by Tychy based urban planner Michał Lorbiecki
Interview with Pedestrian Space follows after article
Global economic development has resulted in a dramatic increase in humanity’s use of the earth’s resources, initially driven by the resource-intensive lifestyles of modern high-income countries and more recently doubled by the rapid growth of the global middle class. This is the economic era that has come to be known as the Great Acceleration, due to the extraordinary increase in human activity. Between 1950 and 2010, the global population nearly tripled and real-world GDP increased sevenfold. Global freshwater consumption more than tripled, energy use quadrupled, and fertilizer use increased more than tenfold.
At a time when the overriding determinant of development is GDP, and despite the ever-increasing values of this indicator, countries and cities are still struggling with economic, climate and health crises. This means that the goal of development clearly should not be the financial enrichment of countries, cities and individuals, but the richness of diversity presented in meeting both economic, social and environmental needs. This orientation of development policy is nothing new in economics, but have we forgotten the concept of sustainable development?
There is perhaps no more inflated, overused, misunderstood and abused phrase than sustainability. The term has thus lost its significance and today it is beginning to mean simply as much as “better than what we have”, and even then only to a limited extent often exacerbating the unsustainability in the bigger picture. But what is its origin?
Holistic and sustainable concepts of well-being are reflected in the traditional symbols of many ancient cultures. From the Taoist yin yang and the Maori takarangi to the Buddhist endless knot and the Celtic double helix, each design evokes a constant dynamic dance between complementary forces. In Maori culture, the concept of well-being combines spiritual, ecological, kinship, and economic well-being, intertwining as interdependent dimensions. In Andean cultures, buen vivir – literally “to live well” – is a worldview that values “living fully in community with others and with Nature”.
Balance has been a subject of thought for thousands of years and the concept of sustainability for decades. Its original use was related to forest management. Used by Hans Carl von Carlowitz in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, it meant a way of managing a forest that was based on cutting only as many trees as could grow back. In the 1970s, the economist Barbara Ward, called for global action to confront both the “inner limits” of human needs and rights and the “outer limits” of environmental stress that the Earth can endure.
The 1987 report of the United Nations World Commission on the Environment, “Our Common Future”, had a significant impact on the understanding of this concept, although in a rather general outline. In this document, sustainable development was defined as development that meets the needs of the present without depriving future generations of the possibility of satisfying their needs, as stable development that takes into account such processes of change in which the exploitation of resources, the main branches of investment, the directions of technical progress and institutional changes remain in an uncontroversial and harmonious relation with each other, giving the possibility of satisfying both present needs and future needs and aspirations. Moreover, it is assumed that the components of sustainable development are ecological sustainability, economic development, and inter- and intra-generational social justice.
The declarations of the United Nations Conference on the Environment were fundamental for the terminological understanding of sustainable development in the international legal aspect: on the environment and development (adopted in Stockholm on the 16th of June 1972, the so-called Stockholm Declaration), and on the environment and development (adopted in Rio de Janeiro on the 14th of June 1992 during the so-called Earth Summit). The result of the work undertaken during the “second” Earth Summit was the cataloguing of 27 principles relating to sustainable development, among which can be mentioned:
a) people have the right to live healthy and creative lives in harmony with nature,
b) states have the sovereign right to use their natural resources, however, they are responsible to the present and future generations for ensuring that their activities do not damage the environment,
c) in order to achieve sustainable development it is necessary that environmental protection is an inseparable part of development processes and is not considered separately from them,
d) sustainable development requires the eradication of poverty and the reduction of disparities in the living standards of most people in the world
e) in order to achieve sustainable development, countries should reduce or eliminate production and consumption patterns that interfere with it, deepen scientific knowledge in this field and effectively provide each citizen with adequate access to environmental information and raise public awareness in this field.
It is worth mentioning the approach to the discussed issue of not limiting sustainable development to environmental protection aspects, which was presented at the so-called World Summit on Sustainable Development (RIO+10), held in Johannesburg in 2002.
The result of the work undertaken at the RIO+10 summit was the so-called Declaration on Sustainable Development, which among its conclusions included the following statements:
a) sustainable development is the responsibility of the entire international community,
b) conditions necessary to achieve this goal include eradication of poverty, change of consumption patterns, protection of natural resources,
c) the effect of human activity is the deterioration of the global environment involving, among others, a decrease in biodiversity and the formation of negative climate change, which in turn deprives many people of the possibility of a decent life.
A significant impact on shaping the meaning of sustainable development had the RIO+20 World Summit, which took place in Rio de Janeiro on the 20th-22nd of June 2012. The outcome of this meeting was the adoption of the declaration “The Future We Want”, as well as the decision to inaugurate a process for developing a set of new Sustainable Development Goals. One of the leading themes of the Summit was the issue of institutionalizing global cooperation for sustainable development. The necessity of intensifying institutional actions on an international scale was emphasized, pointing out, among others, to the need to develop environmental governance within the international institutional structure or to promote sustainable economic and social integration, as well as environmental protection and sustainable development.
It is also worth mentioning that on the 25-27th of September 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development summit was held at the United Nations headquarters in New York. “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” was adopted during the summit, which, among others, defines 17 major Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The principle of sustainable development can be found in the European Union law, and its basic current source is Article 11 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2004), which refers to sustainable development as the basis for the integration of environmental policy with sectoral policies. In the context of environmental law, it is also worth noting the content of Article 191 TFEU, according to which, in developing environmental policy, the Union shall take into account the economic and social development of the Union as a whole and the balanced development of its regions. Among the important program documents which constitute a development and supplementation of the assumptions of sustainable development adopted by the Union, one should indicate the strategies which are long-term programs of social and economic development of the European Union (2019).
In the Polish legal order, the notion of sustainable development still dominates in a narrow sense, being reduced mainly to the issues of environmental protection, and until the mid-1990s this principle was not known to the Polish legal order.
One of the early documents in which this formulation can be found is the Resolution of the Parliament of the Republic of Poland of the 10th of May 1991 on the ecological policy of the state. The oldest legal act, in which the concept of eco-development appeared, was the Act of the 7th of July 1994 on spatial development.
The principle of sustainable development was introduced to the national legislation through the provision of Article 5 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland. It is assumed that the concretization of this principle was introduced into the ordinary legislation by the amendment of the 29th of August 1997 on the change of the act on protection and shaping of the environment and on the change of some other acts. Furthermore, the aforementioned amendment introduced the notion of sustainable development to the Act on Environmental Protection and Shaping of the 31st of January 1980, at the same time defining sustainable development for the first time.
In the light of Article 5 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland, “the Republic of Poland shall safeguard the independence and inviolability of its territory, ensure freedoms and human and citizen rights and the security of citizens, safeguard the national heritage and ensure environmental protection, guided by the principle of sustainable development”.
The Constitutional Court, in a judgment of 2016, indicated that the principles of sustainable development also include due care for social and civilizational development, associated with the need to build adequate infrastructure, necessary for – taking into account civilizational needs – the life of man and individual communities. The idea of sustainable development includes therefore the need to take into account various constitutional values and balance them appropriately. Although natural values and environmental protection should remain within the scope of sustainable development, these terms should not be used interchangeably as synonyms.
The obligation formulated in the preamble, expressed in the words “obliged to pass on to future generations all that is valuable from over a thousand years of heritage”, is interpreted in the context of this principle as a clear reference to universal, timeless values, including the necessity to take care of future generations and leave them the heritage. It should be assumed that this principle refers to the concept of responsibility and includes in its content two basic elements: the needs of the present and future generations, and limitations to which economic and social development is subject. It is a principle that dictates that the public authority should realize a certain state of affairs to the greatest possible extent, taking into account the current situation and the factual, social and legal possibilities. This principle should be interpreted as a self-contained rule that has reference to other provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland.
In truth, despite placing sustainability in the heart of the Polish legal system it is impossible to catch a glimpse of such development in reality.
The goal of GDP growth emerged in an era of economic depression, world wars and competition and dominated economic thinking. In a few decades, we will no doubt look back and find it bizarre that we once tried to monitor and manage our complex planetary household with such a variable, partial and superficial measure as GDP. The crises of our time require a very different goal, and we are still in the early stages of re-imagining and naming what that goal should be.
Interview with Pedestrian Space
Pedestrian Space: What are the most pressing issues you observe in Polish urbanism in terms of sustainability needs?
Michał: The most pressing issue that can be observed in Poland is a housing crisis and unsustainable answers to that crisis which are chaotic suburbanization and monofunctional residential districts. These forms of urbanization are the most unsustainable. They answer one crisis deepening the others.
Pedestrian Space: Are you seeing initiatives (either grassroots, community-level or municipal) that show some sign of “hope” of the pendulum swinging towards a more “sustainable development”?
Michał: Yes, there are cities in Poland that try to keep up with the good trends that take place in Western Europe, but they are few. There are only 11 cities in Poland that have more than 250 000 inhabitants and over 900 towns with less. It means that the situation in Poland shouldn’t be described by initiatives that take place, for example, in Warsaw which is of course experiencing more development and is a more innovative city than any other in the country. In my opinion, the best indicator of hope for any town or city is the presence of city movements like NGO’s which can show the quality of citizens’ awareness.
Pedestrian Space: What are your thoughts on what “sustainable urbanism” can mean in the Polish context?
Michał: There is the Act on Spatial Planning and Development which describes what spatial order is: “the arrangement of space forming a harmonious whole and taking into account, in an orderly manner, all functional, socio-economic, environmental, cultural, as well as compositional and aesthetic conditions and requirements”. In my opinion, it could also be a definition of urban sustainability. Unfortunately. rarely anyone understands it correctly, especially architects who abuse the term and limit it only to aesthetics even though the law states: “Spatial planning and development shall, in particular, take into account the requirements of spatial order, including urban planning and architecture”.
Pedestrian Space: Are there specific cultural or historical barriers that you observe to local awareness about sustainability issues?
Michał: Poland knows little of urban culture throughout its history. The country only had a few key cities, disappeared from maps, went through wars, then suffered communism. The latter shaped not only the country’s physical structure but also the urban thought to be followed for decades of its development which is modernist urbanism which can still be seen as something good in the eyes of urban planners, architects and people.
Pedestrian Space: In terms of mobility, what are the options in your city and any other Polish cities you would like to reference?
Michał: For decades a car was a symbol of status in Poland. Today, despite a cheap price, someone who doesn’t own a car in the eyes of society can be seen as a failure. It means every child is raised to drive a car as soon as they reach adulthood. I’m saying that because public transportation is seen only as a mode for adolescents, the elderly, handicapped and poor people, despite the fact that it’s not so cheap.
Another aspect of public transportation is not only that it’s expensive, but it’s often inconvenient (stops are located further than car parking, rides take twice as long than by car, don’t take you exactly where you need and are less comfortable). Can’t forget to mention the pandemic. Also, car parking is free almost everywhere and parking on pavements and lawns is rarely punished by authorities.
Pedestrian Space: What are you observing in terms of sustainable mobility goals and developments within Polish urban planning?
Michał: After communism, Poland hadn’t left it totally, but rather had picked what was less or more suitable. What we had kept from that period were, among other things, wide roads and car infrastructure socialism, which allows a car-centric way of thinking about mobility to be cultivated. So a car became not only a status symbol, but also a symbol of freedom, leading to Poland standing with one foot in liberalism and one foot in socialism when it comes to cars.
Poles want to be free to be able to ride and park cars anywhere they like and at the same time they demand it to be free and available. It can be seen especially in municipal budgets where car infrastructure is a major part of them. The saddest thing is that the human is no longer a metric in urban planning – the car is. What’s positive is young generations are leaving small towns to live in major cities and they don’t really want to own cars.
Pedestrian Space: Is your town quite auto-centric?
Michał: Yes. My city (Tychy) was designed and built in the 1950s-1970s, according to modernist urbanism with separated functions (residential, work, commercial and recreational) with a lot of empty spaces and wide roads. Today these empty spaces are turned into more car parking and there are more cars than adult citizens.
Pedestrian Space: How do you move around your city?
Michał: I walk and everything tells me not to: poor quality pedestrian infrastructure, cars on pavements and lawns, too fast, loud and polluting cars everywhere and poor urban landscape dedicated to cars – you literally walk surrounded by roads and car parking. Bicycle-sharing systems are not reliable and only available for half a year.
Pedestrian Space: What interesting developments are you seeing with mobility in Polish urban developments?
Michał: Some cities are quite lucky to have more aware public officials or city movements that are the key strength in urban development. For example, I, working as an urban planner in the city hall, came up with an idea of a pedestrian officer in the city (Mayor’s plenipotentiary for the coordination and development of public space for pedestrian traffic in the City of Tychy). We also have a really good team of traffic engineers now who focus more on safety than road capacity. They also focus on cycling infrastructure.
It is worth mentioning that Polish rail transportation has improved even though in 1989 there were about 1 billion rail passengers a year and now there are 700 million passengers less.
Pedestrian Space: What is the role of the pedestrian officer that you created?
Michał: The key role of the pedestrian officer is supposed to be dialogue and cooperation. City halls are divided into departments and each department has its own fields and specific tasks within them, but there are fields that actually are impossible to work well if divided. For instance, mobility and urban planning influence one another. If we look at them separately we miss that synergy and it doesn’t function well As an urban planner in the city hall I couldn’t really cooperate with traffic engineers and other public officials outside my department because we are strictly limited to our tasks. Another task of the officer is to give opinions on street and traffic projects that may influence pedestrian quality and safety. It’s not only about pavements but also about elements such as greenery, lane width, commercial space etc. I try to represent walkability in every opportunity I can which is quite difficult in a car-centric city like Tychy.
Pedestrian Space: What strikes you as some of the core barriers to issues of walkability there?
Michał: The key barriers I see are domination of cars in public spaces, segregation of functions, lack of density and ugliness of the urban landscape.
Pedestrian Space: What are you interested in seeing develop over the coming decade in the Polish urban context with regards to sustainable urban developments?
Michał: I am always hyped when I see any development that is multifunctional, dense and at the same time respects environment. Such developments are incredibly rare.
Michał Lorbiecki – urban planner, economist; chief specialist in the Department of Spatial Planning and Urban Development at the Tychy City Hall; Mayor’s Plenipotentiary for the coordination and development of public space for pedestrian traffic (Pedestrian Officer), Ph.D. student at the Department of Spatial and Environmental Management at the University of Economics in Katowice, board member of the Silesian Branch of the Association of Polish Urban Planners; proudly and persistently does not own a car and dreams of truly urban cities. Find him online at Instagram @urbanomista and at https://linktr.ee/urbanomista.