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    Fast but chaotic – ESPON report describes Poland’s urbanisation process

    On average, the area of more than 250 football pitches is built up every day in Europe, and Poland remains at the forefront of countries undergoing the most rapid urbanization. However, it is worrying that the country lacks a long-term plan for developing Polish cities that would take into account the quality of life of residents of the new housing estates and the current demographic trends, as shown by the international ESPON SUPER study prepared with the participation of academics from the University of Warsaw.

    Katarzyna Wojnar, Ph.D., Dorota Celińska-Janowicz, Ph.D., Adam Płoszaj, Ph.D., and Magda Grabowska from the EUROREG Centre for European Regional and Local Studies of the University of Warsaw, along with other experts from seven European countries, analyzed the urbanization processes in Europe over the last two decades. Their conclusions and recommendations were published on the website of ESPON, a European observation network financed by the European Commission.


    The most surprising observation from the study is not the constantly progressing urbanization of the continent, but the extremely rapid pace of this process. In the period between 2000 and 2018, as many as 1.25 million hectares of natural, green, and agricultural areas were transformed into built-up areas. 37 percent of this area is covered by industrial and service infrastructure (business parks, shopping centers, offices), 35 percent is a residential area, 17 percent – transport area, 11 percent – city green areas.


    “Our country is in the process of intensive development in terms of building up, in relation to both where we started (making up for the backlog of the Polish People’s Republic) and when compared to the other EU Member States. In the analyzed period of 2000-2018, Poland was the third country in all of the EU in terms of the intensity of the urbanization process. In some areas, especially around the biggest Polish cities, this process reached a pace of over 20 thousand square meters per day,” explains Katarzyna Wojnar, long-standing coordinator of the ESPON National Contact Point.


    The expert emphasizes that Poland differs from almost all other European countries in that its increase in urbanized areas exceeds its population growth rate. In the Mazowieckie, Pomorskie, Wielkopolskie, and Małopolskie Provinces, these processes are happening against the backdrop of a growing population (especially around larger metropolises), but in most other areas of this country, the increase in urbanized areas is occurring despite a decreasing population. As pointed out in ESPON’s report, the area is a limited resource and its development is, as a rule, long-lasting, so for areas with a decreasing population, it would be advisable not only to reduce the pace of creating new urbanized areas but even to go as far as to renaturalize some already built-up areas.


    “To put it bluntly, we are building flats much faster than we actually move into them and in areas where they shouldn’t be built at all. This is mainly due to the lack of a well-thought-out, long-term concept of spatial development in Polish cities that would reflect the demographic transformations,” indicates Katarzyna Wojnar. “For years, many urban planners have been calling to adopt a polycentric urbanization model that would allow us to avoid the uncontrolled growth of mega-cities, and to do new projects taking into consideration the social interests of their future residents,” she adds.  


    As the researcher points out, in Sweden about 75 percent of land belongs to the state, and the activities of developers are subject to licensing, with such aspects as the distance of the future buildings from existing schools and kindergartens, cultural institutions, and public transport being taken into account. In addition, a special role is assigned thereto the preservation of ecological corridors and access to green areas. Meanwhile, in Poland, everything is decided by the market, which, according to the University of Warsaw expert, takes control over the urbanization process from the public authorities.


    “Eventually, the price will be paid by the residents of new districts, who will have no alternative to car transport and no access to public infrastructure. That’s why it’s so important for urban planners, local government authorities, and central authorities to sit down and talk about the vision of the development of Polish cities and the selection of optimal tools to implement it, as described in ESPON’s study,” said Katarzyna Wojnar.


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