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Local government ideologies. How to avoid an unfavorable status quo?

29 of December '22

Article from A&B issue 09|2022


The most effective ideologies are those of which we are unaware. Those preached pusillanimously are usually limited to ostentatious appearances, such as benches of independence or monuments to heroes of the current government. The truly effective ones work even when they are not officially declared. They influence our ideas about what is important and unimportant, suggest criteria for judging situations and patterns of behavior. When they are widely shared, they can make us overlook obvious omissions or mistakes.

A great example is the unshakeable principle of housing policy in the first quarter century of the Third Republic centered on owner-occupied housing, with its natural corollary - housing as a capital investment. Its dominance was so strong that only that which challenged it seemed ideological. As if it dared to challenge the laws of nature, the obvious course of events.

Let's start with a hypothesis: the more any sphere of public life seems obvious to us, uncontroversial and governed by its own logic, the more deeply hidden - and therefore more effective - its ideological assumptions are. One more example before we move on to local governments: the idea that the main task of education is to educate for the labor market. This highly questionable view has become a dogma upheld by successive governments, academic institutions and representatives of the business world. Of course, every teacher should know a little about the realities and expectations of employers, and sometimes take them into account, but the idea that he or she is supposed to provide a service to business, preparing children and young people to work in a corporation, supermarket or on a production line, is from hell. And it makes it so that we don't talk today about the fact that schools need cultural animators like never before, sensible educators with the competence of sports coaches, that Polish teenagers need knowledge of thethe world around them, that they should be able to take care of their health, know how to use their free time, cope with their roles as parents and citizens, we only focus on what is unknowable and impractical anyway. Because we don't know what will be the job market that today's high school graduates, children starting high school or elementary school will enter.

Centrum Nauki Kopernik, Warszawa

Copernicus Science Center, Warsaw, proj.: RAr-2 Laboratory of Architecture, Jan Kubec

Photo: Adrian Grycuk © Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 EN

Local government ideologies are thus the narratives behind the process of privatizing public services and the way revitalization of historic city centers was carried out. These are the motives why streets and parking lots slowly (very slowly!) began to give way to sidewalks and bike paths. These are the reasons why eyes were turned a blind eye to the appropriation of some public spaces, while others were staunchly defended. Rarely was this merely a matter of whim and rarely the result of cold economic calculation. Part of the ideology was easy to see: it was formulated in strategies, declared in election campaigns, used in arguments in interviews. Some of it requires careful exploration. A reading of Richard Sennett's "Flesh and Stone" sheds light on the entanglement of urban concepts with medical and hygienic notions. From this perspective, the concreting of squares is not merely a tribute to some building material, but to a considerable extent a struggle against the annoying, because disorderly, growth of plants, the life of insects living in their shadows. With what should be tamed, at best put into a pot, carefully guarding the limits of the element.

An ideology can be something that looks like neoliberalism, and something that looks like an obsession with sterility, freedom from the unsanitary dirt and moisture associated with plants and animals. The ideology is also the opposite view, saying that we deserve a neighborhood of unhindered horticultural pietism. For a path that is natural and gives us trouble after rain, because we slip on mud or have to dodge puddles. A lot of ideologies are about cars and bicycles, because not everything that happens in the city can be called business. And ideologies are a game that no reasonable person gives up.

Besides, the past three decades of Polish local government are full of ideological fashions of various kinds. And we're not talking about issues where there was no choice: what the local government had to do so as not to mess up with the voters and get in trouble with the Regional Audit Office. It was a must-do ride, in which there was indeed little room for ideology. It is important to focus on the free ride, where local government did what it wanted.

Local government ideologies primarily created hierarchies of values and goals. As at the central level, here almost no one tried to seriously lash out at the housing issue. For that, the beautification of representative historic spaces became important already in the first term. Of course, someone will say that this was important because it convinced voters that there was a good steward in the city. But why was it decided to invest in the market and not in the center of a large residential area with several thousand voters?

For some, the class theme will be important, saying that these were meeting spaces and public life for the local elite and middle class. For others, the core of the urban ideology understood in this way was the recognition that this public space was important to the community as a whole, a source of pride for the community and a showcase to visitors. Therefore, a dozen years before the moment when the train station was cleaned up, the tenements were repaired and the greenery was well landscaped, the city hall was renovated and benches were erected, the local government was building symbols of care while creating its own understanding of urbanity.

Three eras in the history of local government in the Third Republic mark very clearly the different attitudes of local government elites. First and foremost, those of the urban ones. The first era, spanning the decade of the 1990s, was a period of great collegiality in urban management, an orientation toward attracting capital, creating jobs, privatizing or commercializing public services, and at the same time - the aforementioned - beautifying cities. And the arduous - still dragging on through the first decade of the 21st century - struggle against crooked sidewalks and holes in roadways.

NOSPR, Katowice

NOSPR, Katowice, proj.: Konior Studio

Photo: Marek Mróz © Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

In this first era, relatively little was built. To put it perversely - mainly ZUS buildings and supermarkets. Galleries appeared in urban spaces only a few years later, but decisions were made in that first era of fascination with the spirit of capitalism, the belief in the superiority of the private over the public, the hope that the market is the best arbiter of any dispute. Presidents and mayors from the right and left, liberals from the Freedom Union and trade unionists from the AWS believed this. Although it sounds paradoxical, the spirit of civic mobilization resonated with a strong reception of neoliberal ideas. Cities were to be competitive, save public resources, privatize not only property, but also municipal services.

The framework of the second era is set by political changes giving full executive power in the municipality to one-person bodies: mayors, mayors and presidents, and Poland's accession to the EU. The criterion for evaluating authorities is no longer the inflow of capital, but the "absorption of EU funds." The level of municipal investments is impressive: things are being built that are both necessary and unnecessary. Many of them are not very visible: they consist of repairing obsolete installations, developing networks, thermal upgrades, creating accessibility for people with disabilities. But there are also spectacular changes. This period can be called "managerial-absorptive." Its ideology favors autocratic styles and a kind of smugness of the city administration.

The smugness is sustained by multi-term presidents. Some of them refuse to present their own electoral programs or participate in debates, "because, after all, the residents know them very well" and will judge by the results. But to get a good understanding of the scale of centralization of decisions, it is necessary to explain that in 2002 not only the way presidents, mayors and aldermen are elected, but also the way they exercise power changed. While in the first three terms cities were governed by a collegial board that could vote the boss out on certain issues, for the next two decades we had to deal with deputy mayors who do what the boss wants them to do, and can only, like other directors in city offices, convince the boss.

Cuprum Arena

Cuprum Arena, proj: Studio ADS

photo: Michal 460 © Wikimedia Commons

That's why the first dozen years or so of our century take on the robes of pragmatic authoritarianism, which is often criticized by the "founding fathers" of Polish self-government - Michał Kulesza or Jerzy Stępień. The most common constructions of this period are galleries, growing like yeast, which in time reach even the larger and wealthier county towns - who does not believe, let him visit Cuprum Arena in Lower Silesia's Lubin (design: Studio ADS). But there is also no shortage of ambitious projects, musical culture facilities - with the emblematic Philharmonic Hall in Szczecin (design: Estudio Barozzi Veiga) or Katowice's NOSPR (design: Konior Studio). The Copernicus Science Center is being built (design: RAr-2 Laboratory of Architecture, Jan Kubec), which will have its metropolitan clones in the coming years, interesting museums, libraries, campuses are being built, and less frequently - administrative buildings.

Someone will say that behind the possibility of building these new elements stood not ideologies, but European money. This is true, but ideas do not necessarily reach us in pure form. In fact, they almost never reach us that way. The ideas of the neoliberal revolution did not stray here gratuitously either, they arrived in the 1990s with foreign advisors, aid funds, exchange programs. Of course, they also took on a kind of native character. But one only needs to review strategic documents and expert diagnoses on cities, regions or local governments to grasp the ratio between indigenous and imported ideas.

Where are we now? The third era began in 2014 and is linked to three factors: the emergence of urban movements and the incorporation of some of their demands into the agendas of cities, the change in the expectations of the metropolitan middle class and the emergence of a new generation of city users, the collapse of neoliberal ideas as ordering the whole of public life. Of course, the smugness of mayors has not gone away, but the authorities of half of Polish metropolises have changed for various reasons. And this despite the fact that the local elections of 2018 were held in a conservative - from the point of view of the changes introduced by the urban movements - spirit of not allowing PiS candidates to come to power. Conservative strategies of mayors such as Tadeusz Ferenc and Jacek Majchrowski were accepted, as long as they did not lead to a takeover of any of the big cities by the ruling party.

At the same time, in the last eight years - those since 2014 - the role of developers has increased, with the winds of the mortgage system starting to blow at their backs. And at the same time, there has been a huge demand for new-style housing. The same metropolitan middle class that likes new "nice urban spaces" is taking out a loan to live in an apartment building. Possibly inexpensive, with a garage, with modern amenities. All this has meant that in 2018, most conflicts for power in cities were not about some different, mutually exclusive ideas, but about competition between the existing personnel arrangement and its rivals.
The lesson is simple - politics won't get it done. In this space, contrary to the logic of democracy, there will be no room for the articulation of some alternative idea for the city. Trapped are not only the urban movements, but actually the majority of opinion dissatisfied with the small overall progressive corrections in the policies of large metropolises. Moreover, there are many indications that the status quo may continue into the next term as well: due to the financial troubles of local governments, the tendency of important players to camouflage real problems. This will also be the case because very few circles - including experts, academics or journalists - have no interest in scuffling with local decision-makers. So how do we avoid stagnation and stabilization at an unfavorable level?

Paradoxically, changes at the level of ideologies may come to the rescue: both through the climate crisis and the mobilization of resources to counteract phenomena that may exacerbate it, and through growing pressure from opinion makers. But ideologies today are not only thick books, but also good examples. Partial solutions implemented in Polish cities, wherever the opportunity arises.

Each local government official will easily say of his city that it is not Amsterdam. But the strategy of a small Polish Amsterdam, i.e. a few good solutions set as a model for others, can prove effective. All it takes is a few mayors from a slightly different fairy tale, who decide to go beyond the old schemes. And they will change the ideological software they are working on to a slightly newer one.

Rafał MATYJA

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