For some reason, people find it much more enjoyable to work outside of the system – to break new ground. Guerrilla gardening is more fun than applying for grants to implement a project and operating within specific bureaucratic structures. And this fact, it seems to me, should be used wisely.[1]

The clash between self-organization and top-down driving force is like an eternal game of cat and mouse. The tension generated and driven during this game enables activities to take place in the cracks of the system, and then the alternative smoothly transitions into the mainstream. It is creative but also limiting because grassroots movements that seek to redefine the city struggle with bureaucracy and face administrative and economic hurdles. They often have more enthusiasm, ideas and willingness than they have financial capabilities. They notice and address newly emerging needs, and this requires persistence and faith. Thanks to these qualities, they provide residents with a solid lesson in citizenship and materialize the idea of a truly good city.


Grassroots activities are characterized by responsiveness, which in turn inclines them towards temporariness or ephemerality: there is a crisis, there is a need, there is an idea – let’s act on it now! We’ll see what happens next. Such a premise opens many doors, provides spaces that would otherwise be impossible or too expensive to rent, but it does so under certain conditions: you have to bear in mind the lack of stability, the uncertainty regarding the possible extension of the contract, the awareness of being in the given place only “for a while”, and the fear of investing. Many initiatives for the temporary use of space do not want to identify themselves with that term as they do not want to be considered temporary; often, they have been operating in a given place for years. Supporters of neoliberal urban policy, however, consider even the long-term and socially established grassroots use of prime-location or expensive plots as temporary or transitory: something which happens before the “real function” appears. Having said that, criticism of the domination of economic considerations is mounting; then again, it tends to lead to temporary users being exploited by city authorities and developers as a “means to an end” rather than as a proper alternative solution.[2] Researchers who study this kind of space management strategy pay particular attention to the unequal distribution of power and maintaining the state of precariousness.[3] The owners of land benefit from the cultural capital created by temporary users, but these users are not adequately rewarded for their contribution, including improving the public image and economic value of a given space.[4] Despite these adversities, three examples of self-organization in Warsaw, on the basis of which I will conduct my reflections, show that the durability of grassroots activities goes beyond the aspirations of individuals, and the prospects of long-term socio-spatial effects and collective benefits is enough to enter this unequal battle.

Plac Nowego Sąsiedztwa (New Neighbourhood Square), Komuna Warszawa (Warsaw Commune), Otwarty Jazdów (Open Jazdów): these are three different initiatives that share similar beliefs and locations. All of them are linked to Warsaw’s downtown, and all are in densely built-up, sometimes hyper-gentrified spaces where the business-oriented approach towards urban planning still triumphs. All three are working in opposition to this excessively scaled and overly posh district, which at times is functionally and socially exclusive. Their efforts to diversify and to green the city impact the sharing of the Śródmieście’s (downtown) space. They spring from non-governmental organizations’ many years of experience and studying the city. Thanks to these initiatives, the demands discussed at conferences and debates about the city for all actually come true.


There is a deficit of places in the city where you could come with an idea, materialize it, and see if it works. The city’s laboratory is open to trial and error because it develops itself through the proliferation of ideas and by trial and error, without a top-down plan. It considers testing and prototyping to be a logical step in community building and place-building, as these tools allow for the conscious implementation of assumptions developed by consensus, and, if necessary, for their modification. Here experimental ideas can be put into action by young artists and scientists who – in cooperation with Otwarty Jazdów and Komuna Warszawa, among others – implement their diploma theses, conduct their research, and carry out art projects. Using the created innovations while being open to changes makes the city’s laboratories flexible and cable of adapting to changing conditions.

Another example of an urban prototype is Plac Nowego Sąsiedztwa (New Neighbourhood Square),[5] which features spatial and performative activities that build awareness around urban neighbourhoods. This project materialized in the form of the removal of the paving stones from a forty-square-meter section of Plac Defilad (Parade Square) and the planting of three hundred and fifty plants in this granite gap – this is how a model and visualization of Central Square was developed[6] The creators of New Neighbourhood Square undertook subversive action in a space considered sacred; they made a strong gesture in a conflict-prone place about which everyone has their own opinion. Easy access to the effects of their actions was important for architects and decision-makers because it provided insight into social reactions at an early stage of project implementation. It was used to communicate changes to future users of Plac Centralny (Central Square), and it is difficult to imagine a more explicit corporeal message. Warsaw residents could feel the coming change for themselves – the scent, the cold emanating from the earth and from the plants – and they were able to meet the new inhabitants of the square. The combination of prototype and provocation resulted in the creation of a “provotype”[7], a contribution to discussion and reflection.

We did not put up any extraordinary structures or outdoor exhibitions there; instead, it was a rather simple, compact gesture that could be repeated and multiplied in various similar conditions, but at the same time it carried a lot of power and revealed a different reality. […] We are used to the image of a concrete city centre, and putting in front of our eyes such a picture frame with a completely different space, a different reality, shows us that it is conceivable, that we can desire it, demand it, dream about it, that we need it, and that it is actually possible.[8]

Plac Nowego Sąsiedztwa refers directly to the target implementation – the concrete slabs were removed from the location of the future flowerbed, and the flowerbed will ultimately fill the gap during the implementation of the project. In this way, the status of the introduced greenery will change: from an acupunctural intervention of sorts – from an artistic action – it will turn into part of the ecosystem of Central Square. The prototyping afforded an opportunity to test how a specific activity actually functions (also in the technical aspect) and made it possible to draw conclusions and rectify assumptions. Unfortunately, this kind of working with the city is difficult to implement in Poland; people are nervous at the thought of spending public funds on the preparatory stage of an urban investment project, which is why it is difficult to manage it from above. The temporary development of Bankowy Square in Warsaw in 2019 was judged harshly by public opinion and the media, and anecdotes about the project’s failure are circulating to this day.

Grant competitions offer support for non-governmental organizations in the implementation of projects preparing future urban investment schemes, as mentioned by Bogna Świątkowska. Since they offer honest cooperation, I see them as an opportunity to use the potential and experience of people working with the city and the space, to propose some form of pre-runs or previews, and, as a result, to prepare residents for future change.


An important contribution of each of the discussed self-organizations is the introduction of new topics into the discussion. Social debate seems to be an invigorating idea in the reality of defective and limited procedures for involving citizens in public life and in decision-making. Traditional participation schemes, including public consultations, panels, and citizen budgets, are intended to involve residents in decision-making processes, but only on the terms set by the authorities. Determining clear and unambiguous ways and forms of implementing participatory involvement risks weakening spontaneous, democratic grassroots actions. Moreover, “civic participation procedures are embedded in the coherent system of neoliberal society, and they legitimize the democratic dimension of public sector decisions – which is in fact done in the interest of market solutions”.[9] The materialization of ideas and the practice of a specific way of thinking influence the conversation and take it to another level, where it is supported by hard evidence that can be seen, touched, and examined. The effects of prototypes can be a bargaining chip in negotiations, but acting in the name of important, necessary issues builds public opinion and propels this world forward.

The question is often asked: how to develop a city? This topic concerns all residents; when discussed by non-governmental organizations and activists, it provides an opportunity for greater pluralism in the urban debate. What could a city centre be? What is it that makes a city good? How to design it? Finding solutions is particularly important for Warsaw’s self-organizations because their presence in specific locations is tantamount to being in the centre of attention. They spark discussion because they question the laws that rule the world – and by the world I mean the neoliberal city. Komuna Warszawa and Otwarty Jazdów operate on a social and grassroots basis in places with huge economic potential. The sky-high price of land puts their users in a challenging situation.

The history of Open Jazdów dates back to 2011, when a heated discussion swept through the city concerning the liquidation of the Finnish cottages estate established in 1945. Some of the houses had already been demolished, and the Śródmieście (downtown) district authorities planned to earmark the area for public infrastructure and commercial development. In order to complete the plan, the inhabitants had to be evicted, and since the houses were municipal property, replacement flats were proposed. At some point, the negotiators resorted to methods that were coercive and not necessarily fair,[10] which led some residents to give up (“not everyone was ready to die for Jazdów”[11]), while it mobilized others to fight. The defence of Jazdów – of its cultural, architectural, urban and natural heritage – had begun. Others got involved: activists, the Finnish ambassador Jari Vilén, the media, and the people of Warsaw. The grassroots initiation of cultural activities in this area in 2013 (Open Jazdów Festival) turned the place – previously known to only a handful of people – into a citywide affair. A change in the scale of impact saved Jazdów, but the area is still not legally protected against diversion and sale, or against reconstruction dictated by a change in political agenda.

Komuna Warszawa was not founded around a specific location, but it was looking for a place of its own. It started in Otwock as Komuna Otwock (1989); it then had an episode of rural life in a pre-war school in Ponurzyca (1995–1999), after which several years of its activity (2007–2019) took place at Lubelska Street in Warsaw’s Praga district.[12] These activists were subsequently forced to change their location again due to the threat of a structural failure, and so Komuna found itself on Emilii Plater street, in the building of a closed-down school, and at the same time in the centre of discussions about the future of this area. There was a plan to build two skyscrapers there, but at the request of the Miasto jest Nasze (The City is Ours) association,[13] the voivode repealed the local development plan for Śródmieście Południowe.[14] Currently, it will be even more difficult to build skyscrapers because the former educational buildings are now listed monuments: they have been entered into the register of the Capital-city Monument Conservation Authority. Alina Gałązka explained to me the confusion surrounding investment plans on this plot:

This plot of land is worth two hundred million [zloty]. This constitutes a limitation, and some in the local government administration are still thinking about selling it and snatching that two hundred million. Still others wonder if they might not sell the plot but build a municipal facility here instead. Others believe that they could put some institution – not necessarily a cultural one – in this location or build apartment blocks because there is a shortage of apartments. And so on, and so forth. There are many different kinds of ideas. And so we want to convince the city that there is this other school that they can do whatever they wish with and still leave room here for such a residential centre. Our chances are not great, but they are not inexistent.[15]

Considerations on how to design a city are inextricably linked to greenery in that city. Aleksandra Litorowicz considers “greenery over concrete” to be an important goal of the project, even the paradigm for urban activities.[16] Residents’ awareness is growing, year by year: “we have all become anti-concrete detectives who ridicule the new school of revitalization of town squares throughout Poland: all concrete, with a multimedia fountain, and cutting down trees”.[17]

The trajectory of public acceptance and promotion of concrete stripping seems interesting. In 2020, the removal of paving from the sidewalk at Stalowa Street in Warsaw[18] received widespread attention and was considered an act of civil disobedience by gardening guerrillas; three years have passed since then and Zarząd Zieleni Miejskiej (City Greenery Authority) now publishes statistics on the number of square meters of concrete slabs that have been removed as part of the implementation of participatory budget projects.[19] Plac Nowego Sąsiedztwa addressed the issues of greenery in the most explicit, artistic and performative way:

And in our case, literally, it was greenery growing out of this gap in the concrete, in the granite slabs, as a simply essential and necessary way – not just a way, I don’t know, a good way, a subjectively good way, an interesting way, or a needed way, but a NECESSARY way of designing the city. We must remove concrete from our public spaces.[20]

The launch of the Plac Pięciu Rogów (Five Corners Square) raised the temperature of the debate on city design and greenery in the city. It coincided with the inauguration of Plac Nowego Sąsiedztwa (New Neighbourhood Square). Residents of Warsaw did not take a liking to the place – it was loathed by the public. A sharp dichotomy was created between two projects: the gesture of greening the concrete square versus the insufficient amount – in many people’s opinion – ­of greenery in the newly implemented project. The goal of the creators of Plac Nowego Sąsiedztwa was to prove that stripping the concrete slabs “is a normal urban practice, and that in our times we should rethink this for the sake of water retention and for our mental and physical health. That we simply need to take this concrete off wherever we can, in every way possible”.[21]

The conversation about shaping cities also touches on the topic of their inhabitants, on neighbourliness in the city, and on the need to expand the scope of our vision to include refugees. Their increased numbers, caused by the war in Ukraine, and therefore their more visible presence has mobilized all of the discussed initiatives to engage in aid activities (including the implementation of Ukrainian artistic projects at Komuna Warszawa, accommodating over a hundred people in Jazdów at the time of the greatest housing crisis, walks and workshops with the Ukrainian community within Plac Nowego Sąsiedztwa). And yet, urban neighbourliness can be considered on many levels:

And so our proposal, on the one hand, was created with these refugee people in mind – people who simply used this space every day; on the other hand, this new neighbourliness concerned our new understanding of neighbourhoods in general, in a city which takes into account the multi-species perspective and the fact that we are neighbours with all living organisms.[22]

Talking about the city from the multi-species perspective results in expanding our thinking about urban greenery – taking it into account in the design of public space. It also prompts reflection on who we are and who lives around us, and how to build relationships with other city users. The construction of New Neighbourhood Square made it possible to observe the impact of the newly created flower bed and hydro-botanical pots on the appearance of new human and non-human neighbours, and their presence was the subject of debates and workshops organized as part of the project.

Open Jazdów is a true laboratory of neighbourliness, a community of residents and many non-governmental organizations. The “people from different stories”[23] there know each other; they talk to each other, but they also argue. Non-human neighbours also inhabit the estate: over the years, a space has been created which is exceptionally bio-diverse for a city centre. More bird species live here than in any of the Warsaw’s parks. They were tempted by this part of the city because it was “edible” – residents used to grow edible plants, and community gardens continue this tradition.

The discussed grassroots initiatives added new issues to the debate that they keep on implementing: the issues of citizenship and residents’ possible reactions to what is happening in the city. From the very beginning, Komuna Warszawa in particular set itself the goal of “strengthening such a critical attitude and social self-organization, self-development, i.e., strengthening faith. […] People think that they need a great deal around them to do something, and we try to show them that, no, it doesn’t take all that much”.[24] Social mobilization for action and inspiration for activism will suffice. Moreover, Komuna Warszawa and Otwarty Jazdów use new forms of management. Collective management/co-management provides previously unexplored opportunities for participation and talking about the common good and property ownership in general.


Each of the described initiatives needed to cooperate with the authorities in order to exist: all three operate on plots belonging to the capital city of Warsaw, and all of them have used or still use some form of public financing. This close relationship basically amounts to dependence on the favour of specific city officials and political parties. In order to maintain good rapport with the city authorities, non-governmental organizations and social activists must be aware of the need to comply with the law so as not to give anyone an excuse to terminate the contract. Interestingly, this relationship is problematic for both parties. Officials are worried about potential decision-making and investment blocks and administrative innovations proposed by self-organization schemes because that would mean a loss or limitation of control and going beyond the structured functioning system. Agreeing to something or establishing principles of operation with one organization may awaken the desire in other initiatives to replicate the model, and then the government would have to go beyond its comfort zone and change the law. Officials defend themselves against setting in motion such a complex and yet not-so-well-oiled machine.

Lauren Andres from the Bartlett School of Planning in London describes the tension between grassroots initiatives and city authorities as a contrast between weak planning versus master planning, and between place shaping versus place making.[25] The phenomenon of weak planning includes temporary use, which is becoming more prevalent in times of crisis: the number of vacancies is increasing, tenants’ economic opportunities are limited, and there is no public money to meet socio-cultural needs, so they have to be met from the bottom up. Temporality blurs the boundaries between formal and informal activities and assumes a defensive, flexible, innovative and bottom-up approach that is independent of the market situation. Top-down planning based on durability, stability, linearity and control[26] is inherently aggressive and lacks the ability to react quickly. When the investment activities of the city and real estate developers are suspended, the power and the ability to shape the space fall into the hands of temporary users.[27] If temporary place-making arouses sufficient interest among residents and authorities in the area, if it provides credible ideas for the development of that place, it will probably be absorbed into top-down planning. Tensions and conflicts arise when power shifts towards formal decision-makers from users who are shaping a place.

The functioning of self-organization in the political and administrative system involves constant polemics and endless negotiations. Komuna Warszawa obtained consent to rent the building and the school yard after the city mayor intervened: first for a short term, then for three years, and for five years (until 2027). The members of the organization are happy with this decision and consider it a statement of trust, but they would like to stay there longer:

If we are to take out loans, or if we are to really get EU money for further renovations here, we must have a ten-year lease. Nobody will simply give us anything without such long-term contracts. And this, I don’t know if it is possible, but maybe it is. […] All sorts of things are possible.[28]

Alina Gałązka touched on the typical problem of short leases and temporariness in general: it is impossible to plan, to invest; there is no stability. Power relations in such arrangements are unequal; the framework of activities is always determined by their promoter. Thinking about spatial interventions in terms of end users seems to be a form of rhetoric of domination that is supposed to divide functions into “better” and “worse” ones, which implicitly means more lucrative ones and less lucrative ones. If we look at space management more broadly, it turns out that there are no end users. There are only temporary users, because we all die someday.

The relations between Open Jazdów and the local government are interesting; sometimes their temperature rises. In 2013, the Municipal Council of the Capital City of Warsaw adopted a resolution according to which public consultations may be held at the request of residents. Later that year, the Jazdów community took advantage of the new law: they collected over two thousand signatures, and consultations were held in 2014.[29] “The consultation participants indicated that Jazdów should be allocated for educational, cultural and social activities by non-governmental organizations, informal groups, universities, cultural institutions and local government representatives”.[30] Open Jazdów was a huge success: residents accepted a place created from grassroots and through intervention, and in the public consciousness it even became part of the city’s identity. In 2015, the Warsaw authorities recognized the results of public consultations as binding, but since then, despite repeated requests and mobilization from Otwarty Jazdów, no agreement has been signed that would guarantee the survival of the Jazdów Housing Estate and would include the Open Jazdów Partnership association of associations as a social entity and co-management partner.

The situation escalated in 2022, after the city created the project “Guidelines for the design and cost-estimate documentation for construction projects related to investments in the Housing Estate”. In practice, this meant a top-down planned renovation of the Finnish houses. The meeting in October 2022 of the authorities of the Capital City of Warsaw and of the Śródmieście District with representatives of residents and non-governmental organizations operating in the Jazdów Housing Estate inflamed the media: conflicting reports appeared on the information channels of both sides; the city announced success,[31] while activists raised alarm:

We are deeply concerned about the entire process as well as the communication style, about reactions or lack of reactions to our questions and comments regarding Jazdów and its future. We expect a partnership model of collaboration regarding the future of the Jazdów Housing Estate, and we demand respect for the social processes going on in the place, to which we – as residents of Warsaw and as NGOs – have been devoting a lot of time and energy for many years.[32]

Public pressure led to a change of plans and the creation of a working group that involves the Partnership and is dedicated to developing the project. The city will renovate three vacant houses, but at the same time it has announced a tender for the renovation of the infrastructure. According to representatives of Otwarty Jazdów, this is a hasty decision due to, among other things, the lack of a local development plan that would describe the guidelines and the framework for permitted changes. Moreover, the planned renovation does not take into account the potential development of the estate, which may in the future make it difficult, for example, to rebuild the demolished houses or to erect installations in their place that would commemorate their existence, while complementing the urban layout, which has been listed in the register of monuments. The sequence of planned interventions and administrative actions seems wrong. According to Mateusz Potempski, it was forced by politics related to the upcoming elections and the need to announce a quick success.[33] The agreement has been talked about for eight years, but for reasons unknown to the public, and fully dependent on the city and district authorities, it has still not been signed.

The value of the described activities of each initiative is largely due to the persistence of the activists and their belief in the need for – indeed, necessity of – cooperation. Being offended and refusing to speak to the city and its officials is not constructive in the long run. Seeking consensus and building trust and relationships translates into collective supra-individual benefits. After all, “in […] the world that we want to live in, there is nothing shameful about a city being successful”.[34]


Capturing the essence of success and understanding the sustainability of fundamentally non-profit social initiatives is not an easy task. The results of their activities – notoriously difficult to measure, and often ephemeral – resist operationalization. However, based on the conversations and interviews I conducted, three areas of effects can be distinguished that are helpful in understanding the value of the discussed self-organizations and their contribution to building a better city.

Firstly, spatial change can be successful. Each of my interlocutors mentioned this. It’s about keeping a space in good condition, renovating and restoration, but also improving its quality. The positive impact that grassroots activities make on space that is degraded (Komuna Warszawa), threatened with demolition (Komuna Warszawa, Otwarty Jazdów), or suboptimal in its development and/or functioning (Plac Defilad) is a form of building durability and an opportunity to change the identity of the place, and it has a material influence on its investment future.

Secondly, the measure of success is sensing the moment of change, recognising the potential, and pointing it out. Each of the described initiatives prototypes administrative innovations implemented in the form of real modifications in urban policy and new models of functioning. Komuna Warszawa operates in the mode of a social cultural institution that is pioneering in the context of the whole country;[35] also, it is working on a formula for a residence centre that does not yet exist. Open Jazdów prototypes new participation tools: as part of the research project “Community Management Model for Jazdów Settlement”,[36] it created a “Draft resolution on the development strategy for the Jazdów Settlement in Warsaw” that is ready for signing.[37] Plac Nowego Sąsiedztwa was realized only thanks to a rare collaboration between many actors – institutional, non-governmental, and business – in order to conduct a gardening guerrilla scheme in one of the most famous Polish squares. Thirdly, success is creating a continuum – communicating to others what you have done. This may be literally handing over a building or operating organization, or it might be implementing the above-mentioned modifications in urban policy to make it easier for subsequent similar initiatives, but success is also an inspiration to act. “A good practice example” is the best form of empowerment and motivation. It encourages us “to imagine a better city”.[38]