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Towards a resilient city

02 of January '23

Interview from A&B issue 10|2022

"We can't escape from planning," our interviewee points out. But is flexible planning possible? What does the term mean in relation to the city and to regulation, and what does it have to do with building urban resilience? Dr. Sylwia Krzysztofik talks about the vision of cohesive design and the challenges facing urban planning in Poland.

Kopenhaga - adaptacja zabytkowych budynków na zabudowę wielorodzinną

Copenhagen - adaptation of historic buildings for multifamily development

photo: Sylwia Krzysztofik

interview with Sylwia Krzysztofik

Alicja Gzowska: Putting the topic from a historical perspective, any city planning is an attempt to heal what exists - striving for "health" also in a biological sense.

Sylwia Krzysztofik: Mostly yes. Often in texts about planning there are references to biological terms such as "genotype of a place," "urban organism" or "bloodstream of the city." Such metaphors show that the city is a living and changing organism, constantly in motion, rather than a matter that is given once and defined to the end. Conditions, needs, processes change. It is important that we skillfully define the most important goals and try to implement them. In order for these goals to be realistic, they need to be set in relation to the needs of the residents, our capabilities, our budget and the use of the resources we have - that is, efficiency. One such asset resource is usually the identity of the place, i.e. valuable historical, heritage-related resources. This is not only valuable buildings, but also the urban layout, the division of plots, rhythm, compositional axes or landscape openings. All this creates the spirit of a place and makes us want to identify with it. The second valuable resource that should be taken into account are natural areas: those that are located within or right next to cities, or within the boundaries of agglomerations. I'm thinking of nature parks and national parks, like Kampinos National Park, which acts as a magnet. In its buffer zone many people want to have plots of land, spend weekends or just live. However, we should not allow such places to be intensively developed - we should use mechanisms that guarantee the safety of the most valuable areas. We must, on the one hand, protect what we have that is most valuable, and on the other, try to ensure the development of this space that we have available. It is always a balancing act and choices.

Kopenhaga, stare miasto - parking rowerowy

Copenhagen, old town - bicycle parking lot

Photo: Sylwia Krzysztofik

Alicia: To which the users of such spaces, who complain about restrictions, do not always relate with understanding.

Sylwia: There are fewer and fewer complainers, because there is a growing awareness of these issues in society. I am very pleased that there is more interest in planning. This is confirmed by the large number of publications in the daily press, or by the media storms around controversial investments like development in the middle of an aeration corridor, the interruption of an ecological connector or an investment in a river valley. This arouses an immediate wave of criticism, opposition, and it's probably a good thing that this is the case.

Alicia: The discussion about natural resources is governed by slightly different laws than that concerning, for example, suburbanization.

Sylwia: It definitely does, and yet the effects of severe suburban sprawl, suburbanization implemented in a chaotic and haphazard manner, affect us all. They are countered by the actions of city authorities implementing revitalization programs in historic city centers. It is assumed that if the quality of life and space in the centers - valuable places that build the identity of a place - can be improved, residents will not be so eager to move outside the city and will not want to condemn their families to the inconvenience of daily commutes. All these activities, phenomena we should support with thinking about increasing the city's resilience to climate change. This is an element that should appear as a major aspect in the area of all planning activities, strategies and planning documents. And it's not just about expanding green spaces in the city to mitigate the effects of the heat or level the urban heat island effect. The resilience of a city should be defined much more broadly, touch on almost all aspects of its functioning and be based on the optimal use of its resources. In the case of urban structures, building resilience is a very complex and difficult process, as it requires acting in parallel and consistently at several scales and levels. It is necessary to act at the scale of the agglomeration, encompassing the scale of the city and the areas functionally and spatially related to it: suburbs, satellite cities and adjacent areas, as well as at the scale of the city itself, a neighborhood, a quarter and a building.

Kopenhaga - piętrowy parking rowerowy

Copenhagen - storied bicycle parking

Photo: Sylwia Krzysztofik

Alicia: What makes up a city's resilience?

Sylwia: The basic elements of a city's resilience are diversity, density of connections, efficiency, and flexibility - the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Diversity of functions - that oft-mentioned recent mixed use, meaning, among other things, the availability of basic functions in a pedestrian access zone in fifteen or twenty minutes - is a trend again popularized by the Paris agglomeration, but also by Melbourne, Vienna or Copenhagen. Of course, the main goal of the fifteen-minute city idea is also to reduce the number and time of daily trips, which entails abandoning the daily use of cars and reducing the dedication of public space to car-related needs. This is yielding good results, such places are simply better to live in. This is confirmed by the rankings of the most liveable cities, so many localities are trying to implement similar assumptions in their urban policies. At the same time, we also increasingly need to take energy optimization into account, that is, looking closely at how much time and money we spend on commuting and why. Another aspect of diversity is the variety of urban structures and, on another scale, the variety of architectural forms, which affects the quality of space. Adequately diverse urban forms and interiors make spaces more interesting, have better quality, perform better and work better on a daily basis.

Another element of resilience is efficiency, i.e. the optimal use of the resources we have, such as space, energy, time. For example, the issue of optimizing energy consumption is good to diagnose both at the scale of the city, the neighborhood and the housing communities. Better use of space means, among other things, reducing the area of urban wasteland and identifying new functions for it. Better time management is related to the already-mentioned reduction in the number of daily movements, that is, both daily commuting and transit trips.

The third element is flexibility, or the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Recent years have shown that what seems unchanging and stable to us need not be so at all. And what seems unlikely to us can surprise us overnight. A global epidemic and lockdown, a war in a neighboring country and very large groups of people fleeing it. We had to adapt to both of these situations very quickly. City flexibility is no longer just about adapting quickly to climate change.

And finally, connectivity - understood as the quality and density of links between elements of a city. A city is an organism made up of several systems, which in themselves should work efficiently, but also cooperate properly among themselves, just as in our organisms. The obvious elements of these connections are networks, including the transportation system, which consists of public transportation in various forms: bicycle, pedestrian and individual commuting. There are also road interchanges, a variety of junctions and crossroads. An important indicator here is the density of the street network and its proper hierarchy. It is also important to influence residents' preferences, which can be done through urban policy. Connectivity is also about spatial cohesion and efficiency of urban structures, including, for example, the blue-green network.

Londyn Londyn

Left: London, adaptation of former warehouses to multi-family residential function - New Concordia Wharf, 1997
Right: London, development in the quarters at The Circle on Queen Elizabeth Street, view of the courtyard, 1997

Photo: Sylwia Krzysztofik

Alicia: What is the difference between urban planning and urban policy from the perspective of building urban resilience?

Sylwia: Urban policy is a broader concept than urban planning, where we usually focus on defining planning indicators, indicating priorities in spatial solutions, urban communication, defining principles of spatial composition and landscape protection. Urban policy, on the other hand, should also take into account other assets - the potentials and deficits of a place in terms of economics, sociology, geography, history, ecology and, of course, including architecture and urban planning. This is a much broader issue, but it needs to be consistent and coherent to be effective.

Alicia: It is very difficult.

Sylvia: Yes, it is complicated, but necessary. We can't escape from planning, we can try to ignore it, but this is never a good solution. Planning should indicate priorities in the short and long term, with their inclusion in the calendar of investments in the city. Unfortunately, it happens that the assumed schedules are subject to changes. Mostly this is the result of lengthy procedures, appeals, procedural problems with updating valuations and so on. Such problems are encountered in current projects, but this must not derail the planning and implementation of changes in cities. We have in Europe - and in Poland too - several examples of spectacular successes in transforming degraded areas. I am thinking, for example, of the docks in London and Dublin or the Confluence peninsula in Lyon. These were dying, spatially degraded places, and now they are neighborhoods where life is flourishing. It can sometimes be doubted whether the way in which these changes have been carried out is adequate to the needs of the people who formerly inhabited these areas. However, it is worth looking at the various mechanisms that are present in Anglo-Irish legislation.

Of particular interest is the process by which cities acquire new housing stock, sometimes directly from developers. In our country there is no such solution, while there are specific professional groups for whom social housing is obtained, and there are also support mechanisms for the poorest people. I think we still have a stage ahead of us in which the tools of housing distribution and housing policy will be supplemented. Another thing is that there are times when legal tools are ready, but local governments, for various reasons, do not use them - as is the case with the Law on Revitalization. However, a lot has changed in Poland, many projects are implemented or in the process of implementation. The city of Lodz, which I know best, is in the process of redeveloping the city center. I have had the pleasure of participating in these projects. Similar changes are also taking place in smaller centers. The effectiveness of public participation is also improving, residents are increasingly paying attention to the quality of space and the functionality of what is proposed to them. It is very good that the public has begun to notice that it can have an impact on the space in which it lives.

Łódź, nieużytki miejskie w miejscu obecnego Pasażu Hilarego Majewskiego; stan przed realizacją projektu Rewitalizacji Obszarowej Centrum Łodzi, 2016 rok

Lodz, urban wasteland at the site of the current Hilary Majewski Passage;
state before the realization of the Lodz City Center Area Revitalization Project, 2016

Photo: Sylwia Krzysztofik

Alicia: Sometimes it can seem simpler and faster to carry out certain investments from the level of, for example, the civic budget than through the traditional route.

Sylwia: I wouldn't generalize it. A lot depends on the situation, on city policy, on the ways of procedure in the city, for example, whether a contractor will be selected efficiently, whether he will do the work well and we won't have to make amendments and whether we won't have some conflicts of interest. Sometimes coincidence is the deciding factor, as when we discover something valuable in the course of an investment, which is often gratifying, but unfortunately prolongs the process and raises the cost of implementation.

Alicia: The experience of the pandemic has reinforced the opinion that traditional planning tools, such as MPAs, do not meet modern needs for rapid response to a dynamic situation.

Sylwia: Indeed, the tools we use require very long procedures. Much depends on the type of investment, its size and impact on the entire city. The opinion-making, agreement, distribution, communication between various departments and authorities (of which there may be more than twenty) required by law can take about nine months (assuming an optimistic variant). Looking at this procedure, it is difficult to say what can be left out here, how to take shortcuts. If we think of planning responsibly, with long-term effects, it is difficult to relate it to punctual actions like the aforementioned civic budget. Ideally, planning should be done on several scales, including time scales. Ideally, we should coherently determine what is most important, what we are able to work through first, what will bring us the fastest, best effect, and treat these assumptions as priorities. An interesting thread, only just beginning, but showing a new scale, is planning at the district scale. At the same time, one may wonder how to make the whole process more flexible, for example, through provisions in the plan allowing various options or variants, or indicating "brackets" of actions allowed on a given site.

Łódź - konsultacje projektu Obszarowej Rewitalizacji Centrum Łodzi, 2016 rok

Łódź - consultations on the project for the Area Revitalization of the Center of Łódź, 2016.

Photo: Sylwia Krzysztofik

Alicja: This sounds risky.

Sylwia: One must be wary of overly rigid legislative provisions, otherwise we will be stuck in a very narrow slot of what is allowed. It is necessary for both sides to work together - a compromise that ensures the quality and well-being of future users. Reducing legislative rigor does not necessarily result in a reduction of control in particularly valuable areas. Rather, the problem is individual planning resulting from the rampant use of substitute tools such as the zoning decision. In the absence of local plans, the zoning decision has become in many places the primary mechanism for determining the rules for private investment.

Łódź, Pasaż Róży, 2022 rok, tworzenie sieci pieszych powiązań w śródmiejskich kwartałach w ramach projektu Rewitalizacji Obszarowej Centrum Łodzi, proj.: 3DArchitekci

Łódź, Passage of Roses, 2022, creation of a network of pedestrian links in downtown quarters
As part of the Łódź Center Area Revitalization project, proj.: 3DArchitekci

Photo: Sylwia Krzysztofik

Alicia: Does the new draft law on spatial planning address these issues?

Sylwia: It's difficult to predict what effects the introduction of this law will have. When the current law entered in 2003, we didn't quite realize what the effect of allowing urban planning through administrative decisions would be, for example. And yet this is what we were condemned to do for many years, only with the advent of local plans, more or less detailed, over time. Now the introduction of a general plan, which is supposed to be the successor to local plans, seems to be a hit idea. I am rather worried about the marginalization of details. If general plans are proceeded with very quickly (because the time for their implementation will oblige all municipalities to act at the same time), their findings may turn out to be so general that they will bring us various spatial and economic surprises. This doesn't have to happen, but it is possible. One more thing - it is a pity that there are no provisions to ensure zoning of development intensity and height at the scale of cities or districts.
It is important to remember that designing changes in urban areas is an ongoing process that is subject to evaluation. It is important here to monitor changes and evaluate their effectiveness. Constantly adjusting the adopted goals and checking whether what we achieve is relevant to the current situation, is needed by residents, makes sense and is effective. This will help achieve the best possible results in projects and investment processes, which is what I wish for residents, users, authorities and designers alike.

Alicja: Thank you for the interview.

interviewed by Alicja Gzowska

Photo: Sylwia Krzysztofik

Sylwia Krzysztofik - urban planner, architect, assistant professor at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning at the Faculty of Construction, Architecture and Environmental Engineering of the Technical University of Lodz. Member of the board of the Łódź branch of the Society of Polish Town Planners. She is the author of a dissertation on the relationship between legislative tools in planning and progressive changes in environmentally valuable areas. She is currently conducting research on the revitalization of intensively urbanized downtown areas and planning tools to improve the resilience of urban structures to climate change.

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