Spirits of diversity

Tauron Nowa Muzyka Festival in Katowice. Photo Credit: Radosław Kaźmierczak
In the economic success story that is modern Poland, its many urban centres are the country’s lifeblood – and they are spreading a message of openness and tolerance. 

Poland is generally regarded as having had more than its fair share of bad luck down the centuries, the last 30 years notwithstanding. In at least one significant respect, however, the country is naturally fortuitous: it has several large cities spread fairly evenly around the country. “Polish space – if I can put it like that – is one of the best socio-economic spaces in Europe,” says Grzegorz Gorzelak, Professor of Regional and Local Government at the University of Warsaw. “There are many large and medium-sized cities – it’s a positive historical heritage,” he continues. (The vagaries of Poland’s past are exemplified in his next comment: “We lost Vilnius and Lwów, of course, but we gained Szczecin, Poznań and Wrocław,” referring to the redrawing of the national borders at the end of WWII.)

No one city dominates, says the professor, in the way that Budapest and Prague are dominant in Hungary and The Czech Republic. Warsaw has the 3rd lowest population share for a capital city in the EU relative to the national population after Berlin and Rome, at 8.7% of the population. In contrast, Prague has a 24.2% share while Budapest has 30%. In fact, the Warsaw metropolitan area has a population, at 3.1m, not much bigger than the Katowice conurbation of about 2.5m.

This network of large urban centres has been the backbone of the country’s economic transformation in the last three decades, says Professor Witold Orłowski, Chief Economic Advisor to international consultancy PwC: “Twelve Polish metropolitan areas are inhabited by 42% of Poland’s population, produce around 60% of GDP, host 89 out of 100 best Polish academic institutions, and are where roughly 75% of Poles with higher education live.” The result has been a renaissance of city life in Poland since the end of communism and especially since accession to the EU in 2004, arguably without parallel anywhere else in the world – a rebirth which has drawn businesses, visitors and students from around the globe. Whereas even 10 or so years ago it was relatively rare to hear a foreign language spoken in streets or restaurants in Poland, even in large cities such as Warsaw, Poznań or Wrocław, it’s now a common part of life. “I was sitting in a cafe in Rzeszów last week,” said one Polish businessman recently, “and I heard Spanish, French and German being spoken. I was thinking ‘what are they doing in Rzeszów in the winter?’” Comments such as this are regularly shared amongst Poles, illustrating that it is still a new phenomenon which causes surprise, tinged even with an element of disbelief, such is the speed at which this has happened.

Faith in city authorities

Cities have been successful in another important way: trust. City and municipal authorities are trusted more than any other institution in Poland, says Professor Gorzelak, a statement backed up by figures from social opinion research centre CBOS, whose 2018 survey found that 65% of respondents trust their local authority, 5 points ahead of the second most trusted institution, the Presidency, at 60%. In contrast, 53% trust the EU, 44% trust the government and 34% trust Parliament.

“In the same way that Poland is lucky with its cities, it’s also lucky with its mayors,” says Professor Gorzelak. Wiktor Doktor, President of Pro Progressio, an organisation which supports the growth of entrepreneurship in Poland, particularly in the modern business services sector, agrees. “We have wonderful city mayors,” he says. “My favourites are Hanna Zdanowska of Łódź and Krzysztof Matyjaszczyk of Częstochowa. The mayors are usually supported by excellent teams from the investor support offices which promote the cities and attract investors.” The success of these teams over the last few years has contributed to a business boom in the cities which shows no signs of abating: “In Q1 2018, a total of 1,236 (Polish and foreign) BPO, SSC, IT and R&D services centres were operating in Poland, employing a total of 279,000 people,” states the latest annual report by ABSL, an association of business services leaders based in Poland, entitled ‘Business services sector in Poland 2018.’ “Of the 831 companies with their own services centres, 10% (83 investors) were Fortune Global 500 companies in 2017. In the period from the beginning of Q1 2017 to the end of Q1 2018, 91 new services centres began their operations, of which 20 were launched in 2018. As every year, foreign centres dominated the new investment category (86%). The share of the three largest business services locations: Kraków, Warsaw and Wrocław (Tier 1 cities in terms of employment in the sector and its maturity) in the number of new centres was 40%, much like the share of Tier 2 locations (Tri-City, Katowice Agglomeration, Łódź, Poznań). Other new investments (20%) were placed in Tier 3 cities (Bydgoszcz, Lublin, Rzeszów, Szczecin) and others (Tier 4).”

Bastions of openness and tolerance

This influx of international companies, complemented by a growth in the strength and confidence of domestic Polish and local businesses, is supporting not only the local economies of the cities in the form of increased demand for things such as restaurants and private schools, but is also contributing to flourishing cultural and arts scenes. With quality of life increasingly a major factor in attracting businesses, skilled employees and university students, the importance of ‘livability’ is an important element not lost on city authorities. Added to the mix is the rise in influence of local voices, individually and through citizens’ groups. “Our vision (for the development of the city) was inspired by the citizens of Wrocław,” says Mayor Jacek Sutryk. “In 2016 we asked them what priorities the city should have over the next 10 years and the results were as follows: a pro-ecological policy, including better air protection and increased green areas, revitalisation of degraded areas of the city, developing public transport and supporting local entrepreneurship.” Wrocław, says Mayor Sutryk, is a unique city: “Here everyone is from somewhere else. Residents who settled in Wrocław after WWII had to build a city from scratch. Not only the buildings but also its identity. The wisdom of Wrocław results from these difficult experiments.”

A spirit of tolerance and diversity is something that most cities openly encourage and espouse. “We will continue to focus on openness,” says the mayor of Poznań, Jacek Jaśkowiak. “Poznań must be friendly and tolerant – it must be a city for everyone, regardless of gender, origin, colour, religion or sexual orientation.”

With Polish cities being so forward-thinking and open, and with there being so many of them, it raises the question of why the country as a whole has tilted in a more conservative direction of late. This, says Professor Orłowski, is partly down to population spread: “It’s normal that urban populations are more liberal-minded, entrepreneurial, progressive and open to the world than rural ones,” he says, “with obvious results for political preferences. Poland, however, is different from the majority of Western countries in that rural areas are populated by 40% of the population, in contrast to The Czech Republic with 26%, Germany with 23%, France with 19% and the USA and UK with 17%.  Therefore, the political impact is stronger in Poland”.

This spirit of openness and tolerance is most poignant in Gdańsk, which is still reeling from the senseless murder of its mayor, Paweł Adamowicz. The acting mayor, Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, reinforces the city’s values with a mix of passion and defiance – but also of burning ambition: “(We stand for an) open Gdańsk. A city that will look after everyone, where everyone – from a child to a senior citizen – will feel good. It is not only about the social aspect, but also about investments that serve everyone. In the previous campaign under Paweł Adamowicz we talked about the city of our dreams – a city that will move from the first league to the champions league of European cities. This is the dream and the goal we pursue.”

On Gdańsk’s doorstep is Gdynia, and its proximity to its neighbour – and Sopot – is something the city is not shy about emphasising. “We offer all the pleasures of living in a very big city while remaining a compact city that is extremely comfortable to live, walk or spend leisure and holiday time in,” says Mayor Wojciech Szczurek. Ambition is a trait they unselfconsciously share with their larger neighbour. “We are a mid-sized city but our ambition is like that of a big city,” he states, adding that 90% of Gdynia citizens are happy with their quality of life – the highest figure in the country.

Post-industrial transformation

Two cities which have transformed themselves over the last decade, and which share a strong post-industrial heritage, are Katowice and Łódź. Katowice is the capital of one of the largest and most dynamically-developing agglomerations in Europe. Its aspirations are exemplified by its modern International Congress Centre, the largest in the country, which regularly plays host to major international events, most recently COP 24. Katowice is also proud of its new cultural attractions, the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra concert hall and the Silesian Museum, which, like the congress centre, were built on former industrial land. “Together, these investments form the largest cultural zone in Poland. They have a very significant impact on building the Katowice brand,” says Mayor Marcin Krupa.

Łódź points to the fact that several major office and mixed-use developers have recently invested as evidence of the potential in the city, developers such as Ghelamco, Echo Investment, HB Reavis, Skanska and MMG. “Commercial developers believe in Łódź because they see that we consistently implement our growth strategy to make Łódź a beautiful city and a great place to live in,” says Mayor Hanna Zdanowska. One of those companies, Echo Investment, has demonstrated its faith in the future not only of Łódź where it has just announced a major new revitalisation on the site of the 8-hectare site of the former factory of 19th century industrialist and textile manufacturer Karol Scheibler but of several Polish cities, committing to the development of over 250,000 sqm of office space in Warsaw, Wrocław and Kraków having already developed a significant amount of office and retail space in Katowice. “I think that in the larger cities, broadly speaking, it’s the expansion of international companies driving demand, and in the smaller cities, it’s Polish companies,” says Rafał Mazurczak,  a board member of the company responsible for the office department. “Our recent leasing transactions have shown big international brands wanting space for 1000 desks or more.”

The Cavatina Group is another developer committing to the future of Polish cities. The company will deliver 75,000 sqm of office space to the Warsaw, Kraków and Wrocław markets in 2019 and launch new multi-functional projects in Katowice, Bielsko-Białą and Gdańsk totalling over 150,000 sqm. By 2022 they expect to deliver around half a million sqm.

It goes without saying that not everything is perfect for Polish cities. Some are doing better than others. Issues such as depopulation and suburbanization are a problem for many. The increasing strain on urban transportation systems is another. Other positives also have their downsides. The improbably low urban unemployment rates mean there is a lack of qualified talent an issue facing companies large and small, international and domestic, on a daily basis. However, with the government’s messaging to the outside world questionable at best, it’s true to say that most cities in Poland are playing an outsized role in projecting an image of the country that is modern, vibrant, open and welcoming to all.

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Written by: Richard Stephens