Many little centres

Urban planning
Modern metropolises are too big to have just one centre. In the ideal city, functions are shared by regions and districts. and they are varied – right down to the level of residential estates. Such a city has a better standard of living for its residents along with reduced transport costs and emissions

How much time we spend travelling has a direct impact on the quality of our lives. Most people around the world travel about 70 minutes per day, mainly to and from work. Other reasons could include for entertainment purposes, visiting the doctor, study or doing the shopping. But a well-designed city shortens these journeys.

Different districts will naturally vary in character to each other. Sometimes they are dominated by offices or residential estates. However, each should have whatever residents require on an everyday basis. They need shopping centres and services, greenery and areas for recreation, educational institutions, medical facilities and cultural centres. What we need to do every day, we should be able to do just a few steps from our homes or our work. “The days are over when you would go have to the city centre for a coffee or to the cinema. These kinds of services should be available in every district,” declared Marlena Happach, an urban planner and director of architecture and spatial planning for the city of Warsaw, in answer to a question posed by a Eurobuild reader about the development of a polycentric Warsaw at the most recent MIPIM fair in Cannes.

She also stressed the role of the developer in creating such a city: “Developers are starting to think more in a large city-forming way about the design and arrangement of the space around their buildings. A better Warsaw is now being built due to the city’s policies and plans, as well as through increased awareness and working with developers,” pointed out Marlena Happach.

The basis of the ideal

What does the development of a polycentric city actually mean in practice? Occasionally, a unique opportunity arises to create the ideal district in a city and the first stage of such projects is entrusted to urban planners and architects. One example is Nowe Żerniki in Wrocław, where the city, in partnership with the Lower-Silesian Chamber of Architects and the Wrocław office of SARP, drew up the plans for a model residential estate. This included schools, kindergartens and housing for the elderly. Churches and cultural centres were planned for the 40 ha site owned by the city. There was even space for a park and green areas. Private developers are to be responsible for gradually developing the individual plots.

Nowe Miasto in Kraków is another new urbanisation project on a gigantic scale. The estate, in the city’s Płaszów-Rybitwy district, is to be built as a city within a city. The intriguing thing about it, though, is not only the scale of the venture – on an area of over 650 ha – but also that high-rise buildings of 90–150m are to be built in the centre of the development. “The concept and the design were prepared by the spatial planning department of the city of Kraków,” reveals Jerzy Muzyk, the deputy mayor of Kraków responsible for sustainable development. “The urban design plan covers an area of 677 ha and has been drawn up in line with sustainable development principles. It precisely sets out which functions are possible and maintains an optimal balance between development sites and green areas,” he explains.

According to the city’s authorities, a mixed-use residential and service centre is to be built along the main east-west axis and along its edges, as well as public, cultural and sporting buildings. The plans also include a 50 ha park, green areas between the buildings and public squares. “Once the final version of the plan has been accepted by the city council it will be written into the city’s by-laws. enabling work to begin on a range of both public and private developments,” says Jerzy Muzyk. According to the schedule for drawing up the spatial plan, it should be completed by Q3 this year.

Districts with corrections

Whenever sites and functions are neglected in an urban environment, there is always scope for improvements to the fabric of the city. A single development on its own can be even be enough to rejuvenate entire districts and create new local centres. These can include city projects, such as the planned Sinfonia Warszawa building in Warsaw’s Praga-Południe district, or retail projects, such as large shopping centres and retail parks.

In densely built-up cities, such changes often involve the renovation and conversion of single buildings or former industrial sites. The functions that residents lacked can then be incorporated into both the public and commercial space. Successful conversions are not just attractive to local visitors – as has been the case with the Manufaktura centre in Łódź and the Norblin Factory development in Warsaw, the latter of which opened last year. “Developments like Centrum Praskie Koneser, Elektrownia Powiśle and Browary Warszawskie required a large number of permits and decisions,” explained Marlena Happach. “All of these projects were developed in collaboration with the city, its architecture and spatial planning departments, and the monument conservation department. This can take several years. However, the investors were all commercially successful: these developments attract clients, tenants, residents and tourists. The developers have salvaged, restored and modernised historic complexes and added new buildings to them. They have filled in gaps in the city with their investments, creating new squares and streets and opening them up to the city,” she added.

The larger the area, the more work and time that is required. The redevelopment of the Gdańsk Shipyard site, which involves retaining the historic buildings as part of the Młode Miasto city-forming project, has been ongoing since the 90s. Although further developments are to be built in later stages, including offices, recreational facilities and residences, the concept is continually being amended to a greater or lesser degree. The development of Młode Miasto is currently being supervised by the stakeholder council of Młode Miasto and Polski Hak, which was set up in 2021 and includes investors, the Polish state, the city council, NGOs and community organisations. By working together, projects are to be built that take into account the needs of everyone – from the investors to the residents.

Working well together

As Marlena Happach pointed out, developers sometimes go further than their typical activities. “One example is the Warszawa Zacisze-Wilno station, a project by Dom Development, the developer of the neighbouring residential estate, where there are also small squares and friendly public spaces. Such activities undertaken on both a small and a large scale make a contribution to the development of a polycentric Warsaw,” said the city’s architect. Collaboration that takes into account both the commercial aspects of a project and the more general needs of the city has also been made possible through the special residential acts that were passed in 2019. An Echo Investment project developed in Warsaw’s office-dominated Służewiec district is one example of this. The company applied for permission from the city council to build residences, which was not permitted under the current city plan. “The special residential acts allow for a quick reaction to the city’s needs. They represent a good tool for shaping the spatial order. Contrary to popular opinion, they do not give developers a free hand – but they make local law and decisions more precise, while the entire process is totally transparent and places the responsibility on the developer to invest in local communities,” explains Małgorzata Turek, the board member responsible for investment at Echo Investment.

After negotiating and cooperating with the city, Echo Investment added a state school to the project and extensive green areas. “The council’s approval for our project in Służewiec was a milestone for investor participation in the creation of public infrastructure on a previously unknown scale. It gives us the opportunity to transform a single dominant-use district into a fully-layered city quarter that will make a significant financial contribution to the city’s budget. We believe that our experience will encourage other investors to develop similar types of projects,” adds the Echo Investment board member.

Brave new world

Initial consultations recently took place over a new spatial planning law that will introduce the concept of a general plan, which will have a mandatory effect on spatial planning. This is a step in the right direction, because it’s hard to make the case for the benefits of a project if it doesn’t meet the needs and the operations of a larger area, such as a district or indeed the entire city. Let’s hope that these new regulations will help to establish much improved urban planning practices.