In the spring of 2020, the renowned Portal Samorządowy (Local Government Portal) organized another edition of their “Top Municipal Investments” competition. Its advisory council was made up of ministers and representatives of eminent institutions. The nominees included the Dębno housing estate, developed by the Kurzętnik municipality. It is undoubtedly commendable that the municipality, through its own investment, creates new opportunities to meet housing needs in areas where real estate developer activity is hardly present.

Before we give our final verdict, however, let us take a closer look at the investment project in question. Its architecture, to put it mildly, “does not bring you to your knees”. In terms of urban planning, it deserves strong criticism – it is situated outside the urbanized area, sandwiched between a sand mine, and some farm buildings. Nearby is the beautifully meandering river Drwęca, an additional argument against this being the right place for a complex of apartment blocks.

So, does this – clearly defective – public investment project really deserve recognition from the members of the advisory council? Of course not, and yet it received such an endorsement. It is a failure of the municipality, which “treated” the inhabitants to such living conditions, but also of us all as a society – even though neither the “experts” awarding the nominations nor the public seem to notice the problem. The biggest losers are the new tenants, ready to settle for living in a substandard location – because they have no comparable offers to choose from, they do not know that they could expect more, and they do not anticipate the problems that living in such location may involve.

If a similar project was implemented by private entrepreneurs, one would typically complain about their unscrupulous drive for profit and the philosophy of “sell and forget”, subject closed. However, this is a public investment. Importantly, it is not an exception, because public investors have produced many more such “mishaps”. When the first project within the framework of the government housing program “Mieszkanie Plus” (a housing estate near Jarocin) was commissioned, information about it featured in all media. No attention was paid to the location of the housing estate and the location of the buildings – crying shame from the point of view of quality of life and climate challenges.

We can and we must demand more from a public investor. After all, they do not operate for profit, but in the public interest – that is, in principle, they are working for the benefit of all. Unfortunately, in order to make that demand, we would first need to have awareness and social control, exercised, for example, by the media. If we had them, we would have a chance to create a certain STANDARD, which could also be a reference point when assessing commercial residential investment projects. Meanwhile, it seems that we collectively participate in a kind of game of make-believe – mediocrity bothers very few people; others are even prone to praise it. In this way, as a society, we greatly reduce our chances for high quality.

A debate leading nowhere

To say that we do not at all value the quality of housing development would be an oversimplification. Recently, the expression “patodeweloperka” (patho-development, pathological or dysfunctional real estate development) has become immensely popular, and a succession of shocking examples of the phenomenon that it defines can be found flagged in social and traditional media. However, these are mostly used to entertain (yes, they often make you laugh out loud) or to relieve righteous exasperation. It is much less often that they give rise to a profounder discussion about their causes; for example, about what mechanisms have been driving the recent pressure to increase the floor to area ratio – wherever the planning guidelines are not precise enough. Does this density of development result from the developers’ lack of scruples and greed, or is it a market process derived from a defective spatial planning system? Since it gives someone the opportunity to significantly “plump up” their investment, the competition forces others to also “squeeze as much out of their plots as possible”. The systemic consent to the chaotic urban sprawl has a similarly destructive effect – the permissibility of the construction of subsequent housing estates in random and scattered suburban locations, often with a dramatically poor spatial structure. The analogy to the “bad money driving out good” comes to mind. The widespread awareness of the problem and the increased media interest therein have not yet led to any significant changes for the better.

On the other hand – paradoxically – the average standard of a housing development has been improving in recent years. In large cities, in the face of competing for clients, more and more developers are paying attention to common spaces between buildings, facilities for pedestrians and bicycles, access to public transport, etc. The number of fences is decreasing, public recreational spaces are being arranged, and numerous housing estates are gaining a block structure with service premises in the ground floors. Often such spatial arrangement results from the local zoning plan, but the fight for clients seems to be a stronger factor. The latter can be measured by the degree of finding one’s place on the market, because significant differences in the approach to the above-mentioned issues are visible even among real estate developers of neighbouring estates, implemented on the basis of the same planning acts. Those more ambitious and/or reliable undoubtedly deserve praise, and it would be desirable for their behaviour to set a new STANDARD. However, we must remember that the process of “improving” a housing product has its limits. On the one hand, it is certainly weakened by the current situation of unsatisfied demand, in which an apartment is primarily an investment of capital and you can sell it without much effort; on the other hand, we cannot naïvely expect that developers will rationally arrange our cities on their own accord, relying solely on market mechanisms. Their area of intervention is generally limited to the building plot. Although recently more and more comprehensive projects have been developed, leading to the construction of large districts (with some benefit to their quality – see for example Wilno Estate in Warsaw’s Targówek district), individual developers will not – we should hope – build or rebuild entire cities.

Longing for the standard

This is where we must return to the subject of public authority. Its action and its endeavours are necessary to ensure that the contribution of new housing developments to the creation of a good city is the norm, rather than an occasional resultant of various factors.

Virtually every discussion in this context uses the slogan “urban standard”; the introduction, or rather the restoration of the latter is suggested by every proposal for reforming the planning system in Poland. And rightly so, although the approach to that standard is probably a bit unrealistic. Older town planners fondly remember it as an element of the times when effective design and implementation of urban guidelines were simpler than they are today; the younger ones idealistically see it as a symbol of the “era of better urban planning”, in which so much space was left between the buildings for greenery that today creative developers often “manage” to squeeze another full-sized block of flats in the middle.  

It is true that in the People’s Republic of Poland there were regulations on the urban planning norm. They were last updated in 1974 and in theory they continued to apply until the mid-1980s. They defined, among other things, standards for furnishing residential areas with technical infrastructure, securing green areas, and ensuring access to various amenities, including public services. The norm lost its relevance completely with the local government reform, and the subsequent adoption of the law on spatial development in 1994. In the completely changed systemic conditions, it was decided that it was no longer necessary to impose anything on the municipal town planners. They would know best, given the specific local conditions, how to determine land development indicators and other principles and parameters of urban planning.

While this approach may appear to be a gross negligence today, back then it was not entirely irrational. All areas based on the professionalism and inventiveness of the designer do not succumb easily to rigid, top-down regulations – and if they are forced to do so, it usually happens to the detriment of the final designing decisions. For example, in complex cases, the technical conditions for buildings tend to be too strict, and they are blocking the implementation of rational ideas, and yet they do not offer protection against substandard solutions, for example in the aspect of daylight exposure.

Lawmakers in the early 1990s made a mistake. They did not foresee the development of the situation, and more specifically, they did not anticipate how the new realities would affect urban planning: that in most cases it would cease to be a sphere of creative activity of a professional project team, but instead it would become an area of non-transparent synthesis of various conditions – legal judgments and interpretations, financial possibilities of the municipality, and often not very transparent agendas and particular interests. In such a system there may not be enough space for state-of-the-art, good-practice design decisions. The difficulty with the resulting local plans concerns not even inappropriate urban planning parameters, but often, instead, it is their limited regulatory importance that is the problem. They do not contain appropriate provisions, or they formulate their guidelines so “loosely” that a stubborn investor will coerce an interpretation that is favourable to him, ruining the original concept on which the local plan was based.

It is not that simple

Therefore, the urban planning standard should undoubtedly be introduced. We do not know whether it will be an easy and obvious procedure, and what its effects will be. Many questions arise. Will all newly constructed residential buildings in Poland fit into the complete urban structure as a result, and will it be the only result? Will there be side effects?

The basic question is what the urban standard should look like. What should its scope and functioning mechanism be? Would it apply uniformly to the territory of the whole country, or would it be differentiated depending on the characteristics of the municipality, type of development, or other parameters specific for the given area? Or perhaps individual municipalities should be allowed to modify the standard (if so, only to tighten it, or also to alleviate it?) or to extend it thematically? Would it apply only to the area without detailed local plans, or would it be binding when those plans are developed?

It turns out that if the legislators wanted to develop an optimal solution – one that would solve as many problems as possible and cause as few complications as possible – then in virtually all of the above issues, each of the options would have its advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps the biggest challenge is related to the correct definition of the substantive scope of the standard, and the manner of its formulation. One can reject in advance the option of using the normative of the People’s Republic of Poland, if only because of the changes in the lifestyle that have occurred over the last fifty years; these changes directly translate into completely different needs in the way that housing complexes are shaped. Translating new needs into regulations will be quite problematic. I will use an example from the times of the Building Law Codification Commission, working on the Urban Planning and Construction Code (in 2013–2014). A group of professionals and masterminds planned to restore the standard, but while trying to formulate it, they came across some obstacles. A set of conditions emerged that did not match the most important development challenges – for example, members of the commission proposed making the permissible number of storeys dependent on the size of the city. As a result of Edward Gierek’s decision, there are eleven-storey blocks of flats in Słubice, with the population of 16 thousand, and they do not seem to have any impact on the urban problems of this city. In any case, the professors from the committee quickly gave up the onerous task, and in the draft of the standards code they only entered a designation to develop and issue standards by regulation. Clearly, the classic “I’ll think about it tomorrow” kind of solution – better still, let someone else think about it, that is, the relevant ministry.

A quality determinant or a barrier?

And yet “urban standards” are something more than a theoretical entity in our legislation. To some extent, they are already operational as part of the infamous “lex developer” act.[1] The structure of the latter leads us to question the remnants of rationality in what is called the spatial planning system in Poland (and which some argue does not even deserve that term). The scope of application of the law is smaller than assumed by its authors, but this does not alleviate its sins. Moreover, many find positive aspects in it today, and derive from it the defective financing mechanism of social infrastructure by real estate developers – which only proves the extent of desperation of local governments who are lacking effective urban planning tools. Urban standards are seen as an undoubtedly positive aspect of the “lex developer” act – and rightly so – but attention should be paid to the way they are used in the application of this act. Typically, municipalities try to oppose the buildings proposed by investors that are inconsistent with local plans. In those cases, statutory urban standards, often additionally tightened by the municipalities, turn out to be a helpful tool: they prevent the construction of undesirable buildings.

And so we are arriving at the heart of the matter. What is the purpose of the urban standards that we are thinking about: to block the construction of new buildings, or to shape them? It seems that introducing the standards as universally applicable would have the same effect as the “lex developer” act: a large part of the planned investment ventures could not be completed. Although real estate development companies evidently abuse this argument in discussions about systemic changes, in this context it is an actual fear that the availability of new housing would decrease, and prices would increase due to the limited supply. Therefore, the standards alone are not enough to heal the situation. Associated legal mechanisms are needed in order to ensure the emergence of new infrastructure. Restoring the urban standard cannot be a one-off, “spot” reform out of context, but it must be aligned with a number of other changes to the system, especially in terms of financing urbanization.

Additionally, when you want to use the standards “in a positive way”, the nuances that could be omitted in the case of “lex developer” will become important. The requirement for access to a public transport stop is seemingly a zero-one variable, but if you evaluate the actual expediency for future residents, you should take into account the range of transport offer from this stop, as well as other issues that are included in the urban primer, but are difficult to translate into the language of a mandatory legal act. For example, if the stop is located at the required distance from a residential building, and the kindergarten is also located at a required distance, but in the opposite direction, then the functionality of such a system for the resident will be limited, despite its being in accordance with the regulations. Common sense should be used in the context of urban planning standards – and this is something that is difficult to achieve when it comes to applying and interpreting generally applicable law. If there is no school at the appropriate distance in a new housing estate, regulations may require its construction even in a situation where just a little further, in another housing estate whose population have already “matured”, and which has good public transport access, there is a school that is only partially used.

In times of chaos and crisis

It is also worth asking ourselves how many new housing estates are we still going to build, because it is for their creation that urban standards seem to be an ideal tool (just as they were during the People’s Republic of Poland). Designing a new housing estate is relatively simple: it is easy to estimate the number of inhabitants and shape the spatial structure adequately, without forgetting any functions required by the standards. If further spatial development (does it really deserve to be called that?) in Poland follows the current dynamics and continues to apply the unchanged formal and qualitative principles – then a lot of new projects will actually be constructed.

The challenges facing us today should, after all, force us to rapidly change the way of thinking about the desired directions of spatial development in our country. Already in 2015, the principle of situating new buildings by supplementing the existing ones was introduced into the planning act. In particular, this should mean the best possible use of developed areas – those that have lost their former functions, as well as those built up haphazardly: temporarily, accidentally, and extensively. It would be impossible to argue that this principle is being consistently implemented at present. The blame lies chiefly with the lingering, perverse mechanism of issuing a “decision on land development conditions” (also known as zoning decisions). However, the lack of consistency does not invalidate the importance of the principle, on the contrary – there are all the more arguments for it. Even though the announced EU regulations limiting the possibility of additional soil sealing have not yet come to pass, some countries, with their actions, have already embarked in this direction, treating it as one of the mechanisms to counteract climate change. Poland, a European laggard in the area of water retention, must also follow this path sooner or later.

Meanwhile, around Polish cities, not only the largest, but also those quite small, “rings of spontaneous suburbanization” are growing – bigger and bigger areas built up haphazardly and with varying intensity. They will not “repair themselves” spontaneously, nor will they become friendly and well-functioning living spaces. The priorities of climate-responsible and economically responsible urban planning in Poland should focus on precisely those areas. Instead of creating new “ideal” housing estates, it is first necessary to take care of such spatial planning that on the one hand would minimize the area intended for land sealing, and on the other hand, would repair the current dysfunctional structure of suburban built environment. It is about functional and environmentally rational filling the gaps in chaotically dispersed buildings, and an attempt to transform them into sensible housing complexes with access to services and efficient public transport connection to central cities. The task seems enormous, and it probably really is so. It is worth making sure that the way the future universal urban standard is formulated does not pose any additional complications – therefore in the case of the areas of “spontaneous suburbanization” it should be sufficiently flexible.

Legislative remedy to cure all evil?

What is the conclusion from the above considerations? There is no doubt that an urban standard is necessary. The philosophy of spatial planning, which boils down to the principle of “each municipality will know best how to shape the spatial order in their area”, unfortunately – as is only evident – did not work. Therefore, apart from the procedures, the regulations must include substantive content safeguarding the guaranteed minimum quality of planning studies. On the other hand, they should be formulated in such a way that the baby is not thrown out with the bathwater. If necessary, they should enable the municipality and the designer using his own knowledge and techniques to flexibly approach the application of at least some elements of the standard. Of course, we need to make sure that this flexibility does not go too far. The statutory expanding of the mechanisms of social participation in the development of planning acts will be useful here.

Indeed. The introduction of the urban standard as an exclusive and self-contained reform of spatial planning will not work. As already indicated, in order for it to bring real and positive change, it must be related to other changes in the spatial planning system, especially in terms of effective financing of urbanization and elimination of uncontrolled development in previously undeveloped areas, but also in terms of rationalization and improvement of planning procedures, broadening the permissible scope of content regulated by local plans, as well as the aforementioned social participation.

At this point, many of you will ask about one more key aspect: what about the existing housing that will not meet the new, universal urban standards? There are certainly many such cases. Would they also be subject to these regulations? Of course, in theory it is possible to formulate such law, but what would it achieve? Wherever the conditions are not met, the local government would have to build the missing schools, kindergartens, widen the streets and sidewalks, launch public transport? Undoubtedly, such legal norm would join the litany of useless laws and generally ignored regulations, and after years of zoning free-for-all and chaotic dispersal of built environment, it would lead to many difficult dilemmas. I do not believe that we are mentally or financially ready, for example, to demolish some of the buildings in a development that is too dense in order to fill the deficit of green areas, although probably, in the future, we could also think about that. Moreover, in some cases an obligation to conform to a rigid standard would be simply unfair. Why should a local community bear the above-standard costs of supplementing the infrastructure for people who consciously decided to live in locations where such infrastructure was missing and where it was never planned in the first place? On the other hand, even without statutory provisions, local government officials know where in their area there are deficiencies in terms of infrastructure or access to public services. This knowledge is communicated in letters, petitions, or protests of dissatisfied residents, yet local authorities do not keep up in terms of meeting these expectations. The essence of the problem lies not so much in the lack of regulations on adapting the existing buildings to specific standards, as in the lack of financing. This is an element of the aforementioned fundamental omission in Polish urban planning regulations – the lack of rational and effective economic mechanisms that would ensure the formation of the whole, complete city, i.e. residential development with parallel implementation of infrastructure and guaranteed access to public services and green areas.

Today, when so much “milk has already been spilled”, formulating rational rules is more difficult than ever. It is all too easy to assume that the costs of new urbanization are to be borne by its users, but then how to finance the redressing of shortcomings where houses have already been built? Should we introduce a universal infrastructure charge? Each potential solution will find its opponents, and the development of a fair mechanism will be extremely challenging, because it is difficult to take into account all the pre-existing complex conditions. For example, where residents in the past co-financed the infrastructure (for example through the so-called adjacent fee, a betterment levy), a universal infrastructure fee would force them to do so again. This is probably the most difficult aspect in the necessary reform of the planning system. Alas, from the public debate so far it does not appear that the proponents of new solutions actually focus on these issues.

Let us, however, be optimistic and assume that the new and comprehensive legislative solutions will become binding law. When that happens, does it mean that overnight we will enter a straight and wide path towards improved space and a specific housing STANDARD in Poland? Probably not. As experiences with changes in spatial planning systems have shown, not everything goes according to the intention of the legislator. Interpretations and jurisprudence have led us to stray from many a rational solution. In addition, there is the unstoppable inventiveness of some investors and designers in circumventing the adopted regulations. The relevant groups in social media would probably soon fill with discussions on how to “bend” or interpret a given regulatory requirement in order to continue building the old way. Even if this is only a marginal pursuit, and the introduced legal solutions turn out to be fairly effective, we will still need someone to build these districts according to the established standards.

So much to do, right now

Therefore, legislation needs to be a significant, albeit one of the many areas of action, which public authorities take. Spatial policy cannot be reduced only to legal changes at the national level, or planning acts at the local level. It is no less important to promote specific attitudes, build awareness, communicate expectations and wishes to investors, and set a good example. The latter aspect seems particularly essential. When representatives of local authorities complain about spatial chaos or low-quality commercial development, they do not sound credible if the municipality allots poor locations for its municipal projects or TBS investment ventures, or if it gives up investment activity in the housing area altogether.

Meanwhile, it is the municipality’s investment activity that has an enormous potential to create a STANDARD – that is, to establish good practice in terms of the shape and the location of investment projects that commercial investors should match. In particular, this applies to the promotion of new downtown buildings complementing those already existing, or to structures resulting from the modernization or adaptation of old buildings for housing purposes.

By nature, these are complex projects and it is difficult to achieve impressive financial ratios in such cases, but we need them because they are part of the revitalization policy to revive older districts and strengthen the urban structure desired in the face of climate change. Unfortunately, in some cities, there is no noticeable tendency to locate residential buildings in the centre, regardless of the availability of vacant land. A good example from the municipal investor would be useful.

Some of the largest Polish cities – Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk, and Szczecin – have completed numerous own housing investments in central areas. Besides, in large cities there is the greatest potential to formulate innovative projects, whose main objective is to create a benchmark for high-quality housing – both public and commercial. In this context, it is impossible not to mention the award-winning Nowe Żerniki housing estate in Wrocław and the unfortunately unfinished initiatives in the capital: the Warsaw Housing Standard (Warszawski Standard Mieszkaniowy), and the Warsaw Social District (Warszawska Dzielnica Społeczna). It is a pity indeed that such projects are few and sensitive to staff changes and procedural complications. They have a long way to go – it really seems like light years – until they reach the scale and importance of projects with similar aspirations that we find abroad, such as the successive IBA “exhibitions”, which are organized in various locations in Germany.

The few good examples

The role of the public investor as a promoter of the urban STANDARD is sorely needed in smaller cities, where, private developers are few and they often lack incentives to compete with each other in terms of quality. In these circumstances, the city’s activity within the housing market becomes a necessity.

If we cast a broader comparative look at Polish medium-sized and smaller cities, we will notice clear differences in their spatial development. In some of them, new or modernized buildings, mainly residential, complement the earlier urban tissue and enrich the structure of the city. In others, new residential buildings are being built, but their location in no way fits in with a well-thought-out plan for improving or shaping a residents-friendly city. Usually, this differentiation is related to a more or less rational spatial policy and the adoption of planning acts (or the lack thereof), but it is also easy to notice the correlation with whether the city is implementing ambitious downtown housing investments. Many cities have been executing such projects for a long time (which clearly translates into their appearance), some have only recently embarked on this path of development – including Stargard, Słupsk, Suwałki, Konin, Kwidzyn, and Włocławek. This model of operation is also accessible to towns of really small sizes. A TBS has been operating in Karlino (less than six thousand inhabitants) since 1997, and has already completed numerous investment ventures. Some of these are small buildings filling the gaps in the existing built development, and shaping the present-day image of the town. Without their investment activity, Karlino would undoubtedly look quite different.

Currently, few smaller cities take up the challenge of actively and consciously shaping the housing development in their area, particularly such development that has the ambition to create a STANDARD. This deficit is one of the key challenges for our housing policy, and also a crucial spatial and demographic challenge. What is an exception today must be made a universal rule. But how can we achieve that? First, it is necessary to understand what it is that produces the success of the aforementioned cities. They probably owe the most to the right people in the right places, to their work ethos, and to the continuity of ideas and actions.

In order to transform the occasional attention to the quality of living conditions into something common and universal, a multiple and versatile action is necessary, and we need to focus on the effects achieved by the leading, benchmark cities. This requires linking legislative activities with the education and support of officials and agencies, appropriate financing tools, various mechanisms of promotion, pressure and regulation on the part of public authorities aimed at investors, and building market awareness among consumers who should not be satisfied with mediocrity.

If most of the issues on this list can be at least partially addressed, it is to be hoped that the STANDARD will indeed become standard.