the Vistula River

photo: Jakub Szlachetko

Suddenly the fourth-league „Tiger of Europe,” which was always a wannabe Warsaw, was told by fate: check. „Oh... you already have a ridiculous pseudo-Asian skyline of skyscrapers towering over the city, now let's see how you'll do in this role you've been dreaming of,” and off you go into deep water. Rzeszów's provincial airport took on unprecedented air traffic, the city filled with all nations and suddenly ran out of office space and hotels. In the city of bigos with pork, you can now easily eat the best American steak in Poland, and all the heads of state of the entire Western world have swept through the city. Rzeszów no longer needs heated stops to beg for articles in the national press, as it regularly gets airtime on CNN and the BBC.

This is a completely different city today, with completely new problems and opportunities and, I have the impression, already more aware residents than in the days of „joyful development,” and only one thing has not changed. Fortunately, what should not change. Big ambitions. When you think to yourself how many times this city has flipped a coin and won, how many times it got on the right train at the last minute, it's just exciting, like a good action series.

Well. Enough of the thrills and elation. We are already after the first season of this series, and I have a lot of comments about the plot of the second season, because it can be done well, in my opinion, or screwed up in concert. The first season was, to tell the truth, a dramatic tug-of-war with reality for Rzeszów, in which the Polish black hole of poverty tried to suck this city in, but failed. Rzeszów emerged victorious, but at the price of sacrificing the quality of some spaces, with the baggage of bizarre or misplaced investments, and the ticking bomb of a large number of spent space W-Zetas, which can backfire at any moment, sowing spatial destruction.

Could it have been done differently? Of course, but today we probably wouldn't be talking about Rzeszów as it is now, but about some other bankrupt Rzeszów dwarfed, aging and drained of educated and enterprising people, which is only at the stage of enjoying concreting a market for itself and launching a competition for a fountain-car ambush. Frankly speaking, if I could turn back time, I would not dare to spin such a wheel of fortune again, despite all the shortcomings I see, but I would also not recommend to anyone the path Rzeszów took, because it was a gamble. It just happens sometimes that someone wins in such roulette.

Rzeszów, nowa deweloperka nad Wisłokiem.

Rzeszów, a new development on the Vistula River

photo: Jakub Szlachetko

This does not mean that today there are no things that should not be changed here. However, it is imperative that the period of previous development be cut off with a thick line, which the current city authorities, headed by Mayor Konrad Fiołek, seem to be doing. Megalomania for show, especially one as infantile in perception as the new high-rise buildings on the Vistula River, is no longer necessary for this city, and will even have a negative effect on its image, because it's really impossible not to smile when seeing this architecture straight out of some Batumi or Astana in the middle of Europe. Well. Rzeszów residents will have to live with it, at least until the facade is renovated in a dozen-twenty years, when the first opportunity to do something about this kitsch will arise. This, however, is a cosmetic concern.

The real challenge will be sorting out the city's spatial policy and meeting its transportation challenges. I think we can already forget about the pipe dream of some kind of „Monorail,” which would have to be climbed up a ladder, in favor of developing—attention, attention, this will be shocking—" not the first in Poland," but very efficient streetcars, which are used by millions of people in this country every day. We know how it works, we know how to design it, build it... we even have our own factories that produce it in addition. And if that's not enough, there's the railroad, which from the point of view of serving the greater area quite favorably spreads from the center along the directions of development of this city. One would have to wonder if there is a point and possibility of adapting it to serve suburban traffic.

Another problem/challenge remains the fact that several potentially city-forming functions that could breathe additional life into downtown have been located next to the airport. We are talking about the convention and conference center and the Podkarpackie Science Center. Stuffing these facilities next to the airport in this case was an obvious misunderstanding and some unconscious pursuit of the airport corpo district fad. However, let's measure our strength by our intentions. There are several other airports in this country whose passenger traffic goes into the millions and have much better conditions for it, and still nowhere near the airport is there any attempt to create such conference hubs. But, you know, "first in Poland". Heck, what would the few visitors to such a conference center be supposed to do at this airport after hours? Or how would the locals get there efficiently in case of some big events? Two serious problems that could be the sum of the advantages if such a facility were located in the city. Besides, even if this model were to work out and such a center would be bustling with activity, what benefit, or at least advertising, would it be for the city, if all those prestigious visitors from their windows would see the taxiway instead of, say, the old city. Well, but in Rzeszów's promotional brochures such an edifice blended nicely with the terminal, so the decision could not be different.

Jak powinno być a jak jest.

How it should be, and how it is

© Paweł Mrozek

This brings us to the third challenge facing Rzeszów, and I don't know if not the most important. Thelack of a city center in the city center. When one compares Rzeszów with the similarly sized and also young city of Gdynia, the center of Rzeszów, for all intents and purposes, does not exist. There is a market, but the market in hardly any large city today is the heart of the downtown. Potentially, such a nucleus of a center in Rzeszów could have existed at the Provincial Office, but aside from the flashy design of the „ufo” footbridge, the whole space is already non-functional because it is broken up and contributes nothing. Rzeszów, if it still wants to develop dynamically, only now more wisely, should finally invest in its image as a good-looking city, not just a city full of opportunities. If it wants to welcome more and better visitors and investors to its doorstep, you can't treat them on good morning with spatial chaos and a whole assortment of patched pavement, with a few skyscrapers with blue woodwork towering over them somewhere in the background. Unless you ride a camel and sleep on oil, then you can. Rzeszów, on the whole, sleeps on oil, but unfortunately it's not the kind of barrels to drown potential disappointment in the view of the city. The center of Rzeszów needs revitalization, the guiding theme of which, in my opinion, should be a central multifunctional and metropolitan public space with a clearly defined urban framework. It is necessary to create such a focal point of the city precisely so that when you type the word Rzeszów into Google, a pin does not land us in the middle of some spiffy antipathetic intersection of dubious beauty from the 1970s. That's to say in jest, and in all seriousness, so that this city would have its own unique space expressing its ambitions, with which its residents identify and which can be identified in postcard perception instead of the big piiiii at the Daszyńskiego traffic circle, to say the least (no offense to the big piiiii, it "s nothing personal). And this is where we feel a bit sorry for those institutions that ended up at the airport, which could have been centripetal touchstones for Rzeszów, urban frameworks for new spaces. To the question of where, what, how exactly should happen, I won't even try to point the finger. I am convinced that the city authorities and the city architect are well aware of the needs and possibilities, because for all this the city has the tools, and for all this there are various, more or less socialized methods of making planning decisions.

And now moving on to the substance of the changes at the administrative level that must take place and are already taking place in Rzeszów. In addition to the war, the pandemic and the change of power, we actually have a fourth dramatic scourge that is forcing Rzeszów to come to its senses. The new zoning law, which imposes an obligation to make a General Plan for the entire city, for which both Rzeszów and every other city in the country have two years. In theory, this change would curb developer free America in this city anyway, although in practice I dare only say "well, we'll see."

In any case, Rzeszów is in the fortunate position of having just finished creating the first full "Spatial Study" in its history, which covered the entire city area, ensuring that it has an intellectually warmed-up, prepared to work on the General Plan team of urban planners and up-to-date studies of analyses that won't have to be done from scratch, and which should streamline the work somewhat, giving a slightly better starting point than the rest. Someone else would probably say, but nonsense, because the finished document, which has already been created, can actually be thrown in the trash right away. But I don't think so, I' m very glad that such similar work will have to be done a second time, because after such a long period of „planlessness” in Rzeszów to start this machine, so that it suddenly begins to give birth to great solutions, is not easy.

Rzeszów, nowa deweloperka na przedmieściach

Rzeszów, a new developer in the suburbs

photo: own materials Paweł Mrozek

It is additionally worth explaining here how great was the corrosion of spatial policy in this city before. After all, Rzeszów was one of the few, if not the only city in the country that, coincidentally, was covered by the Study of Development Conditions and Directions only in part. This was due to the fact that the city had in the meantime greatly expanded in area, absorbing its natural suburbs and parts of neighboring municipalities, which at the same time extinguished the studies and plans in force in their area. A rather unusual situation, which for many years allowed very free, ad hoc and discretionary juggling of spatial decisions and resulted in controversial (at best) suburban development. A situation that may even be convenient from the point of view of some landowners with the mentality of wild businessmen of the 1990s, but in modern Poland no longer offers any chance for any development for the benefit of the entire city and its residents.

Paradoxically, however, this expansion of the city's stock is also another gift from fate, which, used wisely, can help this city develop more thoughtfully. While many cities can do nothing about swelling parasitic neighboring municipalities, sipping the developer's cream in the form of new residents and getting nothing in return, Rzeszów has at least theoretical control over its suburbs and can consciously start making spatial decisions in those areas. Decisions that will be in the interest of all the residents of Rzeszów, and not just according to the plan of some mayor or local landlord who one day woke up and gleefully discovered in himself a calling to become a lordly developer on his property.

In a word of conclusion. Rzeszów surprised me, and I must say that little else in this country surprises me. This city is nevertheless in much better shape than it might seem after deciphering its nefarious marketing strategy and the infamous examples that usually, unfortunately, shine brightest.

There are amazing new adventures ahead for the city, one just on the scale of Rzeszów, that is interesting, such as whether this city will become an economic gateway to the rebuilding Ukraine in the future. I'm also curious about what will come of the new zoning law, and whether, during this two-year wait for the General Plan, the stockpiles of happy zoning conditions issued years ago, still hidden in drawers, will sometimes explode, sowing chaos and erosion. I think that in order to guard against this, the city needs to re-create a true partnership dialogue with developers. I am, by the way, firmly convinced that the previous discretionary system of giving someone promises on the mouth and under the table was not so sensational for them at all. Any sensible economist will tell you that real business, in order to flourish, needs transparency in the system. It wants to know in advance what its competitors can do and what it can do, because equality of treatment ensures economic predictability, and then much more money can be committed. Participation in an obscure W-Zetek lottery eliminates the really serious players from the start, who bypass cities with such practices by a wide margin.

Inturn, it fills one with concern whether residents, after decades of putting their activism to sleep, during which they were mere spectators of the „one man show,” will be ready to take more responsibility for their city in the future. Will their ambition mobilize them to actively participate in participation, or will they complacently remain at home, relying on the mercy and disfavor of developers, who will always come to every meeting with the city, because it's their job.

The most important thing, however, is that the current authorities seem to understand the need for a profound change in the approach to development, while maintaining the atmosphere of a city ambitious and full of „a little unruly energy.” This is what I like about Rzeszów, by the way. This city is a total experiment, except that so far it has been more alchemical and based on intuition, and now it has a chance to finally proceed in a more controlled scientific environment and on the basis of knowledge. The stakes this time around are already too high for Rzeszów's development to continue to be guided by methods for a „brilliant leader.” Those days are over. I have a feeling that in the coming years we will have the opportunity to laugh less often at Rzeszów and more often admire interesting and resident-directed investments, although I guess that the resistance from some circles may be fierce.

All the best on your new path and good luck.

Paweł Mrozek

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