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What don't we know about Polish cities?

14 of March '23

Article from A&B issue 02|23

I would like to be able to discuss the latest "Report on the Situation of Polish Cities" at the beginning of the year—not of municipal governments, not of real estate markets or the situation of households, but presenting signals from various areas and gathering them into a meaningful whole.

We collect signals all the time, we talk about them, trying to assess their importance and to what extent they herald lasting changes, important trends, to what extent they make us rethink some aspect of the functioning of cities. However, none of this comes together. This is partly because we don't have—as economists do—our equivalent of a GDP, inflation rate or PMI. But also because we don't have routine ways of collecting and presenting data in a form that allows us to build a picture of the urban situation. Not the state of the city, but what is just changing, signals shown not against the background of what we have known about cities for decades, but what we have learned recently. I wish I could discuss a report that isn't there. Although it would certainly be needed by thousands of specialists in various urban aspects and threads.

In order to be able to put it on the table someday, we should look for a way to meet and collide different perspectives and put together a picture of the city that reflects the dynamics of change rather than what is constant. And it will not be some brilliant vision, but an efficient tool for organizing knowledge—that possessed by brilliant observers and that collected by diligent analysts. The problem is that ignorance is the hardest to communicate. When we try to do this, many people shrug their shoulders because they expect new, well-developed ideas. Solutions, not problems. And yet sometimes it has to be done. That's when we hope that solutions can be derived from a discussion of deficits felt by different sides of the urban debate. Such a situation is rare—because it requires abandoning the comfortable professional routine that makes us focus on what we already know how to do, but also admitting our weaknesses. The construction of such a synthetic picture inherently reveals questions we don't want or can't answer, threads we leave out, data we overlook. It is uncomfortable. On the other hand, it presents an interesting challenge, an opportunity for an engaging discussion and to go beyond ready-made schemes.

We have become accustomed to writing about the city in terms of the long term. Everything seems to support this—the permanence of urban layouts, the longevity of buildings that exceeds the measure of human life, the position in the settlement network and the load of symbols accumulated over generations. We have dressed up what is new in the city in slogans about the smart city or the creative city. But we know that these are only new narratives, superficial and short-lived. People with stronger nerves can just wait them out. Those who love to stay up to date listen to every rustle of expert fashion.

Still, we lack good tools to catch urban volatility. To react to new signals. Even if we notice them, we usually treat them as a detail that does not affect the whole picture. We know that the rhythm of our cities has changed in the last three decades, but this signal does not change the way we see other things. We know a lot about urban sprawl, but we react to it as if it were a disconnected process from other phenomena, which can be stopped by spells placed in strategies or little meaningful incentives to stay in the city.

photo: Oleksandr Pyrohov | source: Pixabay

The reason we fail to arrange signals into a larger whole is that we see the city as something very static. Between the signals and the image of the city plunged into a long duration, there is not something that in politics we describe as a situation, and in economics as prosperity. Something that allows us to juxtapose variables, observations, development trends. What makes a signal important. And can be perceived by us and put into some broader context.

The municipal situation is more than a set of data from which we can write a report on the state of the municipality. It is more than observations that we are able to collect individually. It can be captured when there are media outlets that collide different opinions and viewpoints, or other venues for such confrontation. Because such a picture is created as a collective improvisation rather than as a result of an orderly strategic planning process or discussions in forums taken over by roles in political rivalries on city councils. Such a picture used to be built by local media, discussed by local elites. Without idealizing the role of such elites in urban development, they were able to pick up on technological innovations, infrastructural solutions, behavioral and consumption styles, but also fashions and intellectual trends.

Such a city fell apart, was hijacked to pieces. Or to put it less dramatically, most of the people in professions and occupations that used to give a pass to the elite have ceased to function on a local scale. Individual segments of the elite live at a considerable distance and interact with their counterparts in other cities rather than with their colleagues in another sector. Potential urban elites don't even have a meeting place. And they have no reason to talk about the city. This is done almost exclusively by professionals, eagerly clinging to their narrow roles.

It's worth saying this clearly: the phenomenon of the urban elite as we know it in the 19th and 20th centuries is over. With it, we lost a subject who was prepared to take an interest in the "urban situation." What was left behind were few journalists interested in the city as such, few city officials thinking in terms of the city as a whole, not just their own area of operation. What's left are passionate synthesists, academics, architects, experts—with an increasingly smaller audience. And less and less listened to in a world where the demand for synthesis is diminishing. The public prefers some point-scandal, glued to its political emotions and confirming the consistency of its beliefs.

And the technologists of urban power—they prefer specific "details." The problem is that we look too much for what is stable and sometimes even timeless in the city—as in the case of questions about the city's DNA, and we don't know how to describe what is changeable. That we detach the spatial system from the social, which is legitimate in academic work, but not in the various practices of city use. We need this more than in the previous era, when there was an urban marketplace of ideas, and its products were also part of the material fabric of the city. Luc Boltanski aptly called this developmental phase the "city of renown," with its established authorities, elites and hierarchies. With an urban elite distinguished by criteria of wealth, education, social networking. And at the same time constituting a natural causal environment.

Images of the city from this era were situational in nature and answered questions about how to make a name for oneself, stand out, make a career or the business of life in a given city. They hinted at the actions of city authorities, but also provided a common point of reference for discussions about the city. And since there was no fashion for synthetic reports at the time, they tended to exist in the form of press texts, stereotypes, self-definitions processed in various ways. But their existence is confirmed by the growing number of urban associations and forums for action. It confirms the way cities were transformed.

Economic capital was visible in the city. It was to be perpetuated in the walls of representative buildings. They were not only a great investment, but also a symbol of success and prosperity for their owners. So were public buildings celebrating the generosity of their founders. But today's cities have not developed in this way. Luxury has moved out to the suburbs, prestige is not gained by funding a library or philharmonic building. This is a very important change in the way the city exists and develops.

In the city of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, you could also see the cultural capital that made up the city's newspapers, cultural institutions, and the lives of the local elite. Today this one, too, has become almost invisible. Even its material manifestations—bookstores, newsstands or various clubs and places of discussion—are being marginalized. The class that was its proud—albeit sometimes annoying and pretentious—depository has been effectively supplanted by the new middle class, with its practicality and solicitations. This is nothing terrible, but it is worth realizing. And not to build substitutes for the previous era. Finally, yesterday's cities provided an opportunity to manifest social capital, as evidenced by dozens of buildings of social institutions—from the disinterested Sokol gymnastic society to trade unions and business associations. What's more, the cities were the arena of numerous collective actions, which today we would call grassroots. Back then, the concepts of top and bottom were somewhat different, and the level of statist thinking about the world and society was much lower. Declaratively, we recognize that world as meaningful, looking for its substitutes in the form of participatory procedures or consultations, but in practice against this type of ties are both politics, which prefers no one to look at its hands, and big capital, which prefers bilateral relations and values citizens only as employees and consumers. Even public institutions, set up to be incubators of social activity, have learned to knead it in such a way that it can be expressed in market-like indicators and easily accounted for in the event of an audit.

A city built by residents' joint initiatives is an echo of the past. Today, this type of activity is manifested almost exclusively by public authorities—local governments, and in larger cities by provincial and governmental authorities, as well as by commercial companies, which are almost never oriented toward prestige. Important for the city and its residents, non-commercial private projects—such as the Bielsko-based Cavatina—are created extremely rarely. More importantly, there is no fashion for them.

So who is influencing the situation of the city today—not cities in general, but each specific one? On the one hand, it is the capital creating housing estates and jobs, shopping malls, chain supermarkets, building new office buildings and filling them with companies. On the other—the increasingly financially troubled municipal governments. We are increasingly aware that the period in which the situation of cities was shaped by a huge influx of European funds, giving mayors the opportunity to make spectacular investments and transform the urban fabric, is coming to an end. Other types of entities than commercial or local government—appear extremely rarely. This is why no one commissions "reports on the state of the city" in the market for ideas. The city magistrate has its own knowledge and its own world, which may be too small only for exceptional officials. The questions asked by urban developers don't need a bigger picture either. Demand for a description of urban situations is weak, so the only natural community that might need this kind of study is various professional groups and urban activists of all kinds.

For us, this tension between the anachronistic model of the city we have in our minds and the signals coming to us is not only frustrating, but also to some extent disempowering. It's a bit like trying to fit a new puzzle into an old picture. This dissonance is not described by anyone, just in case, because it is not appropriate for anyone to admit to intellectual helplessness. But we sense the difference between what we find in official documents and what we talk about every day. We know that processes don't stop just because we can't describe them. And we have a vague sense of guilt when we realize that we are missing something important.

For years, we have worked within the metaphor of development without recognizing its limitations. Sometimes even that it is precisely a far from precise metaphor, equipped with highly debatable indicators. We rejected thinking in terms of survival, considering various—including black—scenarios. And the circumstances—which were the influx of private capital and European funds—allowed us to treat cities like sponges into which everything naturally soaks. Over time, we understood that it was better to talk about resilience, regeneration or balance. But we didn't get a glimpse of the more difficult truth that each of these metaphors needs to be constantly critically examined. That we need frequent verification of hypotheses through meaningfully collected and synthesized signals and descriptions of urban situations. Sometimes communicating deficiencies is more important than manifesting what we have.

Rafał Matyja

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