Rzeszow has a serious problem- builds up without a wise plan
Bartosz Gubernat: The issue of the future of plots near the Wisłok River, between the Castle Bridge and the Carpathian Bridge returns to the Tuesday session of the Rzeszow City Council. The right-wing councilors demand this area to be included in the development plan. Is it a good idea?
Maciej Łobos: I fully agree that local plans should be enacted. First of all, we should deal with key places from the Rzeszow’s point of view. And we can argue about which places are those crucial ones. But areas on the Wisłok River, the railway track area, military units, post-industrial areas such as ‘’Zelmer’’ or ‘’Cefarm’’ are certainly one of them. Huge areas that at any time now will become a tasty morsel for developers. There will occur a natural pressure to put them in order, change their purpose, and if the city does not create a legal framework for it, it will be a problem and a total wilderness. We cannot function in such a paradigm any longer, because we are going to destroy the city and we will be paying for it for the next 40-50 years. Both in the form of money and the various other negative social phenomena which are going to be generated. Because the quality of the space in which we live affects our well-being, behavior, the quality of interpersonal relationships and the level of safety.
BG: The architecture of Rzeszow is random, large buildings are crammed into low-rise buildings, and the residents who have been creating housing estates for years, have nothing to say in this matter. Developers do not take their opinion into account, they look at investments only through the prism of the highest possible profits. And then we have such a flowers like a huge high-rise blocks between the houses.
MŁ: The architecture in Rzeszow is generally random, because there is no comprehensive idea for the city. There is a concept such as masterplan which functions around the world, that is very advanced method, showing what architecture in a given area looks like. Also how the transportation is arranged, community services, what buildings look like. A conceptional plan that shows what is going to happen with the city in a given area. In Poland, such things rarely appear and, interestingly, they are rather done by private developers. A good example is the Imperial Shipyard in Gdansk. A year ago, a great architectural competition for the concept of developing several hectares of land was resolved. It was won by Danish office Henning Larsen, one of the best architectural companies in the world. And it is being consistently implemented now. This is how we should think about space in the city. We can discuss later where to put low buildings and where to put the high ones. High-rise blocks are not something that accidentally falls from the sky. Building architectural dominants in the city is necessary as they allow us to navigate through space. The towers of the town hall or a church are landmarks by which we catch directions. However, they cannot be placed in random places, completely without order and composition, without analyzing how these buildings will affect the surroundings. We have to think what traffic problems it is going to generate, how it is going to change the local climate. These are all communicating vessels. This stage of creating such a master plan, is clearly missing in Poland and Rzeszow. A couple of times we have attempted to develop such concepts on a few or several-hectare plots. And a good example of this is the area of the former Zelmer, for which we prepared a concept 10 years ago. Unfortunately, as an office, we are limited to quite small areas, because we work on commission for a specific client. And here, the need for such large-scale masterplans truly exists. If not the whole city, then at least a larger district.
BG: Is it possible to make it whereas plots have many owners and everyone has different building visions?
MŁ: Land ownership cannot be overriding when it comes to planning the city as a whole. Depending on whether we are very close to the center or a little further, the level of specification of this plan may vary. Because we do care about detail and meticulous planning in the downtown, but not necessarily in the suburbs. So these plans do not always have to be just as detailed. However, the ownership is absolutely secondary thing. It has to fit into the plan, rather than the other way round.
BG: Such a plan must be prepared by the local government, and then adopted by councilors. What if there are many investors of the above-mentioned areas by the Wisłok River?
MŁ: In this case, the city is the only entity with the right to conduct spatial policy, that is to impose a top-down vision. And it can do such a study, indicating the purpose of individual fragments of a larger area. Then the decisions contained in such a plan may become local law, to which plot owners will have to adapt in order to come to an agreement with each other. For example, by selling land to each other or merging them. The trick is to keep this plan wise. If the planning phase, which consists of creating a master plan, creating architecture and cubature of specific buildings is going to be omitted, then unfortunately this space has no chance to reconcile the interests of different people. It should be understood that the developer is focused on building, and then selling and rental properties. This is his right. It is as if we were to blame drivers for causing accidents if we did not establish a Highway Code. It is similar when it comes to space – without conscious design, chaos occurs. We have an area where we don’t know what to do and the developers are doing what they think as a consequence. This is what it looks like in Poland and Rzeszow is no exception. It is not that people want to build high because the earth is expensive, but the earth is expensive because we allow people to build high. If we limit the height of buildings, the price of land would go down. If we make a local plan without worrying about ownership relations and set the framework for creating the space, then the price of land will be lower with a limited height of buildings. In the absence of a local plan, we use its prosthesis, that is building conditions, which are issued for individual plots. Nobody looks at the city in a broader context then, and the owner of the land, applying for conditions, naturally wants to maximize his potential profits and shove the highest possible buildings there. These are obvious dependencies and you can’t blame anyone for desire to earn money. Unfortunately, without a holistic vision of the city, it is difficult to do it in accordance with common sense and respect for the public interest.
BG: If the recipe for fine architecture and harmonious development of the city is so simple, why don’t we use it?
MŁ: In Poland, we do not have the habit of taking care of the common good or planning in advance. We are the masters of levy in mass, which ended badly for us many times. If you sit down and work well, planning less intensive development, you can often achieve much better economic results. Reasonable planning allows to make a profit without necessarily building high. And suddenly it turns out that we have more square meters on balance. Considering a larger land for investment is more favorable than in the case of a narrow plot. You can ‘’squeeze’’ more from a larger area than from each plot separately. But neither of these sides can do it alone, and they need to be helped from above. People who run their business will not create a legal framework on their own. That is why we have local governments and the state.
BG: Given the current state of city development planning, do you see any chances to control this process?
MŁ: There are areas for which it is too late to do so, because nature abhors a vacuum and preparations for investment are in full swing. Our office is working on at least a few projects in various “thorny” locations. We can only try to do our best in the very small area entrusted to us. We have made several such simplified development plans for various parts of Rzeszow. We checked which buildings and what the intensity of development is rational. We have made sure to preserve public spaces, greenery and promenades along the river. It is not some secret knowledge. The problem is about the ownership structure, because in a situation where we have many different owners and everyone has their own ideas, agreeing on unified position is almost impossible. It would be easy if there was one coherent local plan based on viable ideas. A good architectural studio can develop such concepts in 2-4 months. Then, you can discuss and prepare a local plan based on them. That is how it works around the world.
BG: But in Rzeszow there is no shortage of situations where an interesting, elaborated concept of buildings meets with protests. Let us take the example of the hills in Zalesie near Spacerowa Street. You have proposed a modern housing complex that could become the pride of the city. The local residents, however, do not even want to hear about its construction. They criticize, protest, and yet they have moved into buildings that recently have been formed there. And their architecture does not necessarily satisfies their neighbors.
MŁ: Democracy is a myth that only looks good on paper. The misfortune is that the city has to deal with various protests when enacting plans. That’s the law. Unfortunately, it is impossible to conduct a conscious spatial policy and shape buildings if we allow everyone to comment. Because a lot of people protest like this: I have been walking my dog here for many years and it would be nice if I could keep doing it. It’s impossible. Just as it is impossible to conduct, for example, foreign policy in a democratic manner or to command the army, the efficient management of the city must be an undemocratic matter to some extent, with particular emphasis on spatial policy. These are arbitrary decisions that should be consulted in a narrow group of professionals. They are presented to people and they have the right to make comments which should be considered. But it cannot be that someone’s resistance, often malicious and senseless, paralyzes the possibility of adopting local plans and conducting a conscious spatial policy. But it cannot be that someone’s resistance, often malicious and senseless, paralyzes the possibility of adopting local plans and conducting a conscious spatial policy.
BG: There is a lot of protests. In Podwisłocze district, people do not want a high-rise block, on Cegielniana Street they are protesting against the construction of a road, which need to be built because of their settling in this place.
MŁ: If Paris in the mid-nineteenth century had counted on such protests, today it would be one large, seedy slum. Someone has decided that a lot of buildings have to be demolished and the great Axis of Paris has been designated. It was the same with Barcelona and many European cities at that time. It is just necessary to stop playing pointless discussions. Someone who had a piece of allotment garden and would not let a road to pass in the corner must be expropriated. A decent compensation needs to be paid for him and a road has to be built. It is similar with service infrastructure network. These are the overriding public goals. It’s not even worth discussing. Sometimes the private interest has to give way to the public. It is difficult because polish law is still underdeveloped in this field and ties the hands of local governments. We have to change this.
BG: However, there is no consistency here. While in the Pobitno estate it was allowed to build a huge skyscraper next to single-family houses, in the New Town district, the city gives way to residents who do not want a skyscraper next to 10-story blocks of flats.
MŁ: Podwisłocze area needs to be handled already today. And then we need to reach deeper into parts of the city such as the New Town district and the other side of the river to plan the entire Wisłok valley. Consecutive pieces of this land is going to be bought by developers and we will not stop this. People want to live by the river and use these areas. I am surprised that the science center that arises in Jasionka is not being built on the Boulevards. This is the perfect place for them. Jasionka is a ridiculous location. It should function in the city center in order to make people eager to spend time there at weekends and with their families. That trees would grow up there. The issue of creating architecture is debatable, but the function should definitely be there for this place to be alive. We cannot think of the Wisłok valley as a nature reserve where nothing can be built. On the contrary, we need to build there but with the particular idea. We don’t have to look at Paris or London to find out. In Bydgoszcz, the buildings are almost in the river and there is still some space for greenery and boulevards. And everything can be reconciled by designing the buildings in a civilized way. By the way, the entire New Town should already be covered by conceptual works, because it is a matter of 20-30 years when these buildings will be demolished and a new, luxurious district will be built there. The New Town has already reached a verdict, but it is temporarily postponed. However, the key thing is a good plan. It would cost a lot of money, but please remember that we think in the perspective of many years and it would have very positive results. It would civilize the further expansion of the city and prepare good development plans.
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